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Review: Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX

20 Jan 2020

The overall Atelier franchise is another one of those long-running series that’s always felt a bit difficult to approach for me. It’s very clear at a glance that it is a series that has its own idea of how to handle JRPG standards like crafting, combat, social interactions, and so forth, and if you’ve never picked one up before it can be hard to figure out exactly which one is the right place to start. So I came into this particular review knowing that the franchise was a long-running JRPG, but also one that had a distinctly different take on things from several of its contemporaries.

Of course, Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX is itself a remake of the original form of Atelier Ayesha, which was released on the PlayStation 3 in 2012 in Japan (The American release was in 2013.) It’s actually the second remake of the title, in fact, as Atelier Ayesha Plus was released in 2014/2015 on the PS Vita and added in all of the console version’s DLC along with a few other gameplay features. This version contains everything from that version along with faster movement/battle options to boot.

So that’s a lot of swings at this particular game, although the general non-proliferation of the Vita and the fact that the PlayStation 3 was not the most successful console of its generation means that this one is now available to a much wider audience than before. With the game now playable on multiple modern platforms, does it hold up? And, for that matter, what does this offer that’s unusual in JRPGs?

Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX is available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC via Steam. The Steam version was played for this review.

Transmute Lace to Gold

It seems somewhat ironic that the Atelier franchise bears some resemblance to the Touhou franchise, which I described as, “a large number of girls in frilly outfits yelling at each other and filling screens with bullets.” The Atelier franchise substitutes “being friends” for “yelling at each other” and “doing alchemy” for “filling screens with bullets,” but you could be forgiven for thinking of the two as being cut from similar cloths if you have little familiarity with either.

That having been said…well, there’s a lot more going on in Atelier Ayesha, and most likely in the franchise as a whole. Starting from the a priori assumption that not every single adventure needs to kick off with trying to foil some evil lord or another.

At the start of the game, the eponymous Ayesha is living alone as a self-described apothecary with her cow (more like a fantasy cow-pig) named Pana, after her sister Nio vanished without a trace some time ago. However, Ayesha sees a vision of her sister hovering at the family herb garden, and a mysterious black-coated stranger named Keithgriff suggests that Ayesha can uncover what happened to her sister by delving into the alchemical arts which she has only ever dabbled in. Ayesha is confused, but she sets off on a journey to find someone who knows what might have happened to Nio before three years passed, following a comment by Keithgriff that she has some time before it’s too late.

If you think you know where that plot is going based on playing games of this genre…well, think again. Indeed, the game resolutely refuses to have a main antagonist to defeat, lets Ayesha’s main “opponent” be her own lack of knowledge and mysteries she can’t yet piece together, and the focus is much more on friendship and support of others than on finding the correct long-haired pretty boy who’s trying to resurrect an ancient evil.

The result is that the plot is much more driven by its characters and its interplay, and here it gets a lot of its force from having a cast of very passionate people who aren’t competing but all have different goals. Bell wants to be a witch, Regina wants to make money, Harry wants people to share his fixation on ancient ruins, Linca wants to do her job as a bodyguard, and so forth. Ayesha, at the heart of it all, wants nothing more than to help everyone, with a recurring plot point being that she lacks the ability to tell people “no” even when it would be in her best interests to stand up for herself.

As such, while the driving force behind the plot is to find out what happened to Nio and get her back, the game is also a slice-of-life drama in a surreal world that has a tangible sense of compassion for what other games would treat as either jokes or just bizarre weirdness. There’s an extended bit of development with a bakery opening in Vierzeberg that’s striking because the baker in question has a love of his art and why baking bread matters – and it’s not played for laughs or as a diversion from the main plot but with straight-faced affection.

Some of this is down to the game’s structure, of course; it’s set up to encourage a looser playstyle, rather than a linear sequence of events in which you advance a specific plot or progress through dungeons to kill things. But it’s also just how the plot is meant to play out and a testament to what could otherwise be slower material that it never feels bland or perfunctory. These characters are charming and warm, their world given space to breathe and the characters allowed to be kind and sweet without making them flawless or bland.

Put more simply: you know how there’s a sense in many JRPGs that the fun part is when these characters are just hanging out and playing off of one another in weird ways, to the point that getting back to the obvious world-threatening force is almost a drag? Atelier Ayesha is a game with a plot entirely based around that character interplay. That’s kind of charming right away.

Transmute Gold to Denser Gold

For all the gentle warmth of the story, the game’s actual playstyle is…very good, but a bit higher-intensity than you might be expecting. Or at least, higher-intensity if you’re not expecting what the game is actually interested in providing.

Here’s the biggest thing to understand about the game, and the one thing that turned me off the most in terms of mechanics. This is a time-based game in a similar manner to most Persona titles, or Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and so forth. You have a specific time limit (three years) and a lot of activities which take up time. Traveling along the map takes time. Crafting things (obviously a major focus) takes time. Fighting and gathering take time. Even just healing takes time, with health and MP regenerating during days of not doing anything stressful out on the field and otherwise not rising.

This, in and of itself, is not a huge problem. In fact, the game can be completed without undue stress in about a year and a half of in-game time (with plenty of post-game stuff to do). The problem is that the game doesn’t sufficiently explain some important systems in that regard, leaving the player to figure them out, and it’s unnecessarily opaque in that regard.

For example, there’s a very specific system wherein you can register an item with a store. What I thought that was for was to make some money from selling it. What it actually does is add that item to the store’s restocking at specific times each month, meaning that you can then buy that item again whenever you want it in limited quantities without ever needing to craft it again. Very useful! But it’s never actually explained, and you can eat up huge chunks of time crafting the same basic items instead of knowing to just register them and then re-buy them over and over.

Once you start understanding how all of this works, yes, it’s good. But it feels like the game takes off the tutorial training wheels way too early; another month or two of telling you what you’re supposed to do would have done journeyman service to feeling like you know how to do things. Then again, considering the generous New Game+ system, maybe “fail and restart” was literally a core part of the design from the beginning; it may be a franchise thing, I don’t know.

What I do know is that the game’s crafting system is almost horrifying in its complexity. There are absolute piles of items, each with different qualities, and combining them to produce different elemental effects has different effects upon the final product. Recipes don’t require specific things so much as categories, so while you need a form of medical herb, for example, you often will have seven or eight different options with different traits, elemental properties, and so forth. Oh, and then there are different ways to combine things, different orders to do so, different effects and qualities and…

It’s a lot, in other words. The crafting system is a rabbit hole you could fall down for a long time without fully grasping the system, and thankfully it’s a lot of fun. If there’s anything to be complained about, it’s probably that time limit again constraining how much fun you actually can have there.

Combat is also fun, albeit with a different sort of focus. Your party consists of Ayesha plus two helpers, with a sort of plus-shaped grid around monsters in the central area. Your girls can move around the field to various locations, with attacks from the back doing more damage than those from the front, and each girl able to team up with her partners with the right timing to unleash back attacks and the like.

Early on, the combat can be pretty darn brutal. There’s not much in the way of magical healing, it’s easy to run out of healing items (and only Ayesha can use items in combat), and some enemies can inflict status ailments you aren’t really prepared for. You have to learn how to keep a stock of items, get used to the rhythm and pattern of unleashing back attacks, and keeping your enemies off-balance with coordination.

Of course, combat also isn’t the major focus of the game in the first place. It’s there, and it needs to be, but it definitely feels like it’s an afterthought compared to crafting and time management. Within that context, it works very well.

Still, a lot winds up jutting up against that time limit. It almost feels like the designers wanted to make a more open game but also wanted to make sure that you don’t spend the first six months of game time grinding away on the best alchemical items possible just to curbstomp the game…but then, the counterbalance is that it’s really hard to get a handle on how you’re supposed to be spending your time. There’s at once no sense of urgency and no sense that you need a sense of urgency.

But for some people, that is going to be literal catnip. Half of the fun will be trying new combinations, using time inefficiently, and starting the (overall relatively short) main quest over again in hopes of clearing through things. Dressing up in new costumes and having another go is its own reward, by that logic.

Transmute Mud to Pyrite

In terms of graphics…well, this is a game from nearly a decade ago, but it still looks pretty good. I hesitate to say that it’s particularly stylized (and if there was ever a game that would have done well with a cel-shaded filter, this would be it), but the graphics certainly look acceptable with no painfully blocky moments. Some of the more dramatic moments are rendered with straight-up artwork, which feels fairly natural.

Character models are all pretty detailed, with several standouts in both enemy designs and character looks (Linca, for example, gets a really neat outfit and look that is at once dynamic and distinct). It’s clear that the focus was on that over environmental models, which looks a bit more aged. My mind kept going back to the environments of PS2-era games for some reason, although that likely sounds unkind. They’re not terrible, just basic and a bit bland.

Unfortunately, the music is pretty much just plain not good. It’s not horrible or anything, but it’s all just the generic sort of sonic blandness that sloughs into a melange of “basic JRPG music.” None of it ever made me want to turn the sound off, but that had more to do with the voice lines (which are thankfully available in both Japanese and English, for purists).

Also unfortunate is the fact that the PC port is a bit more limited than I would like; there’s no borderless windowed mode available, PC optimization is pretty low, and the mouse-and-keyboard controls are functional but not great. It works fine with a controller, though, except for one problem that is not a porting issue but a design issue. Specifically, the fact that the camera angles are all fixed.

This probably shouldn’t bother me as much as it did, but it really did. These environments all force you to look at them from one angle, sometimes an angle that specifically makes it difficult to see enemies or obstacles, leaving you nudging at the right stick because it looks like you should be able to move things around. You get so used to doing it that it’s only when you can’t do that that you notice it.

As mentioned, the environments aren’t stunning, but taking that control out of your hands is kind of galling and just bothers me. I don’t think it’s something that could have been fixed for this remake, since I doubt it was really a conscious choice at this point, but still. I just…let me tilt the camera, let me tilt the camera, just rotate a tiny bit now so I can see around this bush damn it.

Transmute Lead to Gold

It might seem like I’ve got a fair number of criticisms of this particular game, and it certainly is lacking in some areas. Some of the things that I might have personally wanted from the game (lesser time limitations if any, slightly more tutorial options, my proper dang camera controls) would have helped my estimation of it immensely.

And yet…for all that, I suspect that a lot of the criticisms I have are ones that are less telling of the game than of the franchise and coming into it well into the middle. The time limits and several of the parts I didn’t understand feel like things that are series staples. In light of that, it hardly feels fair to criticize the game for not clarifying itself to me when I’m just not familiar with genre conventions as well-worn as series I do have more experience with.

Beyond all of that, the game is fun. It’s charming and cute and offers something very different, an experience that isn’t directly replicated by other games in the genre. Its weaknesses are there, but they didn’t change the genuine joy and energy that the game oozes – and when one of my big complaints about a game is “I want freedom to play more of it,” it usually means the core game is pretty fun.

I still can’t tell you the best way to on-ramp yourself to the Atelier franchise after playing this game. But I can tell you that Atelier Ayesha might be well-served with a walkthrough or an understanding that you’ll be failing a few tries before getting it right, and that it’s still worth it because the experience is fun. And if you want a JRPG that’s not just the standard fare, well… here’s a good call.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for PC. Screenshots both taken by reviewer and courtesy of Koei Tecmo.