Often over-looked by Western gamers, the Atelier series has enjoyed a strong run in Japan with fourteen mainline instalments now under its belt. Featuring mostly female protagonists, the series is centred around alchemy and magic, its continual refinement producing a JRPG experience that is altogether more accessible than its counterparts. While Ayesha may be the first PlayStation 3 instalment in the series to break away from the Arland trilogy, in truth there is little that separates Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk from the three most recent entries in the Atelier series.
Set in a previously unvisited part of the Atelier universe, The Alchemist of Dusk casts Ayesha Altuge as the series’ latest heroine. Living alone in the confines of her own workshop, Ayesha sells medicinal herbs to neighbouring settlements with prospects of one day becoming an alchemist. Though fairly chirpy and upbeat, like each protagonist before her Ayesha must carry a burden: the recent disappearance of her sister, Nio.
Ayesha may be a new face for the Atelier series, but she ultimately fills the same “accidental hero” archetype fans will already be acquainted with. Sadly, the same applies to her band of recruit-able cohorts, from the rough n’ ready Regina to the reserved, brooding Juris. Whether or not you find them endearing depends on your own tastes but for me the game’s cookie cutter cast did little to colour what was already quite a dull story.
There are emotional story beats here and there, though these poignant moments are drowned out by Atelier’s script which swings between the melodramatic and the completely unnecessary. This issue is emphasised even further thanks to the Atelier’s overly-exuberant voice acting, though it’s great to see Gust supporting its title with an English localisation.
Like previous instalments, The Alchemist of Dusk combines several core gameplay features which impact on one another, the most essential being exploration. Whenever controlling Ayesha players can zoom out to the world map and travel from region to region. Each environment will take one of two forms: settlements in which to trade goods and synthesize items, or patches of land inhabited by wild creatures and covered in collection nodes. From these nodes, Ayesha and her companions can gather plants, ore, and other ingredients needed to craft items. Similarly, these reagents can be won in combat.
Instead of random encounters (à la Pokemon) enemies freely roam the map and will trigger a battle sequence if they get too close. However, pressing square at the right time and distance will cause Ayesha lash out with her staff, giving her and her team-mates an initial advantage over their opponents.
Combat itself is immediately accessible, adopting a rudimentary turn-based system. Players wait for their turn, choose from a list of commands and watch as the battle plays out. Though easy to get to grips with, combat in Dusk does have depth to it. Using the “Move” command, players can switch positions in order to get a strategic advantage over their enemies. The game’s support mechanic also throws in a bit of diversity, occasionally allowing for team mates to perform actions outside their regular turns.
Much more complex is Atelier’s “Synthesis” feature. After returning from an expedition, Ayesha can throw all of her ingredients into the storage container and then use them to create items such as healing potions, projectile weapons, equipment and components for more advanced recipes. The system is completely menu-based and can be overwhelming at times though it doesn’t take long to get stuck in.
Although crafting essential items for your adventures does become second nature, things do get more complicated later in the game. As you progress, Ayesha will learn new alchemy abilities, the game also adding emphasis on “Traits” and other statistics, all of which contribute towards the properties of a given item.
Exploration, combat, and synthesis are the three core pillars of gameplay that continue rotate as you tackle side quests and story missions. Though each of the three activities have been streamlined, the ongoing cycle eventually leads to monotony, something which could have been stamped out if not for a plodding storyline its predictable network of characters.
If you’ve spent time with Rorona, Totori, or Mereru, the three most entries in the series, you’ve pretty much got 90% of the game sussed. There may be a few minor changes here and there but what you’re essentially paying for is a re-skin with a cluster of noticeable refinements. With that said it’s still a strong turn-based RPG, but one that will likely slip under the radars of mature gamers given its dated anime looks and lofty narrative.