I’ve become a pretty big fan of the Atelier games over the last few years. After finally dipping my toes into the long-running JRPG series with the PS4 debut Atelier Sophie, I was hooked. The charming characters, bright environments and relaxing gameplay dragged me in and never let me go. Since then I’ve played a few more of the games and read into the characters and stories of countless other Atelier releases. Trying to play through all of the games in the series is a Herculean task, but long-time fans who have a connection to the full franchise will find a lot to love in the latest release, which brings the cast of nearly every entry together in a massive crossover celebration.
Nelke & The Legendary Alchemists is very different to your regular Atelier game, especially because you don’t actually play as an alchemist this time! Instead, you play as Nelke, an accomplished graduate aristocrat who has come to the run-down village of Westwald to help renovate and expand it with new buildings and commerce. She won’t do this by crafting bombs and healing salves, or by exploring mysterious dungeons and harvesting rare materials. Instead, Nelke’s efforts as the new town administrator manifest in the form of robust and slightly overwhelming management simulation gameplay.
When you first start the game, you really hit the ground running. There isn’t a lot of setup for Nelke’s motivations or struggles, or what she wants. She simply shows up to build a town and dumps this task in your hopefully capable hands. On in-game weekdays, you can build new structures like shops to sell goods or farms to cultivate materials. You’ll have a variety of characters showing up in your town throughout the game, and can assign them to work at structures or dispatch them to gather materials for you. You’ll also have familiar alchemists from previous Atelier games showing up, and can assign them to their own ateliers in order to craft the items and materials you’ll be using and selling in order to make revenue and increase the towns population.
Holidays are when you can take a bit of a break, getting to talk to your various townsfolk to increase their exp and friendship levels, or get new requests from them to sell a certain item or cultivate a certain amount of material. Talking to townsfolk uses up your energy for the day, but that same energy is used to investigate new locations. Investigating routes is a bit more like the classic Atelier gameplay, but things are stripped down and simplified to an almost mindless degree. Your characters simply auto-walk down a straight path and gather materials, instead of letting you do any exploration for yourself.
You can run into enemies while investigating and end up in combat, but these encounters are a big step down from the combat of mainline Atelier games. Characters act when their portrait reaches the end of a timer bar, and each character only has a small handful of actions they can perform in combat. Essentially, you press a button a bunch and you win, no matter the scenario. Later encounters require mild strategy, but for most of the game you can just put combat on auto-mode and breeze through without worry or excitement.
There are a lot of different systems and menus to keep track of in Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists, and while the game takes you through them in the beginning, they could have done a way better job of it. The opening of the game drags on for ages as they handhold you and slowly guide you through each and every mechanic in the game. I spent my first hour or more of the game doing nothing but idly tapping to confirm. It was a miserable experience, and the severity of how they held your hand through the entire thing meant that, once I was left to my own devices, I was immediately overwhelmed and confused about how to do anything. or even what I was supposed to be doing!
The game tries to help by offering charts and records of your progress at the end of each day to show you where you’re doing well and where you’re lacking, but these bundles of over-complicated charts, statistics and glowing arrows only serve to confuse more than they help. It doesn’t help that half of the functions in the game are buried deep in sub-menus and only accessible through other menus, leading to a lot of frustrating menu hopping just to add an item to your wish list or track down which materials you’re short on.
It takes a while to wrap your head around what to do and how to do it in Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists, but once you start getting a grip on things it becomes less of a stressful practice and more of an addictive number-crunching experience. It helps that the charming writing and beautiful artwork of Atelier is here in spades. The brand new characters have wonderful designs, and the returning cast from past Atelier games have updated art and brand new 3D models that are a joy to look it.
I only wish the game gave you more ways to actually look at these beautiful new models. Management sims usually let you explore or look at the town you’re building in a way that shows how your settlement is progressing, but Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists has very little of that. You can’t walk around the town you made and you can’t get a real-time view of the town in action or your townsfolk wandering around. You can go to a certain menu to get a few brief, static camera shots of your town, but beyond that there’s no sense of life in your town. It doesn’t feel like it’s a real, moving and growing thing, it’s just the idea of a town that you’re building as you navigate endless menus.