MAKING BOMBS OUT OF BEEHIVES
In 2013, developer Gust released the fourteenth title in the long-running Atelier series: Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk. Like the previous Atelier games, it was an RPG with an elaborate crafting system and a near-unpronounceable name. Now, two years later, the game has made the jump from the PlayStation 3 to the PlayStation Vita, complete with new content (and all the original DLC included). Whether or not you’ve already experienced Ayesha’s journey on the PS3, read on to find out whether this port is worth your time and money.
Atelier Ayesha Plus is the first game of the “Dusk” sub-trilogy and thus requires no knowledge of the previous games to understand the narrative. The game tells the story of plucky, young apothecary Ayesha Altugle who lives out her days tending her middle-of-nowhere medicine shop after the death of her grandfather and disappearance of her sister, Nio. During one of Ayesha’s regular visits to Nio’s improvised grave she sees a ghostly vision of her sister appear and almost immediately vanish.
Shocked and confused by what she just saw, Ayesha is approached by a mysterious man who saw the whole thing. The man assures Ayesha that Nio is still alive, but only for around three more years. The man claims that Ayesha can save her sister, but the key to doing so lies in the mysterious blue flowers surrounding her grave. Before leaving, he suggests that to understand the flowers, Ayesha should take up the study of alchemy. Unable to ignore the promise of bringing Nio back, Ayesha closes up shop and goes on a journey to learn about alchemy, and how it applies to the blue flowers that can save her sister’s life.
And that’s all there is to the story — there is a mystery, and Ayesha must solve it. Along the way, of course, she’ll meet a ragtag band of friendly adventurers eager to aid her quest. But unlike pretty much every JRPG I can think of, the journey is not motivated by some evil antagonist or world-threatening monster. The world of Atelier Ayesha is just dying, and everyone knows it; the oceans have dried up, monsters are roaming the countryside, and the mysterious structures that humanity has made their home in are starting to crumble. In the face of this ominous doom, Ayesha and friends simply push forward, ever-smiling, clinging to the belief that things will turn out okay. It’s an unexpectedly melancholy setting, and honestly, a refreshing change of pace from the cookie-cutter “something is causing trouble, and we should go kill it” JRPG story.
There are two different sides to the gameplay of Atelier Ayesha Plus: alchemy and exploration. When in town, different NPCs will mention a particular item they’re interested in and it’s your job to either find or craft it yourself. The crafting system is the game’s central conceit, and also its highest point. There’s nothing particularly unusual about it: you take your ingredients, follow a recipe, and get a resulting item. The properties of the ingredients you choose affect the properties of the final result. What’s remarkable about the crafting is that it’s done so well. It never feels restrictive because most recipes ask for something in a broad category rather than a specific item. As you craft more items you’ll learn more recipes and crafting techniques, giving you more fine-grained control of the items you produce. There’s a definite sense of progression, and it’s just plain fun to do.
The other major task is to explore the world. Again, it’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before, but it works well: you go to a zone, gather alchemy materials from gathering spots, and fight off the roaming monsters who try to get in your way. Combat in Atelier Ayesha is odd, but not in a really effective way. It’s turn-based, centering around a Final Fantasy X–style gauge that shows the turn order for all characters and enemies. There’s an element of positioning at play; being located behind your enemy puts you in a good spot, and some attacks are better when close or at range. The problem is that it’s easy to ignore, difficult to manage, and poorly explained; this makes it feel like something that you occasionally luck into or get screwed over by. Slightly more interesting is the action command system, which allows you to spend “action points” to make extra attacks or defend other party members.
Looming over all of this is the timer. You have just three in-game years to complete your quest, marked by a calendar that’s always in the upper-right of the screen. The thing is that every meaningful action you take will spend at least a little time. Days will go by as you travel across the world map, gather ingredients, craft items, or rest at your house. This system is genius. It lends a huge amount of weight to every decision you make. Maybe you know that a faraway location has the ingredients you need to craft an item for a fetch quest, but you have to consider: is it worth the time spent walking there and back? Choose wrong, and you may have found yourself wasting a week or more, and that stings.
At the very least, the game takes the edge off by explicitly rewarding you for trying new things. Whenever you do something for the first time (trying a new recipe, using a new gathering spot, etc), you’ll be rewarded with “memory points”, which can be cashed in for special bonuses. This makes decisions a little easier, because as long as you’re attempting something new, you always get some reward for your effort.
Honestly, the only place where the game really falters is the technical side of things. The character models look great, but everything else is sorely lacking in detail, despite a keen sense of aesthetic. I wouldn’t mind this so much if the framerate wasn’t constantly chugging. It makes the game tiring to look at after a while — I wouldn’t call it a “slideshow”, but it’s really close. Load times are often aggravatingly long, especially for cutscenes, and whenever a battle starts, the game freezes for about a full second in the middle of the transition animation. I feel like the game would be a lot easier to play if it were better optimized, which is a real shame.
The game’s sound isn’t anything to write home about, either. The voice over quality is inconsistent not only from character to character, but from line to line. The music is inoffensive, but really not my cup of tea — the soundtrack feels like it’d be more at home at a renaissance fair, and just doesn’t seem to fit the game. If there’s one good thing to say about the game’s audio, it’s that the chimes and fanfare that accompany quest progress/completion are really satisfying, which is a bigger deal than it might seem.
Returning players may be wondering about the new content in this release: simply put, this is largely the same game that was on the PS3. I hadn’t played the original game, but the extra content here definitely feels “extra,” and it’s hard to recommend the re-release unless you really enjoyed the game and were going to replay it anyway (especially if you didn’t get any of the DLC the first time around).
The Verdict: 6.5 out of 10.0
For first-timers, playing Atelier Ayesha Plus: The Alchemist of Dusk is a unique experience. The setting and story is largely melancholy and relaxing, but the time limit constantly presents difficult and stressful decisions. It’s a game that will resonate strongly with a specific group of people, but will merely be “okayish” for the rest. If you like in-depth crafting, fetch quests, and interesting systems, but don’t mind low-budget graphical quality, you’ll get your money’s worth for sure. If you don’t fit the description, you’ll probably find the pacing and technical problems tiring. It’s a very interesting game, it just doesn’t reach greatness. The new content is cool, but I don’t see it persuading anyone who didn’t absolutely love the PS3 version to give it a second go.
For more information about what the score means, check out our official review scale.
Aaron Dobbe is an Associate Writer at MONG specializing in Nintendo but playing a bit of everything else too. Follow him on Facebook and pester him to get a Twitter.