While my memory gets a bit hazy for the games prior to its release, one of the earliest titles in Gust’s long-running Atelier saga that I remember reviewing for a major publication was 2009’s Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island on the Nintendo DS. Even if I never passed judgement on any of the chapters we got here in the States prior to that, I’d been following the series in its Japan-only form since its inception nearly 21 years ago.
The reason it’s important for me to say all of that is because, 19 mainline games and numerous side-story projects later, I may finally be done with the series.
I still love the core around which all Atelier games are built, and those concepts are alive and well here in the franchise’s latest addition, Atelier Lydie & Suelle: The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings. Instead of being about saving the world from a doom-bringing god or reclaiming the stolen crown of a conquered kingdom, these are instead slice-of-life stories about a young girl trying to find her place in the world—and make it better the process—through her growing skills in the arts of alchemy.
Or, as we have here in Atelier Lydie & Suelle, plural girls. The Marlen twins once made a promise to their now-deceased mother that the family business would become the most popular alchemy shop in the entire Adalet Kingdom. Unfortunately, their father—the shop’s head alchemist—would rather invest his energy in painting and lazing around, so keeping that wish falls upon the shoulders of sisters Lydie and Suelle. While the goal of becoming a world-famous alchemist is a common theme in the Atelier series, the game offers two twists to the forces that propel those desires forward: the atelier ranking system and a collection of Mysterious Paintings.
Soon after the game kicks off, a representative of Lydie and Suelle’s hometown of Merveille announces that alchemists will now be tested and graded—meaning those who can rise through the ranks will also raise their notoriety as an alchemist. Our heroines see this as the perfect route to their end goal, and for us players, it’s also a way to give a new twist to some old ideas. In order to take the tests required for advancing to each successive grade, Lydie and Suelle must increase their influence by accomplishing tasks, making particular items through alchemy, or other set requirements. One of the really nice aspects to this is that you are given enough things to do in earning that influence that not all of them will ever need to be accomplished. One of the sticking points in the Atelier games is how hard it can be to craft certain items depending on what materials you’ve found or new recipes you’ve learned, so I was glad to see that even running into multiple instances of that setback won’t necessarily be a huge hindrance to progressing through the game. While taking alchemy tests isn’t an idea foreign to the franchise itself, it still feels fresh here due to those tests not just being the same kind of “make this item” challenge over and over.
Get a few chapters in, and an extra incentive for completing those tests is added: Mysterious Paintings. Created from the combining of artwork and alchemy, Lydie and Suelle are able to actually hop inside these pieces of art, where the worlds depicted come to life as if they existed in the real world. While I wasn’t sure about the entire idea at first—it felt a little more “fantastical” than I tend to like in my Atelier—I ended up appreciating what they bring to the game. Basically, since every Mysterious Painting is its own singular thing, the development team was able to use them to add different types of worlds without having to rationalize why such places would exist together. How do you explain a spooky Halloween-esque graveyard being in a more down-to-earth kingdom? You don’t have to! How do you work out why there’s a land covered in ice so close to a place with searing-hot lava flows? It doesn’t matter! And, when you have such a diversity of locations at your disposal, you then gain the ability to also present a wide variety of materials for use in alchemy.
Speaking of that, the traditional Atelier gameplay loop is the same as it usually is: collect ingredients, fight monsters in turn-based combat, discover new recipes, return back to the atelier to drop off your finds, craft new items and equipment, rinse and repeat. Of course, each new release in the series tends to bring a smattering of smaller tweaks or new elements to the table, and Atelier Lydie & Suelle is no exception. The most enjoyable part of any Atelier game is digging into its complex item-synthesis systems, and now, new enhancing agents can be used alongside catalysts to better control ingredient properties for upping specific bonus stats (such as item price, healing ability, or overall quality) on your creations. Meanwhile, battles in Atelier Lydie & Suelle play out with six characters on the field: three in the front that you directly control, and three in the rear providing automated assistance depending on what their partners in front of them just did. Unfortunately, the biggest game changer that combat receives, Battle Mixes, doesn’t come close to living up to its potential. This new option lets you perform synthesis right on the battlefield, and what could have been a gigantic shake-up to the Atelier formula ends up being more of a sometimes-useful gimmick, given that you can only perform it under specific conditions and after key preparation. It doesn’t help that understanding the rules for both of those points—such as Lydie and Suelle needing to be set to back-line support before the Battle Mix option can be used—may end up being impossible for a lot of players due to the utter lack of proper in-game explanation. (Seriously, if I hadn’t dug through Japanese message forums to find detailed instructions provided by other players, I may never have known myself.)
In nearly everything that Atelier Lydie & Suelle does, the game and its offerings are good—but they’re also kind of “good enough.” While I’ve dipped my toe into a handful of the Atelier games that have come since, my last proper playthrough of the franchise came with 2013’s Atelier Ayesha. In the five years that have passed between now and then, I’m hard-pressed to tell you how this series has grown, advanced, or changed. The same things that pulled me into the PlayStation 3 era of the series are still here, but so too are most of the complaints I had with those games. We’re yet again given overly-cutesy-and-clumsy-at-alchemy protagonists in Lydie and Suelle, and while their supporting cast are inoffensive and serviceable, I can’t name a single one of them I had any real emotional connection to. Alchemy remains engrossing, but also lacking in a grander gameplay purpose and still potentially intimidating due to (again) a lack of rich tutorials. Battles remain enjoyable, but come across as very old-school in a time when even Japanese RPGs are looking to make combat either more dynamic or more cinematic. And oh my lord, Gust, can you please start putting even just a little more effort into building your worlds? I’m tired of locations that look a generation (or even two) behind, ridiculous invisible barriers, and other issues of development “cheapness” that just refuse to go away. Also, those playing on Switch (as I did) will have to deal with what seems like lower-quality lighting when compared to the PlayStation 4 version, which certainly doesn’t do those visuals any favors.
The Atelier series seems stuck in a situation that far too many Japanese franchises have found themselves in: selling to smaller and smaller audiences over time, and both becoming afraid of alienating those loyal fans who still shell out money while also not having the financial means to attempt something that could gain it wider success again. It’s a trend that I, as a longtime fan of Japanese gaming (and the Atelier series itself), have grown both frustrated and depressed by, because I’ve seen some great franchises end up stagnating before being totally outclassed by Western projects with the creativity and drive to become big successes. (A perfect example of this being Stardew Valley sweeping in and doing in one game what both Harvest Moon and Story of Seasons weren’t getting done release after release.) At the same time, the Atelier games also face a very Western-game-developer problem: an insistence on releasing a new iteration year after year after year without any sort of break. I’m sure the idea might be heresy to both Gust and publisher Koei Tecmo, but I’d love to see the series take at least a year off so that more time could be spent crafting a game that would make more of an impact when it arrived.
Atelier Lydie & Suelle: The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings is an enjoyable game in what it is, and if you consider what it sets out to accomplish, those goals are for the most part met. I know a lot of longtime Atelier fans who should be satisfied with this latest chapter just as they were with previous ones—well, outside of those furious over Koei Tecmo deciding to release Atelier Lydie & Suelle sans English dub. And, if you’re coming to the series for the first time, there’s nothing here that would cause me to recommend a different entry point as your introduction to modern-era Atelier. For me, though, I’ve just grown tired of seeing Gust’s alchemists settle for being C students. Now that the “Mysterious” trilogy of games has come to a close in Atelier Lydie & Suelle, I hold faint (but misguided) hope that the development team will want to do something more ambitious in what comes next. Honestly, though, I don’t expect that to happen—and as much as I love (and want to love) this series, I’m now not sure I can spend any more emotional or mental energy caring when it doesn’t.
|Publisher: Koei Tecmo • Developer: Gust • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 03.27.2018|
Atelier Lydie & Suelle: The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings is another solid chapter in the current era of Gust’s franchise about heroines drawn to alchemy—and that’s said in both a good and a bad way. If you’ve enjoyed previous Atelier games for what they’ve been, then twins Lydie and Suelle are ready to take you on another adventure of crafting items, fighting monsters, and uncovering the secrets that hang over their homeland. However, if you’ve been hoping for some real progress or change in the Atelier formula, that recipe, sadly, remains undiscovered.
|The Good||A whimsical adventure that trades overbearing threats for more everyday, character-driven stories and setbacks.|
|The Bad||If you’ve played any of the Atelier games in the last decade, you’ll know what to expect here, as there’s been little real advancements in the series’ concepts.|
|The Ugly||When the most important location in the game—your atelier—feels like it was built with objects from the free section of the Unity Asset Store.|
|Atelier Lydie & Suelle: The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings is available on PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. Primary version reviewed was for Switch. Review code was provided by Koei Tecmo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.|