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A respectable RPG concoction that could use more simmering

When Atelier Ayesha was first announced, the game was said to be bringing with it an older protagonist and a more mature feel. I loved the idea, and my mind raced with images of what we might get.

Could this be a return to the Atelier of old, back before the franchise got twisted to the levels of pandering it reached in the series’ more recent offerings? Would this be akin to Christopher Nolan stepping in to save the day and bringing Batman back from the ridiculousness it had fallen into at the hands of Joel Schumacher?

OK, so Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk isn’t quite Batman Begins—and, if you aren’t a longtime fan of Gust’s Atelier efforts, you might not even see much of a difference at all. I’m one of those who can appreciate those changes, and I walked away from Ayesha both pleased with what it did differently, and frustrated over its similarity in other areas.

Before we get too much further, let me refer you back to my review of last year’s Atelier release, Atelier Meruru. If you’re unfamiliar with the franchise, then that review will serve as a good primer on what these games are all about. It’ll also set the scene for where my feelings on this series were a little under 12 months ago—and the progress I wanted to see from future Atelier games.

If you absolutely refuse to go read that review and still demand that I give you some sort of frame of reference for what an Atelier game is, then here’s a simple breakdown: Girl decides to learn alchemy, girl starts to learn alchemy (where “alchemy” equals “using materials to make new items in a way that often has nothing to do with actual alchemy”), girl has wacky-yet-heartwarming adventures as a part of that pursuit.

One thing that continually bugged me through the Arland trilogy (the previous three PS3 Atelier chapters) was a reliance on heroines that excelled in being bad at alchemy. Sure, everyone has to start somewhere, but there would inevitably be scenes where our main character couldn’t pay attention and would screw something up, or the item they were trying to synthesize would blow up, or some other air-headed happening would crop up to endear the sweet alchemist trainee to lonely male gamers who like their women moronic.

It’s here that, instead, Ayesha endeared herself to me. When we first meet her, she knows little of the world of alchemy, and the road to becoming a master won’t be an easy one. However, she makes her living as an apothecary—meaning that the basics of mixing and measuring are common knowledge to her. We aren’t convinced how utterly adorably cute she is via scenes of her being a klutz, or immature, or suffering from mental deficiencies so severe that she shouldn’t be able to function in normal human society (aka every moe character presented in anime in recent years).

In an entertainment medium so often filled with nothing but hulking male heroes, one of the things I’ve loved about the Atelier series is that it offers fantastic potential for female characters who can both be strong and independent, yet also fun and girly. While it’s still obvious that some of Ayesha’s character traits were written specifically for male fans, I feel she’ll be a better fit for the female audience than some of the previous series heroines. She’s be no means perfect, to be clear—she’s something of a milquetoast at times, and she doesn’t have the infectious personality that previous characters such as Meruru did. Still, she grew on me as the game progressed, and I found an appreciation for her soft-spoken nature—as well as her innocence that comes simply from a lack of personal experience, and not from still being little more than a child.

Ayesha’s duality stands as a fitting metaphor for the game itself. I love the Atelier games, but I also can’t excuse their numerous examples of an overall lack of polish and ambition. Cranking out a new Atelier every year has to limit the amount of effort that Gust can put into each, and that’s still evident in this latest volume. While the graphics here are better than previous iterations in both overall quality and design—the character models especially are utterly gorgeous and some of the best executions of cel-shading I’ve seen—many environments are woefully underutilized, and it’s almost embarrassing how often they cause Ayesha’s engine to chug.

The feeling of cheapness also blends into the game’s battles. Ayesha provides fewer enemy models (and more recolored cloning of the ones we get), certain attacks could really benefit from more frames of animation, and when both friends and foes disappear during attacks, Ayesha comes off more like a prettied-up PlayStation 2 RPG than something worthy of the current generation of consoles.

And yet, strangely, I came to really appreciate Ayesha’s battles. Even as recently as that Atelier Meruru review I linked earlier, I wished Gust would drop battles entirely from this series. I haven’t changed that position—but so long as we are going to have combat mucking up my dreams of a life of nonviolent crafting, I’d like to at least enjoy it. I did indeed enjoy it here, probably more than I have in Atelier games in a long time. In Ayesha, the system for defending or backing up teammates has been improved, and a new option lets players change the position of characters in order to unleash more effective attacks.

Of course, the reason I like the Atelier games is the story and alchemy, not the combat—and both are as good as always. I play these games because they’re light-hearted and positive alternatives to the dark, dreary RPGs I’m usually drawn to, and Ayesha retains that atmosphere while also being built around a stronger storyline. It’s that story that ties into one of the game’s most fascinating new elements, the diary system. Ayesha can write down memories of events that have happened to her if she’s got the required points, and unlocking those journal entries will provide additional bonuses and skills. I’d actually say that the diary system isn’t given enough prominence as it should have—but for what it is, it’s a great idea.

Additionally, using alchemy to craft items and fulfill wishes is as enjoyable as ever, but it’s also still just as confusing. After so many games featuring alchemy, I can’t comprehend how Gust can’t figure out how to fully explain their functions by now. Finding quests isn’t as straightforward as it used to be—you now have to track down NPCs in different areas to see if they have something new for you, instead of going to a centralized location as before—and for the first Atelier release under Tecmo Koei (versus previous publisher NIS America), we’ve lost the option for Japanese voices.

That seems to be the fate that the Atelier franchise simply can’t escape: good games kept down by an assortment of small faults. For every step forward a new chapter makes, it takes a step backward at the same time, resulting in a series that just keeps progressing sideways instead of ahead. So, once again, I’m left wishing that Gust would have put more effort into one of their games—but I also have no hesitation in saying that Atelier Ayesha could be the most I’ve enjoyed a PlayStation 3 Atelier release. Fans of the series will already have Ayesha on their radar, and for those who’ve always wanted to try an Atelier game but weren’t sure where to begin, this is probably the best place to start.

Developer: Gust • Publisher: Tecmo Koei • ESRB: T for Teen • Release Date: 03.05.2013
The alchemy-infused RPG known as Atelier Ayesha is much like its titular character: unpolished and at times awkward, yet also unquestionably charming and endearing.
The Good Even with her faults, Ayesha’s a more respectable character than her predecessors.
The Bad Gust still doesn’t seem to understand how to properly polish Atelier’s awkward elements.
The Ugly Using cow droppings and muddy water to make healing bread.
Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk is available exclusively on the PlayStation 3.


About Mollie L Patterson

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Mollie got her start in games media via the crazy world of gaming fanzines, and now works at EGM with the goal of covering all of the weird Japanese and niche releases that nobody else on staff cares about. She’s active in the gaming community on a personal level, and an outspoken voice on topics such as equality in gaming, consumer rights, and good UI. Find her on Twitter @mollipen.