Look past the coquettish DLC swimsuits and intermittent instances where ditziness serves as comic relief, and the Atelier franchise reveals its principal virtue: it’s a series that focuses on female empowerment. From Rorona’s efforts to keep her alchemical workshop from imminent closure to Meruru’s development of item synthesis to help advance her kingdom, GUST’s games have offered a representation of self-actualization that stands in sharp contrast to the surplus of masculinized JRPGs. Regretfully, the burden of stringent time management and a few superfluous mechanics have likely constrained the series to cult status.
For the fourth localized installment (fourteen iterations have been crafted in Japan), the developers have added a few new gameplay elements, removed a refreshing amount of clutter, and gave the game’s plotline a pleasing dose of poignancy. As such, the recent release of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk is both a faultless starting point for newcomers as well as an indulging journey for series stalwarts. Beside a few setbacks, Ayesha is poised to tug at heart strings and induce blissful smiles throughout the title’s sixty twenty-five playtime.
As the game opens, players are introduced to protagonist Ayesha Altugle- a young woman who has inherited the duty of running the local apothecary after the death of her grandfather and the disappearance of her sister, Nio. While collecting herbs near her sibling’s gravestone, Ayesha is visited by an mute apparition. Witnessing the same phenomenon, a mysterious visitor gives the heroine two recommendations: to seek a glowing flower and to study alchemy. Presumably, these two tasks might help explain Nio’s disappearance.
While humor and whimsical charm permeate The Alchemist of Dusk’s plotline, a shift toward solemnity is a welcome change, endowing the game with a pressing sense of urgency. Undeniably, Ayesha is a charismatic character, and watching her grow proves to be one of the game’s most fulfilling elements. Woefully, this development isn’t universal, with some of the game’s allies receiving a simplified characterization. Arguably, the title’s best plotline adjustment is the reduction of time-based restrictions. Missions no longer have rigid deadlines, with only a single, overarching three year limit on solving Nio’s mystery. As such, the increased autonomy means that it’s a bit harder to determine if Ayesha is on track to meet her goals, making it a bit harder to determine if you’re on track to receive one of the game’s best endings. Delightfully, The Alchemist of Dusk contains a robust epilogue, delivering a dénouement which doesn’t dump players out of the game’s world once the core conflict has been resolved.
Much like the reduction of the title’s temporal restrictions, the process of alchemy has been simplified, reducing the barrier to entry. Whether Ayesha grabs ingredients from local merchants, fallen foes, or at glowing spots which litter each playfield, she no longer has to worry about her mana level- now the alchemist can craft items without repose. Failing recipes, which used could habitually happen to overzealous players, no longer occurs. The sole caveat surrounding alchemy is that the game doesn’t explain its nuances very well. While Atelier veterans will understand that the quality and order of synthesis affect output quality, newcomers will have to learn through experimentation.
One of Atelier Ayesha’s most noteworthy design decisions revolves around how character development is handed. Periodically, the game makes a record of plot points, offering players the ability to spend Memory Points to not only unlock an extended synopsis of these events, but also provide stats bonuses, recipes and items. Stimulated by the distribution of additional points though synthesis, story events or errand incentives, the game’s Memory System offers a clever amalgam of a several mechanics; hopefully this component will return in future installments.
Across the franchise’s extensive legacy, the Atelier series has slowly refined its turn-based approach to combat. With The Alchemist of Dusk several new tweaks and additions are added to the formula. Support actions allow party members to provide defensive stands and provide additional attacks, while using action points permit characters to move around the battlefield- gaining an advantage by flanking foes. Although unit positioning seems like a minor addition, it does provide a contenting tactical element to the game’s battles.
Although the occasional environmental design demonstrations headway, Atelier Ayesha’s visuals are still undermined by low resolution textures and a less that fluid framerate. That said, the game’s character deigns are sumptuous, teaming with lace and pleats, yet narrowly evading lolli territory. Sonically, the title is a bit disappointing. NIS America’s traditional dual language efforts has been shrank to an English dub, with voice acting that can sound a bit forced at times. The game’s lip synching avoids matching either tongue, with mouths with perpetually move, like some kind of maniac marionettes.
For players fatigued by the conventional male-dominated role-playing journey, the Atelier series has always been a refreshing respite. With Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk, the franchise’s customary journey of female self-empowerment remains- this time bolstered by play mechanics that offer a bit more polish and attentive streamlining. If you’ve ever been on the fence about giving the series a try, The Alchemist of Dusk offers a friendly, cordial call to players.