Japanese role-playing games are often criticized for following formula too closely. But all too often, the person making this claim hasn’t played an entry in Gust’s Atelier series. After nineteen iterations across a twenty-year span, the franchise has cultivated its own set of tenets, but these are far removed from the typical structure and execution of most JRPGs.
Without an epic doomsday scenario, a cast of rag-tag adventurers, or a plot filled with surprise shifts of allegiance, the Atelier games are a distinctive elixir poised to push the genre away from stagnation. If you haven’t played any of the previous titles, the recent PlayStation 4 and PC release of Atelier Lydie & Suelle: The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings makes an exemplary entry point.
Unlike the driving melodies that establish the urgency in most role-playing games, Atelier Lydie & Suelle, like its predecessors, begins with oddly folksy refrains. Signaling the rustic charm of your quaint alchemical workshop and the flora-filled patches that you’ll comb for ingredients, there’s a sense of tranquility that hangs over the proceedings. And while you’ll eventually hear stirring battle hymns and even a catchy jam with a vocoder hook, a sense of rustic serenity lingers over the proceedings, especially since this entry largely shirks the series’ sporadic time-management requirements. While seldom uninteresting or tedious, Mysterious Paintings urges gamers to unwind. It’s the restorative trip to the countryside that brings perspective the hurried city dweller.
As common for the Atelier series, we first meet the game’s leads eking out a modest existence through their rudimentary alchemical skillset. Twins Lydie and Suelle Malen might have experienced hardships- not only did their mother pass, but their live-in father is forgetful, childlike, and irresponsible with money. But like most Atelier protagonists, they don’t dwell on misfortune, but rather view alchemy as a way to surmount adversity. Sure, the ‘lift yourself up by your own bootstraps’ ideology might seem naive, but Lydie and Suelle demonstrate that undeterred diligence is the surest path to success- and it’s hard not to be inspired by these frilly-dress clad idealists.
Pleasingly, Mysterious Paintings doesn’t mimic the slight variations to the same story path technique used by Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky. No, here the slightly ditzy, exercise-avoidant Lydie tirelessly accompanies Suelle, her jovial, tomboyish sister around. While controlling a pair of characters might seem like a simple change, its brings around a number of significant changes to the Atelier franchise.
Since the two are an inseparable duo, it makes sense that they’d share their innermost thoughts with one another. In previous games with a single protagonist, it wouldn’t make sense for a character to share their honne (true feelings) with NPC acquaintances. But with Mysterious Paintings, the sisters share personal feeling, fears, and the intermittent bout of discouragement that tatemae commands shouldn’t be shared casually. Naturally, their indivisible bond also means that players will be privy to the occasional argument, endowing the proceedings with both a feeling of intimacy but also regularly, comic relief. On the downside, the focus on Lydie and Suelle means that other characters don’t get as much development. This is hardly a deal breaker, as Mysterious Paintings brings out a number of familiar faces, but it is perceptible when the title is contrasted against previous entries.
For those who haven’t played a previous entry, Mysterious Paintings is exceedingly accessible for amateur alchemists. Concise tutorial screens explain the essentials of consignments, gathering ingredients, fighting creatures, and blending components together- which collectively forms Mysterious Paintings’ core gameplay loop. While some might balk at the direction, alchemy is a bit simplified from previous Atelier titles and together with undemanding enemy encounters means that the title isn’t very demanding. But fundamentally, this seems in line with Gust’s bearing for the series, which removes some of the frustrating hurdles that are common to the JRPG genre. And even if the game’s elements don’t radically increase in difficulty doesn’t mean they lack variety. As your adventuring party grows in size, you’ll be able to arrange your team’s formation, potentially gaining extra attacks from your back-row combatants.
As the title implies, paintings play a significant role in the journey. Periodically, Lydie and Suelle will jump into the works, exploring the world depicted on each canvas. While the environments extend a pleasing change of context, transporting the girls to aquatic, Halloween, icy realms, they tend to draw on Atelier’s fondness for European style. Personally, I would have loved to have seen a wider variety of influences, potentially honoring the sumi-e or ukiyo-e styles. Still, being able to delve into artistry is an ingenious concept. It’s too bad that this is the third and final entry in the Mysterious arc; it would have been wonderful to see this concept explored further.
Given the relatively small size of the Gust team, a few aesthetic shortcomings have regularly dogged the Atelier series. But play Lydie & Suelle on a robust PC, and you’ll think the Nagano-based developer has a legion of artists on the payroll. With a GTX 1070, the game exhibits an unwavering sixty-frame-per-second delivery at 1080p, flaunting exquisite-looking environments and adorable character models that offer the occasional hint of fan-service. Sonically, the title forgoes the typical English dub. But given the quality of the Japanese voice acting, the omission is justifiable. It would have been virtually impossible to match the delivery of the original cast in another language.
Alchemy in the Atelier series hinges of the synthesis of first-rate ingredients. With Atelier Lydie & Suelle ~The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings~, Gust nails the quality and proportions, strengthening the recipe with a storyline that can be both heartwarming- and when the time comes, brimming with poignancy. Deciding which one of the Atelier games is the best is a futile task, there are multiple contenders for the crown. But know that by picking up Atelier Lydie & Suelle, you’ll be privy to use of a distinctive role-playing experience that transcends the genre.
Atelier Lydie & Suelle ~The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings~
was played on the PC with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PC, PlayStation 4, Switch
Release date: March 27th, 2018
Price: $59.99 on PS4 and Switch, $53.99 on PC
Languages: Japanese voice, English text