An atelier is a workshop usually associated with artists or designers. Just putting that there for reference, because I’ve had to define it for at least one person before. Got it? Good.
The Atelier series is a long-running development project and the primary flagship series of Gust, one of the more prolific and constant mid-tier JRPG developers. The core concept behind them is that of alchemy; you gather materials either through exploration or combat, use that to craft items, and then utilise these in battles or for quests and such. While many RPGs contain some kind of crafting or material system as a secondary feature, the Atelier series focuses on it as the primary strength, with everything else being secondary.
With this slightly difference focus, one may wonder: just who is this kind of game for? It’s a question a friend has, in fact, asked off-handedly before. Atelier games lack or have reduced focus on the usual strengths and highlights of the more notable JRPGs; the battles are more about what you bring into them than how you execute strategies with the party on hand. The stories and characters don’t tend to stand out among the bigwigs of Persona or Legend of Heroes, often leaning to fairly plain designs and personalities highlighted from a stock standard list of anime tropes.
Yet the games continue to be made and continue to maintain a decent following. So it was that, during my never ending search, I dug up an Atelier game or two that I had picked it up mostly out of curiosity at the time but had never fully invested myself in: Atelier Ayesha most notably. I started it pretty much the moment the new year began, and then finished it in rapid succession, making it the first game I played to completion in 2019. Now I have quite a few thoughts about both Ayesha, and the series as a whole.
So who is this game for? Turns out it might just be me.
Alchemy: A History
The Atelier series started back on the first Playstation, and the secondary name in the title was usually the name of that game’s alchemist. So it is in Atelier Ayesha. In general, it wasn’t until the PS2’s Atelier Iris trilogy that the series really got that noticed. So much notice, in fact, that I even owned and played the first and third games (third being a standalone), finishing the latter to completion many years ago. Up until this year, it was the only Atelier game I’d seen to the end, in fact.
Compared to the games that preceded and followed it, the Iris trilogy had that little bit more focus on the battles and JRPG side, so it managed to catch a slightly wider audience in the net. It also further established the notion of grouping game releases into sub-series, usually determined by a shared setting.
This carried on into the next trilogy for the PS3, that being the Arland series: Atelier Rorona, Atelier Totori, and Atelier Meruru. These are the games that kind of exemplify the series to most observers, and are usually what people think of when they think Atelier. They’re bright and colourful, heavily focused on the crafting and alchemy aspect again, and featuring cute and stylised anime girls on the covers.
Stare into her oversized eyes and be consumed by the void.
The Arland trilogy has proved immensely popular… or, well, popular. I don’t actually know if “immensely” is the right adjective here, since I’ve truthfully never looked too much at sales figures or series reputation.
[EDIT: Out of curiosity, I looked it up. Sure enough, the Arland trilogy is easily the most high-selling games in the series, though the follow ups didn’t fare as badly as I suspected. Anyway.]
The fact that I opened up this article asking the question of who the series is for might very well suggest that it isn’t a common port of call. Among my friends and social circles, that does seem to be the case, but I have no empirical evidence to back this one up. So take all of that talk with a grain of salt.
An educated guess, then, would say that the Arland series is quite popular. Each of the three games received an updated version a little after release — which is actually standard for the series, but it differs here in that most enhanced editions aren’t released outside Japan. Arland was. It has since been ported again to the PS4, most recently to the Switch in a bundle, and the very next Atelier game due out sometime this year is a fourth entry in the Arland saga set some time after the others. For that reason, I think it’s safe to say that it’s something of the popular arm of the series.
Atelier Ayesha isn’t one of these. It is, in fact, the first of the Dusk trilogy that followed after Arland. All three were released on the PS3 in relatively later years of its lifespan. The Mysterious trilogy has since followed on the PS4, and seems to be regarded a little more tepidly by series veterans at a glance.
But if the response to Mysterious was considered half-hearted, my search about which game to play lead me to the Dusk trilogy as featuring one of the better, more interesting world settings in addition to some of the most tightly tuned crafting systems in the franchise. Ayesha and its immediate follow-up Escha & Logy tend to hover at the top of preference lists that I’ve seen. It’s for this reason that I dusted off my PS3 and dove into Atelier Ayesha, rather than pick up an Arland game for Switch.
So with all that background information and consideration out of the way, let’s get into Atelier Ayesha itself.
A Sister Act
The titular Ayesha, this game’s alchemist, is an apothecary focusing on medicine who doesn’t know anything about alchemy or even realise that she’s technically doing it. She’s out gathering medicinal herbs for this purpose, and visits the nearby grave she’s set up for her younger sister Nio who disappeared a few years back. All of a sudden, a ghostly apparition of Nio appears amidst a patch of glowing flowers for a few moments, prompting Ayesha to believe that she must be alive.
An older man who claims to be an alchemist happens to be in the area investigating at the time, and provides a cryptic hint to Ayesha: study alchemy, and the path to saving your sister will be clear. He also ominously murmurs that Nio probably has about three years at most, thus setting about the traditional Atelier time limit (more on that in a moment). Determined, Ayesha goes off into the world to do just that.
This is the premise and primary drive of Atelier Ayesha’s plot. With this objective in the distance, you’ll go around to various places, gathering materials and beating up monsters in order to obtain ingredients for alchemy. Recipes are obtained through the purchase or finding of books, so you’re encouraged to explore and generate enough money to afford them, most of which is earned by completing side requests for handing in specific items. Along the way, you’ll meet a selection of other characters that provide their own little story arcs, or even join your party.
Something that was immediately obvious when going into the game was that the art had a far darker, less saturated tone than the games that had come before. It wasn’t exactly bland or lacking in colour, but there was a strong emphasis on muted greens, browns and greys in a lot of the colour palette. This is the world of the Dusk trilogy, where it is either heading towards a fall, or is built from the ruins of one… or perhaps even both.
The latter is certainly true and demonstrably so in many of the areas and history of Atelier Ayesha, and it was quite interesting to wander around these cavernous or even arcane ruins left behind. It’s a setting that I quite enjoyed, and while it might not have fully utilised it to its full potential, it was a good experience nonetheless and makes me wonder how the followup Dusk games expand on it.
Take a look at the colour palette in contrast to Atelier Rorona’s cover up there. See what I mean?
Overall, it’s a little more laid back than a standard JRPG might be, doubly so given that the overall playtime of the game clocked in at maybe half of what I accrue in the average Tales game. Battles are a fairly simple initiative turn-based system, where smart play and afflictions can delay or deny an enemy their turn. Depending on what items you make or how powerful you craft your gear, it can become incredibly easy to steamroll most of them, but even without I can’t imagine people finding the game particularly tough.
One of the neat aspects of the game I liked was the Memories system. You’ll accrue memory points as you complete tasks or sidequests, and every area will usually have two quick tasks of “gather everything possible” and “beat every monster here” to give you a steady stream of them. These memory points are spent on Memories — shocking, I know — that you will gain access to by completing notable events, plot points, or sidequests that involve the cast of colourful characters you’ll meet. The memories themselves tend to be flat passive bonuses, but some will alter or improve your alchemy process, so players are incentivised to chase them up when they can.
The sidequests themselves are usually accessed by building friendships with people. Party members who stick with you build up a friendship meter, and events or quests will become active at certain thresholds, so you’re encouraged to rotate between them all. Even if I wasn’t, I probably would have anyway, since their stories were usually entertaining and a nice little break from exploration purely for gathering.
Further, many of the side characters (party members included) will have shops set up that sell various types of materials or beneficial items, including the aforementioned recipe books you need. Buying items from them will increase their shop level up to 5, which gets you more stuff to buy and usually unlocks more events.
It all creates a fairly entertaining loop in the end. Take your friends gathering and battling, become friends with them, purchase stuff off them, use that and the gathering things to craft new items and gear. Do this to complete requests and side quests, use the rewards to fund your recipe book purchases, and now you should be geared up more to tackle the higher level zones that become available. Rinse, repeat.
All throughout, you’ll get a few hints and leads towards the main quest of finding Ayesha’s sister, all of which falls back into this same loop nicely. There will be some places you need to investigate, rare materials you need to gather for quest related items, and ultimately more clues to uncover. But what I especially liked was that completing the main quest and saving my sister didn’t actually end the game… there was still time on the three year clock, after all!
Instead, Nio became the final party member I could attain, and the same process was able to repeat. More events and a couple side quests with her, though for obvious reasons I didn’t have to build up her friendship meter like everyone else. What also happened was a full set of new objectives which involved getting to know each party member and seeing what was up with them.
Effectively, the post-game becomes unlocking all of these personal side quests, and if you still have the time management to get through some or all of them, they can lead to pretty nice little story beats and character progression. They can also lead to some optional stuff which includes the toughest bosses in the game, and perhaps the only time the battle system challenged me to adapt and gear up to the best of my abilities.
There’s nothing altogether stellar or unique about any of the character plots, mind you, but I still just found it comfy to sink into this other world and see these stories through to completion. Ayesha herself is a bit of an airhead, but she’s cheerful enough that it had me smiling nonetheless. All the cast were generally charming and light-hearted, bringing a real sense of life to a dusky world.
So with that general outline of the game and how it went, there’s two factors I wanted to especially talk about in more detail.
Honing One’s Craft(ing)
Since my search lead me back to the Atelier games, I was particularly enamoured with the idea of the crafting. A good system of gathering materials to use for an involved crafting system that allowed better gathering is a loop that I’ve found oddly endearing recently. And it’s the crafting system that is at the crux of the entire series, so one would hope it’s good. Well, I certainly found it pretty solid.
Once you have a recipe, you craft it at any of the workshops Ayesha sets up. It takes time away from the total calendar counter, with higher level or complicated recipes taking more time. Some recipes will produce multiple items, and it’s often more efficient to spend two days crafting 7 items rather than one day crafting 3, so there’s some considerations on the clock there.
So what does the crafting actually entail? Well, each recipe has a couple of ingredients. These can be specific items, or they can just be more general item classes (metal, lumber, paper, liquid etc. that will take anything in that category). Each ingredient also has a variety of stats, which can include various elemental affinities and a set “quality” rating. Specific item recipes will have various thresholds that you can meet, and doing so will give the final item more properties or traits.
In addition, the ingredients themselves have properties that can either transfer to the end result, or else influence the crafting process. See, the order in which you put the ingredients into the recipe matters, as some traits will buff or change the various values that the next items have. So if you start with an item that buffs the fire element of subsequent ingredients, then you might easily achieve higher fire thresholds than the sum total would normally be without it.
There’s a lot of factors that can influence your crafting. Every ingredient also has a cost to use in a recipe, and while you can exceed the cost and still complete the item, it just means anything over cost won’t contribute anything to the end result. Your maximum cost increases as you level or by unlocking specific memories.
But wait, there’s more! As you level or progress, Ayesha will get skills that she can utilise in the crafting process as well. Some are just passive benefits, but many will require an additional cost in order to upgrade the contributions of an ingredient, or else guarantee that some of its traits will come through.
So, with all of that in mind… you will pick a recipe, pick ingredients, apply them in a set order and supplement them with skills, and then the item is made. The ingredients and quality can mean the difference between a fairly basic healing salve, or one that can heal, cure ailments, add a buff, and literally raise the dead.
This same principle can be used to create whetstones or armour polish. Depending on the materials used in this, you can apply all sorts of traits to them. Once these items are made, you can then use them on equipment drops (which are fairly common from enemies) and replace or supplement their existing traits and stats with those of the synthesised item. So you won’t necessarily be crafting a strong sword from nothing, but you can find a pretty good sword and then grant it the property to slay gods if you know what you’re doing.
Ultimately, the game itself is not massively challenging, and I did end up finishing the vast majority of content within the time limit. But if you aren’t making good healing, damaging, or gear improving items and accessories as you go, Ayesha just ends up being more of a liability than a boon to your party. It certainly makes for a more interesting and smoother time when you maximise your crafting knowledge and make powerful stuff.
It’s a really good system, altogether. A few more challenges or maybe a few additional requests for some of the more advanced items or high quality results might have made it feel more substantial, but overall I certainly enjoyed the time I spent crafting rather than just dreading it.
But speaking of dread…
Taking Time to Smell the Flowers
Time limits can often be the bane of gamers. Some people like to take their time, enjoy the sights, and try to maximise seeing as much content as they can in a playthrough. Fear of missing out is a powerful thing, and so those who feel pressured by time constraints may just avoid a game with a time limit altogether.
The Atelier Iris games had no time limits, but most other Atelier games do. There’s typically a period of three years in which you have to play, and while some of the more recent games let you play on after you beat the main quest in time, the earlier games do not. Once the final day rolls around in Atelier Ayesha, your game is over, regardless of what you did or didn’t accomplish. Even with a New Game+ feature, I know plenty are daunted by the mere concept.
An even bigger factor that may scare off some is the inclusion of multiple endings. There’s a bad ending if you don’t save Nio in time, and a basic good ending if you do, but then there’s multiple different conclusions to your tale depending on which side quests you managed to complete or character arcs you finished. Even those who don’t mind a time limit may be dissuaded by the sense that they might miss something if they aren’t following a guide to maximise their time.
This is something that affects me as well, quite a bit. With the sheer volume of games that I play and continue to acquire, it’s unlikely that I ever get to finish everything I have, let alone trying to play them additional times. When I do play something, I like to dive in and try to get as much of the game explored and beaten as I can, sometimes to my own detriment; my exhaustive approach to exploring and making sure I’ve scoured everything can mean I get worn out well before the game is over, so it’s something I usually have to consciously balance.
With all that in mind, I thought the time limit in Atelier Ayesha would end up being something I stressed about. Mercifully, this did not end up being the case.
Rather than being something like Minit, the timer in this game is closer to one in the average Mario game; plenty of leeway given, it’s mostly just there to make sure you don’t keep moving and don’t stay put too long. Even being thorough and full clearing every area that I came across, I still ended up being able to finish just about everything the game had to offer with a bit of time to spare, and without even optimising too hard. I did check a guide only to knock off a few ambiguous side quest triggers, but that was well into the final year and wasn’t used during the main quest at all.
I’m told that the Arland Trilogy games had a bit of a tighter time limit than Ayesha did, but even so, beating the game as I did has made me much more comfortable about tackling other games in the series. It’s not an insurmountable timer, and it’s not even an unfair one. As long as you don’t just try and grind on the same area full of monsters day in, day out, you’ll be just fine.
How does the saying go? “Don’t watch the clock, but do what it does: keep going.” You’ll have plenty of time to stop and smell the roses… before harvesting them and turning their thorns into explosives!
You Synthesised: Review/Article!
So in conclusion, I quite enjoyed my time with Atelier Ayesha. It wasn’t overly long or too taxing, but had enough strategy in battles, time management, and maximising my crafting that it kept me invested. The story was serviceable, the characters were charming, and ultimately it was a fun game to play. It didn’t quite hit all the notes I might have wanted in order to satisfy my eternal search, but it did a pretty good job of staving it off in the interim.
The more valuable lesson was actually that time management part. I’m fairly sure the reason why I bounced off most Atelier games in the past, including this one, was seeing that timer in the corner and immediately hesitating. Now that I know it’s more to nudge me along than restrict me from seeing as much as I can in one pass, I’m looking more openly at the rest of the series and contemplating giving them a whirl.
I do have the next Dusk game, Escha and Logy, on hand that I will probably end up visiting before long. I also decided to pick up the Arland trilogy for Switch, since these are the kind of low intensity and comfortable games that are fun to just curl up in handheld mode and chip away at. The crafting and general gameplay loop is satisfying enough to my tastes that I will, if nothing else, be keeping an eye out for other upcoming Atelier games as they come out.
So yeah. Who are these games for? Certainly not for everyone, but I suppose I’m one of the target audience now.
I’ve been sitting on a half-finished draft of this article for at least a couple weeks now, so I’m glad to finally have sat down and finished it. I’m still getting situations where I’ll start writing something, get a decent way through, but don’t conclude it and end up putting it aside. If I don’t finish something or just get it out in fairly short order, it tends to linger in my mind until I’m of the right mood to finish it. Until that point, starting something else instead tends feel wrong, so I don’t.
This is something I’m at least conscious of and trying to work on, so I’m hoping the next article will be put up much sooner. Time will tell if I can do so, and I hate to rush or force something like this, but I know I’ll feel much better about my writing if I can do so more regularly. Fingers crossed then, and I hope you’ll stick around to see the next one. For the moment, thanks for reading!