After three games in Arland it's time for the Atelier series to move to a new venue. The “Dusk” series has begun, but we'll have to wait a year or two before we start getting into cameos again. Atelier Ayesha's release has been plagued by odd production and localization decisions, but does the game underneath all that make these travails worthwhile?
If you haven't figured out how these games are named yet you probably shouldn't be allowed on the internet without your parents' permission. That's right, Atelier Ayesha is the story of a young apothecary named Ayesha (pronounced Aisha) whose sister, Nio, has gone missing. While many of Ayesha's friends have given up on finding her and have even made a grave for Nio, Ayesha refuses to believe her sister is dead (Atelier Totori, anyone?). After visiting Nio's memorial she sees her sister's transparent visage among the flowers and meets a grizzled old man who seems to know how to save her, but refuses to tell Ayesha, saying she must figure it out on her own. This prompts Ayesha's mission to research luminescent flowers that the old man hinted at being important for her sister's return.
While this sounds like the sort of JRPG that would traditionally commence with humble origins before transitioning into something epic, this is actually the level that Atelier stories stay at throughout, and that's one of the reasons I enjoy them so much. You'll meet new people, help them with their goals in life while they help you with yours, and learn about the world you inhabit and how its history and even geography has been shaped by alchemy. It's a fun little story, although it lacks Atelier Totori's emotional punch (and that title is still the best the Atelier series has to offer on a narrative level).
The story's presentation is hurt a bit by having incomplete voice acting (it's at about the same level as the voice acting in the Arland series), and there's also no option for Japanese language so English voices, with dead silence for a bulk of the dialogue scenes, is your only option. It's an unfortunate exclusion and while it doesn't affect how I prefer to play Atelier games it still comes off as a disservice to the series' fans. On the other side of things NISA did actually decide to voice “Barrel!” this time around, which is great because it always seemed like an odd choice in Totori and Meruru. Heck, they had t-shirts with that Atelier staple but didn't voice it in the games themselves. Other issues with the localization effort that are noticeable are the mixing up “your” and “you're”, and a couple conversations where the audio randomly drops out. On the plus side, Gust once again commissioned some fantastic music for the game; I can always tell I'm playing an Atelier game when I'm tapping my toes to the workshop music even after 20 hours of the same songs.
Gust themselves decided to forgo their beautifully drawn character portraits for dialogue in favor of using the admittedly improved 3D models. Sadly, I think this was a mistake because no matter how much they improve the models this is still a game made on an obviously tight budget. Part of what makes this choice so disconcerting is that lip synching is completely ignored in favor of the classic “flapping gums endlessly” technique. I really like the idea of using 3D models during dialogue to allow for more dynamic movement, but I think Gust would be better served by going the Persona route and using character stills for details in the face while the 3D models are used solely for larger movements. This way they can completely ignore lip synching and use the best of both worlds. The budget may preclude this option but I truly think that would be the best way route for the series to take.
It's worth noting that there is hardly any questionable sexualized content, other than a bath scene that actually makes sense given the context, so hopefully the series can stop being thought of as something people play to ogle prepubescent illustrations. I'm sure some people do that, but I'm also sure that it happens in just about any game series that has an attractive woman in it, so hopefully Ayesha will give people a new perspective on why fans enjoy the series.
With a change of venue come some pretty big changes for gameplay as well. First off, materials are no longer individuals with each one having different traits that can be passed to whatever you make. This allows materials to be stacked, alleviating the worries of filling your basket before you return home, but it also takes away some of the strategy of picking the ingredients themselves. In the Atelier Arland series I would often wander through areas where I didn't need the material in general but I'd check through every ingredient node just to see if there were any rare traits that I wanted to use for my alchemy. While the alchemy itself still retains that feel of trying to squeeze out every last bonus you can muster, gathering has become less thoughtful and more a case of 'tap X until it doesn't work anymore'. Being able to stack ingredients makes for a much more manageable basket, but it also takes away any strategy required to manage said basket, which is a shame.
Once you've gathered your materials and made a stop at one of the many cauldrons you'll have access to, it's time to get down to synthesizing. This time around ingredients come with elemental qualities which help determine the basic qualities of your final product. Let's say you're making some bread (which normally has a small healing effect), if you use enough materials with an Earth element attached you can 'upgrade' it to have a medium healing effect. These elements are usually what dictates your choice of materials in any synthesis and it's almost always best to get every element as high as you can. Each ingredient also comes with a value, and your alchemy level decides how many points you have to spend on the synthesis, so if your alchemy level isn't high enough it may be better to choose an ingredient with lower elemental attributes that fits within your value budget instead. If the value exceeds the points you have remaining you'll get no bonus from that ingredient so you have to be careful not to overdo it.
Trait bonuses on your creations are decided by the total value of ingredients you put into making it, but you soon earn abilities which allow you to artificially raise that value or copy over the traits from the ingredient itself. It's when you get into managing these abilities, as well as managing the stockyard which affects the elemental bonuses and point cost of the other ingredients you add, that you start to get the feel of the old Gust magic. It took a while before I got into it but by the end I was planning through my syntheses as much as I plan a war in the Civilization series, and that's when Atelier is truly at its best. Trying to eek out just a few more attack or defense points for your equipment or doing everything you can to improve the bonus on your fast travel shoes and finally succeeding after much effort is the best feeling in any item synthesis system.
Battling has also seen some changes, although they didn't end up being as meaningful as I had previously expected before Atelier Ayesha launched. A basic positioning system was added to insert a little more strategy into the sometimes dull battles of Atelier, but the only options you have are the four sides of your opponent. You can use the assist meter to send an ally for a rear attack, which does extra free damage and puts them on the opposite side of your enemy, but I never had to use the move command specifically. Once you're behind the target every attack does more damage, but they'll immediately turn towards whoever hit them, so sometimes it allows you to get a few back attacks in a row on them. Spreading out your party is a good idea during any boss fight with large area of effect skills but it's done naturally just by using back attack whenever applicable so it really isn't something I usually had to put consideration into. Ayesha doesn't have any MP-using skills herself but some items take MP upon use. That said, alchemy no longer requires MP and I never needed to rest in order to heal up throughout the entire game, so that's another bit of management that has become easier.
Before the game's release the idea that there wouldn't be a time limit for Atelier Ayesha was thrown around, but this seems to be more about the optional quests than the full game itself. Three years is all you have to do whatever you want (and less than that to finish your main objective). I completed that main objective in 28 hours, with a further 8 hours devoted to working through the additional goals I wanted to achieve before I hit that mark. One nice addition is that when you hit the end you're given prompts that allow you to decide which of the possible endings you'd like to see. This way Ayesha can have many different final career possibilities (alchemist, treasure hunter, shop owner, apothecary) without all of the endings having to make sense together or requiring that you work through large parts of the game many times over in order to get every ending you've earned. This is definitely a system I hope they retain.
Ayesha introduces a lot of changes to the series, and not all of them objectively positive. Some fans will like the fact that ingredient gathering requires less micro-management, but if you aren't keen on time and ingredient management in Atelier titles then there's little else that requires thought. The 3D models are a good idea, but endlessly flapping mouths is distracting and unattractive. Perhaps with the next game in the series Gust can move the difficulty scale for the meat of the game (managing, not the battles) back in the other direction a tad and work on the visuals. I think that what goes unexplained about the world of Ayesha could make for a very interesting storyline in the next few games, and I'm hopeful that Gust can find that sweet point again between funny and meaningful narrative that they managed to achieve Totori. If they can do that, they can get back on the track of consistently improving the series and hopefully it can start to get some of the recognition it deserves.