- Developer: GUST
- Publisher: KOEI Tecmo
- Release date: 14th January 2020
- Genre: 3rd Person Adventure, JRPG
- Platforms: PlayStation 4, Switch, Windows PC
- Reviewed on: PS4 Pro
- Game Supplied by: Developer
You may be surprised to learn that the Atelier series has now had over 30 games on different platforms, which goes to show what a successful formula KOEI Tecmo has with this franchise. Part of the reason they have endured for so long is that, even today, there isn’t anything on the market quite like an Atelier game.
The first thing that hits you when playing this game, and a hallmark of the entire franchise, is just how gentle everything feels relative to the current-day competition. The immediate vibe of the game, not least of all its music and tone, is designed to let you relax and just enjoy the world they have created. It starts with the quirky OST, through to the opening exposition when you meet the main character Ayesha for the very first time.
Artistically, Atelier Ayesha is a sublime looking game, with visuals designed by acclaimed Japanese illustrator Hidari, who is known for his beautiful illustrations and full-of-life character designs, set in a gorgeous watercolour painting style aesthetic.
Although the game was originally released six years old, thanks to a resolution upgrade it still holds up very well, even by today’s standards. Character models are exquisite, and the actions when in battles are colourful, exciting, and visually stunning.
Part of the appeal in the presentation is the fact that the text (and there is a lot to read) is very clear, and is large enough to read easily. The menu systems are also easy to navigate, with a clear and simple layout. The only real negative of the visuals is the sparse design of the world you explore. Caves and tunnels have no life and little lighting effects, with outdoor areas feeling sparse and devoid of interest too. The environments, quite simply, are bland.
Despite the gentle and relaxing vibe of the game, the story is probably one of the darkest in the whole lifetime of Atelier games. Atelier stories are not about a grand world disaster, focussing instead on stories more personal to the main character, and even though this is the darkest storyline yet seen in the Atelier series, it’s still very light compared to other games.
Ayesha is a budding alchemist, who is mourning the loss of her sister Nio. It’s been a couple of years since Nio disappeared, presumed dead, but upon visiting the ruins she was last seen in on the anniversary of that day, Ayesha has a vision of her sister. A stranger investigating the ruins advises Ayesha that there is still a chance that Nio is not dead and can be found, but it will need a skilled alchemist to do so. However, they will only have three years to do it, before Nio is lost for good. Determined to locate her lost sister, and find out what has happened to her, Ayesha sets off, with her only clue being some glowing red flowers.
As well as the interesting story, and great, if sometimes exhausting narrative, is the fabulous cast of characters Ayesha comes across, willing to help or hinder her quest. Each is well-acted, sometimes downright funny, but always interesting. So much so, it is with honesty, that you may prefer the story and characters of the supporting cast over Ayesha herself.
It’s not long before you discover the main flow of the game with some easy to follow tutorials. For Ayesha to embark upon this quest, she must become resourceful, in three main aspects. Collecting materials, the alchemy of said materials, and engaging in combat to get the materials. Each mechanic is fairly simple in its design, which helps the player understand the little nuances of each.
To collect materials, Ayesha first needs to know what to collect and where. This is done via recipe books and exploration of the world map. The more places you explore, the more of the map and new materials are available. Some areas at certain times may be the only available place to find a certain material you require to make an item.
To be able to get to these locations, and find materials, you will also be required to combat monsters that lurk in these regions. It’s possible to avoid them, but if not, entering combat is as simple as walking up to a monster, which will engage a very simple, but elegant, turn-based battle system. A line on the top right of the screen indicates the battle order of the players and enemies. When it is a player’s turn they have the option to attack, use items, move, flee, or depending on the character, use a skill.
Attacks are simply done with the weapon that person is holding, and as the story progresses, more characters can join Ayesha, each with their own unique weapon Ayesha has a wand, Regina a pickaxe, whilst a witch you befriend has spells.
Ayesha can also craft items to use in battle, that include bombs, poison, fire, or healing items, amongst many others. Each enemy and, indeed, each item has an element they are either strong or weak against, be it Earth, Fire, Water, or Poison. Using a fire bomb on an enemy weak against fire will result in larger damage dealt.
The other main facet of combat is the skill system. Each basic action of combat will add value to a skill bar. When that skill bar is filled up, additional actions can be used in battle. Correct timing in using a skill action can swing the tide of battle into your favour, and sometimes it’s prudent NOT to use a skill immediately.
The battle system is simple, refined, yet fun, and there are many different ways to approach each encounter, so experimentation is encouraged.
When monsters have been defeated, and all the items collected from an area, Ayesha and her team go back to her nearest base, where Ayesha can use the materials she’s collected to craft items.
Some items she may need to make are for side quests to earn cash, others may be required to progress in the main mission, or you can create items to sell at a market.
Crafting items in Ayesha’s cauldron is simple to do (especially when you have the recipe for it), but it is fun to experiment. You simply add materials to the pot, and the magic happens for you. Crafting items have different core values that change the end quality of the item you are making, and some recipes can be slightly altered to make variations of the same thing. For example, a bomb requires paper and fuel, as well as another element that could change it into either a fire or ice bomb. There are, for example, many different types of fuel you can use, or indeed craft, to make the bomb even more potent. Despite the simplicity, there is a surprising depth to it all, and like the combat and exploration, it makes it addictive finding, making and crafting more items.
On top of these core gameplay mechanics, players are encouraged to talk to every NPC and to complete side missions for extra rewards and Memory Points, which can be used to unlock sections of Ayesha’s diary that grant players buffs and rewards. These rewards are very beneficial, not just in player stat buffs, but also to add more exposition and story to the already interesting world.
From start to finish the game will take around 25 to 30 real-world hours to complete, however, you only have three in-game years to find Nio. The game has multiple endings, and if you don’t reach Nio within three in-game years, you will get the bad ending of the game. If you follow a guide, you can easily finish the game within one and half in-game years, and the game will indeed hurry you along to complete the story within its own time limit.
Every action you perform costs valuable time. Even making simple items in Alchemy takes a day, while moving from one location to another can take six days or more. Even though the game doesn’t pressure you too much to finish it, and you do have a lot of time to explore and experiment, it was needlessly stressful to constantly wonder, am I taking so long on this side mission it will ruin the ending of the game? In a way, you could be punished for enjoying the game, spending time trying to complete every side mission, and finding rare items, only to run out of time and get the bad ending.
When it comes to analysing what’s been added for the remaster, it’s actually quite hard to fathom what is new, different, or upgraded in this version compared to the PS3 version released just six years ago. In short, not a lot. The official web site doesn’t mention what kind of “graphical upgrade” the game has been given. You know not much else has been done to improve the game when the next feature they list is simply a “run” feature and “fast forward battle.” That they have included all of the previously released DLC is laudable, however, without any tangible improvement to the graphics or elsewhere, it feels like this is a game of the year edition simply made playable on the current generation of console.
As remasters go, this game is one of the more disappointing efforts of updating a game for current-gen hardware, having little other than a slight resolution increase and some basic quality of life updates. Despite this, it’s still an excellent, fun, relaxing and enjoyable experience, that is hard to find anywhere else, even within the JRPG market.