Title: Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Audience: PEGI 12
Release Date: 14/01/2020
Price: £73.99 or £32.99 per game – Rapid Reviews UK were very kindly provided with a review code for this title.
After solid ports of the Arland trilogy and a number of newer entries in the series hitting Nintendo’s hybrid, Koei Temco offers Switch players the chance to delve into the PS3-era Dusk trilogy in the form of enhanced ports. Let’s see what we can cook up.
Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX
We begin with Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX, tracking the future guru’s first strides into the complex world of alchemy. From the outset, Ayesha’s tale provides the background for a more sombre experience than the happy-go-lucky adventures of the Arland crew, whether that appeals or not will depend on what means more to you: the atmosphere or the virtual bonds of friendship.
Ayesha doesn’t need a fancy introduction because she’s bossing the alchemy right from the opening scene. Her trade is her apothecary medicine and her Atelier, her workshop, is already up and running.
With all the pieces in place for another series’ staple alchemist-climbing-the-ranks and coming-of-age jam, Ayesha just needs the proper backing track. What better motive than a missing younger sister? Wasting no time, Ayesha heads to her sibling’s grave. Hang on.
Death becomes me
Nio, Ayesha’s lost sister, is thought of as dead by many. Compounding that assertion is Nio’s visual introduction to the game. Appearing as phantasmal floating being, looking as dead as Sadako Yamamura (but not as creepy), it’s hard to think of her any other way. Ayesha hasn’t given up on her though and is convinced she’s still alive, ghostly figure, be damned.
Enter the mysterious Keithgriff (rad name, dude) and his serious demeanour. Clearly, he means business. Following the spiritual sighting of Ayesha’s little sister, Keithgriff hints he knows something of the ghostly form. Nio may even be alive and our (rude, old) man, KG tells her studying alchemy will provide her with the clues she needs. Personally, I think she should have used the opportunity to give him a swift kick in the unmentionables for being so heartless, but Ayesha’s nicer than I.
Gathering her stride, after her irritating encounter with Keithgriff, Ayesha discovers that what she knows as apothecary becomes what other know as alchemy when you can read an old language, decipher ancient books and create new items from old. Time to whip up some explosives.
One of the Atelier series’ hallmarks is the unbridled experimentation in its synthesis and battle systems. Thankfully, synthesis carries all of the usual fun of renown.
The guts of a good Atelier game, and where you’ll spend a phenomenal amount of time experimenting, is in the synthesis menu. The familiar methods of learning set recipes through story progression, or books bought or earned through side quests, is ever-present and choosing ingredients from a list before tackling quantities, quality stats and side-effects continue to form the basis of the synthesis feature. However, Atelier Ayesha’s spin is found in the order in which you mix the ingredients. Indeed, simply changing up the order can result in boosts to element types or can strengthen/weaken statistical boosts. If this method of experimentation becomes overwhelming, there’s always the option to simply randomise the order, leaving the difference in bonuses up to chance.
The user-friendly interface makes all alchemy interaction simple once you’ve mastered the basics, and the splash-screen tutorials keep everything brief to ensure it’s mostly a case of learn-by-doing.
From dusk till brawn
Adventuring requires lots of self-defence (yes, it’s a guise for hunting beasts). Encountering enemies in the field sets off a traditional transition into the separate turn-based battle system.
Ayesha throws some extras into the turn-based pot though. By selecting the move option to reposition your character, you can perform a back attack to inflict big critical hit bonuses and set up a continuous game of back-attack ping-pong between two party members. The trade-off is that you can’t combine your attacks when apart. It’s a nice risk/reward mechanic and, despite the simple concept, feels surprisingly inventive in execution.
The alchemist class item-based combat offers the biggest range of effects, buffs and debuffs, acting as an alternative to a magic-system. Other, non-alchemist, party members use skills with varying areas of effect, combo lengths and strengths. While the majority of alchemy-based attacks are visually similar, the most exciting animations come from the anime-style skill attacks, with characters such as the energetic pickaxe-wielding prospector, Regina utilising ninja-like acrobatics to slice opponents up.
Actions increase your support gauge which is used to perform active commands (AC) that can be executed when certain conditions, such as your positioning, are met. The combat was always a joy and mixing the use of items, skills, positioning while deciding whether to spend support points to beat groups of enemies or protect your allies always kept things feeling fresh.
The trees are dead and dried out, wait for something wild
Exploration falls somewhere between Atelier Rorona and Atelier Totori. An overworld point-to-point map carries you from place to place, with new maps areas unlocked by reaching the exit of small, linear sub-areas or by meeting simple location-based objectives. Each area contains gathering points where you can fill your boots with herbs, bugs, dirt, liquids, faeces and a host of natural and unnatural materials to blend at your leisure.
With delightfully atmospheric locations ranging from stone architecture ruins to caves, to castle-town walls filled with houses with timbre frames and semi-rural design sensibilities (as with the series as a whole), Atelier Ayesha’s strength lies in its artistry as opposed to graphical fidelity. Some forest sections can look samey, but other areas, when viewed against background mountain ranges and the like, give a sense of a grander scale to the world. The herb garden, in particular, is driven by a theme of natural overgrowth and forms part of a stunning introduction to the game’s visual style.
And the music! Again, it’s all up to the series standard but really adds some very clean, almost classical tunes to fit the greenery, under dusk lighting, eloquently. Catchy battle music is a must for the JRPG field/battle loop and it’s pleasing to report the funky battle theme matches the energy. Voice acting is limited to Japanese and, while not everything’s voiced, what’s there is performed by a quality cast.
As more characters become available to recruit, you’ll find that different team combinations yield different results in more than just battle tactics. Interestingly, your friends carry a friendship score and different companions will sometimes harvest different materials at gathering points. Given this emphasis on switching up your team, it may seem unfair at times to have to sharpen each member’s skills by level grinding. Fear not, as is the case with many RPGs, gear is king and after boosting your synthesis level, you’ll be cooking up eye-watering accessories with massive statistical boosts and additional properties.
Six degrees below the horizon
Anyone coming in off the back of recent series stand-out, Atelier Ryza, is likely to feel the burn of slower pacing, more difficult progression, weaker relationships between characters, fixed camera angles and the return of the (in-game) time limit to complete your goals. Yes, poor Nio isn’t going to wait forever and Ayesha, like her Arland counterparts, must remember that each batch of medicine brewed and every materialised bomb can cost you days and weeks at a time, with gathering and traveling adding to the list of time-management tasks. Certain times of year will trigger events such as a ‘present the best thing’ competition (honestly, these folks aren’t picky, pretty sure I won one time with a piece of paper) or a temporary expansion of hub-town Vierzeberg’s local marketplace.
To draw a further parallel to an Arland game, Atelier Totori, Atelier Ayesha’s progress-tracking suffers from a lack of signposting. Not knowing where to go one time too many means the freedom of exploring the world map occasionally gives way to frustration, especially when one eye’s forever glued to the clock. Despite these similarities, the Arland trilogy did a decent job of reminding you of the cost of your persistent tardiness whereas the impending failure jumps out of nowhere in Atelier Ayesha, making multiple playthroughs a must for landing anything outside the ‘bad’ ending in your first playthrough. Unless you’re paying plenty of attention, naturally.
If you mean to see all Ayesha’s alchemic achievements, unlocking the various endings is a fairly simple task, especially for seasoned players. The map is adorned with markers and events with symbols next to the fast-travel area name, helping to mitigate the legwork. It’s reminiscent of the ending-unlocking methods used in Atelier Totori but more straightforward. In fact, the game bashes you over the head with these markers, presumably to distract you while they hide the story trigger.
The issues with the main story’s progression pacing are exacerbated by the chief problem with Atelier Ayesha’s narrative and dialogue; Ayesha’s not a character likely to irk you but equally, she’s unlikely to endear you. Her naively and apathy to being treated with disrespect can be exhausting. There’s so little fight in her for most of the game that I end up wanting someone else to take the lead.
Right, so Ayesha’s a bit of a loner but doesn’t mean she doesn’t have interesting company. Harry, the antique expert, complete with monocle and hideous waistcoat, always fails to impress Ayesha and is at least a unique character. Marion provides some levity with her work ethic getting in the way of her desires, combining a very serious commitment to her job with a no-holds-barred approach to complaining about the brass. Her sidekick, the sword fighter Linca, is described as ‘very skilled, but also very inflexible’. Saying it like it is.
Aside from these moments, it’s easy to forget your companions exist as you wander across the map, as most events feel disjointed and irrelevant to Ayesha’s journey. Unfortunately, the feeling of loneliness this creates isn’t so much of an unsettling plot device, as it is an unintentional drawback of weak character interaction. Most optional quests are simple hunt or fetch-and-synthesise tasks and are designed merely to allow Ayesha to make a bit of cash on the side.
A more favourable element of the plot is the use of Ayesha’s diary. Pages of the diary can be filled by spending memory points, earned through completing tasks, winning battles and interacting with NPCs. These entries detail her thoughts on past events you’ve experienced through the main quest, adding a small touch of seasoning to the slow-cooking story.
All-in-all, given this is an enhanced port of a PS3-game, it’s unlikely to come as a surprise that Atelier Ayesha lacks the convenience of the last couple of series entries, but even compared to the Arland ports, the performance is truly disappointing. Add to that the woefully underused side-cast of fun characters and you’re left with an Atelier game that falls short of most of its modern equivalents, unable to compete with Ryza’s brilliance. Irrespective of these shortcomings, it’s still got heart where it matters: adventure and alchemy.