By all accounts, 2013 is shaping up to be another breakthrough period for female protagonists in video games. With the Tomb Raider reboot’s refreshingly updated Lara Croft, the
Ellen Page Ashley Johnson-modeled Ellie in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, the amnesia-stricken memory-hunter Nilin in Remember Me, and Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII’s limelight-reclaiming Lightning, a flock of leading ladies will likely be a hot topic as many reflect on the year that was. Buried beneath such a sizable avalanche of notable titles is yet another entry into Gust’s overlooked Atelier franchise, a strain of alchemy-focused JRPGs that, for nearly 16 years now, has been telling intriguing, lighthearted tales of chemistry-loving damsels and their plights to save friends, family, and homeland.
In many ways, Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk is both a progression and a regression for the durable series. In terms of the game’s world and its characters, Atelier Ayesha is removed from last year’s trilogy-concluding Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland, which reused the central location from the two previous installments and also reintroduced old favorites from those chapters. In an effort to open up the Atelier universe to the unfamiliar, Gust has created an entirely fresh macrocosm with Atelier Ayesha, a quirky, vivid arrangement of terrains with graphics that stand with the best the series has yet produced. The traditional PS3-era gameplay elements and narrative molds remain mostly unchanged, but there’s enough of a shift from laidback to a more tactical combat system that the casual Final Fantasy player can jump right in. In a similar sense, Atelier Ayesha’s cast is packed with the treacle-coated, overly emotional archetypes that perpetuate Atelier’s trademark can’t-help-but-shake-your-head-and-laugh humor. Spunky, dedicated medicine-maker Ayesha is a fine feminine lead; her ambitious quest to locate her disappeared sister never comes off like it’s meandering through a predetermined checklist of personal developments, and represents a potent chaser to the whimsical transformation of the soul depicted in Meruru’s offbeat journey from spoiled brat to matured noblewoman.
With an increased emphasis on strategic battles, Atelier Ayesha has a decidedly more non-niche pandering structure than most other games in the series. During combat players can freely navigate the battlefield, battering opponents from a variety of angles, inflicting higher amounts of damage on their weak spots around the back or at their sides. A number of helpful proximity-stationed special maneuvers have a specific, albeit oftentimes bizarrely mapped range of attack, causing foes to sometimes be missed by inches, yet, when an assault hits its mark, the resulting mutilation has the potential to be extensive. While its skirmishes are widely satisfactory, where Atelier Ayesha falters is, lamentably, the section of the game that should be its most refined: alchemy. Calling the synthesis system of past Atelier titles complex is understating it, but it’s that fervent elaboration that provided Atelier Meruru with such an invitingly enslaving combination of mixing-and-matching qualities. Loot fusion is much more streamlined this time around, with Gust’s attempt to rope in newcomers with a simpler setup ultimately leaving the series’s once-deep integration philosophy feeling markedly dumbed down. Much of the decision-making process has been eradicated; bonus traits are applied automatically rather than meticulously selected, thus making it difficult to achieve the desired effect when compounding goods.
Its sights and sounds are delightful, but regrettably Atelier Ayesha does little to allow the player to fully experience them. A preordained allocation of in-game years are set in stone at the start of your pilgrimage, and losing track of exactly how much time you have left to accomplish key tasks or other side quests happens far more frequently than it should. This, much like Atelier Ayesha’s unwholesomely contoured thaumaturgy, leads to instances of forced, rushed choices that can leave the inattentive player frustratingly out of control of their own digital destiny.
Essentially, Atelier Ayesha is filled with an equal amount of highs and lows. Although Ayesha epitomizes a memorable heroine, even her unalloyed willingness to succeed is somewhat weakened by the sparse availability of options surrounding her metaphysical ontogenesis. The 50-plus hours it takes to complete the main campaign, due to Gust’s over-simplification of many of the franchise’s trademarks, would surely regale JRPG tenderfooters instantaneously. Yet veteran Atelier partakers, so used to the intricacy of the series’s calling cards, will be periodically disappointed by what’s been left on the cutting-room floor.