Review: Atelier Ayesha Plus: The Alchemist of Dusk

When Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk was released on the PlayStation 3 almost two years ago, it felt like a concurrent step forward and backward for the franchise. In an attempt to streamline many of the game’s intricate systems, so as to appeal to a broader audience, much of the franchise’s personality and charming quirks were lost in the process. In fact, Tecmo Koei and developer Gust received much feedback from fans in the months after Ayesha‘s release. Now, following their pattern of re-releasing their PS3 titles on the Vita, Atelier Ayesha Plus is back at the plate again after having implemented and modified much that either was not present or executed effectively the first go-around. But is this follow-up attempt the perfect synthesis, or another diluted disappointment?

Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk packs a storyline that is meant to be emotionally driven. The game follows the story of Ayesha Altugle, a young gal who has been eking out a living in her desolate workshop ever since her grandfather died and her younger sister turned up missing a few years back. Ayesha maintains a living by making and selling medicine, and seems content with this lifestyle at the beginning of the adventure. It’s only when she finds out that her younger sister is in fact still alive that she decides to embark on a journey to find her.

As a result, the story in Alchemist of Dusk is meant to feel impacting and ripe with emotionality, but never quite delivers on that front thanks to a generally uninteresting cast. Ayesha is quite likable, but is surrounded by a troupe that feels one dimensional. Because of this, the story has a hard time gathering steam and an even harder time maintaining a level of significance that equates to the player ever actually caring about where it’s heading. It is, however, quite fantastic at how many endings there are to unlock, making the standard, 60-hour playthrough far longer for those wanting to go back multiple times to see all the plot points.

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Though, judging an Atelier title strictly by its story merits is unfair, because this is a title that heavily emphasizes gameplay. Like many before it, The Alchemist of Dusk employs a combination of combat, exploration and item synthesis to make up the bulk of its content. For starters, combat in Ayesha feels far more tactical than any system used in the games before it. Players can now freely move around the battlefield and provoke attacks of opportunity by using smart positioning. What this means is players will now be able to engage in attacks from the front, side and back, all the while doing extra damage depending on their character placement and the enemy’s weak points. Better yet, skills now have proximal-effects which push players to position themselves strategically on the field of combat in order to perform successive attacks and gain advantages only available when in just the right spot.

This adds a layer of battling depth that simply did not exist in the previous Atelier games. It’s due to this system that combat in Ayesha is actually fun – a feat not really accomplished by its precursors. That being said, the battling is no cake-walk, and players should be aware that even the most basic encounters can be difficult.

Again, though, an Atelier release isn’t just about its combat. In fact, some would argue the series is best known for its item synthesis, or fitting alchemy component. Unfortunately, this is the game’s biggest disappointment. Those who have played any of the previous installments know that the item synthesis process in these games is meant to be deep and complex. Ayesha’s is neither of those. Instead, it’s a simplified version that places intuitive design over engaging mechanics. So, instead of learning to expertly micromanage one’s supplies and ingredients, everything is streamlined. This is the upside of things.

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Sadly, traits are no longer chosen by the player, rather awarded automatically. This equates to gamers no longer adding skills onto rare materials found in some backwater dungeon somewhere on their own accord and to their liking. As a result, to make decent goods with decent attributes, it will strictly hinge upon the quality players achieve in the crafting process. This cuts down on the meticulous nature of scouring the entire world for certain ingredients to create mega- items, which again feels intuitive, but also detracts from what has made the previous games so special. Consequently, some players will like the decision to emphasize seamless experience over loot-hunting extravaganza, but it’s likely that long time fans won’t take kindly to the change-up. At least with this Vita port, there are more items and crafting opportunities, so it alleviates some of the aforementioned issues that have carried over from the original release. It doesn’t change things radically, but the new additions do in fact make the alchemy feel more important now.

And then there’s the exploration factor. Atelier games usually present worlds that seem interesting enough to check out, but due to the time-constraints placed on the story and exploring dungeons and towns, players are never really encouraged to delve into the world’s lore. As an RPG, it’s imperative that the game’s setting have a history, and one that is intriguing. Ayesha doesn’t have one of those, though. See, each day in Alchemist of Dusk must be taken advantage of, in order to accomplish as many tasks as possible. This is the case because gamers are given a set number of years at the beginning of the game by which they must complete the story. Thus, the game becomes one of pick-and-choose when it comes to objectives, side-quests and mini-games. Poor time management and a lack of forethought can result in earning a lesser ending. So, strategic scheduling is necessary for those wanting to achieve the best possible outcome. There are some who enjoy this mechanic; however, most fans that we’ve talked to, including ourselves, feel limited by this. It discourages exploration, can feel unnecessarily stressful and does not promote a sense of taking things at one’s own pace.

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What’s far more positive about the game is its presentation. For starters, Ayesha boosts one of the best soundtracks of the series. Melodies are heart-touching when they need to and pulse-pounding when fighting for one’s life is necessary. In other words, it uses its score very well, and is just beautiful on the whole. The same can be said about the art style. Though it may look like standard anime stuff, it has its own sense of uniqueness that is seen most in its character designs. Unfortunately, the gorgeous character portraits that showed up during talking and text scenes in the past are no longer present. This would do wonders for the game, especially considering A. there’s a boatload of talking/text segments and B. the graphics overall are not very good. Environments are the biggest culprit, with bland design and lacking any type of textural depth. What’s shocking, then, is the fact that the game’s framerate chugs when too much is happening on-screen. At least characters look and animate well, so there is a silver lining.

There have been a number of additions to this Vita port, all of which are for the better and simply make the package feel more complete. Aside from the previously mentioned items and crafting modifications, there are now more missions and bosses to encounter. But perhaps what’s best about the enhancements to this iteration is the inclusion of dual-audio for the voice-overs. It’s not that the dub was bad by any means; it’s just that most of us who play a niche JRPG like this, want the authentic Japanese feel — and that means Japanese voice work. Now, with having both options available, there is something for everyone. The Vita’s inclusion of alternate outfits is also a nice touch, primarily those who enjoy playing a bit of dress-up in their roleplaying games. The added hard mode will be what draws the diehard fan, as it should too, since this really bolsters the level of challenge and will prove to be a sizable time-sink.

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Closing Comments:

Atelier Ayesha Plus: The Alchemist of Dusk doesn’t significantly subtract from or add to the original 2013 release. It does, however, incorporate some new elements that do just enough to make this the more complete edition of the game. It still lacks depth due to Gust’s mission to streamline much of the series’ nuances so as to rope in new players and broaden the title’s appeal, sacrificing some of what gives Atelier its identity. Make no mistake, though, this is still a sound installment in the much adored franchise; it’s just not the best one out there. If you never got around to playing the original Ayesha, but have been wanting to, then there’s no better time or option. Those who haven’t played any of the games before may also find something to enjoy here, as this feels like the most ideal entry point to the Atelier universe.