on September 16, 2014
At the time of writing, I have played Mana Khemia, sampled some Atelier Iris games and Mana Khemia 2, and played Atelier Ayesha and Meruru.
Of the Atelier series, I have played them out of order, starting with Meruru (third of Arland trilogy), Ayesha (first of Dusk series), and now Totori (2nd of Arland).
This is the first game in a new trilogy of Atelier games, the Dusk series. As has been seen so far, typically the player is given 3 years to complete a given task, and in some games, if the player is doing well, they will get an extension <<spoiler: this one does not>>. Once the deadline is hit, game ends wherever you are, and player must either return to an old save file (save often!) or restart the game in New Game +, which allows player to keep money and current equipment, but nothing else. I'll say it here as well, this time system needs to be done away with / revised. While having a main goal to complete within a time frame is acceptable, forcing a reset on the player makes the work of collecting items, completing quests, and leveling up unsatisfying. The game can be a bit grind heavy as is, resetting only amplifies this problem.
That said, on to more review, particularly I like to look at things from a game mechanics point of view. I presume that the reader has or if not, should, see video footage of the game they are interested in, as pictures tell 1000 words, and videos are 30-60 pics a second or whatnot, you get the point. Video footage may best give you the overall feel for the graphics and gameplay that you can expect. This is discussion on the gameplay mechanics and overall impressions upon playing through the game once (not 100% completion).
The story involves a search for the main heroine (Ayesha)'s younger sister Nio. Ayesha must learn the art of alchemy as a means to track down and find clues to what happened to her sister. While it doesn't get much deeper than that, and the ending situation isn't explained much (though maybe it is in some of the end game content? or in future games in the dusk series?), I enjoyed having some important and larger over-arching goal going on to help give meaning to the adventure and characters. The main heroine Ayesha is a bit...airheaded? A bit like the last heroine Meruru but a little more intelligent / mature. (Actually, another reviewer put it well, she is very agreeable). On further thought, Ayesha's character is such where, because she is so agreeable, she doesn't often impose her thoughts / opinions on others. While this makes her seem like a nice gal (and she also makes medicine for a living), it does make her feel a little blander than some other characters because she doesn't force anything. In spite of being easy-going, she cares about her sister, and that is what helps propel her on her journey. In terms of story, after further pondering I do think that it could have been better if more personal conflict arose, or if Ayesha had to visibly overcome more obstacles (other than the journey). As is, she kind of just seems to meander her way to victory, which goes with the airy / carefree description of her, but I think she would be more fleshed out and relate-able as a character had there been obstacles to make her second guess her decisions. In that sense the story is weaker compared to others. The character interactions are where a lot of the points for this category is coming from (though, in these character interactions, some of the side characters' personalities <<~spoiler: Belle and Linca>> develop nicely. Per Ayesha, since she is so easy going, it would have been interesting to see her get upset or fired up about something apart from her sister, or to delve into that more with conflict).
As mentioned by others, her English voice acting is decent, but not as good (for the main heroine) as other entries in the series (personally, I think the VA may've sounded better if the dialogue were spoken in slightly lower tones). Some of the supporting cast in Ayesha have pretty good VA though.
It felt like there were less characters in this game than in others in the series, but I think it benefitted from that as the characters are developed more. There are more character cut scenes then in other entries, more of them were memorable, and most of them were enjoyable. The characters fit the Dusk world pretty well, and are all quite colorful and stylish. Some of the dialogue is off, assumably a translation issue, but characters would at times say the same word too close together (in the same sentence, or soon after), making the dialogue sound a bit unnatural. It may look fine on paper, but the flow of the sentence is sometimes thrown off when actually spoken. I can't think of an in-game example offhand, but something maybe like "I like making medicine. What do you think of medicine?" could be worded to sound better. A minor gripe, but something that was noticeable from time to time.
Pana (the cow creature) should not have had a Voice actor :p
Majority of the music fit the atmosphere pleasantly well.
[Edit] Oh, and Wilbell makes her debut in this game, who is Pamela-level awesome!
The graphics in the Atelier games are amazing, a nice highlighted cel-shaded kind of look. The dusk aesthetic is less bright and cheery than the other Atelier games, with some environments being notably greyer, but in contrast it helps the brightly colored characters, flowers, etc stand out more, and gives the game a better and more mature look. I particularly like the look and more serious aesthetic that this game presents, and think it's an excellent entry to begin this next trilogy. Content-wise, things are kept pretty clean in spite of this, something I also much appreciate.
Like in other entries, the game has an alchemy system, a method of transforming specific items into another. The game focuses on material collection, item creation, and some story, mixed with RPG turn-based battle. The alchemy system has differences compared to other games, of which can be researched elsewhere. (Main improvement mentioned below)
When I played this game I was overjoyed, largely because it addressed many of the complaints I had with Meruru (Third game in Arland trilogy, which I played recently, so this game had already been out and hence had addressed my complaints before I made them). And, now that I've played Totori(2nd in Arland trilogy), which has great character interactions but quite rough game mechanics, I can see Meruru has a a large number of game mechanical improvements over Totori. I think this is great as it shows that the developers are improving and refining their system, and hopefully listening to their fans.
Equipment is not crafted directly, rather whetstones (for weapons) and dyes (for armor) are created to add/replace attributes to equipment you find/buy.
There is a time system in this game, and it is shorter than other games, but it definitely feels more relaxed than in other games. There are a number of improvements:
-world map is fairly open and traveling does not take a ton of days, so it feels more like you are free to roam. Quests have deadlines, but they are 100+ days away and I rarely felt rushed to complete one.
- ~Each area has a quest to gather at all points and defeat all enemies on the map, which is gained upon entering the map (or after exploring the last map of the series) which can potentially open up new areas. Was very nice to 'instantly' gain those objectives so they could be completed right away.
-when you gather at a point, you can (if you choose) gather 1 item at a time to use up 1/10 of a day. This strategic ability to choose how much to gather helps in optimizing your time. In previous atelier games it required a set amount of time to gather materials (and you could see and select which ones you want). While this has the downside of not being able to see which item you collect, it does make things more worry-free not being able to nitpick.
-the basket, or limit of items you can carry, can stack multiples of the same ingredient item. This makes it many, many times easier to carry items, and so there's less frequent visits to go to a town and offload your items.
-contextual help, if you press select you can often highlight a field and gain useful info on it. This is much needed for the complex and vast number of traits, so this was especially helpful for alchemy traits
-when you create in item through alchemy (bar accessories and certain items), the default number of these items that are created is 3 (rather than 1 item. We'll call this 3 item default a set). Additionally, if you choose to create multiple sets at a time you can create an extra item of two. That is, instead of a direct ratio of 1 of each of these items = 1 new set of item (3 of that item), you can get 2 each of these items = 7 items (2 sets + 1 item). In general, it makes intermediate alchemy items easier to create in shorter amounts of time.
-alchemy item layout is well done, one can easily see the element level they would need to create itemTraits (a trait specific to the item that can appear if the element point (wind, earth, fire, water) reaches a certain level/range). Note: when a specific kind of item, fire element item, is mentioned, it is referring to an item with a red background.
-you cannot fail an alchemy item. In this game, if you aren't the correct alchemy level or higher, you just can't forge the item. This is better in my opinion than in older games (which had a success rate based on alchemy level), because you only synthesize items inside your workshop, which is where the save point is. If you have a % chance of success, one can always save, attempt to create item, and reset if fail. The problem comes when you are synthesizing a ton of items and your item happens to fail, then you have to backtrack a lot. This method helps save frustration and keeps things simpler. Also prevent player from making OP stuff too easily.
-in general the sort options seemed a bit improved, though with the number of items and traits around, it could still be refined (maybe sorting by kinds of traits? I know they had a trait search by item, which was nice, but hard to scroll through. If they had trait search by status infliction, or stat improvement, etc, could be helpful).
-battle adds in situational assist actions. Rather than the standard assist atk/def, other options can open up as you level up and based on the assist gauge level.
-battle adds ability to change position in battle. Attacking an enemy from behind guarantees a critical hit, adds to the strategy.
-speed is not overpowered in this game, but then, it's affect may have been nerfed too much
-tutorials are not the best, the complexities of say the alchemy system need to be found through trial and error, or by pressing Select and looking at the help on a particular field. Some icons are still not worded very clearly.
-time system, once time is up game ends. You can restart with money and current equipment, but everything else is reset
-battles have a bit of slowdown from different actions, even regular attacks. Not terrible, but noticeable.
-very few types of enemies
-for whatever reason, you can't easily see traits on current armor/weapon that's equipped, unless you unequip it first. Would be nice if this were not the case.
-similar to other games in the series, there are a number of traits on ingredients that you can synthesize onto an item, but certain traits can only go on certain kinds of items. I spent a fair chunk of time trying to get a trait onto a weapon (by creating a Whetstone with this trait) but it could not be placed on the weapon. I thought maybe I was doing something wrong, but now I think that trait is for attack items only. It would help tremendously if there was some indicator on the item name to instantly distinguish what kinds of items the trait is compatible with. Because of this inability to tell, I did not really experiment all that much with the alchemy system and in trying to get the best traits on any support item / equipment.
-in past games you can register a synthesized item so that you can buy duplicates of it at that store. I like Meruru's way of doing this best, where all registered items occurred at one store (rather than having to find the particular store that registers that particular item).
-as you progress in the game you may get stuck on some of the flower quests, which arguably there should have been more direction given by the game in what to do. To remedy this, I referred to a guide (www.gamefaqs.com) around the start of year 3 to get direction on where I should go, and I was able to complete the main story within the time limit. If you're looking to complete all the end game stuff, may have to go start New Game+ and go from there, or start the game off by following a guide. <<spoiler - For me it was triggering a key event on the world map, then finding lost ... and ...village.>>
--Per Ayesha as a standalone game, I give it an 8.3/10. While the story could be stronger and better tied up (and is a bit weaker compared to other JRPGs), the world that is crafted and the characters and their interactions make a fun and memorable experience. For those who are focused on game mechanics, I'd say Atelier Ayesha is the best game to play / start with in the Atelier series. From what I see the series is continually improving their system and refining it, so I look forward to how future games in this series will go.
--From the series standpoint:
Improvements for the future:
--A time limit for the main goal is fine, but after that goal the game should not reset. Else, it would be better if the time system were removed.
--stronger story, or one that better ties up loose ends (could be the case, since I have not completed 100%, but this would go back to time limit and relative ease of completion without backtracking)
--traits should clearly display what kinds of items they are compatible with. This is especially important if you want players to fully explore the complex item / alchemy system. Perhaps it could have a parenthesis at the end of each trait with a letter to indicate which types of items it is compatible with, i.e. X=Accessory, H=healing item, S=support item, W=weapon, A=armor, so like trait Red Power(W) or trait Energetic(HS), etc.
--better item search options
--the story tends to be lighter with more focus on questing. While the character interactions are fun and enjoyable, digging deeper into the character, their struggles, and decisions would help make them more relate-able/memorable.
From playing Meruru (3rd), Ayesha (4th), and Totori(2nd), I'd say the ranking from best to worse is as follows:
characters/story: Ayesha, Totori, Meruru
graphics: Ayesha, Meruru, Totori
gameplay: Ayesha, Meruru, Totori
Of all of the games Gust has created, I think Mana Khemia (PS2) is the best, the art style on character portraits is a bit dated, but the characters are so likable, and the English voice acting and the character development is so good. I plan to play it again sometime so I can have a more recent comparison between that and Gust's latest Atelier series, but if memory serves me right, that is a fair cut above the rest as an overall experience.