RPG’s generally turn me off. Not for any good reason, but rather for the logical inconsistencies. For example, I can understand why Kratos starts to tear asunder the gods of Mount Olympus–he got seriously boned, and he’s one mad mother f-er. (Plus, a guy who looks like Kratos is BOUND to make a career out of destroying things…he’s not suited for more docile trade work.) But you expect me to believe that a lithe villager with a demure interest in martial arts would battle unimaginable monsters and become an unstoppable warrior, all to save the woman he loves? Also, it’s a stretch for me to swallow that a band of magicians would combine forces in order to battle another league of magical juggernauts, all to save their little plot of land or avenge their fallen brother. Statistically speaking, these victims of tragedy and injustice are more likely to take up drinking, remarry, or maybe relocate. I know it’s a silly thing to scrutinize, but I like well-crafted and deeply imagined characters with everything on the line and no way to turn back, fighting to reclaim their stolen life or former glory…those sort of quests I can identify with. So I wasn’t expecting to fall for Gust’s 15th and newest addition to the Atelier series, Atelier Escha and Logy: Alchemists of The Dusk Sky.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by this follow-up to Atelier Ayesha. Never having played this turn-based RPG, I found that it was still engaging and easy to understand as a newcomer to the series. There was a little bit of everything: fun and well composed environments, a variety of foes to fight and characters to get to know, and overall a lot of the depth that I crave for my favorite games.
A little bit about the story:
Meet Escha Malier (short for “eschatology”, presumably, which is a branch of theology concerned with the end of days). She’s bubbly, well-behaved and inquisitive, but able in a fight and a budding alchemist. Escha and her big-city counterpart, Logix Fiscario, are both hired on to the Research and Development faculty in Corseit; it is here that the newest chapter of the Atelier series takes place. Players can choose to play as either Escha or Logy. Logy’s narrative takes on a slightly more serious tone, and Eshca’s narrative is more focused on daily-life scenarios and caters to the original Atelier fanbase. I wasn’t sold just yet, even though the first scenes of the game and beautiful graphics were intriguing.
The game is set to transpire over 4 years, and this time frame governs the scope of the missions. The final year in the Atelier is spent crafting the engine of an airship that will travel to the uncharted territories that become the focus of the end of the game, while the first three years serve to advance the story. Something cool that I haven’t fully explored yet are the 10 different possible endings to unlock per character. I love that, even after you’ve completed this game for a first time, it offers immediate replay value.
There are two alchemy systems players use that allow players to combine items from the game to create a new item. The imbuing system, new to this chapter of the Atelier saga, is Logy’s specialty. Imbuing items allows Logy to customize his weapons and armor, and his ability to imbue increases with the frequency a player synthesizes items. Combining items with skills that your character possesses adds new properties to items, making for some really in-depth and specialized customizations. Escha’s ability to synthesize increases as the game advances, also, and the game walks players through the steps to demonstrate synthesis of more and more complexity and power. There is some strategy involved, as well as a margin of error, so practice makes perfect. Both Escha and Logy are capable of using either system of alchemy, and each one possesses the same skills.
Tutorials in this game were well-placed and as needed, often being worked into the story through dialogue with characters. Once you arrive at a new mission, there’s of course that first preliminary walk-through. From then on, if the scenario has already been introduced and a similar mission completed, you have a general idea of how to proceed. If you need a follow-up or refresher, Escha and Logy have access to a journal that contains info you may need to revisit (where to find certain items, for example, or monsters, and other reference information that you’d expect to be available for a quick reference).
In AEL, players have 10 main quests and about 16 side missions. Each of these missions is allotted 3-4 months of in-game time for completion. Missions guide Escha and Logy through the story, gathering items for synthesis/imbuing, finding and delivering items for the development project and the citizens of the town of Corseit, and battling monsters in the forest. (See–there’s that logical inconsistency again: this story is set in a world that is grounded and real enough to have a research and development team for their township, but is also beset by monsters in the forest? You’re a scientist, literally, and for whatever reason part of your job as a city worker is to battle with monsters?) Completing missions on time is important; if you take too long on any one quest, you will be docked time in subsequent missions. Should you complete your missions early, however, there is free time in your employment with R&D. During this time, Escha and Logy are free to traverse Corseit and interact with the township, further advancing and enriching the story and increasing the likelihood of leveling up. (As you pick up requests to craft things, kill monsters, and interact with other characters., your R&D ranking increases.)
Your first mission is to repair a broken windmill. You travel through the map collecting items and learning how to synthesize, encountering characters along the way to advance the story and monsters to satisfy your itch for battle and acquaint you with gameplay basics. Many if not all of the missions follow the practical notion of doing city works and improving the lives of the citizens of Corseit. Upon returning to the R&D headquarters, you will deliver any items gather and synthesize new ones. Any items previously synthesized but depleted on a mission will be automatically replenished. Items can be bought as well as gathered.
Battles in AEL were familiar to other RPG’s, but reports have it that this slightly tweaked combat mode is an improvement over the Atelier predecessors. In battle, you have three characters in the fray and three as backup at any given time, for a total of six. These characters and their roles can be manipulated/interchanged in combat, and mastering this proves important in fighting powerful challengers. If you swap characters during a fight, they seem to regenerate HP and MP in the reserves, and their items and abilities can be combined in a new “Double Down” feature to Atelier which combines items for characters to use in combat and support roles. As you progress through missions in AEL, the fights become more intense, better skills are introduced and required, and better alchemy is further unlocked. The more alchemy that’s unlocked in the game, the more specific weapons can be crafted and elements synthesized. Equipping yourself well before battle will create powerful attacks and strategic follow-up damage. These weapons need be created in the atelier prior to leaving on a mission, so keep that in mind when you head off to do battle with foes or interact with Corseitians. Gameplay note: In battle, when a character in your party gets knocked out, you lose a day of your slotted mission time frame. And they say they’re sorry to indicate their inability to continue the fight. Adorable.
Graphically, I have nothing but good things to say about AEL. The anime-style characters were finely rendered and well animated; the environments were vivid and imaginative–charming, even–and the animated scenes compare to other popular RPG’s out there today. Characters had a wide range of facial expressions and the cinematics were composed with great care; even I, not being a fan of the genre, was really impressed at how polished and engaging this game was. Nothing felt left up to chance, and it was just good clean RPG (nonsensical) fun all the way around. A lot of effort was put into developing each and every character; each had idiosyncrasies and quirks that were unique and gave the story depth.
Music, too, was well-composed and varied pleasantly. It wasn’t overwhelmingly…what’s the word…Eastern? It had a Western pep, pizzaz and string section that felt original. (In fact, the soundtrack to this game is 96 tracks long, if you can believe that.)