Another week, another RPG review it seems. This week specifically we’re looking at the recent VITA re-release of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk. While it’s no secret that I’ve got some fondness for the Atelier series, I actually missed out on this game when it first released on the PS3 a couple of years back, so I was looking forward to getting to check it out now. That said having played its sequel (Atelier Escha & Logy) just last year, it’s very clear just how much of a stepping stone Ayesha is between that game and the prior Atelier trilogy, especially when it comes to the mechanics and the storytelling. As such I would really recommend newcomers to the series actually go and play Escha & Logy instead as it’s a markedly better game and doesn’t require any prior familiarity with the franchise. For Atelier veterans though Ayesha Plus provides some mild degree of extra content while moving the experience to the handheld without too much compromise, making it a great way to relive the first entry in the Dusk trilogy or to fill in a blank spot in your Atelier knowledge like I was doing.
Starting off with the story, the big hook in this game in terms of narrative is that it takes place in a region where alchemy isn’t at all established and as a result the protagonist, Ayesha, doesn’t really have a proper mentor. Originally a simple apothecary, a visit to some local ruins to pay respects to her lost sister ends with Ayesha meeting a travelling alchemist from a far off land who informs her that her sister can still be saved through the power of alchemy. Not willing to take her on as a student though, the alchemist rebuffs Ayesha telling her that she must figure out the lost art for herself, but he does inform her that the secret to her sister’s return lies within the glowing flowers that surround her grave. It’s an interesting premise because all of the past games’ plots have revolved around one alchemist passing the torch onto another or involved some sort of standardized alchemy organization that manages everything; Ayesha on the other hand has to fend for herself and has a solid goal outside of just becoming an alchemist. Rediscovering alchemy with her and bringing back its benefits to this part of the Atelier world is a refreshingly different experience and the lack of a mentor or any organizational oversight means that the story feels much more free-flowing and better lends itself to the occasional fun little diversion. I will say that Ayesha herself is not as strong a character as I would have liked, she falls into a few too many anime pitfalls for her own good, embodying the shy but driven book nerd stereotype to a tee. That said she still has a certain charm and she interacts well with the rest of the cast, which despite also being full of some pretty clear archetypes, meshes in such a way as to be entertaining. All of the conversations in this game have a very friendly and relaxed tone to them and the general feel of comfortability that creates is one of the things that makes this game (and the whole Atelier series for that matter) very uniquely enjoyable.
Moving onto the gameplay, things aren’t quite as robust as they were in Escha & Logy, but you can see the beginnings of that game’s signature mechanics being prototyped here in Ayesha. The turn-based combat for example is far less mechanically dense and offers fewer options in terms of special abilities and party make up, but it does contains a rudimentary version of the support system, which allows you to expend some meter to defend your teammates and do follow-up attacks. Make no mistake, it’s just an altered version of the standard Final Fantasy back and forth we’ve seen countless times before, but it’s still an interesting and fairly well-honed version of that formula, even if the sequel does a lot more with the ideas presented here. Similarly, the synthesis side of the gameplay contains the same ideas of element levels and skill based crafting that Escha & Logy does, but it’s just not quite as in-depth. There aren’t as many synthesis skills to use and rather than those skills depending on the independent levels of each element in the item you’re making, they instead drain from your overall crafting resource (CP) pool, limiting the creative options those skills provide. It’s still totally fun to build your own items and the variability between each item you make is great, but the crafting can feel simple at times and as a result your overall options can end up feeling limited, especially considering that there’s no equipment synthesis in this game. All that said though, there is one area where Ayesha excels over the rest of the franchise and that is with its quest structure. Rather than providing regimented tasks that you need to complete every three months, the game has a smoother flow to it with main quests being naturally picked up as you interact with the world and the characters that reside within it. Sub-quests to explore areas more fully or to slay a certain beast will also pop up naturally over time and the world is filled with NPCs looking for someone to magic them up some innocuous household items. Put simply there’s always something to do, but more importantly there’s always actually a reason to do it, as every quest not only grants some degree of money and experience but also provides Ayesha with minor permanent stat boosts. It’s a great way to incentivize the completion of minor quests and gives the game a nice sense of overall progression as it feels like everything you’re doing actively helps out the main quest by making you stronger.
As a quick note, there are some special features added in for this “Plus” edition, though frankly they’re rather minor and don’t impact the core gameplay all that much. First off they’ve added in all the DLC missions from the PS3 version, though the game certainly isn’t lacking in content without them. They’ve also added in “Album Missions” which basically just emulate the grid quest structure from the other games, giving you various tasks to complete that will eventually unlock concept art, new costumes, and some additional gameplay features. There’s also a new harder difficulty mode and dual audio for all you Japanophiles out there who can’t stand the English voice acting.
Lastly let’s talk about the presentation, which is definitely on par with the original PS3 release though unfortunately at the cost of some degree of technical performance. The game suffers from terrible load times before each major dialogue scene, there’s some really nasty frame drops whenever you load into a new area, and the NPCs take several seconds to pop into place when you’re in a town. Thankfully though everything runs fine in combat and during synthesis, so it’s just when navigating the environments that the technical shortcomings of the VITA are at all felt. As for the actual visual design of everything, it all fits into the standard JRPG mold but with a fittingly smooth and relaxing tone to everything. It is worth noting that there is a pronounced number of palette swaps in the enemy design which is never a good thing, but it didn’t bug me as much as it does in other games from some reason. As for the sound design, the VO is totally fine, none of the characters are especially annoying but none of them really stand out as amazing performances either. The soundtrack though is thankfully as eclectic and entertaining as ever, flitting between genres while maintaining a consistent and tonally appropriate relaxed feel. That said they make a concerted effort to go somewhat folksy with the soundtrack in this game and that ends up leading to some really interesting pieces, specifically the opening and ending themes which can best be described as J-Alt-Rock, a genre I never thought I’d hear.
Despite the performance issues and the lack of depth compared to its successor, Atelier Ayesha Plus: The Alchemist of Dusk still manages to be a very well done port of a perfectly enjoyable JRPG. While those coming to it directly after playing the PS3 sequel might feel somewhat underwhelmed, the base quality of the Atelier series is still certainly present in this release. While I do suggest that Atelier newcomers go and play Escha & Logy instead (or wait for the inevitable VITA port of that game), veterans of the franchise will find plenty to enjoy in this title. As such I’m giving Atelier Ayesha Plus: The Alchemist of Dusk a 4 out of 5 stars.