You’ve got to admire Gust, amidst all the industry talk of Japanese developers needing to cater to Western tastes in order to survive, they haven’t changed their business practices in the slightest, still making games strictly for a niche audience, never resorting to a needless focus on aspects that would take away from the quality of the overall products in order to make a few extra bucks.
That’s a large part of why Ayesha’s release feels so fresh in today’s gaming climate. A true labour of love on the part of the developers, focused solely on seeing their vision shine through.
And boy, does it ever shine.
Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk (PS3)
Developed by Gust – Published by Tecmo Koei
Gust’s previous Atelier games are a bit of a tough sell. Rorona was a complete misfire that often felt like a chore to play, and though Totori and Meruru are mechanically very strong, the plots in both games are incredibly threadbare, focusing on providing players with entertaining characters over strong stories, and even then, only Totori really excels in this aspect, with Meruru negating character development entirely in some cases.
Ayesha does away with this, abandoning the cheery slice-of-life tone of the Arland trilogy for something a tad more melancholic. Tonally, the director lists Fallout as a chief influence, and while Ayesha certainly never feels as grim as that series, both games manage to feel surprisingly cheery despite being set in worlds on the brink of death (Though Fallout was far more cynical in its approach, both games are fairly comedic, as well). Our titular heroine has been living on her own for the last two years. Her grandfather passed away, and shortly after, her younger sister Nio vanished without a trace. Ayesha is working as an apothecary when one day she decides to visit her Nio’s grave site, where her sister suddenly appears, not saying a word, then promptly vanishing again. A traveling alchemist tells Ayesha that Nio is still alive, stating that she has three years to save her before she’s gone for good.
The plot may never amount to much more than simple storybook fare, but it is surprisingly engaging, providing ample motivation for players to work as quickly as possible to achieve the central goal.
In Ayesha, like the Arland trilogy, gameplay is divided up into days, certain actions such as traveling on the world map, gathering materials, making items, and fighting all take up a certain amount of time. Due to this structure, players must carefully balance work on the main plotline with various side quests. Players can certainly choose to avoid saving Nio if they want to, but advancing the story unlocks new characters and events, which in turn leads to even more reasons to get lost in the game’s world. Certain significant events unlock memories that Ayesha can write about in her diary to unlock various stat boosts and benefits, so performing side tasks is incredibly useful. Equipment can be used in order to make more efficient use of this time, but ultimately Ayesha is about time management throughout. The closest analogue I can compare it to would be Recettear, which placed a similar focus on dividing up time between a range of tasks.
The combat is typical turn-based fare, the only innovation on offer is an emphasis on character positioning that allows characters to change attacks, deal greater damage with back-attacks, etc. This may sound like a complaint, but I’m perfectly happy with this. Combat isn’t a necessity for the most part save for some bossfights that may require a bit of grinding, and though the combat is simple, I never found it particularly boring, there are no random battles, so players can largely avoid combat if they grow tired of it.
Alchemy plays a very large part of the game’s mechanics. It is vital for player progress, and side quests almost entirely revolve around creating items, so it’s an absolute pleasure that the alchemy system is the best it’s ever been for the series. The basics involves selecting items they want to make and ingredients within certain categories required for item creation. The system’s complexities come into play with item properties and effects, which can change the usefulness of an item in question. It’s one thing to just make a standard healing item, but if you work for it, you can get that item to boost maximum HP for a battle and heal characters multiple times. As Ayesha’s alchemy level grows she unlocks abilities that can help even further with synthesis. These subsystems can be largely ignored, but they are crucial to make the most of Alchemy.
It’s an aesthetically wonderful game. Illustrator Hidari (Known for his work on light novels such as Sasami-sam@Ganbaranai and anime series such as Vividred Operation) lends his talents to Ayesha, providing superb character designs and artwork that is never anything short of beautiful. The world of Ayesha certainly may be dying, but Gust manages to use the setting to wonderful effect. Even the least memorable vistas are never less than pleasant to look at. A variety of composers have created a musical store that is occasionally stunning, and never feels out of place.
Overall, Atelier Ayesha has definitely become my favourite Atelier game thus far, and one of my favourite JRPGs in a long time.
A fantastic entry point into the franchise, and a damn fine game in its own right, I can’t recommend Ayesha enough, it’s easily one of the best games I’ve played this year.