Developer: Gust Corporation
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platform: PlayStation 3
Release Date: March 10, 2015
ESRB: T for Teen
With a near-annual schedule since a 1997 debut, the Atelier series has now reached its sixteenth main entry. Though I have become something of a consistent fan of their whimsical alchemy-centric RPG nature over time, I could feel myself slowly drifting away from the series after the previous two "Dusk" entries. I could tell Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy were good games, and they tried some different things that I liked, but something about them just did not click with me like the prior â€œArlandâ€ trilogy. Perhaps the formula was getting old for me, and maybe the new direction and characters just weren't resonating with me as much as I would like.
What I actually realized is that Atelier Ayesha and Escha & Logy were simply not as enjoyable. The third and final entry to the Dusk trilogy, Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, not only reminds me why I even got into the series but it also outclasses both of its prequels in many ways.
The last entry in the trilogy continues to leave the world in a bad way. The "Dusk" is causing fresh water to drastically deplete, wildlife to starve, and desert masses to stretch far beyond the eye can see. So, the attention shifts to commerce town of Stellard, known in particular for its fresh water supply. Within Stellard are the two main "Shallie" protagonists: a brunette chieftain's daughter, Shallistera, who intends to find work to compensate for accidental collateral damage caused by her airship and also by helping her decaying village; and an eccentric green-haired girl, Shallotte, who is flat-out broke and simply looking to make a better life for her and her mother.
Like the previous Atelier Escha & Logy, you have a choice between playing the two different "Shallie" protagonists. While their overall tone and cutscenes differ early in, with Shallotte generally being more happy-go-lucky, and Shalistera's side is slightly more self-serious, they both more or less converge around the halfway mark so that you don't really miss too much from either side by the end beyond unique endings, specific character events, and music.
Traditional Atelier titles used to be light-hearted RPGs that blended time-management, simple yet enjoyable combat/exploration systems, many tongue-in-cheek character interactions, and a surprisingly deep crafting system that wove it all together. Pretty much all of that is still here except for the time-management part. This was a heated topic for earlier games where people either found it too limiting or—if you are like me—made it so the games were at a constant moving pace. Either way, that is completely gone now, and in its place are far more flexible "life tasks". Life tasks are a surprisingly solid alternative that should please fans of either side because of how much it allows you go at your own pace while also telling the player what they can do to progress the main story.
There is a lot to do in Atelier Shallie to the point of almost feeling like an insider-only club at the offset. A lot of this is because it is front loaded with mechanics and doesn't really hold your hand regarding how to play through most of it beyond some fairly brief tutorials. It seems easy enough at first as you fulfill basic requests at the Cooperative Union Headquarters by exploring new areas, making or bringing assigned items, killing specific monsters, or as Sharlotte would say: "Picking up traaash â™ª. For almost no caaash â™ª," but it quickly escalates from there.
The concept that I like the most about this title is that you are not really funneled into any one play style. You are sort of encouraged to mess around with every facet as they each feed into one another. Unsurprisingly, since alchemy is the series staple, it remains as a centerpiece of it all. Opposed to being a chore in most games, crafting becomes a deceptively deep and addictive puzzle-like mini-game in Atelier Shallie. Not only is it satisfying to learn its nuances to make combat/exploration easier, but you can also easily get caught up in the "One more item..." mentality, just for the sake of it. Maybe you want to make the best barrel possible? (I know I would). Or perhaps you want to have its traits carry over to something entirely different that makes the next item even better? Before you know it, it has you in its evil but cutely presented trap, and this is before you even get to the other aspects.
Still, the other aspects are certainly worth talking about. When you go out adventuring, battles are quite flashy and enjoyable despite being turn-based. It isn't until you get at least a six-person party that it really shines with elaborate follow-up attacks, super moves, dual-draw alchemy skills, and the newly added burst mechanic, which honestly does not take very long considering the fast overall gameplay flow and the game itself being a bit too generous with leveling up rather quickly.
Also new to the series is a revolving-camera for most dungeons/areas (as opposed to a fixed-camera angle). This is by no means anything new for RPGs in general, but for the Atelier series it does make exploring and gathering in new environments more varied, since the general scope has been increased and the conveniences designed around it. The environment themselves could benefit from more visual detail, however, because of their general stark appearance.
Where Atelier Shallie actually stumbles the most is with its characterization and storytelling. Atelier has never been known for high-quality storytelling, but Dusk trilogy in particular felt like the foundation for something more substantial, with its desolate world and implications of events' past, during Atelier Ayesha in particular. Unfortunately, it ends on a rather lukewarm narrative note and abandons most prior buildup with its setting and characters.
The characters that do have a presence obviously fair better, avoiding Escha & Logy's issue of a paper-thin supporting cast and having noticeable individuality. And while the humor and delivery doesn't always hit its mark, the platonic relationship between the cast generally tends to be endearing more often than not despite their lack of a purposeful narrative footing around them.
Though it doesn't succeed at presenting a fleshed out narrative, it does rather well with its visual and audio design. It has been noticeable that Gust has been trying to move away from visual novel-esque character portraits... with varying degrees of success (I'm looking at you, Ar Nosurge). They have progressively gotten better at forging more anime-like 3D character models and it especially shows in Atelier Shallie from the stylish skills in battle to cutesy character tics during cutscenes to even alchemy, despite the far less impressive backgrounds behind them.
What is actually more pleasant than the game's vibrant visual style is its impressive soundtrack. Atelier Ayesha was no slouch with its excellent musical score, but Atelier Shallie manages to surpass even it with the sheer breadth and variety of its score. There is just a jubilant whimsy to the soundtrack with its distinct, catchy pan-flute or accordion percussion for character themes, to battle tracks that range from rocking to raving, that even if you have no interest in the actual game, it is worth giving a listen to.
With its sights focused on quality gameplay over the unrealized ambition of its setting, Atelier Shallie easily bests both of its predecessors in nearly every way. It is rich with both audio and visual personality, rewarding and addictive gameplay, and a far more lenient structure for the outside looking in. It may have lost track of its potentially interesting background and characters, but I am convinced that Gust has brought their A-game to the final entry of the Dusk trilogy where it counts—as a fun, light-hearted take on RPGs that is belittled only by the unrealized potential of its setting.
+ Rewarding, addictive crafting mechanics
+ Flashy and fun turn-based combat
+ Excellent soundtrack
+ Distinct anime-like character models with lots of personality
+ Time limit system has been removed and replaced by a very varied and flexible gameplay structure
- Storytelling and (most) characters do not really develop in any meaningful way
- Front loaded with mechanics that can be overwhelming for series newcomers
- Exploration environments don't look particularly good
Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10)
Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea proves that when the series is focused that it can more than showcase why its cunning RPG formula has not washed away over time.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.