By its very nature, inspiration often strikes when we least expect it to. A random walk through city streets might spark the idea that forms an entire novel, just as the sound of rain lashing against a bedroom window could help to shape the mood of a composition. The Art Academy series has always respected and encouraged the creative process, but it's the utterly inspired Art Academy: Atelier that's truly surprised us.
While this is the first full-fledged Art Academy title to appear on a home console, a more basic SketchPad version was released as a budget eShop title on Wii U back in 2013. Taking its name from the French word for "workshop", Atelier - known as Art Academy: Home Studio in North America - fits the title perfectly by expanding on SketchPad in every way. A nice balance is struck between fully enabling veteran artists and easing in newcomers, with a whole new course of lessons to take on, more tools to create with, and even more ways to share your work online with others. It's the update that many have been waiting on, and then some.
Set within the cosy confines of his English cottage, the kindly Vince has returned as your knowledgeable tutor, ready to offer sage advice and guide your progress as a budding artist. He's rendered in a charming 'claymation' style, and little scenes often play out that lend him some personality or inspire his lesson for the day. Whether it's his dog Bacon causing some mischief, or a trip to the countryside to take in the landscape, there's a real sense that you're actually visiting his studio and attending a class.
The lessons themselves are a perfect place to start, with both Beginner and Advanced courses available immediately to work through, as well as an optional introductory session. They're suitably slow paced and involving, while allowing for plenty of self-expression and deviation from the step-by-step instruction if you so choose. There's no harsh grade awarded or any kind of judgement passed on your technique, so they're generally a relaxed affair that encourage you to take your time and enjoy the whole process. With 30 to unlock and complete, there'll be plenty to learn.
It should be noted that they're not just there for you to go through the motions and burn through as quickly as possible, either. Each one usually lasts about an hour or more, as Vince frequently (and eloquently) gives information on different styles, famous artists, and the reasoning behind each step of the process. We all tend to picture a bowl of fruit when imagining a still life painting, but Atelier is eager to explain why fruit is such an excellent subject, and takes sheer joy in the impact that light and texture can have on something so simple as an apple. You'll learn some fantastic tricks of the trade as a result, such as blurring your vision by squinting in order to give shadows more definition. The ability to save mid-session takes a lot of the pressure off, so setting aside time to create larger pieces isn't a chore at all.
Your expanded tool set is broken up into five main categories; pencils, colouring pencils, charcoal, pastels, and paint, each with their own separate tutorial that focuses on getting you comfortable with their specific use. Each set behaves just as you'd expect them to, with a huge range of options available to get some pretty exacting results from your equipment. The interface is clear and responsive, making it a breeze to work within your medium however you want. Switching from one to the other - pencil to paint for example - is also possible, though requires you to save your current work before doing so.
Whether you're thinning your paint to precision, mixing colours to get that perfect shade, or choosing which edge of the charcoal will best capture the desired smokiness, the GamePad is the ideal digital canvas to work with. There's far less need to zoom in on your work than before due to the larger screen size, but doing so is just as easy as ever thanks to physical buttons. Similarly, the all-important 'undo' function is still present, and everything can be switched to suit either left or right-handed players. The dual-screen setup works brilliantly by using the television to project your chosen reference image, and you'll end up naturally shifting your focus back and forth from the larger screen to your GamePad as you keep tabs on your work. It also lends itself well to off-screen play entirely, if you wanted to use an actual item from around the house as your reference, or fancy pulling a Titanic and need some 'artistic privacy'...
Naturally, Free Paint mode grants the player full freedom to set up their own work of art, whether it's entirely from scratch or using one of dozens of references as inspiration. Smaller still-life references can be lit in different ways to change the mood, while entire landscapes can be explored a lá Panorama View, using the GamePad's gyroscope or right stick to pick out the perfect angle; it's a really neat feature. You can also use an image stored on an SD card, so it's a fantastic resource to get your imagination going.
After all that work, you're sure to want to display the finished piece for all to see, and thankfully Atelier grants the player more ways to do that than ever. A local Gallery mode ended up being a surprising highlight for us, as it provided a three-dimensional space to move around and hang up your art. Charmingly, there's also a huge wall dedicated to a collaborative 'family painting', which can be added to at any time. Moving files from the Wii U to a computer is also very possible by using a standard SD card, though you'll need to export them to .JPG format first. Complex works can eat up quite a bit of space, so we recommend that serious artists set aside a dedicated memory card for the job.
The online component has been beefed up nicely, thanks in no small part to the strength of Miiverse. Sharing with Nintendo's bespoke service is quick and easy, allowing you to tag your work and instantly join a bustling community. On top of that, a new YouTube upload feature will allow you to post time-lapse clips online for the first time. Whether it's the result of a lesson or your own creation, every image you save also saves the input data, so you can watch back the entire creation process seamlessly from the very beginning. You can choose between three different lengths (1 Minute, 2 minute, or 4 minute) and over 20 different in-game music tracks before uploading your clip, and the current popularity of such videos on YouTube means that it's a fun, timely addition for sharing online.
We would have loved the option to share to other social networks, such as Facebook or Instagram, or even visit other player's galleries, but Atelier's shortcomings in this area are reasonably few. This is especially the case given that this isn't a full-priced release, available at even further discount on the eShop if you previously bought Sketchpad.
Both aesthetically and mechanically, Atelier has been polished to a brilliant gleam, and is frankly bursting with charm and atmosphere. The music accompanies your work beautifully, the sound of pencils scratching and paint dripping is all convincingly realistic, and we strongly recommend taking a proper stroll around the gallery to soak in some of the best visuals on Wii U - we're not even joking. A bit of voice acting for dear old Vince in future might be a good idea though, to help with some larger chunks of information given solely through text.
Playing Art Academy: Atelier is a relaxing, rewarding, and immersive experience that truly makes you feel like part of a grand tradition. The lessons are enjoyable and educational, the GamePad functions beautifully as a larger canvas, and the huge array of options will let practically anyone carry out their vision. Uploading timelapse clips directly to YouTube is a smart new feature, and we can't wait to see what people start posting on Miiverse, but even further social network integration and a few extra touches would have truly perfected this masterpiece.
Just keep in mind; you'll need patience and focus to make the most of the lessons, so it won't interest anyone looking for something on the Splatoon side of fine art. Overall though, we reckon this is the best Art Academy title yet, and it simply wouldn't be possible on any other home console. Now if you'll excuse us, we're off to try on some berets...