Hot on the heels of November's Switch release of the excellent Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout, Koei Tecmo treats fans of this long-running JRPG franchise to re-releases of the Dusk trilogy, presented in DX editions which incorporate the extra content and changes found in the "Plus" versions of the games found on PS Vita, as well as adding a few new quality of life features. The first game in the trilogy, Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX, lays the foundations for the two that follow whilst making a few notable changes to the established Atelier playbook.
Atelier Ayesha sees you caught up in the story of Ayesha Altugle, a young girl with a natural gift for alchemy whose sister Nio has been spirited away. After a strange vision at Nio's makeshift gravesite alongside a chance encounter with the mysterious Keithgriff Hazeldine – what a name! – she strikes out on the adventure of a lifetime, a race against the clock to fully understand her powers in order to find out exactly what's happened to her beloved sis.
Now, we say race against the clock here and, true to Atelier series form, there is a time mechanic at work in Atelier Ayesha; however, more than at any point in the long-running history of this franchise, it's lax to the point of not really being a huge factor – unless you're really taking things way too slowly. The basic setup in terms of the time limit is that you've got three years to solve the mystery at the core of the game. Every action that you take – travelling to-and-fro across the game world, running errands and crafting essential equipment – eats away at your time, as is constantly indicated in the top corner of your screen. It's a system that's always played a big factor in Atelier games and it was a brave decision on the part of developer Gust to relax this element, as it's one we feel makes Atelier Ayesha a great jumping-in point for anyone who wants to dive into this sprawling series of twenty-one games.
Indeed, Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX is a great all-round introduction to the Atelier games for a handful of reasons. Alongside that more relaxed time limit, this one lays out the fundamental rhythms and gameplay loops of a typical entry in the franchise in an easy to grasp fashion. Also, in terms of the storyline, it hits the ground running. Traditionally slow-starting games with quite a lot of technical explanations and tutorials to wade through at the get-go, this Atelier outing manages to get the adventure underway pronto; its central mystery is engaging almost immediately and, within a very short space of time, you and your wonderful cow pal Pana will have hit the adventure trail, learning what you need to in terms of alchemy and combat as you go.
And it's that alchemy that really is the life and soul of these games. More than any other aspect of an Atelier adventure, spending time at your cauldron, working on new potions and items, experimenting and unlocking new ways in which to craft goodies is the order of the day; it's where all the depth of a traditional Atelier title lies. While the combat is a traditional, light-hearted and easy to master turn-based affair and world exploration is very much contained to small areas – you'll never wander far off the beaten path in an Atelier game – it's alchemy where every element of gameplay, no matter how basic when taken alone, is tied together in a satisfyingly deep manner. It's an addictive little loop of creating various items in order to either proceed in the main story or complete a side-quest, heading out into the field to gather and discover new resources, fighting whatever monsters you come across and returning to your workspace to craft whatever essentials or new discoveries you've gotten hold of.
While the alchemy here has depth, it's also a massively user-friendly experience; starting off with simple healing items and moving on to more complex combat aids and potions, it adds layers gradually, enabling you keep up with very little effort whilst providing you the means to dig deep and experiment if you so wish.
However, where there's plenty to get your head around with regards to the alchemy side of these games, the moniker of JRPG is, we feel, perhaps a little grandiose in reality when it comes to the Atelier series – at least up to the point of Atelier Ryza, which really opens things up in a big way – as, outside of crafting, there's no real freedom to do as you please to any great extent. In terms of open exploration and adventure, that's not really a craving you'll find particularly satisfied here. There's no great danger or sprawling epic storyline in Ayesha. This is a small-scale, tightly-controlled game with a straightforward world map, small areas in which to collect and do combat and a narrative which deals much more in the personal lives, hopes and dreams of its central characters than in the over-arching threat of the trilogy which is, without wanting to give too much away, environmental in nature.
Atelier Ayesha does manage to deviate from what's come before it in the series, however, moving quite noticeably away from the fan-servicey style of characterisation older entries were known for. Rest assured you can still hit the dressing room – straight from the main menu in fact – to choose all manner of rather skimpy attire for Ayesha to wear should you so choose but thankfully, this is an element that, from this point onwards, is put on the back-burner and it makes the game so much more recommendable to younger folk hoping to jump into their first JRPG as a result.
Speaking of those central protagonists, while Ayesha herself comes across a little too helpless, ditzy and forgetful at times for our liking – especially compared to some of the stronger leads from previous games – she is surrounded by a very strong cast of excellent female characters. Marion, Wilbell, Odelia and Linca are all fiercely powerful, well-written characters, each with their own agendas, life circumstances and hopes and dreams which are satisfyingly examined by some decent writing over the course of this roughly thirty-hour adventure. We should also mention the strong voice-acting here; it's not a fully voice-acted game, but what there is gets delivered very well.
As we already mentioned, the combat in Atelier Ayesha is a straight-forward turn-based affair, but it's also pretty addictive, fun and fast-moving. On top of the usual array of special attacks and various items which you've carefully crafted to take on the battlefield against your foes, party members can move around the battlefield to get the advantage or strike out with critical hits from behind enemies. Your team can also perform various support moves using a meter that builds through several levels as you successfully land attacks. A timed button-press as you attack will then line up one of your party to follow your initial strike up with another, or perhaps jump in the way of an enemy to shield a weaker member of the team. Stacking offensive moves up to absolutely batter home the advantage is great fun and, while it's pretty old-school stuff by today's standards, it remains engaging with the various attacks and spells looking uniformly excellent.
In fact, graphically, for a game originally released in 2012, this one really does still look pretty great across the board. For sure, there are some PS3-era background textures in towns and villages but the main characters, locations, monsters and battle effects work well here, especially in the Switch's handheld mode. In terms of features, too, this is a game that goes out of its way to be accommodating. Fast travel is very quickly available to be used from any point in the game world, there's a fast-forward function to help zip dialogue along – especially helpful if you're returning to the game or planning multiple playthroughs – and a run option to help with speedy navigation of areas; oh, and don't forget that hard mode for those who find default just a little too forgiving.
In terms of performance on Switch, Atelier Ayesha runs pretty much perfectly in docked and handheld, and playing in portable manages to hide some of the more dated aspects of those slightly long-in-the-tooth background graphics. All-in-all, beyond the tiniest bit of stutter here and there in some of the larger towns, it's smooth sailing all the way for this one. This is also a game that suits the portable nature of the Switch perfectly, with its check-list style of gameplay and ability to easily save whenever you want making it ideal for bite-sized chunks of playtime.
Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX is a great jumping-in point for newcomers to the series. It's a welcoming start to the Dusk trilogy which hits the ground running whilst dialling back the traditional time limit aspect of the game, gently easing players into its core alchemy as well as firmly establishing the gameplay loops and systems which are carried on throughout the two follow-up games. It's never really going to satisfy the most ardent RPG fan as its exploration is too contained and controlled and its combat not ferocious or engaging enough for battle-hardened players. For everyone else, its alchemy is a thing of depth and beauty which creates a satisfying core to which all these lesser elements feed into in a satisfying manner. With a strong – if rather small-scale – story backing the whole thing up, Atelier Ayesha is an easy recommendation for those looking to get invested in a light and breezy, warm-hearted JRPG series.