By: Matthew Striplen
From publisher Koei Tecmo comes a brand new JRPG in the Atelier franchise, which got its start in 1997 on the PS2. Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea introduces the next chapter in the Dusk series, with two previous installments already released on the PS3. Take control of one of two characters named Shallie (WATFO?) as you perform alchemy and battle fearsome creatures.
Most time spent playing Atelier Shallie will take place away from action sequences, so controls are pretty simple. Scrolling through menus is plenty easy, as is navigating the world. The only noteworthy function is the jump, which looks and feels weird. Both Shallie’s jump like they’re on the moon but somehow never manage to get high or far enough to make the action worthwhile. If that sounds weird, that’s because it is. That being said, this action has a relatively minor impact on the game.
Atelier Shallie bears a striking resemblance to its direct predecessor, Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky. The graphic quality varies widely depending on what you’re looking at, so let’s get in to the specifics.
By far the standout graphic feature is the character design. The tremendous amount of work and care is easily visible in the intricate nature of each person or creature — huge props to the character design team. Unfortunately, the environments don’t fare as well. The lack of detail and polish becomes immediately apparent in the opening cut scene. The animations of these characters are often awkward and unnatural looking as well.
As for the sounds, the musical score features fun, lighthearted motifs, which contrast well with the exciting battle themes. Voice acting is strong all around, which seems to be a rarity in western releases of JRPGs nowadays.
Atelier Shallie is a very traditional JRPG, which also adheres to the style laid out in previous Atelier games. The core gameplay focuses on questing and performing alchemy. In this universe, alchemy is a process in which a handful of ingredients are combined to create useful items, like health packs, weapons, or even other ingredients. The more experience and levels you gain, the more complex creations become available to craft. Pretty standard stuff.
Questing takes a significantly larger chunk of time. Our heroine journeys across the land, battling monsters and collecting alchemic ingredients. The battle sequences, while unique in the RPG genre, evolve only slightly from past Atelier games. Combat is turn based, but with a twist, which indie game Child of Light may or may not have borrowed. Every combatant is listed on a grid that determines the order of actions. Depending on which action is performed, the character will move a certain distance back in line. For example, attacks almost always require more recovery time than defensive maneuvers.
Two more mechanics, Burst and Break, play major roles in every combat sequence. The Burst meter fills as attacks are performed and, once it reaches its maximum, your party will temporarily get a massive power boost. For Break, every landed hit fills a star meter. Timing the attacks correctly results in filling the star completely, or causing a Break. Breaking a character renders it unable to perform any act and also moves the character farther back than usual in the timeline. Be careful, though, because enemies can Break your characters, too!
As for gathering ingredients, Atelier Shallie unfortunately takes the easy way out. Instead of searching high and low for hidden items, each location is marked on the map and also features a glittering green glow on the overworld. Finding these end up being more of a hassle than anything else since the locations are blatantly obvious.
The biggest problem with the questing is the level design. Each area is tiny, easily traversable in a few seconds, providing you ignore the monsters and items. Secondly, each area has very little to do. The monsters provide the most interest at any given time, but the encounters usually number in the single digits. Everything feels haphazardly thrown together without any cohesion or thought.
Do you like tutorials? I certainly hope so, because there are more of them in this game than anything else I’ve ever played. Practically every action has its own tutorial, even the stupidly easy item hunting.
Not all tutorials are easy, though. The battle and alchemic tutorials are notoriously difficult by bombarding the player with a massive amount of information, all of which is crucial. Tutorials are generally a subpar medium for teaching game mechanics anyway. By forcing gamers to stop playing and read makes the experience less game-like and more like school. Also, each tutorial is only viewable once, so read carefully!
At first glance, Atelier Shallie seems like a massive game, boasting two different characters, each with their own unique storyline. However, looks can be deceiving. Despite the different plots and characters, the overall experience is very similar. Both stories break down into the two parts I mentioned previously, with the only major differences being the character interactions. Although the Shallie’s have distinct motivations, they end up performing the same actions.
As for difficulty, Atelier Shallie has three options. The actual difficulty seems to vary on what part of the story you’re in and which character you choose. Shallotte, a spunky local girl, has a rough beginning to her quest. She is initially joined by her best friend, Miruca. Even on the lowest difficulty setting, multiple deaths are nearly unavoidable.
The punishing level of difficulty may turn less experienced RPG gamers off, especially since it happens so early. On the other hand, Shallistera, a girl looking to save her distant homeland, starts her adventure with three party members, which makes everything markedly easier. Deaths were infrequent, even on the highest difficulty setting.
Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea provides a lighthearted adventure, but unfortunately one without much depth. The concept of dual stories is an interesting and ambitious one, but it failed to hold my interest for long. Although the combat system provides a fair amount of interest, it does not make up for the poor level design, innumerable tutorials and initial difficulty discrepancy. While not a bad game, Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea does not impart much of a lasting impression.