Atelier is one of the more long-running, prolific series in the canon of Japanese gaming.
First launching in 1997, the franchise has seen 19 mainline releases since its inception (with a 20th on the way at the time of writing), plus a variety of spin-offs, side stories, ports, expanded adaptations and guest appearances from its characters in various other games over the years. Although we didn’t see our first Western localisation of the series until its sixth mainline game (Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana for PlayStation 2) in 2005, it is, by this point, firmly established as a mainstay of Japanese role-playing games — and, in the nicest possible way, developer Gust’s cash cow.
With that in mind, before we delve into the Arland trilogy in detail, let’s take a look at the history of the series as a whole up until Atelier Rorona’s initial release in 2009. Join me on a trip into totally-not-Renaissance-Germany, and let’s get crafting!
Atelier’s debut title Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg was first released for PlayStation in May of 1997. From there, things get a little complicated — if you’re at all familiar with the current state of the Atelier series, this will probably come as no surprise, but it’s interesting to see that numerous re-releases and enhanced versions have been a staple of the franchise since its very inception.
The game got an enhanced port to Saturn in December of 1997, including additional events and minigames. Perhaps the most significant feature added in this version was an awareness of the Saturn’s internal clock, allowing the game to trigger events based on the real life time and date. When this version was subsequently backported to PlayStation as Atelier Marie Plus in the summer of 1998, the real-world time and date functionality was removed owing to Sony’s system not having an internal clock or calendar.
After that, the game was once again ported, this time to Windows PCs, in 2000, then to Dreamcast in 2001, and finally to PlayStation 2 in 2005. The Dreamcast release was noteworthy for its first-print editions accidentally carrying the system-devastating “Kriz” virus on its disc; while this did not affect the console itself if you simply played the game, the disc also carried a Windows screensaver as a free bonus, which is where the infection lay in wait for unsuspecting users. Anyone installing the screensaver would infect their computer with the virus, which would erase the system’s CMOS setup, attempt to corrupt the BIOS chip and even try to overwrite both local hard disks and network drives with garbage. Fun! Thankfully Gust’s quality assurance department is seemingly a little more… thorough these days.
Enough of that, though; how did the series come about in the first place?
“I like creating and collecting things,” explained series creator Shinichi Yoshiike to Siliconera in late 2018, “and I wanted to make a game that satisfied that part of myself. The inspiration for the Atelier series came from learning about alchemy in my university studies, which led to the original design document. After reading up on it, I found out that alchemists used a mix of metals and chemicals to synthesise things, and thought I could probably use this… which led to the idea for the Synthesis system.”
While Atelier games are today primarily known for being role-playing games with a strong emphasis on crafting, Yoshiike and his team initially designed the early installments to focus on more simulation-esque elements. Atelier Marie, for example, lacks the explicitly depicted “dungeon crawling” of its more recent installments in favour of a more abstract, menu-driven interface; while the titular heroine can still leave town to search for ingredients and even get into combat, the focus is very much on the crafting.
The concept of Atelier Marie is based around the young protagonist performing very poorly in her alchemy studies at Salburg Academy. Recognising that the girl has good intentions and wants to succeed despite her failing grades, her instructor Ingrid decides to teach her through unconventional methods: specifically, allowing her to open her own workshop to practice her skills outside of class, and providing her with five years to demonstrate her improvement on — and perhaps mastery of — her alchemical skills.
Despite the somewhat different structure and style of presentation to later Atelier games, we can already see some common, recognisable features of the series: most notably the time limit, the multiple endings based on your in-game actions, and the narrative focus of the main story not being about overcoming a specific antagonist, but about bettering both yourself and the lives of the people around you. These are aspects that have remained fairly constant throughout the entire series to date.
Mechanically, Atelier Marie is fairly simple. The crafting component consists of simply finding the correct ingredients to make specific items, and those items having level requirements for Marie to be capable of making them. There is no “traits” system as seen in later games; items are used either to complete quests for the Salburg townspeople and improve Marie’s reputation, or to assist Marie and her party in combat. As Marie’s reputation improves, she is able to recruit more experienced adventurers to accompany her on her ingredient-collecting expeditions outside town, which in turn will allow her to more safely gather a wider variety of items. Everything feeds into each other.
Following what would become something of a convention for the series, 1998 PS1 sequel Atelier Elie adopted the same setting as its predecessor, but moved the clock on a few years, allowing us to see how various characters (including Marie) grew and changed since the events of the first game. New protagonist Elie is introduced as having been saved from a life-threatening illness by Marie’s new-found alchemy skills, and is subsequently inspired to enrol in the Salburg Academy to learn the art for herself.
Atelier Elie’s core mechanics are similar to Marie in that it’s still much more of a simulation with RPG-style combat than a full-on RPG. This time around, there’s simply more of everything. There are twice the number of craftable items from Atelier Marie, a significantly greater number of endings to attain (ten “good” plus two “bad”), and there’s still the overall structural focus of accomplishing a long-term goal within a time limit.
While you do have that clear long-term goal from the outset, Atelier Elie’s overall objective is split into smaller sub-tasks. Each in-game year, Elie is able to enter a contest to improve her overall alchemy rank, and reaching the coveted “Meister” rank within four years allows the game to continue for a further two years after it would normally end, allowing access to a number of new endings and events. As we’ll see when we look at the Arland games specifically in more detail, this provides something of a middle ground between Atelier Rorona’s short-deadline assignments and Atelier Totori’s rather freeform long-term goals; the exact approach to the “time limit” mechanic has been experimented with quite a bit over the course of the series as a whole.
While its core concept is similar, Atelier Elie isn’t just a Marie reskin. Many of the game mechanics have been refined and expanded upon; you can now hire fairies to assist with both crafting and gathering, for example, and the synthesis system has had something of an overhaul to make it more flexible and interesting. Of particular note is Elie’s ability to perform “Blend” and “Original” syntheses, allowing the player to experiment with recipes for different results rather than having to stick strictly to predefined ingredient lists. Again, an evolution of these mechanics can be seen in the later Atelier games through the way different ingredients within the same category can pass various traits or quality levels along to the finished products.
The Atelier Salburg trilogy came to a conclusion with Atelier Lilie in 2001, the first game in the mainline series to be released on PlayStation 2. While once again unfolding in the same locale, this time instead of advancing the clock, the game acts as a prequel, unfolding some twenty years prior to the events of Atelier Marie, and depicting the establishing of Salburg’s alchemy academy thanks to the efforts of the titular protagonist.
Despite the jump to a new platform, Atelier Lilie adopted many of the conventions of its predecessor: attractive, isometric-perspective representations of the town and its various buildings, beautiful 2D character art, the emphasis on a long-term goal (in this case, raising enough money to establish the academy within five years) and the playing down of “RPG” elements in favour of the simulation aspect.
There are a few tweaks here and there in Lilie. Elie’s flexible crafting system has been dialed back slightly; while the Blend system is still intact, allowing you to adjust the proportions of ingredients in a recipe, the Original Synthesis mechanic has been replaced by Rough Alchemy, in which you can replace one ingredient in a recipe with another of the same category rather than completely inventing your own combinations (and perhaps bypass the need to purchase recipe books in the process!)
The quest system in Lilie also had a few adjustments, with the most notable addition to the formula being the ability for Lilie to take on long-term contracts, committing to supplying a particular item regularly over a period of several months. Juggling these contracts with shorter one-off jobs makes the time management aspect of the game rather interesting, providing something of a sense of emergent narrative besides the explicitly depicted story scenes.
Critics regard Atelier Lilie as an installment in the series most in need of remaking and rebalancing, since it has some of the most tricky conditions for various events in the whole series. Michael Baker’s review for RPGamer in 2014 cites a particularly notorious example, where it is considerably easier to craft the Philosopher’s Stone — the “holy grail” of alchemy in most depictions — than it is to invent chocolate. Still, imagine how good that first bite would taste after that much effort.
2002 was a year of new beginnings for the series. Leaving the Salburg trilogy behind, Atelier Judie kicked off the Gramnad subseries, which only ran for two games, but which saw Gust starting to get a bit more adventurous with the series — quite literally, in some respects.
Atelier Judie’s concept is rather different to its predecessors in that there’s no time limit; instead, you simply have a long-term goal to try and accomplish. Protagonist Judith has been thrown 200 years into the future by an alchemical accident involving the synthesis of a time-travelling item known as a Dragon Hourglass, and thus it’s up to her to figure out how to construct another one using the resources she has available to her. An inversion of this concept is used in Atelier Rorona Plus’ postgame “Overtime” sequence; Totori and Meruru are cast back from the future into the time of “young Rorona”, and the only way for them to get back is to build a Dragon Hourglass of their own.
Atelier Judie is considerably more ambitious in scope than the Salburg games. Rather than unfolding in a single town as a central “hub”, Judith is able to travel between five different towns and set up a workshop in each of them for a fee. Each town has its own discrete “gathering area” connected to it, and there are dungeons to delve into. Rather than the abstract exploration sequences of the Salburg games, Atelier Judie allows freedom of movement throughout these environments in a more conventionally “RPG” style.
A rather interesting twist on the format is that dungeons specifically have their own “damage” rating, and setting off too many traps or making use of too many explosive items will cause them to collapse, meaning you’ll have to take care while exploring. And while there’s no overall time limit on the game’s main objective, a time and date system has an impact on various mechanics; different things happen at different times or on different days of the week, items spoil over time and individual quests have time limits.
The synthesis system in Atelier Judie emphasises all of its items being useful somehow, with many of them being usable in battle. It’s in this game we started to see hints of what would become the Traits system of later games; the specific ingredients used to create an item can cause it to have different effects, and through combinations of ingredients you can stack up to five different effects on an item.
The second and final Gramnad game was Atelier Viorate (also known as Atelier Violet, which is how we shall refer to it for simplicity’s sake from hereon). This game is regarded as the final installment in the series’ “classic timeline”, unfolding twenty years after the events of Atelier Judie and roughly a year after Atelier Elie. It was first released on PlayStation 2 in 2003, and had an expanded rerelease for PSP in 2011 — though neither came West.
After Atelier Judie’s relatively broad scope, Atelier Violet returns to a somewhat smaller scale and a focus on a single “hub” for everything that is going on. We also see the return of a time limit — in this case, protagonist Violet has three years to show her parents that she is capable of running a successful shop and, by extension, living independently from them. Like many other Atelier games, successfully accomplishing this initial objective extends the timer by another two years.
While smaller in the scope of its setting than Atelier Judie, Atelier Violet makes up for this with considerably more depth to a number of mechanics, veering further back in the direction of “simulation” rather than “RPG”. Most notably, there’s a strong emphasis on actually running Violet’s shop as opposed to simply crafting items and dropping them off to complete quests; Violet can either run the shop herself or hire someone else to be a clerk, for example, and various facilities can be constructed to make life somewhat easier. The overall goal is to make use of Violet’s shop as a means of encouraging people to move into her home village and expand its population; this concept would later be revisited in both Atelier Meruru and spin-off series fanservice title Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists.
Atelier Violet is one of the most replayable installments in the series, offering 11 different endings (two of which are exclusive to the PSP rerelease) as well as several different modes of play, including “First-Time”, “Veteran”, “Infinite” and “Inheriting” modes, the latter pair of which were added in the PSP version and are unlocked through having clear data for specific endings.
And so we finally come to the first Atelier games to make it West in an official capacity: the Atelier Iris trilogy for PS2. I’m intending to cover these in detail here on MoeGamer in the future, so I’ll keep this relatively brief!
2004’s Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana is something of a reboot for the series as a whole, featuring a number of differences from past installments. We have a male protagonist for the first time in the mainline series, for example, and a much stronger emphasis on exploration; a playing up of the “RPG” aspects of the series, and an inversion of the traditional formula.
The mystical aspects of alchemy are portrayed to a much stronger degree than in past installments through the use of “Mana”, who are a race of beings that allow alchemists to use their power. Mana play an important role in both the game’s story and mechanics by augmenting the playable characters’ abilities as well as allowing protagonist Klein to craft items.
The setting of Atelier Iris is a world where the sight of an alchemist is an unusual one; this gives the whole thing a markedly different tone from prior installments, where alchemy is, if not common, then certainly accepted as a pretty normal part of society. There’s a strong feeling of “adventure” and uncovering the past throughout the game — and some rather unconventional methods of getting around by making use of the Mana’s abilities.
2005 follow-up Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny acts as a prequel to the first game in the trilogy, exploring the past of title character Iris, and features a dual-scenario system whereby the player can switch between two protagonist characters. One of these is focused on exploration and battle, the other on item synthesis. Both need to cooperate in order to advance the story.
2006’s Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm once again places alchemist Iris in a leading role. This game marks a return to the traditional Atelier structure of being based around a “hub” region, though in this case it’s a town that is connected to a number of different dimensions. Gameplay revolves around completing various tasks for the guild in the town, with the narrative unfolding when particular objectives are accomplished. There’s an unusual twist on the time limit mechanic in this one; rather than having an overall time limit to accomplish a particular task, each individual expedition to one of the other dimensions is time-limited, and if the timer expires, you’ll be thrown back into the hub town and forced to try again. Shades of how Nights of Azure would do things many years later in some respects!
And finally, before we reach the Arland trilogy, we come to the two Mana Khemia games. Although not called Atelier [x], they are both regarded as canonical installments in the mainline Atelier series. Sharing many thematic elements in common with the Atelier Iris trilogy– such as the presence of Mana creatures — the Mana Khemia games arguably emphasise the alchemy aspect more than their immediate predecessors. Progression through the narrative of the first game is dependent on successfully completing assignments at the game’s school of alchemy Al-Revis, for example, while the second game features two protagonists, one of whom is a rookie alchemist hoping to master her craft.
As you can see, despite being around for a good few years by this point, the Atelier series is one that has never been afraid to experiment or indeed completely uproot itself from its established formula and try something different. The Arland series is another reboot in a number of significant ways, which we’ll get onto over the course of the next few articles, and the subsequent Dusk and Mysterious series each go off in their own directions, too. But those are stories for another day!
Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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