While in many respects the Arland games had brought the Atelier series back to its roots, they also very much had their own distinctive sense of identity. In order to move on to a new subseries, there would need to be some sort of noticeable “shift”.
That was the challenge Gust was faced with after the success of Ateliers Rorona, Totori and Meruru; how to follow that up with something that still felt like Atelier, but which also distinguished itself from the pastel-coloured, distinctly “comfy” games that had come before? And with the new generation of fans who might have joined the series in the HD era, how to ensure that no-one went away feeling like the series had dropped something important to its core identity?
We got our answer in 2012 with the release of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk — which ended up being the first installment in one of the most fondly regarded Atelier subseries of all time. So I guess they did something right. Let’s take a first look!
With Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk, Gust took the wise decision to keep many of the series’ fundamental aspects the same, but noticeably change the details — a process which was referred to in initial announcement news reports as “image conversion”. The aim was to produce a game that would still feel very much like an authentic Atelier game at its core, but where the moment-to-moment experiences that players would have would feel distinct and different from what had come before. The change in setting and tone would make the new series friendly to newcomers, while simultaneously providing an interesting contrast for veterans — in either case, the team didn’t want to just make Atelier Meruru again with a different aesthetic.
One of the main ways that Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk immediately sets itself apart from the Arland series is the change in lead artist, with illustrator Hidari taking over from Mel Kishida for character design and event images. While the two artists do have distinct styles — Kishida favours a rather gentle look akin to pencil drawings, while Hidari’s art features bolder outlines and often includes somewhat more exaggerated facial expressions than typically seen in Kishida’s work — they also have plenty in common in that they’re fond of drawing characters with a lot of detail about them, particularly so far as clothing is concerned. Indeed, the Arland series in particular had somewhat set expectations — both through its presentation and its dialogue — for the lead character of an Atelier game to be dressed in a rather elaborate, memorable outfit. And as such, Hidari was a good choice to continue this tradition with Ayesha’s flower, fairy and butterfly-inspired costume.
There was more to the change in aesthetic than just a switch of artists, too. While the Arland series featured a wide range of colours — often contrasting the greys and browns of industrial civilisation with the vivid colours of nature — the Dusk series took on a somewhat more muted tone, with a noticeable green and yellow tint to everything. On top of that, much of the art — including not only Hidari’s character designs and event images, but also the actual textures on the character models themselves — was deliberately processed to look somewhat more grainy and dirty, giving a somewhat nostalgic feeling, a bit like looking at an old photograph.
There are a few possible reasons for this. The first is that the Dusk series’ setting is, in Gust’s words, “a world that is heading for destruction”. The exact meaning of this isn’t necessarily apparent throughout Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk, but it’s certainly something that you start to find more and more about as the subseries progresses. The green tint to the visuals, the perpetually cloudy skies and the haze in the distance — there’s a distinct sense as soon as you step into Atelier Ayesha’s world that something isn’t quite right. While the world of the Arland games felt full of life, the world of Dusk feels like something bad is about to happen — or is perhaps already in the process of happening. With this in mind, the somewhat battered, grainy aesthetic makes sense; with the world perhaps on the road to ruin, maybe people aren’t taking as much care of things as they could. Indeed, we certainly see this in the environment of Atelier Ayesha around the place — collapsing pathways through ancient ruins and poorly maintained roads abound — so it makes sense to apply it to the aesthetic too.
The other possible reason for the “aged photograph” look is the fact that a key thematic element of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk is the concept of memories. Ayesha’s core quest, which is to rescue her sister from being spirited away by an unknown force, can be argued to be based on fond memories of her sister — and throughout the game, she is depicted as creating a variety of precious memories over the course of her exploits, which she does her best to preserve in a journal — either for herself in future years, or perhaps for future generations to learn from. We could therefore interpret the presentation of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk as us looking back on something that has already happened; we’re reliving Ayesha’s memories as she recorded them and witnessing the exact course of events that led her to believe that specific memory was worth making a permanent record of.
Mechanically speaking, the “memories” system was designed to be an evolution of Atelier Totori and Atelier Meruru’s structural elements, where you complete specific tasks and receive tangible rewards for them. This time around, however, the rewards are tied directly to character progression rather than forming part of a larger objective such as building up a kingdom; indeed, engaging with the memories system is completely optional — though you’ll be putting yourself at a disadvantage if you don’t make at least a little use of it! More on that when we talk in more detail about progression.
Structurally, Atelier Ayesha most closely resembles Atelier Totori, in that Ayesha is presented with a long-term task to achieve — the rescue of her sister — and a time limit in which to accomplish it. From there, you are presented with a gradually expanding world map to explore, and you’ll need to appropriately prioritise the activities to engage with in order to reach a satisfactory conclusion. As you visit different locations, you’ll encounter characters and events, and some of these will lead to tasks that need to be accomplished. Some of these tasks will move the “main” story on, while others will advance a wide variety of side stories that focus on Ayesha’s party members or life in the various towns Ayesha visits on her journey; others still will have mechanical rather than narrative impacts, such as changing the monsters or ingredients available in an area, or opening up new routes and locations on the world map.
Thankfully, determining the tasks that will advance the main story is a simple matter of looking in Ayesha’s journal and focusing on those that are marked with a star; while not all of these are directly relevant to the rescue of Ayesha’s sister, concentrating on those towards the top of the list is usually a good idea — and the game is structured in such a way that you can complete the main quest of rescuing Ayesha’s sister well before the game’s total time limit expires, leaving you a variable amount of “free” time to clean up any other narrative threads you want to pull at while you have the opportunity to. Alternatively, this flexibility means that, much like Atelier Totori in particular, you can take the time to enjoy the experience of living in Atelier Ayesha’s world, with events and character interactions unfolding in a distinctly organic-feeling manner as you go about your business, rather than like you’re triggering flags and following set “paths”. This is something that the Atelier series as a whole has always been very good at, as we’ve seen on numerous occasions already.
While the change in aesthetic in particular feels like quite a shift from the Arland games, it should already be plain to see that Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk is very much a modern Atelier game at its core. It blends recognisable thematic and design elements of the series with new twists to create something distinctive yet familiar — and, as we’ll see when we look in more detail at the alchemy and battle mechanics, it’s not afraid to reinvent certain aspects of the experience completely where appropriate.
It is, in many ways, a significant step forward for the series after the success and popularity of the Arland games — and it’s a longstanding favourite of Atelier fans with good reason. So in the next part, we’ll dive more deeply into those details and identify the places where this game really sets itself apart from its illustrious predecessors.
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