Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk – Wonder and Danger in the Twilight

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So far, we’ve seen how Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk starts a new age for the Atelier series, both with its overall sense of design, and with the specifics of its alchemy mechanics.

Today we’re going to look at what protagonist Ayesha gets up to when she’s not working away in one of her several workshops: the ways in which she is able to explore the world around her, discover many new and wonderful — and sometimes horrifying — things, and how she protects herself from danger when things get tough.

Yep, it’s time to look at combat and exploration in Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk, another area where the game feels both comfortably familiar and fresh.

As we’ve previously seen, Atelier Ayesha’s core structure is similar to that found in Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland in that much of the game is structured around a node-based world map, with more nodes gradually becoming available to you as the story progresses –and as you complete specific objectives.

There are a few key differences though. Most notable is the fact that in Atelier Totori, you had to level up Totori’s Adventurer License in order to gain access to certain areas, whereas in Atelier Ayesha, you simply gain the ability to travel to various areas when it becomes relevant to do so.

There is an exception to this: when exploring related, adjacent areas that are perhaps not essential to your core objectives, unlocking a route to your next destination is often dependent on you completing “Search” objectives that appear in Ayesha’s journal the first time you arrive there. Under most circumstances, these challenge you to do two different things in the area: defeat all the enemies, and gather from all of the harvesting points. Both are very straightforward — assuming you’ve kept Ayesha and company’s equipment up to date in the former case — but they represent Ayesha getting a feel for the area and what it can potentially provide her on future visits.

Atelier Ayesha makes use of a system to that found in Atelier Totori and Atelier Meruru so far as time is concerned when exploring areas. Gathering or engaging in combat depletes a meter in the corner of the screen; when this meter expires, a day passes. This is a contrast to how Atelier Rorona did things, where simply visiting a particular area would take a certain number of days, and it makes more sense; if you’re just stopping by an area to pick up a specific ingredient, it would seem rather odd for the game to suggest it took Ayesha several full days to acquire that one thing.

There are also several environments in Atelier Ayesha that are technically a single “location”, but which have several distinct sub-areas you can progress through. In these cases, you’re typically given Search objectives for each sub-area in order for Ayesha to understand the full picture of what the location offers. For example, partway through the game Ayesha gains access to a mysterious library that extends numerous floors down from where she enters; each individual floor challenges Ayesha to investigate it thoroughly through both combat and gathering. In most cases, achieving these objectives allows Ayesha to travel directly to a specific sub-area rather than having to negotiate enemies and obstacles to get to her destination.

As you continue through the game, Ayesha will also hear various rumours about areas she’s already visited. Sometimes these indicate the presence of a powerful boss monster, while under other circumstances completing an objective similar to the initial “Search” task can change or upgrade the ingredients and enemies available in a particular area. These are always optional, but they provide an income of “Memory Points” for Ayesha to use in writing down an account of her journey. Doing so is also optional, but with some significant stat boosts and other benefits on offer for each “chapter” you complete in her Memory Diary, it’d be daft not to engage with this side of things.

One interesting piece of worldbuilding that you’ll encounter as you progress through Atelier Ayesha’s world is a number of “flyers” that appear to have been randomly discarded all over the place. These are usually encountered randomly as you move around the world map, and not only provide a bit of background information on the world in which Atelier Ayesha unfolds, but also a few precious Memory Points to add to your stock.

The flyers vary from promotional leaflets for various locations around the world to old newspapers and what appear to be ancient alchemical documents relating to local flora and fauna. They’re completely unnecessary to collect in order to beat the game, but they provide some fascinating background colour to the overall setting, even if some of the English on them is a tad questionable!

As Ayesha continues her journey, she’ll unlock a few useful benefits. The first of these is the fact that, as mentioned earlier, she actually has access to a number of different workshops rather than being reliant on a single “hub” location. By the end of the game, she’s able to craft at her home in the middle of nowhere, at her friend Regina’s house, at a room she rents in the region’s big city Vierzeberg, and in a spare room at an inn in the port town of Hornheim.

The latter is important for another reason, too — being a port town, it allows Ayesha to access some areas that she wouldn’t be able to approach on foot. Rather than it being a sea port, however, Hornheim is a port for travel by balloon. It seems that the continent on which Atelier Ayesha unfolds has a huge rupture in the middle of it, and the only reliable means to cross this is by balloon. Ayesha can initially hire a balloon to take her to specific locations, and later in the game she can purchase a balloon of her own for a little more freedom and scope for exploration.

There’s always a reason to venture off the beaten track, too, whether it’s simply to explore the world, or to catch up with any of the characters who wander around the map for various reasons. Each of these characters has their own little narrative to follow through on, but several of them also run travelling shops, which can be a convenient means of stocking up on otherwise hard to find alchemy ingredients.

But with exploration, of course, comes peril — and that’s where combat comes in.

The fundamentals of Atelier Ayesha’s combat will be pretty familiar to those who have played the Arland games, as they’re pretty similar. Ayesha, her friends and their foes all occupy a “timeline” which shows who is going to take a turn when, and depending on the action they take, their next turn will be pushed down the timeline a certain amount.

More powerful moves tend to take longer, meaning the character will move further down the timeline; simpler moves sometimes mean a character can take two actions in succession if there’s a bit of a break before another character or an enemy has a turn.

Each character has their own individual “support” gauge that builds up as they attack enemies or take damage. Charges of this gauge can be expended to perform various actions. Initially, all characters are capable of performing a “Pursuit” or “Back Attack” follow-up strike after a character has performed some sort of offensive move, but as they level up each character will gain access to their own unique special abilities as well. Some of these are offensive in nature, others are defensive or supportive in nature.

The additional twist that Atelier Ayesha adds on top of the fundamentals laid down by the Arland series is that formation and positioning is now important. Not only are you more likely to deliver critical hits if you strike an enemy in their back, but also many of these character-specific moves can only be unleashed if they’re not standing in the same location on the battlefield as the person they’re supporting.

Each character can occupy one of three available positions on the battlefield, arranged in a triangular formation around the group of enemies. If you start combat with the advantage by striking an enemy on the field screen with Ayesha’s staff, your three characters will be grouped together, making it easier to share special effects with one another. If you start combat under normal circumstances, the characters will be spread out, putting them in a better position to use cooperative special attacks.

You can use a turn in battle to move — this is one of those actions that is so quick it can sometimes be immediately followed up by an attack or other action — or, alternatively, if a character uses the “Back Attack” support move to help out a friend, they’ll run around to one of the other points on the triangle to strike the foe from behind, leaving them in an optimal position to unleash a more powerful support move if they have enough gauge to do so.

Formation is also important when preparing for enemy attacks. Many attacks in the game — both from and aimed at Ayesha and her party — have an area of effect, and thus ensuring the party isn’t standing together when one of these is set to go off can help keep everyone upright for a bit longer.

Much like in a number of earlier Atelier games, several attacks also have a “timed” effect, which means they place additional icons on the timeline to show when they will go off for a second or third time; you can use this information to plan ahead and arrange your party accordingly. Unlike in several of these earlier games — most notably the Mana Khemia series — you generally can’t “cancel” timed attacks from your enemies, so you’ll just have to prepare for them appropriately and weather the storm when it comes!

One final area in which Atelier Ayesha resembles some of the earlier Atelier games is the fact that characters don’t increase hugely in power over the course of the game — at least in terms of their base stats and maximum hit points. Consequently, success in battle is less about grinding to level up as much as possible, and more about a combination of skill and proper preparation.

In order to make it through some of the game’s more challenging encounters — some of which are prerequisites for specific characters’ endings — you’ll need to ensure that your whole party has a solid loadout of up-to-date and well-upgraded equipment, and also that Ayesha has a good stock of items on hand for both support and offense. You’ll also want to pick your battle companions wisely; while every character has their own distinct function — and you’ll need to spend time fighting alongside the characters whose stories and endings you want to explore — there are some who really come into their own when dealing with strong, challenging enemies.

While combat is an important part of Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk, this is not a game about making massive numbers pop out of monsters. Rather, it’s a game about making the best out of what you have access to — and, sometimes, of finding a means of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.

In many ways, its mechanics reflect the themes of its narrative — and of the overall Dusk setting — rather beautifully. And that’s just one of many reasons why Atelier Ayesha is such a particularly beloved installment in the series as a whole.

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