As we’ve already discussed to a certain extent, Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk kicks off an Atelier subseries with a noticeably different feel to its predecessors.
While the Arland series was, on the whole, very positive in tone — the more melancholic aspects of Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland aside — the Dusk series emphasises the feeling that all is not well in this “world that is heading for destruction”, as Gust themselves put it.
And that feeling doesn’t just extend to the overall worldview of Atelier Ayesha, either; it infuses the core narrative and provides it with a very distinctive, highly emotional and deeply memorable feel. Let’s take a closer look.
The basic concept behind Atelier Ayesha is that Ayesha, an apothecary living in the middle of nowhere, is all alone. She used to live with her sister Nio, but some time ago — several years by the time we join the story — Nio was spirited away by means unknown while she was gathering herbs in ruins near Ayesha’s workshop.
Ever since Nio’s disappearance, Ayesha has tended to her “grave”, but inside she has always harboured hope that one day she will see her again — that her sister will return from wherever she has ended up, and their life together can begin anew.
As the story begins, one of these visits to Nio’s “grave” is interrupted by a flash of light and a sudden, unexpected vision of Nio. This being the most concrete evidence she has ever seen that her sister is alive, Ayesha is suddenly filled with hope for the first time in quite a while — and as it happens, this incident just happens to coincide with a wandering alchemist named Keithgriff Hazeldine paying the ruins a visit.
Although standoffish and not forthcoming with any helpful information even after Ayesha explains the situation to him, Keithgriff clearly has an interest in what is going on. In his own strange way, he encourages Ayesha to seek out the truth for herself, because, in his words, “truths are not something that can be passed around by others; you, yourself, must demand and grasp them”.
Ayesha had seemingly been treading water to a certain degree prior to this point — she had established a good reputation for herself as a talented apothecary, but wasn’t really going anywhere. One gets the impression that she didn’t leave her workshop much, and was, to a certain extent, content with her life — or at the very least, accepting of the hand which fate had dealt her and Nio, even if it wasn’t what she would consider to be “ideal”.
But her sighting of Nio and the subsequent encounter with Keithgriff spurs her to action. Keithgriff says just enough to give her a lead on what she should be investigating without carelessly passing any of those “truths” around, and it’s enough to inspire her. She packs up pretty much all of her worldly possessions onto the back of her cow Pana and hits the road — her final destination may be unknown as she begins her journey, but she certainly understands that she’s not going to get any closer to the truth of what happened to her sister by sitting around as if everything was just fine.
As Ayesha continues on her journey, she comes to realise quite how much everyone in the world is interconnected in some way. By selling the medicines she makes to travelling trader Ernie, who then supplies shops in the city of Vierzeberg, she has indirectly touched the life of quite a few people out there without even realising it — Ernie himself, shopkeeper Marietta, shop owner Harry, and each and every one of those customers who buy Ayesha’s medicine.
And through her interactions with her friends, she comes to realise that a story like this is true for almost everyone in the world. Her friend Regina, for example, worked alongside her peers from the small hamlet of Riesengang on repairing and fixing up a public road that passes right through the middle of some ancient ruins, making travel around the region a lot easier for everyone — even people she will never see the face of.
Time and time again over the course of Atelier Ayesha we see these connections form, and in their own way the formation of those bonds ends up influencing what comes next for everyone involved. When the industrious Ernie meets the indolent bard Ranun, the pair of them have a lot to learn from one another — and that meeting ends up affecting both of their lives. When the socially inept Linca meets the somewhat awkward but otherwise friendly Ayesha, they have plenty of knowledge to exchange on their own personal views of the world.
Sometimes these connections end up overlapping in unexpected ways, and a great example can be seen in the case of the character Wilbell, a trainee witch who, although undoubtedly talented, often makes more of an effort trying to find cunning ways out of her studies than actually engaging with them. Ayesha helps Wilbell out with one of her tasks, but Wilbell’s tutor (and great-great-grandmother) immediately sees through this and contacts Ayesha directly, thanking her for helping out Wilbell but also making it clear that Wilbell should really be doing the work herself.
This whole string of events is all about connections. Ayesha agrees to help out Wilbell because of the bond they’ve formed as friends; Wilbell, meanwhile, doesn’t count on the deep familial bond between herself and her great-great-grandmother allowing the latter to immediately recognise when she produces something that doesn’t have her own distinctive “signature” about it. And from there, Wilbell’s great-great-grandmother forms her own bond with Ayesha, who in turn comes to look on her connection with Wilbell in a different light, switching to a role of encouragement rather than just jumping in and doing the work for her.
Wilbell has some hard lessons to learn as part of this process, but the whole thing proves to be a good learning experience for her, despite some upsets along the way. She’s an interesting character — particularly as she appears in all three of the Dusk games, gradually developing an understanding of her place in the world as a witch in the process — and undergoes some fascinating development over the course of her personal story in Atelier Ayesha.
There are others place in which unexpected, overlapping connections are formed, too. On at least one occasion, a personal narrative thread from a relatively incidental character ends up intertwining with Ayesha’s main quest, even.
When Ayesha first encounters the travelling cowherd Nanaca, she would likely never have expected there to be any crossover with her investigation of Nio’s disappearance. But when she witnesses a calf Nanaca thought lost seemingly disappearing into thin air — just as Nio did — it’s one of many times where she realises that she doesn’t have to deal with everything alone; everyone is going through things, and some people are going through the exact same things. When times are as tough as they look like they are throughout the Dusk trilogy, everyone needs to pull together and make things work as best they can; sometimes you can end up finding solutions to problems in the strangest of places.
The world of Dusk as seen in Atelier Ayesha is one that has, for the most part, become rather insular and isolated, so it’s not altogether surprising that Ayesha herself spent so long sitting in her workshop rather than setting out to solve the mystery of her sister’s disappearance a little sooner. As the world has declined, with crops failing and even huge rifts opening in the continent making long-distance travel impractical or even impossible for many, most people are shown doing what is necessary to survive — but in a way that is of mutual benefit to others.
The girl Tanya who Ayesha encounters on a trip beyond one of the aforementioned rifts is a good example. Tanya lives with her family on a landmass that appears to be little more than salt flats, but she is content with her lot; she mines salt, sells it on, and in doing so is able to help provide for her family through trade. That’s all she wants or needs from life — though she does express an interest in visiting a more populated area once she strikes up a friendship with Ayesha. More importantly, it’s yet another example of one character’s actions touching the lives of potentially thousands of others without them necessarily realising.
This aspect of the narrative actually ends up affecting Atelier Ayesha’s gameplay to a certain degree. It’s very easy to find yourself getting wrapped up in the personal stories of all the people you meet — be it the major characters with their full scenes, or the more subtly told stories of the NPCs around the world who request various items from Ayesha to resolve various situations in their own lives. But if you allow yourself to do that for too long, you run the risk of Ayesha never getting Nio back; while the time limit in Atelier Ayesha isn’t particularly harsh — it’s a lot easier to get everything done than in Atelier Totori, for example — you’re still on the clock.
As such, after a while you’ll reach a point where you find yourself questioning if it’s okay to be selfish for a while; is it okay for Ayesha to be pursuing what might initially appear to be a hopeless quest, rather than mucking in and playing her part in making this dying world a better place for the people in it? After all, while she’s gallivanting around the countryside picking flowers, she’s not making medicine for people. And some people out there might need that medicine.
The fact that Ayesha is specifically an apothecary — a healer of sorts, if you will — provides an interesting perspective on certain aspects of the narrative. This is especially true for the narrative surrounding Nio; at the outset of the game, Keithgriff suggests mysteriously that Nio probably “has about three years”, without explaining exactly what that means. But as time goes on and Ayesha’s quest continues, we start to get something of an idea.
Each time Ayesha sees a vision of Nio, she seems a little different — weaker, finding it harder to hold on. She starts saying that she finds it difficult to stay awake, and that she feels like she’s being “pulled” somewhere. It’s hard not to see this as something of an allegory for terminal illness, placing Ayesha in the role of the one who has to “heal” her against all odds. Failure means that Nio will no longer be part of this world — but success is only going to come with hard work, and perhaps a bit of luck.
But the pursuit of that success carries with it its own risks. Keithgriff, the person who clearly knows the most about alchemy in the region, is aware of this from a number of perspectives. He is one who appears to be well-versed in at least certain aspects of the events which led to “the Dusk”. And he is someone who, in the pursuit of knowledge from alchemical studies, became frustrated at the fact no-one seemed to want to truly learn.
“One day I came to realise that no single person truly understood alchemy,” he tells Ayesha, referring to a resurgence in the practice in the region he hails from some decades prior to Atelier Ayesha. “Satisfied with showing off their insubstantial knowledge, some never bothered to pursue the truth. Others refused to even try to understand. Even if you simply imitate the form, you can use the skill to a certain extent. However, the things they created were nothing but shams. To me, that was unforgivable.”
Keithgriff is painfully aware of the fact that alchemy was the thing that led the world to ruin in the first place, and thus he is somewhat cagey about who has the “right” to practice it. He confesses that his intolerance for the “insubstantial knowledge” of his peers led to him destroying all the alchemical materials and research in his homeland, making him a fugitive. And at one point in Ayesha’s quest, he threatens to “take alchemy from her” if she doesn’t prove herself worthy through some unspoken criteria.
This, of course, is all a twist on a theme that comes back from time to time in the Atelier series, which is that alchemy, in itself, is not an inherently “good” or “evil” thing — it is all about the person who is making use of it, and what they intend to use it for. It is also about how that person responds to receiving the power and knowledge that alchemy brings; it’s all too possible that someone who begins the study of the art with pure intentions could gradually become “corrupted” by the power they are given, and give in to some baser, more selfish desires.
At no point is this ever a risk for Ayesha, though, and Keithgriff knows this. We know this, too. We see time and time again over the course of the game what a selfless person Ayesha is, and how uncomfortable she is any time someone praises her for being somehow out of the ordinary — even if it’s just for her undeniable beauty.
On top of that, at the one point in the story where she does make use of a seemingly terrifying power in order to take the final steps towards her goal, her response is not along the lines of “wow, cool”, but rather “have I done something tremendously wrong?” and a genuine feeling of anguish at the inconvenience she has caused everyone around her through what she still sees as her own selfishness. Why should her own “selfish” desire to get her sister back put other people in danger?
Well, because she’s also shown over the course of the narrative that she’s not someone to back down from a challenge, even if it’s dangerous — and if that challenge can help make life better or safer for people, so much the better. She gladly steps up to help resolve some of the damage she did in the name of progressing her own quest — and her inspiring presence means that her friends are happy to stand alongside her as she does this.
None of them blame her for anything she has to do — even if it brings them all into contact with the darker side of alchemy. As the main narrative builds to a climax, it becomes clear that while alchemy can be used to heal and to help, it can most certainly also be used to harm. And while the things Ayesha and her friends run across that very much fall into the “harm” category are little more than remnants of a lost age rather than something maliciously created by someone in the present, they serve as an important reminder not to get carried away, even when presented with the seemingly limitless possibilities that alchemy provides.
Keithgriff clearly knows a lot more than he’s letting on — and getting closer to some of those answers requires you to pursue one of the more challenging, complex ending routes in the game after the “main” story is dealt with — but Ayesha never really gives us the impression that we really have to worry about her becoming, say, Palaxius from Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny, probably the most prominent example of an “evil alchemist” in the series as a whole. The connections she’s built up by this point will almost certainly pull her back from the brink well before that ever happens.
Or would they? Certain things that unfold in the subsequent installments of the Dusk series may well give us pause to question what Ayesha got up to after her own quest was over. But that’s something to talk about another day, I feel…
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