And so, after the intriguing adventures of Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky, we come to the grand finale of the Dusk series: Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea.
Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is a particularly interesting installment in the series as a whole, because it breaks with a whole bunch of series conventions. This tends to have the net effect that, mechanically speaking, it is a lot more accessible to newcomers than many of the previous Atelier games, for reasons we’ll get into shortly.
But at the same time it offers a solid conclusion to everything we’ve seen in the Dusk series up until this point, meaning it’s arguably best played after enjoying Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy to the fullest. And on top of that, there are certain elements that longstanding fans of the Atelier series as a whole will find particularly delightful. So let’s take a closer look at this fascinating game!
So far in our exploration of the Atelier series as a whole, we’ve seen a number of games that can quite reasonably be described as significant turning points for the franchise.
Back in the PS2 era, we had Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana’s shift from the series’ traditional hub-based gameplay to a more grand adventure. We had Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm starting to shift us back to that hub-based structure, placing a strong emphasis on quests. And we had Mana Khemia veer even further back towards the old-school Atelier structure.
Once we hit the PS3 games, Atelier Rorona marked a distinct and deliberate shift back to the smaller scale and less epic scope of the older Atelier titles, before Atelier Totori and Atelier Meruru expanded outwards again with a sense of adventure. Then the Dusk series came along with Atelier Ayesha and provided us with a somewhat bleaker outlook on life than we’d previously seen in the pastel colours of the Arland series, before Atelier Escha & Logy turned up and gave us a taste of Atelier Rorona-style assignment-based gameplay with a twist.
In fact, it’s pretty fair to say that every single Atelier game up until this point has reinvented something about the series — or at the very least brought back something that we haven’t seen for a while. And yet even among a series that has always made a point of keeping things varied and interesting, Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea still sounds out as something rather fresh compared to what has come before.
The most commonly cited reason for Atelier Shallie standing out compared to its immediate predecessors is the fact that it lacks a time limit. In fact, it seemingly lacks a calendar system altogether, though the game is still clearly keeping track of the passage of time in the background without making it explicit to the player.
Those who first came to the Atelier series with the Arland games or the earlier titles in the Dusk series may feel that the removal of the time limit fundamentally changes the idea of what Atelier games are all about — and you might be right about that to a certain extent. But it’s also worth remembering that both the Atelier Iris and Mana Khemia games lacked a calendar system — Mana Khemia’s “terms” and “weeks” system was more a way of dividing up story beats than providing a time limit — and they certainly weren’t left wanting for a sense of urgency when things got real.
In practical terms, the removal of the time limit means that you’re free to explore and enjoy the world as much as you like, while delving as deeply into the mechanics as you want to. This means that if you just want to zip through the story, you can, but if you want to really get into the intricacies of the combat and alchemy systems in the game — both of which are pleasingly deep — you can spend as much time on that as you want.
We’ll talk more about the specific mechanical features of the game in subsequent parts of this feature, but suffice to say for now that Atelier Shallie is very much a solid installment in the series when it comes to both combat and alchemy. And part of the reason for that is that while it’s doing a lot of things that feel new and fresh for the series, it also feels like it’s learned a lot of lessons from the series’ history.
The combat system, as we’ll discuss in more detail anon, will be particularly familiar to fans of Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and the Mana Khemia games; it’s essentially a reimagining of the mechanics found in those titles, complete with the delightfully satisfying “Burst” system. But it doesn’t just bring those mechanics back; it builds on them in a few key areas, creating something unique to Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea in the process.
Alongside all these fresh-feeling mechanics, the audio-visual aesthetic of the game feels markedly different to its predecessors, too.
One of the most noticeable changes to the prior games is the stronger influence that composer Hayato Asano has clearly had on the soundtrack after joining Gust’s sound team with Atelier Escha & Logy. Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea sounds noticeably different from both its two immediate predecessors, and it fits in nicely with the game’s shift in focus and tone.
Asano’s music blends a variety of disparate styles, but has a nonetheless distinctive, instantly recognisable feel about it. He is particularly fond of creating soundscapes with a distinct sense of synaesthetic “colour” about them; for those sensitive to such things, much of his work has a distinct “blue” tone to it all, with ethereal piano lines creating the feeling of flowing water and calm breezes. This can be heard not only in Atelier Shallie, but also in some of his other most well-known work, including Blue Reflection and Nights of Azure.
But he’s far from a one-trick pony, as we’ll explore further when we look at the soundtrack in more detail. His work also combines elements of thrashing, face-melting Gothic-inspired rock — which provides a nice callback to Mana Khemia 2’s balls-to-the-wall battle tracks in particular — with smooth jazz and strong use of solo string instruments for memorable melodies. In short, Atelier Shallie has a very strong soundtrack.
Meanwhile, from a visual perspective, while Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea still employs the considerable talents of character designer Hidari for the key art and event scenes, the game is noticeably more colourful than both Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy before it.
Both of those games had a deliberately faded, aged look about them to reflect the pervasive, unavoidable influence of the Dusk on their respective settings; this was a world in its twilight years, where no-one seemed to feel any inclination to do anything about the impending (or perhaps in-progress) disaster — and where those who did feel inclined to try and do something about it found themselves fairly powerless in the grand scheme of things. A chilling reflection of certain aspects of today’s reality, to be sure.
The setup of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is one of cautious hope, though. The game’s central setting of the city of Stellard is an area that, while still touched by the Dusk, is a lot more vibrant and full of life than some of the other places we’ve seen in the series to date. It’s a land of blue skies and abundant water — though the latter seems like it might not last for much longer as the narrative gets underway.
The game features two playable protagonists, both with the nickname Shallie. One of them, whose full name is Shallistera, has come from a tribal village that is starting to suffer the effects of drought caused by the Dusk, and has come to Stellard (home of the other protagonist Shallotte) to find a possible solution. She believes that the struggles the world is having can be overcome, and indeed before long she comes into contact with other people who feel the same way.
The first of these is Solle, the sour-faced accountant from Atelier Escha & Logy, who has come to Stellard in search of more information about — and a possible solution to — the Dusk. In short order, he is joined by both Escha and Logy, who are both, by this point, experienced alchemists — though longstanding fans will be pleased to note that certain aspects of Escha’s personality will never change.
All of these people have had first-hand contact with things that the average man in the street has never seen, and as such they’re in a good position to hold a bit more hope about solving the world’s mysteries than most others. Indeed, in contrast to its melancholic predecessors, the general vibe of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is, right from the outset, one where it seems like there might be a possible happy ending ahead for everyone — and where whether or not that happy ending actually happens, the sense of working together towards that hope is more valuable than anything.
Cooperation and collaboration is key to Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, as we’ll see in the subsequent parts of this feature. Suffice to say for now that it continues the proud tradition of each new Atelier game, even within a single series, feeling markedly different from the last. And right from the outset, you know Atelier Shallie is going to be a memorable journey.
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