Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea draws a number of cues from past Atelier games in terms of its overall game structure and execution — and indeed the way it does things can also be traced forward to some of Gust’s other games such as Blue Reflection.
For those who have played the previous games in the Atelier series, Atelier Shallie most closely resembles Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm in terms of structure — though with a few twists here and there. While Gust aren’t afraid to return to what worked previously, it’s very rare that they will simply recreate it wholesale without any changes.
It’s that game structure we’ll be taking a look at in this part of our exploration of the series as a whole.
Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea can be broadly divided into two main components in terms of its grand structure: story quests and free time.
This is quite similar to how Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm split its time between free questing and story-critical “Missions”, though here the format is inverted; rather than completing enough quests to unlock the story mission for the chapter you’re on, in Atelier Shallie each chapter opens with a story mission, then you’re given free time to do with as you see fit afterwards.
Also, while Atelier Iris 3 immediately and automatically moved on to the story mission once you’d made sufficient progress in the “free” sections, in Atelier Shallie you don’t move on from your free time until you specifically tell the game you’re good and ready to.
The story missions are as you might expect: go to a particular place, watch a cutscene, do something specific. Typically these correspond with some sort of major happening in the game world — at one point the two Shallies are sent to the front line of a battle against a fierce Sand Dragon that has been terrorising the Dusk Sea, for example, while at another the main story beat sees the people of Stellard reopening trade with the far-off Eastern Continent for the first time in many years, and our alchemist heroines are among the first to cross the Dusk Sea and re-establish contact with the settlements over there.
While a story mission is active in Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, the game is absolutely focused on that story mission; you can’t even check Shallie’s list of “Life Tasks” that she wants to accomplish besides the main objective of the story mission.
Given the way this is presented in the game’s interface, this is clearly intended to represent the fact that Shallie believes there is nothing more important than taking care of the most pressing matters at hand right now — and it makes sense. It means that you never get into that oft-mocked RPG situation where there’s some sort of great threat looming, and you’re off picking flowers while the enemy happily waits until you’re good and ready to take them on.
Well, okay, you can still go off and pick flowers, but there’s little incentive to do so beyond gathering alchemy ingredients to prepare for your next story challenge. Let’s put it this way: if something important is happening in the game world, there’s no checklist of other possible objectives to distract you from the important thing. If you choose to procrastinate, that’s all on you, not the game.
Free time is another matter, however. After you’ve taken care of whatever the main point of the chapter is, the icon indicating your heroine’s face in the upper corner of the screen flips over and becomes hollow, and it’s your job to fill it up in order to proceed to the next chapter. In order to do this, you’ll have to take on what Shallie considers to be “important” tasks, each of which make her feel a certain amount of fulfilment and fill the meter accordingly.
However, that’s not all you’ll be doing in free time sections — and indeed this is where the game really shines, by providing you with one of the best balances between complete freedom and structured gameplay we’ve seen in the series to date.
While you are free to focus on just the “important” tasks if you want to progress through the game more quickly, it’s worthwhile to take on some of Shallie’s other “Life Tasks” along the way, because these provide a variety of additional benefits such as permanent stat boosts or one-shot chunks of combat and alchemy experience.
Life tasks also boost Shallie’s motivation level, indicated as a mood meter in the game’s main menu. At higher levels of motivation, Shallie runs and attacks faster in the field, and is also able to acquire more items from each gathering point, so it’s in your interest to keep this topped up as much as possible. Some endings are also dependent on you keeping the motivation bar as high as possible.
In a nice touch, unlike some other games that make use of a “mood” meter or similar, the story actually affects Shallie’s motivation. During a sequence midway through the game in which the two Shallies have a fairly serious argument with one another, the motivation level of the Shallie you’re controlling will drop down to rock bottom, and it’s immediately noticeable in how much slower she moves around; thankfully, getting it back to where it was is a simple matter of following through on the story sequence until the two Shallies make up with one another again — but it’s nice to see the game mechanics actually reflecting the narrative, because developers don’t always bother with this.
In effect, the motivation meter acts as the game’s substitute for the time limit found in other Atelier games; it declines over time if you don’t complete any Life Tasks, which means you’re discouraged from dragging your feet and not completing any objectives. In practice, however, you’ll likely find that there are so many possible Life Tasks to complete that it’s fairly easy to keep it topped up constantly if you’re staying on top of things — even if you’re exploring, fighting and synthesising a lot.
The reason for this is that Shallie thinks of new Life Tasks according to the actions you take in the game — and there are Life Tasks that correspond to pretty much everything you do, whether it’s defeating one type of monster in a specific part of the world map, jumping a set number of times, crafting a particular type of item or talking to a certain number of people.
Once you’ve met one of these initially hidden conditions, Shallie will have a thought along the lines of “ah, I’ve done this, now maybe I should try this too?” and thus you’ll be encouraged to follow through on the thought, perhaps try some new things and attain some bonuses for yourself along the way. There’s no obligation to complete the Life Tasks if you don’t want to, but in practice there are so many of them you’ll almost certainly end up just naturally completing them as you progress through the way — plus the bonuses you get are significant and useful; the experience bonuses in particular really help to minimise the need for grinding both combat and alchemy experience.
Some Life Tasks are simple things that Shallie thinks of as you proceed through the game. But there are others that tie in with character events and unfold over the long term; for example, early in the game Shallistera takes great umbrage at the fact her bodyguard Kortes considers her to be “weak”, and thus a Life Task to reach level 50 in combat appears at this point, which will likely take you a fair chunk of the game as a whole to fulfil.
Some Life Tasks are situational, too. Step into an area where there’s a powerful boss enemy and Shallie will, of course, want to defeat that monster. Wander into a new place for the first time and Shallie will want to explore it fully — with the reward in this case often being a route to a new destination. Be told about a dragon problem in the region and Shallie will, naturally, feel like she is in a good position to deal with said problem. Alchemists are, as we’ve established fairly thoroughly by this point, nosey little buggers who enjoy sticking their noses into things, and both Shallies certainly fall into this category.
A fun part of the Life Task system from a thematic perspective is that the game represents them as Shallie using different areas of her brain for each. Some Life Tasks relate to relationships; some relate to physical wellbeing and betterment; some relate to her mental wellbeing and knowledge.
In theory, the game adapts to how you play by triggering Life Tasks according to your actions, encouraging you to do the things you’re doing anyway and occasionally giving you the opportunity to branch out a bit, but in practice it simply means that you always have something to do that has a tangible reward on offer — an effective means of keeping you reasonably on track during the game’s more free moments.
And the nice thing about them is that none of them are mandatory — you’ll tend to find even among the “important” tasks that there are more on offer than you actually need to clear the chapter, so if you find yourself enjoying one aspect of the game more than another, you can often focus on that a little more. You’ll likely get the most out of the game if you give yourself a balanced experience, mind, but there’s nothing stopping you emphasising the parts you feel most positively about — and no penalty for “missing” any of the tasks, particularly as, if you choose to, you can revisit incomplete tasks in the game’s final chapter.
Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, then, strikes an excellent balance between providing you with a structured quest to follow, and affording you the freedom to experiment with the game’s various mechanical aspects to your heart’s content. While it is, in theory, possible to waste so much time that Shallie’s motivation drops significantly, in practice you’ll find there are so many Life Tasks you can complete almost “accidentally” along the way that you’ll find yourself being rewarded for pretty much everything you do. And that’s a nice feeling.
Next up, we’ll take a closer look at the game’s alchemy system — because despite being part of the same series as Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy, this is one of the areas where Atelier Shallie really shakes things up!
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