Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea – The Fight for a Dying World

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So far, we’ve seen that Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is an interesting installment in the Atelier series as a whole, in that it explores brand new elements while simultaneously calling back to some of the series’ best bits.

One of the most obvious places it looks back at past successes is the gameplay when you step outside the city walls of Stellard and head off into the big, wide world. But even then, it doesn’t just rehash what has come before; it adds its own interesting twists on the formula to create something unique and distinct to Atelier Shallie.

Let’s take a closer look at the game’s combat and exploration mechanics, then, as we get closer and closer to the truth behind the world of Dusk.

Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea features a node-based world map similar to what we’ve seen in numerous Atelier installments from Atelier Totori onwards — and indeed which we also saw in Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny in the earlier days of the series.

The node-based map is a good fit for the series, because it provides a good sense of scale while also compartmentalising the various areas and making it clear where you can find various items and monsters. In a series where crafting items with specific ingredients is so important, this latter aspect is all but essential, and Atelier Shallie does a very good job in this regard.

While browsing the world map and deciding where to go next, you can point to any location and see the ingredients and monsters you’ve previously encountered there. Not only that, but you can also call up additional information about any of them, including their important characteristics and other locations around the map you might be able to find the same things — useful if you’re looking for a large quantity of something.

An interesting aspect of the world map in Atelier Shallie is that it’s responsive to your actions — a first for the series. Clear out an area of monsters and that zone will see fewer enemies for a while; harvest all the ingredients persistently and there will be fewer items available there for some time; strip bare the places where the game’s shopkeepers get their stuff from, and they will have more limited selections when you get back to town.

This kind of ties in with the “Life Tasks” system we previously explored, since that is also somewhat responsive to the actions you take in the game. On the whole, there is a very strong sense that Atelier Shallie’s world is living and paying attention to what you are doing; a sense of “life” and the world going about its business with or without you has always been something the series has done well, but Atelier Shallie brings that idea to mechanics, too, and it works well.

Once into a zone in Atelier Shallie, things mostly unfold as you might expect from the series by this point, with an important difference: rather than exploring from fixed camera angles, we instead have a third person, rotatable camera following along behind our Shallie of choice as we explore. This gives a much greater sense of involvement and immersion in the world; it feels much more like “we’re” exploring the world rather than watching our heroes exploring from afar, and also helps a great deal with a sense of scale.

As you explore areas, you’ll come across enemies and gathering points, and as the game progresses some additional means of acquiring items will show up — some of which are unique to just one of the two playable protagonists. Only Shallotte is able to go fishing, for example; as someone who grew up as the privileged daughter of a tribal chief, Shallistera doesn’t know how to go about this — although that said, it’s worth noting that a key part of the story is the fact that she quickly gets over that whole privilege and proves herself to be more than willing to get her hands dirty. She still can’t fish, though.

Returning from Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky is a meter that accumulates as you defeat enemies and gather ingredients. This meter can be charged up to three times, and each charge can be spent on one of three randomly selected search events. These include the discovery of relics — which are items that the Shallies can craft, sometimes allowing you to get your hands on helpful tools before you have the recipes for them — as well as the ability to automatically hoover up all the resources in the area, discover rare items or fight powerful enemies.

As with most mechanics in the game, this meter also ties in with the Life Tasks system. Sometimes your chosen Shallie will have an objective to search an area thoroughly, and that usually translates to performing a certain number of these search events in a specific part of the overall world map. And, of course, performing a certain number of search events can, in turn, open up yet more Life Tasks to explore.

Life Tasks tie in with exploration in another way: successfully completing Life Tasks adds to your chosen Shallie’s motivation meter, found in the main menu. If Shallie is in a good mood due to having completed a bunch of things she felt like she wanted to do, you’ll get greater yields from gathering points and be able to move more quickly. Conversely, if she’s sad or upset — and, as previously noted, the narrative can affect this as much as the mechanics — you won’t be as efficient out in the field.

With this in mind, it pays to stay on top of things and ensure your trips out into the great wide world have a sense of purpose about them. While the game does indeed lack the time limit of other Atelier games, that motivation bar won’t stay topped up forever if you waste time doing things that aren’t particularly useful.

At this point, let’s change gears and take a look at combat, because although it isn’t the sole focus of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, it is a mechanical high point — plus it also plays host to some of the best music in the game.

We’ve previously talked about how the overall game structure of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea resembles Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm, and the same is true of its combat. In a lot of ways, Atelier Shallie feels very much like a spiritual successor to the Atelier Iris games — and this is doubtless something which will make it appeal to those who enjoyed the PS2-era games in the series but perhaps didn’t get along with the subsequent time-limited titles.

Combat in Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea involves having three characters in the front row, and three in the back. Unlike Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy, there is no need to worry about positioning around the battlefield; this is a straightforward “both sides line up and pummel each other” affair.

This has a significant impact on several aspects of combat: most notably, the fact that on a character’s turn, you can immediately switch them out with a back-line character and use that new character instead. This means that if you have a character that is particularly suited for a specific situation — perhaps they have an elemental skill that takes advantage of an enemy’s weakness, or maybe they simply have a healing skill that would benefit you right now — you can bring them in without having to plan several turns ahead to get them into position with the right partner, then swap them over, then finally take their turn.

Each character has access to a normal attack as well as a set of unique skills. Both Shallies, as the main alchemists of the game, have the ability to use items, while other characters each have their own set of skills that they learn as they increase in level. Much later in the game, many of these skills can also be upgraded in some way — more on that in a moment.

Both skills and items have the opportunity to add “time cards” to the now-familiar turn order gauge on the screen. These cause the effects of certain items or skills to happen multiple times as the battle progresses, and it’s quite hard — though not impossible — to cancel these repeating effects. You’ll need to be careful, though; many enemies are also capable of using time card attacks, and it’s likewise tricky (though, again, not impossible) to cancel them. Your best bet is usually to keep an eye on the turn order and prepare early to weather the coming storm.

In Atelier Shallie, offensive skills, item use and normal attacks can be supported by a back-line character’s follow-up attack — so long as the back-line character is “charged”. It’s important to note, though, that performing a follow-up attack causes that back-line character to swap places with the vanguard character they’re supporting, so you’ll need to pay attention to everyone’s status to ensure you’re not putting yourself in a dangerous situation.

Alongside this, back-line characters can also swap in to defend other characters when they come under attack; again, this swaps their place with the character they’re supporting, so make sure you’re bringing someone in who can actually take the hit!

Unlike Atelier Escha & Logy, however, you can’t keep chaining support skills together until you run out of support meter. Under normal circumstances, only a single support attack can be launched — but there’s a way around that limitation, and being able to take advantage of this is core to success in Atelier Shallie’s combat.

Veterans of Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and the two Mana Khemia games will be pleased to hear that Burst mode is back. A meter accumulates with every successful attack landed (and diminishes somewhat with every attack taken) — and when it reaches 100% or higher, Burst mode begins.

This means several things according to what point in the game as a whole you’re at. Initially, Burst mode has two main functions: firstly, it considerably increases the damage that all characters output, making their attacks, skills and item usage much more effective than they are normally. And secondly, it allows you to chain together as many support attacks as you have back-line characters charged and ready to go.

Like in Mana Khemia, if you can perform a full combo of support attacks during Burst mode — that is, follow up an initial attack from a vanguard character with all three back-line characters jumping in one after another — you’ll unleash a powerful, character-specific ability from the last link in the chain. This is called a Variable Strike; it deals significant damage and, in several cases, has helpful additional effects such as healing or damage over time.

As you advance through the game and your characters learn more skills, a few additional wrinkles are added to Burst mode to keep things interesting. Firstly, we have the Special meter, which accumulates and charges while landing attacks in Burst mode, and allows any characters who have learned their own ultimate attacks to unleash them once it is fully charged. You don’t have to be in Burst mode to use an ultimate attack, but the damage boost tends to make it worthwhile — and like in the last few Atelier games, finishing a battle with an ultimate attack provides you with a unique “theme song” for each character as well as an extended animation to enjoy.

New to Atelier Shallie is the Field Burst mechanic, which is an extension of a system seen in Atelier Escha & Logy where certain tough battles would see various effects — positive or negative — applied to the battlefield before the fighting got underway. In Atelier Escha & Logy, you had no real control over this; you just had to be aware that, say, when fighting powerful foes in a barren wasteland, you’d probably have your maximum health reduced due to how inhospitable the area was.

In Atelier Shallie, however, you can take control of these field effects to a certain extent. While some foes still have unavoidable negative field effects the moment you start fighting them, by triggering Burst mode with a meter that is well over 100% — the maximum is 150% — you can trigger your own Field Burst effects from the back-line characters. These are unique to each character, and provide various helpful buffs. One character might increase your attack and defence power, for example; another might extend Burst mode’s duration; another still offers the ability for a character to sometimes get an extra turn immediately after they’ve done something.

There’s a payoff, though; using a back-line character’s Field Burst means that they start Burst mode without any “charge” in them, meaning you won’t be able to immediately perform a Variable Strike. Generally speaking, though, this is a sacrifice worth making; Burst mode lasts long enough that you can let the characters charge up and then unleash a Variable Strike combo once you’ve already softened up the enemies a bit, and the buffs you get from the Field Burst effects can make that Variable Strike considerably more effective while keeping your party safe from enemy attacks.

For the first part of Atelier Shallie, character progression is a relatively simple matter of levelling up and learning skills at various level milestones. The game provides an interesting twist on this, though; the base experience for many of the “trash” enemies in the game is pretty meagre, but you can get large injections of experience points from completing various Life Tasks. You don’t get that experience immediately, though; it’s added as bonus experience to the next battle you have, meaning you have to actually fight and defeat something in order to receive it.

In this way, the game discourages grinding to a certain extent — or at least, it discourages you from simply running around whapping enemies without any real thought about what you’re doing. Instead, it pays to keep an eye on your Life Tasks, prioritise the ones that will give you the bonuses you’re looking for, and enjoy the spoils. Later in the game, basic enemies do start to be worth somewhat more experience points even without bonuses — but they also get a lot tougher, so you’re rewarded for the additional effort you have to put in to beat them.

Once you reach level 40, a new progression system opens up, rather unexpectedly. From hereon, every level you gain gives you a skill point which can be invested in flat bonuses to the character’s attack, defence and speed stats, or in a permanent upgrade to one of their skills — including their support attack and defence moves. These upgrades are generally very much worth taking as they make the skills significantly better; one particularly potent example comes with the character Homura, who upgrades his powerful skills from having a chance of failure to having a 100% success rate, turning him into a reliably devastating killing machine.

At level 50, even more options to spend your skill points open up, allowing you to beef up your characters even further — through this system, as you continue to level, you can either compensate for a character’s weak areas or enhance the areas where they’re already strong even further. It’s a nice reward for getting to a point in Atelier Shallie’s progression that would have been around the level cap for many previous Atelier games.

This drip-feed of new mechanics over almost the entire duration of the game helps keep Atelier Shallie’s combat feeling fresh and interesting, and leaves the player constantly wondering if there’s anything else they’re yet to discover about the way the game plays. It’s yet further proof if proof were needed that Gust understands how to make a good RPG that keeps people interested in the long term — and that they’re more than willing to both reinvent things when required, or revisit past triumphs and put a modern spin on them.

In terms of combat and exploration, Atelier Shallie is definitely one of the most accessible, playable and satisfying of the Atelier games to date — and this leaves it feeling like a very strong conclusion to the Dusk series as a whole in mechanical terms.

What about the narrative, though? Well, that’s next on the agenda!


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