Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea – The Kindness of Strangers

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Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is the final chapter in the Dusk trilogy. Whether or not we’ll see a later fourth installment a la Atelier Lulua remains to be seen, but for now, this is where it all ends.

As such, Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is a game that brings together a series of interesting narrative threads from over the course of the trilogy as a whole — including some that began way back in Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk. So while the story stands by itself and many of its mechanics are a lot more accessible to series newcomers, the game is best experienced in context as the conclusion of the Dusk storyline.

Like Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky before it, though, you’ll need to play through as both protagonists to get the full story. So let’s start with a look at the main narrative you’ll experience first time around in the game if you pick Shallistera as your protagonist, then.

Shallistera is a young woman who hails from a tribal village known as Lugion. While the Dusk setting is, on the whole, one that tends to have the trappings of what we understand to be “modernity” in its more built-up areas, the state of the world as a whole has caused certain areas to become distinctly isolated, causing them to revert to more traditional, self-sufficient ways of life.

This is interesting to contemplate when we consider what we’ve seen in both Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy up until this point. In Atelier Ayesha, we saw a region of the world that was reasonably untouched by the Dusk for the most part, in which its main city seemed to be thriving, and people were optimistically researching the ruins of a past age in an attempt to understand their own history.

In Atelier Escha & Logy, meanwhile, we saw the influence that the mysterious “Central City” brought to bear on the regions it was able to gain a foothold in. On the one hand, Central’s organised, “corporate” way of doing things has an inarguably positive effect on the regions where it sets up shop — Escha’s hometown of Colseit is shown to be developing and surviving quite nicely thanks to Central’s assistance. But on the other, Central’s strict rules, regulations and procedures put both the region and its people at risk of abandoning their own individuality in favour of a homogeneous culture.

Shallistera comes from an area where she has seen neither of those things; while we never see Lugion village itself in the narrative, it is described as a place that is big on tradition, and which mostly keeps itself to itself. Indeed, Shallistera’s bodyguard Kortes is somewhat distinctive in this regard, in that he is one of the few people from Lugion that has previously left the village and explored the wider world.

Kortes found himself in an interesting situation as a result, however; he found himself dissatisfied with both the traditional way that Lugion does things and the way that humanity in more populated areas behaves. Consequently, at the time we join Atelier Shallie’s narrative, he’s found himself feeling like he doesn’t quite belong anywhere.

Shallistera initially seems like she might feel this way, too, but a big part of her own narrative involves her finding her own perfect balance between tradition and modernity. This is a theme we’ve seen before in the Atelier series, of course, most notably in Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland — and it’s a theme that’s relevant and poignant to many of us in the modern world.

Shallistera feels obliged to explore the possibilities that the wider world has in store for her, because she knows that Lugion village is struggling. Its water supply is running dry, and as the heir to the village chieftainship, she takes it upon herself to find a solution. She believes that the most likely place to find said solution is the city of Stellard, also known as the “City of Water”, an area which, up until the time of the events of Atelier Shallie has seemingly remained mostly untouched by both the spread of the mysterious Dusk and the influence of Central City.

This isn’t to say that Stellard is completely immune to the sort of nonsense humans gathered in large numbers inevitably get up to, mind. Shortly after Shallistera arrives in Stellard, she learns that there is something of a rivalry between an affluent local company known as the Perriend Corporation and the citizens’ Cooperative Union. On top of that, Central has sent a representative to work with the people of the region on investigating the cause of and any potential solutions to the Dusk, so there are effectively three “factions” in play, all of whom feel like they should have at least a certain amount of say in how Stellard as a whole does things.

This, naturally, puts Shallistera at something of a disadvantage when she shows up out of nowhere expecting people she’s never met to help her out — particularly as her arrival in Stellard was marked by her ship being attacked by a Sand Dragon and ploughing through the city’s harbour region in its attempts to flee. She is not in a strong position to negotiate, let alone make big requests — and this is a new situation for her.

Although presented as a rather meek, kind sort of person, it’s clear that Shallistera has never really wanted for much in her previous life as the heir to the village’s leadership. Indeed, we’re reminded of her effective “princess” status right from the outset, where her guardian and shipwright Teokhuga admonishes Kortes for speaking with her too casually. It’s a rebuke that falls on deaf ears, mind, because Kortes and Shallistera have always enjoyed a relationship more like siblings than “princess” and bodyguard — helped along by the fact that everyone in Lugion village, regardless of blood, is regarded as part of the same family — but it’s noteworthy that Teokhuga even brings it up in the first place.

Despite this upbringing, though, Shallistera is not spoiled by any means. When confronted with the unsurprising resistance to her request for help, her immediate response is to jump in and see what she can do for the people of the region in order to gain their trust. She doesn’t care about her supposed “status” in Stellard — largely because she has no status in Stellard — and instead demonstrates herself to be more than willing to muck in, help out and prove herself to be a useful member of the community.

She initially finds herself a little frustrated at how slow the process is for her to be “accepted” by the people of Stellard, but she also has a rational enough head on her shoulders to understand that the way she arrived in town almost certainly made people think poorly of her — particularly as Stellard was starting to encounter its own issues with its water supply at the time she arrived, and could have probably done without some unknown massive ship crashing through a significant part of its built-up area.

It’s for this reason that Shallistera happily accepts her “penance”, even after she, Teokhuga and Kortes have helped repair the damage they inflicted on the city. When the Sand Dragon that originally attacked them and caused this whole mess in the first place starts terrorising the Dusk Sea perilously close to Stellard, Shallistera does not object for a moment when she is forcibly “volunteered” to stand on the front line of the city’s efforts to deal with this problem once and for all.

Part of the reason for this is that Shallistera knows she isn’t alone. By this point in the narrative, despite still feeling like the general public opinion is somewhat against her, she has made some genuine friends in the region — most notably the magician Wilbell Voll-Ersleid, her apparent apprentice Shallotte, the treasure hunter Jurie and her engineer sister Miruca, plus a couple of alchemists called Escha and Logy. Between them, they manage to successfully defeat the Sand Dragon and bring peace to Stellard — which, in turn, means that everyone can get on with the arguably more important task of figuring out the Dusk once and for all.

Several members of the cast are a little unsettled by the way they had to deal with the Sand Dragon problem, however, since it’s a symptom of something quite serious: the natural world expressing a sort of “anger” at the influence of humans. In years past, we’re told, the Sand Dragon kept itself to itself, and it was only after Shallistera and company’s arrival in Stellard that it started posing an actual threat to people in the region. As it happens, this timing is mostly coincidental; the real problem is one more long-term: how have the significant changes going on in the world affected the balance of nature?

This is a theme that has been running throughout most of the Dusk series, and is explored through a number of different characters — with one of the key ones being the aforementioned Wilbell.

In some ways, Wilbell provides some callbacks to the Atelier Iris series in that she is someone who gains her power from making contracts with elemental spirits — though in the Iris games, it was alchemists rather than magicians making the contracts with these spirits. The principle is the same, though: by demonstrating an affinity for and mastery of a particular element — usually by proving herself in combat — Wilbell can draw upon the power of these elemental spirits to supplement her own magic.

By the time we join the narrative in Atelier Shallie, we’ve already seen Wilbell form contracts with powerful spirits of wind (in Atelier Ayesha) and fire (in Atelier Escha & Logy). As the story unfolds in Atelier Shallie it looks likely that Wilbell will be able to get in touch with the Lord of Water, a powerful water spirit who has lived in the region of the world that the game concerns since time immemorial.

But something’s different this time around; the usually brash and confident Wilbell is initially terrified of the Lord of Water’s presence, because she’s never felt such anger from one of these spirits before. The events surrounding the furious Fire Ruler in Atelier Escha & Logy were nothing compared to this, since they ended up being rather easy to deal with; this time around, however, the Lord of Water’s resentment is more longstanding, and far from easy to deal with, because it concerns how humans have treated the land with a lack of respect for a very long time.

If this concept sounds a little familiar, it will doubtless not surprise you to hear that both Keithgriff Hazeldine and Ayesha from Atelier Ayesha show up around this point in the narrative to provide some insights, and they provide some interesting views on things.

Keithgriff has, ever since his first appearance in Atelier Ayesha, always been presented as something of a morally ambiguous individual whose motivations were not entirely clear. At times in Atelier Ayesha, he sometimes felt like an antagonist, threaten to “take away” alchemy from Ayesha if she failed to prove that she was using it for what he believed to be the “right” reasons.

Keithgriff, you see, feels extremely strongly about the mistakes humanity has made in the past — most notably with regard to alchemy. Ever since Atelier Ayesha, it’s been clear that he knows more about the truth behind the Dusk that he lets on, and that he believes the past civilisations’ excessive, arrogant use of alchemy is what caused the world’s problems in the first place. On top of that, he believes that Central represents humanity failing to learn from its own past, once again using alchemy not for the betterment of mankind, but purely to assert its dominance.

We return once again, then, to a running theme of many titles in the Atelier series: the concept that a power such as alchemy is not, in itself, inherently good or evil, but its “morality” is instead determined by the people who are using it. To Keithgriff, alchemy should be a means of pursuing knowledge and understanding of the world as it exists, not changing things that are not meant to be changed. Altering the natural order of things is a grave sin in Keithgriff’s eyes, and to that end he is not above destroying things that he believes will take humanity down a path that will culminate in the repetition of past mistakes.

Since Atelier Ayesha, Ayesha herself has grown into someone who has her own feelings about such matters. She clearly loves and respects Keithgriff for his knowledge and passion, but is also aware that he sometimes takes things a bit far. She agrees with him on the fundamental point that the things humans do should not have a negative impact on the world — but this doesn’t mean that humans should take a completely hands-off approach to things.

“Alchemy isn’t the power of dreams,” she says. “We alchemists are capable of creating all kinds of things. However, we’re borrowing the hidden power of materials in this world. That’s why we need to give in return, too. I think we should help this world move in a better direction, even a little.”

Over time, we get the distinct impression that Ayesha has applied this philosophy to her relationship with Keithgriff, too. She is “borrowing” his knowledge, and feels the need to give back in return; with that in mind, she helps him with his research, and even goes so far as to devise a concoction of non-harmful herbs for him to smoke in his pipe rather than allowing him to put his health at risk with tobacco.

She’s helping him move in a better direction, a little at a time — and it shows in how he gradually mellows over time, particularly as Shallistera and Shallotte demonstrate how they are serious about trying to find a solution to the Dusk. In other words, he’s being shown, bit by bit, that maybe “humanity” as a whole isn’t necessarily the problem; it is the bad actors who find themselves in positions of power.

Shallistera learns a great deal from observing all the people around her and their differing attitudes towards the world and its people. Some are positive and hopeful for the future; some hope to uncover the truth; some are seeking honour, wealth and glory for themselves; some are cynical — but ultimately everyone wants to survive, and everyone knows that in order to do that, they’re going to have to pull together, acknowledge that mistakes have been made and do whatever they can to rectify that situation — even if that means making some sacrifices.

An important thing to understand, though, is that those sacrifices need to be made as a distinct choice, not as something that people are forced into. Humanity needs to take responsibility for its actions, not attempt to absolve itself by passing that responsibility on to others. That is, after all, one of the mistakes the past civilisation made that Keithgriff is so fond of pointing out — with one of the clearest pieces of evidence of this coming towards the end of a narrative as a whole, when we finally discover the truth behind the several identical-looking characters called “Linca”.

From the moment we met the youngest Linca in Atelier Ayesha and continued to get to know her in Atelier Escha & Logy, it was clear that there was something unusual about her. She seemed curiously reliant on others and, while she was highly capable in battle, she seemed completely clueless when it came to basic social niceties and even necessities for living such as clothing herself and cooking.

If you come to the Dusk games straight from the Arland trilogy, it’s easy to assume that Linca is a homunculus — at least until you discover that in the world of Dusk, a homunculus is actually a small furry creature that continually goes through a cycle of death and immediate rebirth, much to the considerable distress of anyone witnessing it for the first time, as seen in some rather tearful scenes in both Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Shallie.

The comparison actually isn’t that far off, however, in that both homunculi and the Lincas were products of the past civilisation attempting to create artificial life using alchemy. And, since creating new life is not really an exact science, they were all left with certain quirks.

In the case of the Lincas, they were created to be “Controllers” for various facilities, with the most notable in Atelier Shallie being a seawater purification plant in the Stellard region. But things didn’t quite go according to plan; most of the Lincas were broken out of the facility in which they were born and ended up scattered around the world, where each of them developed their own way of life — some more capable of standing on their own two feet than others.

The Linca we meet in Atelier Shallie who acts as the knowledgeable and perpetually cool-headed secretary to the Perriend Corporation; the strong but endearingly dim Linca who is completely reliant on her friend and partner Marion; the Linca who shows up partway through Atelier Escha & Logy and has proven herself to be very self-reliant — albeit often through somewhat underhanded means; all of them have become their own unique person. They are all far more than just a “component” in a machine, which, of course, raises some fairly serious ethical questions about the one the group finds who is still functioning as a Controller.

Even a life created artificially is still a life, and ethically speaking that life should be allowed to flourish and thrive however it sees fit, rather than being forced into enslavement at the hands of people it has never met, nor has any feelings about. This is the sort of thing Keithgriff is referring to when he describes the arrogance of humans, and how alchemy can be misused.

The other side of this concerns humanity’s treatment of nature — the assumption that the natural resources the planet has to offer are limitless, and that it is possible to just take and take and take without ever offering anything in return. This is, of course, not at all true, as we know from environmental issues in our own world — and neither is it true in the world of Dusk, either.

In fact, we learn that such is the impact of humanity’s arrogance that remnants of the past age such as the water treatment facility have not only been draining the land and sea of its natural goodness, but also draining the Lord of Water of her power too. The Lord of Water, as a protective spirit of the world, had been doing her best to keep up with everything humans were taking — but as the machine aged, malfunctioned and became less efficient, it started to take in much more than it was producing, meaning that the supply would eventually run out. Hence, the droughts — and the Dusk.

Clearly there’s only one “right” thing to do in this situation, but it’s a difficult decision for anyone to make. Disabling the malfunctioning water treatment plant would save the world and perhaps even drive back the Dusk — but it would also likely doom humanity. Is that a choice that anyone is really qualified to make?

And, moreover, is it too late anyway? Will nature ever be able to repair the damage that humanity has done, even if one of the sources of that continuing damage is cut off?

It’s something to ponder. But one thing is certain by the end of Shallistera’s journey: after everything she’s seen and everything she’s experienced, even if humanity is plunged into something of a new “dark age” through the disabling of the water purification device, the good people will likely find a way to come together, support one another and thrive. It’s clearly happened before in the world, after all — so perhaps now is the time for it to happen again.

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