Atelier Ayesha is the latest game from the long running Atelier JRPG series. Playtsation 3 owners, in the UK, have already had the pleasure of playing three Atelier games this current console generation; namely Atelier Rorona were players had to save a struggling alchemy shop from closure, Atelier Totori were the protagonist used her transmutation skills to reunite with her missing mother and finally Atelier Meruru were a princess utilized her alchemic gifts to turn her kingdom into a prosperous nation. With Meruru signaling the end of the Arland trilogy of games, Atelier Ayesha transposes players to a different region with new environments to explore and a whole host of new characters to become acquainted with.
The title character, Ayesha, is an apothecary who ekes out a living by selling the medicinal goods she cooks up in an oversized cauldron. Ayesha lives alone in the land of Dusk ever since her sister Nio was spirited away. Since her disappearance it has been presumed that Nio is dead, but hopes that she may have survived resurface one day when Ayesha is out and about collecting herbs from the woods near her home. An apparition resembling her sibling appears before her briefly only to then vanish without a trace. After describing the encounter to a veteran alchemist named Keithgriff, Ayesha is led to believe that there may be a chance of reuniting with her sis, but doing so will require studying alchemy and investigating the mysterious properties of the flora that grow around Dusk. With that our heroine heads out to the big city determined to learn more about the ancient art.
In terms of story I would have to say that Atelier Ayesha is the strongest of the series' PS3 releases. From the offset you are given a clear goal of researching alchemy to find a way of saving Nio from whatever fate may have befallen her. This is much better than Rorona and Meruru's open-ended goals of saving a shop or developing a kingdom. Even Totori's parental quest didn't have the urgency of Ayesha's adventure, given that it is only revealed late on in the game. The more focused story doesn't however mean that the series' lighthearted hijinks have been abandoned. Although the task of rescuing Nio is Ayesha's paramount concern there's still plenty of time for comedic cut scenes and optional side quests to partake in.
As in the older games it is the visual novel style cut scenes that trigger when you visit a location after specific events that bring the game to life. The clips star the franchise's new characters that adequately fill the shoes of the Arland trilogy's stars. Yes, it's a shame that fan favorites no longer appear in this game, but on the flip side all the fresh faces mean that the game is a good jumping on point for players new to the series. The cast of playable characters that can team up with Ayesha and NPCs you meet in town all have distinctive quirks making them entertaining to watch on screen. Some of the folks you will interact with include the sassy witch in training Wilbell, the tomboyish prospector Regina, shopkeeper Marietta who cannot resist berating her relic obsessed eccentric employer and Linca a female bodyguard whose devotion to the blade has made her socially inept.
Gameplay wise Atelier Ayesha can be divided into item crafting and turn based combat. To advance the story you'll often have to complete quests that involve using alchemy to synthesis items. Quests can be obtained from the residents you meet walking around town, which differs from the older games that had you obtaining missions from an adventurer's guild. Although I imagine some players may prefer a centralized location where they can get all their alchemy requests I didn't mind the change. The new system encourages exploration and is less cold than going to the guild and using a menu to select a fetch quest. Alchemy itself is more streamlined than the older games, making it less of a chore, with complex weapon forging done away with altogether. In this game gear is dropped by vanquished enemies, which you can then customize with alchemy to adds traits such as health regeneration, elemental resistances and so on.
In order to synthesis items you'll need ingredients, but unfortunately not everything you need can be procured from a store. Some ingredients have to be harvested from ruins and woodlands that are populated by hostile monsters, which is were the combat system kicks in. Battles with wildlife, golems and ghosts are pretty much identical to the older games and should be familiar to anyone who has been playing JRPGs since the days when Final Fantasy made a big impact on the NES. Players simply have to command Ayesha and her two other party members on what to do. As usual you can attack, perform MP draining skills or use items to turn the tide of battle. Sustaining and inflicting damage fills up a meter that is used to activate support abilities or powerful offensive moves. One new feature to the combat is the option of directing characters to move to different parts of the battlefield. This comes in handy for executing damaging rear strikes or preventing your team from getting bunched together (always a recipe for disaster when facing enemies with area effect spells.)
One thing that may not appeal to completionists, who like to unlock everything in a single play through, is the game's time limit. Ayesha's adventure spans across three simulated years, with the clock ticking down every time you enter a battle or cook up something with alchemy. Organizing yourself to efficiently complete quests therefore plays a factor, although it's a problem that is alleviated as your character grows allowing you to research methods of fast travel and speedier item gathering. To be honest Atelier Ayesha is far more forgiving than its predecessors in terms of time management as I had no trouble finishing the main story with ample months left to spare. Not bad considering that this time round you don't get a homunculi servant to help you out with ingredient collection and item manufacture.
In my opinion Atelier Ayesha is the finest of the PS3 Atelier games. Every sequel seems to refine what works in the previous installment making it a more satisfying experience. Case in point would be the strides made with the graphics. Although the series has never been known for state of the art visuals, in the space of a few years it is impressive to see how much better Ayesha's cell shaded art style looks when compared to what we got in Atelier Rorona. Sound wise the game boats an excellent soundtrack packed with a plethora of tunes. The composers have really outdone themselves as you get treated to multiple samples of background music during battle, which switches depending on how your party is faring. The voice acting is however a mixed bag with the quality varying from actor to actor. Depending on the character it ranges from adequate (although a little wooden) to good. When I first heard Ayesha speak I thought her voice would grate on me, as she sounded like such a ditz, but as I learned more about her personality I warmed up to it and now find her portrayal to be rather sweet.
If you have enjoyed any of the previous Atelier games Ayesha is a must buy. Some hardcore fans may feel this game is dumbed down, when compared to the previous three, but overall I feel that the changes made are worth it as they cut down on the frustrating niggles that hampered past titles. If I recall correctly it took me around thirty hours to finish the story, which is good value for money especially when you consider that multiple playthroughs are encouraged to unlock all the endings on offer. The three-year time constraint isn't a big deal as a new game plus feature allows you to transfer your money and equipment the next time you restart the story. This makes things significantly easier granting you more freedom to check out content you may have missed the first time round. Ultimately the Atelier games cater to a niche audience. If you hate RPGs this latest installment won't change your mind, but JRPG fans that couldn't get into the Arland trilogy may want to revisit the series with this game. This is the most accessible Atelier game to date and that alone could convert those on the fence into becoming full-blown fans.