Imagine your cute imouto (voiced by the lovely Mariya “Stocking” Ise) got spirited away. Lay down on the couch right there and tell me how you feel. Does it feel bad? Horrible? Go on: you can cry.
Note: Ayesha didn’t cry. She went on a fucking journey.
Like other great simulators that include Gran Turismo and SimCity, Atelier Ayesha is realistic: it is a cute alchemist girl simulator. Set in a new setting (I will call it the Duskverse) from previous games, it features new little girls and old kimoi guys you can play as. But mostly, you will play as a blonde alchemist donned in clothing greener than Mother Nature named Ayesha (CV: Inoue Marina).
Ayesha is a very strong onee-chan: she climbs up mountains, treks through forests, rides a hot air balloon, and reads Difficult Books in a Library. This happened because one day, she stumbled upon her spirited away imouto, Nio, who promptly disappeared. Ayesha met an old pedo (CV: Joji Nakata) in the ruins and he said it was possible to bring back Nio if she could discover the truth behind the flora mcguffinus. And so, she embarked on the most difficult journey possible. All for the sake of her imouto.
If you cannot empathize with Ayesha’s onee-chan-ness, then you must be a monster.
Immediately, Ayesha has differentiated itself from previous games, especially the Arland trilogy. Recall the games if you’ve played them: Rorona‘s plot is Recettear except with Kadowaki Mai as Rorona and Kitamura Eri as Cuderia/Cordelia and they get kinda gay; Totori is about the titular character searching for her mom who is MIA in Alaska; and Meruru is about a princess who refuses to be a princess because she wants to marry Totori and then, decides to go to a hot spring with Totori and her wife, Mimi. With the exception of Totori, the Arland trilogy is Fartland™ in the story’s premise.
In the case of Atelier Totori, she undergoes actual problems that deal with the nature of the story. She has motivation to adventure (i.e. adventuring to find her mom). So we understand what her character is going through. But one criticism I had that was not explored in my previous post, Nosebleeding with Totori, was the lack of cohesiveness in that aspect. Important events in Totori tend to be unrelated to the story. You could argue that’s because her mom is lost in Alaska while Totori can only explore the mainland of Arland, but the event that triggers Totori to explore Alaska happens 2 years in the game and it is by accident as well. I found it poor storytelling. And while readers may argue to the computer screen or write tirades in the barren comment section about the unnecessariness of “storytelling” in “mah cute alchemist girl games”, it is still an aspect of Totori worth pondering about. Masterpieces have flaws too, you know.
In that regard, Ayesha is Totori MK-II. Besides side-quests, bazaar events, and character events, every other event is related to the actual plot. Which is amazing, considering how the game is open-ended as fuck. You have to break through the routes to the capital city, but once you’re there you can do whatever you want. Like you can totally just jump around the fields and do jack shit. But when the story events appear, they remind you that there is an overarching plot going on. This is very unlike Totori where the story returns at the halfway point. Ayesha nudges you once in a while to remind you to make sure to find your imouto. It also helps most of the new locations are somewhat related to the search. They give clues to what made your imouto get spirited away and advance the story.
I am reminded of Morrowind where you can loll around Mushroomland while the big baddies plot shit. Both Ayesha and Morrowind allow you to roam around an open-ended scape while it patiently waits for you to return back to the main plot. Sure, the former has a time limit and the latter takes in an unlimited time-scape but the game gives you 3 years to find your imouto — a long, gracious limit you might as well call it ‘unlimited’.
While you take your sweet time taking in the fresh air and traversing around the Duskverse setting, you will realize the Duskverse setting is kinda nuts. Remember how in Totori and Rorona where you explore fields and more fields; and in Meruru, giant forests that drop your framerate to 10fps? If we tone down the brightness and make your cute girl alchemists into Oblivion character blobs, we would get a stereotypical Western fantasy RPG. Besthesda Entertainment would be flattered. And with games like Dark Souls, it is hard to differentiate between the aesthetic differences of the ‘genres’, JRPGs and WRPGs.
Things change here.
For starters, go look at the title of this post. Read it closely. Read it again just to make sure. And now, say it with me: “Riding Hot Air Balloons to the North Pole as a Cute Alchemist Girl: Thoughts on Atelier Ayesha”.
Ayesha does, in fact, ride a hot air balloon to the North Pole.
Besides that, Ayesha apparently lives in Pompeii because her atelier’s backyard is riddled with unexplored ruins. Her osananajimi, Regina Curtis (CV: Kurumi Erika-sama), lives in Bedrock. And by the way, the whole setting is set on top of floating islands. Hence, the hot air balloons. There’s more crazy examples, but let’s leave it as that for future Ayesha fans — gotta keep the surprise~.
So you can say the setting is fucked up. In a good way. It breaks your expectations every time a new location pops up. There are only 71 points in the entire world map — and this includes shortcuts to different parts of the dungeons — but the maps are elaborate in their own way. Backgrounds are gorgeous and don’t make your game lag. Whereas in Meruru, your frame rate drops whenever pretty things appear in the background. Ayesha’s maps are as memorable as the huge maps in Totori and the small quantity of these maps make it worthwhile to revisit too for items and scenery porn.
Because of this too, Arland players have to harvest a bit differently. You are not given a menu screen where you can pick off which item you want; instead, Ayesha crouches down on the harvest spot and whenever you press Circle, stars fly to the ring of a hotel bell. Gathering items is now a random process. Which is great because the Arland trilogy has too many menus. If your party has members, they may also join in and grab some items. The higher your friend level, the likelier they get rare items. While they don’t appear in the screen for the harvest-grabbing action, they would shout out hilarious lines. It’s a neat change since I’ve always found harvesting in the Arland trilogy the most tedious aspect. Also, if Ayesha is in her harvesting position, enemies will stop and patiently wait for her to stop gathering. You can use that to plan your way out of the dungeon since until you press Circle, you would not lose time. A neat strategy, especially for players like me who are lazy.
By the way, you know how in the Arland trilogy, you’re always looking at the CP? In Meruru especially, that drops whenever an action occurs. Your characters would become useless in the middle of battles. Well, that’s changed. Like a Hollywood actor/actress who got an Oscar award, I am crying tears of joy because that system is finally scrapped. You can now actually focus on the battles instead of worrying about how tired your characters are.
If it wasn’t for the fun setting, I would say I am the most excited about the reformed battle system. In fact, I am ecstatically anticipating more changes in Duskverse’s battle system. It’s throwing away the simplified “hit things and just wait” that haunts Arland’s battle system in favor for a
glorious return to Mana Khemia’s battle system more, for lack of a better word, ‘active’ one. The assists system from Mana Khemia Meruru have become an important feature. In Meruru, you try to use less assists because of CP; in Ayesha, you have no restriction — that said, I cannot stress how much you need it. Battles become a bit more challenging and some maps require you to kill all the enemies in the map to advance. So you want to kill the enemies quickly without losing much health. The assist system gives more flexibility to the standard RPG battle strategy. My favorite system, the Cost Turn Battle System from Mana Khemia Meruru, also returns. It now punishes by giving more wait time for better skills. Again, it is a welcome addition to diminish the tedium of random battles. You can also move around in battles and using “Back Attacks” are crucial for hitting crits. And because of this, the field for Area of Effect attacks are also important. Whereas in Meruru, the enemies are always on the same position; in Ayesha, it changes because of movement and knockbacks.
The alchemy system has been improved as well,
resembling Mana Khemia’s upgrading on Meruru’s system. Elemental affinities are more apparent here though like Mana Khemia. As in there are more options for different levels in each item , a feature well-preserved from Mana Khemia. CP is now diverted into synthesizing items; if you don’t have enough CP, none of the bonus abilities will affect the item.
“Okay, Totorikastel, that sounds good and all,” a hardcore GUST fan might rise up and say, “but the battle and alchemy system sound like a poor man’s version of Ma –”
Don’t say that name. Especially in vain.
Let us accept that, under the Holy Name of SCA-JI and His Futa Magical Girl Overlords, nothing will be as good as That-Game-That-Cannot-Be-Mentioned. In truth, none of the PS3 Atelier games have reached to that greatness. And I have no doubt it will. Rather, I must lament and accept that the PS3 Atelier games have a different focus: it is meant for a more general public, not for the players who enjoy intricate battle systems. I am ashamed, but I am happy enough with a mimicry, a sham imitation, of that holy game. Like the Absurdists’ view on life, I accept this absurdity and live with it. Atelier Ayesha and its predecessors are still fun games nonetheless. So in the end, it doesn’t matter.
Also, Mana Khemia doesn’t have cute girls either. Unless you’re a furry. So what’s the point???
Other interesting minor changes have made the game smoother. Ayesha now categorizes its quests; there’s a difference between story missions, sidequests, and optional errand quests. The latter used to be a necessary part in the previous games and they were a drag. So this means you can advance the story without worrying much about making items you can’t use later on. You would do these quests to get moolah. Other than that, you can ignore them. A diary system is also put into place where Ayesha literally records major events. In the game, you get points from talking to characters and finishing quests. These points allow her to record these events. While optional, recording them gives Ayesha benefits like HP increases.
GUST has also dabbled into economics: there are now stalls that sell unique alchemic ingredients during a certain period each month. Ernie, a traveling merchant without a wolf, would travel around the map and you could buy goods from him. And each shop has a “Shop Level”. Plus, there’s an auction system where you show off your best items to the public for money.
While all these microeconomic touches might make the sole Maoyuu fan happy and Kastel interested in other shopping methods instead of relying on Amazon.com, let’s not forget where the focus Atelier has switched to: kawaii characters. One can say, the PS3 Atelier games are ‘keion alchemy’. And there is a bit of truth to that: the cute girls are very essentially fundamentally basically au fond “cute moeshit”. No a priori reasoning is needed. Hidari’s drawings of the Atelier girls are nosebleed-worthy. A talented digital artist, his designs feature his unique shading and blending of colors. As a respectful citizen, I have littered his Ayesha CGs oh so graciously — in this case, littering is a social service act!
Don’t get me wrong: I like Kishida Mel too. He’s a good artist, even if his samefaces are a bit too much. I like how fashionable his characters are despite the simple clothing (if you want to see a disastrous ‘complex’ design of his, look no further than Meruru). The backgrounds behind his characters are elaborate as fuck. Arguably, the best Atelier cover is Atelier Rorona’s. I also own his artbook in the Master Language.
It’s just that Hidari is better. His colors are bolder and explodes into the screen. Kishida’s colors are muted. I agree these contrasts exist because they create different atmospheres; and yet, I find myself more enchanted by Hidari’s CGs than Kishida’s. Like in most Hidari works, he puts a lot of effort into coloring. Someone said his genga might look bland without the colors and I’m inclined to agree. His colors are so expressive they have become an indispensable feature of his work.
So it isn’t a surprise Ayesha’s art direction is probably one of the best things about the game. Unlike the predecessors, it actually looks like a PS3 game. But because of this transition, there are zero sprites whatsoever. You get in-game cutscenes instead. It seems a shame at first, but when you realize that means Hidari can work on the CGs it’s a good trade-off.
As I’ve said previously, the designers have decorated and embellished the backgrounds. This is seen in the cities where you could see in the distance more houses and districts. I could make out a huge municipal building in the background at the entrance to Vierzeberg’s atelier.
GUST has also amped up their models; their gestures are more animated and I particularly like Wilfred’s movements. Her poses are sassy. And Ayesha covering her laughter with her hand is adorable, though it’s a tad overused.
Soundtrack-wise, I’ve always preferred Atelier’s more ‘SOL’-like tracks. I like “Journey to the New World for its snazzy opening and instruments. And you can’t go wrong with yanaginagi’s “Ibara”. “Stargazer” is fun too because it has some cool guitar slides. Dungeon themes are generally great on its own; going on a hiking trip while “North Wind Musette” plays in the background is acceptable. I also accept “Wish for Treasure”, especially if you’re traversing the Amazon. Its world map themes are delightful to listen to: “Invitation Flower ~Autumn~” for example plays at the North Pole (North Pole has autumns too!) and evokes a suspenseful feeling. On more relaxing themes, “Very Ordinary” is not very ordinary; it’s a nice acoustic song that plays in the background of some cutscenes. I also have a boner for “Sunshine Rondo” because it’s such a chippy song. “Frostflower” is a v. feels song and plays whenever Ayesha-onee-chan wants Nio back ;_;. And while I tend to skip what I call ‘tutorial music tracks’, I found “Memorizing” catchy.
There’s also Ayesha’s OP, “Hanashirube”, which is a cute but generic song. It’s forgettable when we listen to the Arland trilogy’s OP songs, especially Rorona’s. Its battle themes are boring from what I remember. While “Yesterday’s Opponents are Today’s Ingredients” is a funny title, it’s p. meh because it’s just a ‘rock battle theme song’. Nothing special. “Sagittarius” brings back memories of Totori’s horrible boss music. If I have to give Meruru credit, its soundtrack was kinda badass. It had that v. Spanish battle theme song plus some crazy rock battle theme songs, even though in the end the sound direction becomes messed up. On the other hand, Ayesha‘s battle themes are lame. I forgot all these tracks and I usually listened to them when I was writing this post.
Well, except for four cool boss battle tracks: Salamander (drums unfunf), “Close to the Edge” (organs unfunf), “Slag Dance” (instrumentation + mixing unfunf), and “MARIA” (choirs unfunf). The latter is my favorite not just because it’s the final boss theme song but rather, a large chunk of it is played previously as a motif in “Guidance”.
That shows how good the sound direction can be. And yet, the regular battle themes are so lacking. It’s undeniably frustrating when there’s so much potential. It makes me as sad as Ayesha-onee-chan :-(.
But if we are talking about sound, then we must not also forget as well the stellar voice cast in the game. If you have somehow read this far, I congratulate you for bearing with my awful, meandering prose. You must have also noticed the voice actor names. If you’re as anime as I am, you would know who Inoue Marina is. Her portrayal of the autistic Ayesha is adorable as hell. Koshimizu Ami plays Linca, an atypical role of her, and she plays the swordswoman character well. Mitsuaki Madono acts flamboyantly as Harry. I fondly remember his scenes in the auction where he goes apeshit crazy.
With her cute voice and art design, Ayesha had killed the anime industry. The game killed them so bad that Escha to Logy is getting an anime first. But if we are objective Visual Novel reviewers, we have to admit Totori had committed genocide: she has killed over 1,000 anime industries.
Besides That-Game-That-Cannot-Be-Mentioned, Atelier Totori was my favorite GUST game. I don’t think there is a character that is like Totori. And Ayesha, for sure, doesn’t reach her adorableness. Plus, Totori is a more relaxing game than Atelier Ayesha, so I imagine myself playing the former more frequently than the latter.
But we cannot discount that Ayesha is a stronger game in everything when we compare it to Totori. Actually, let’s correct that statement: Ayesha is a spiritual successor to Totori. It has the fun of Totori and more. And because of this, I have decided to call Atelier Ayesha my favorite visual novel of all time (besides Subarashiki Hibi).
It goes to show that the sisterly love between onee-chans and imoutos can make a game better.