Once again focusing on the practice of alchemy and the need to complete countless jobs for the populace, Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky is the latest entry in developer Gust's long running series. It's full of the kind of mechanics, tropes, and characters that fans have come to expect – but does the tried and tested recipe add any welcome new ingredients, or does it continue to follow the same old cookbook?
Initially, the biggest deviation from the formula is the option to play as one of two protagonists: Escha or Logy. The game's story is played out through the eyes of whichever personality you choose, although the plot still follows both characters as they work together as an alchemical duo in the town of Corseit. Much like Tales of Xillia, you'll experience some different content depending on your decision, with Escha's perspective offering a more light-hearted take on events that focuses on the alchemy side of things, while Logy's view treads a slightly darker and more serious path that's more akin to a typical JRPG full of battles and monsters.
Either way, there's likely enough exclusive content to make fans play through the release twice in order to see everything on offer. It also helps that the partnership is a good one, as the two characters tend to bounce off each other quite well. Escha is an optimistic and adventurous young woman who keeps proceedings ticking along with her enthusiasm, and Logy is a somewhat straightforward thinker and city boy who's trying to get a grasp on the rural town's lifestyle. The duo are also helped out by a cast of secondary party members as well, who only add to their personality through interactions with the playable leads.
Unfortunately, the cast – including the protagonists – aren't immediately engaging or particularly likeable. In fact, during the opening hours of your adventure, things are so dull that we have no doubt that some new players won't even make it past the first chapter. You'll be introduced to your alchemical workplace, your colleagues, and the organisation that you work for, but it's all done in such a slow and business-like manner that it doesn't exactly inspire confidence in how engaging the rest of the tale will be. Part of the problem is that the dialogue, at least initially, is incredibly boring. Characters will bang on and on about stipends, government spending, and the town's economy, while your chosen protagonist acts like they're utterly engrossed in what's being said.
All of this is going on as the title throws chunks of information at you regarding the game's numerous in-town mechanics, and it can all prove to be just a bit much, especially since you won't have actually sampled the release's gameplay yet. Still, veterans of the franchise probably won't have much trouble taking in all of the available tutorials, although newcomers' brains will likely be overloaded.
When it comes to first impressions, it also doesn't help that the title features some of the most contrasting visuals that we've seen on the PlayStation 3. Character models look detailed and extremely well made for the most part – aside from their hilariously clunky out-of-battle animations — but the surrounding environment is full of ridiculously poor, PlayStation 2-esque textures and makes use of a depressingly dreary colour palette.
Thankfully, everything but the aesthetics only get better as you spend more time playing, from the plot that gradually escalates, to the gameplay which really starts to click as more and more options are opened up to you. Almost as soon as you're let loose to explore the various regions outside of civilisation, it's clear that the game's traditional RPG systems combine to create an experience that's addictive and sometimes highly enjoyable.
Progression follows a relatively simple structure that's centred around time management. Since the title follows its own calendar, you'll be given assignments by your employers that you'll need to complete before the deadline that's usually months down the line. You may need to help out a civilian by crafting a specific item for them, or you might be called upon to explore a dangerous dungeon. Whatever your task, you'll also be able to fulfil secondary objectives that grant rewards such as rare alchemy materials, books that give you access to new recipes, and even permanent stat boosts to your party leader. Completing these optional tasks comes naturally as you work towards achieving your main goal, and for that reason, it feels like you're constantly being rewarded for your efforts, which in turn results in a satisfying way to play.
Actually fulfilling your assigned tasks involves going out into the wilderness via a nicely drawn world map and selecting your chosen destination. From there, the location is split up into smaller environments that you traverse freely while slaying monsters and gathering bits and pieces that are strewn across the area. However, as you take action, time will pass, meaning that you'll still need to keep an eye on how long you're spending out in the field. Because of your limited time, making quick decisions based on your party's current health and stock of usable items becomes a fundamental part of not outstaying your welcome in these hostile places. Do you press on with your exploration, but use up some precious provisions? Or do you cut your losses and head back to town, despite the fact that it takes a few days to travel there? It's these little choices that keep proceedings engaging, and subsequently make pre-adventure preparations that much more important.
Speaking of preparation, the crux of the Atelier experience comes in the form of your workshop, which houses a container in where you'll store all of the materials that you've collected outside, and a nice big cauldron that you'll be using to synthesise countless items, from delicious looking food to healing salves and home-made explosives that you can use in battle. The crafting system retains the depth that fans will expect, but it streamlines it as well, by making subtle changes to how you add individual ingredients and determine which effect you want to utilise. It certainly still takes some getting used to as you pick out which components that you think are best for the job and then apply Escha's own set of skills in order to manipulate the outcome, but its strength lies in how it encourages experimentation. You'll always have the recipes on hand, but it's entirely up to you how you go about creating, thus cooking up a particularly potent potion or piece of equipment due to your own hard work feels immensely satisfying.
As previously alluded, the items that you synthesise are key to winning battles and surviving in the wild. Fights are a turn-based affair, where you'll need to think tactically about which enemy will be moving next, and use the support system to achieve victory in the most efficient way possible. Every action that you take, whether you choose to attack with your weapon or use a costly skill, will fill up the support gauge, which in turn can be used to command a different ally to either step in the way of incoming attacks, or launch an extra offensive. Mastering the mechanic may take some time, but the payoff can be huge if you've read the flow of battle right, and much like alchemy, making full use of the system is very gratifying.
All in all, it's safe to say that when separated, Atelier Escha & Logy's many gameplay components aren't especially unique or even compelling. Exploration is a bit bland, combat can become drawn out and somewhat tedious, and performing alchemy is daunting. However, fuse these elements together, and you're left with a well-balanced concoction that's neatly wrapped up in time management, which makes each session an engaging escapade.
If you can work through the mind numbing first couple of hours, Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky blooms into an addictive JRPG. Much like an alchemical formula, the individual pieces of this concoction are less impressive than its whole – just don’t jump into the release expecting to make something out of nothing.