This author has been lucky enough to see the Atelier franchise slowly evolve over the past five years. With each PlayStation 3 title, new mechanics have been introduced, scrapping those that didn't previously work and improving on those that did. Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is the biggest improvement yet, though, as it finally sets you free, by abolishing many of the restraints that have held the series back.
After the events of Ayesha and Escha & Logy, the world's seas are beginning to dry up, taking all forms of life with it. It's the fate of two young alchemists from different walks of life to try and uncover the mystery of the dusk with the power of alchemy. The game is split into two storylines following each of the protagonists. Shallistera, as her clan's next chief, goes on a journey to help fix their drying water supply before it's too late, while city-girl Shallotte is still trying to find her place in the world and what she wants to do with her life.
Which Shallie you pick to play as will make more of a difference to your game experience than just seeing a few unique interactions. They each have their own lifestyles, priorities, and friends, which alters the game heavily at certain parts of the story. While certain events will be shared, others will be independent to a particular hero's plot. These vary from personal issues such as those surrounding Lotte's mother, right down to childhood friends being closer. But while this adds to the replay value, it also results in a largely different game: Lotte's storyline is vaguer, relying heavily on knowledge of the previous titles, and her combat encounters are much harder than Stera's – even though the game doesn't tell you anywhere.
The more sweeping changes reside under the hood, however, as this entry abolishes the timed system that the Atelier games are known for. Replaced with a life tasks mechanic, you are given goals to achieve dependent on if you are working towards furthering the plot or simply spending "free time". The former objectives are very specific and progress the storyline, requiring you to visit new regions or defeat certain monsters – but you can take as long as you want to complete them. The story comes in small, bitesized chunks, never tying down you too long or making you play for hours without advancing.
Meanwhile, during free time, you can spend your time doing whatever you please, but can only advance to the next part of the story if you've earned enough merits from a variety of life skill quests. Once one task is completed, more will open up in a similar category, so if you want to just go out and kill a bunch of monsters, you can do that – although it would be faster to progress by doing a variety of tasks. These tasks are never particularly monumental, and usually involve small things such as making better equipment or levelling up. More than anything, they are a simple buffer put in place to make sure that you are appropriately kitted out and levelled for the next part of the story.
Combat has also done away with its rule-mongering, getting rid of endless extra bars and the requirements needed to do cool stuff. Characters each have a variety of different skills, ranking in at almost double that of previous titles, allowing them to have the most versatility yet. Add a party of six characters, three in the fray and three on standby in the back, and you have a quick and fluid combat system on your hands. While you can switch characters when their wait meter is full – simply shown by their portrait filling with colour – to add an extra attack or to take a blow for a fellow hero, it's the new burst system that gives combat its speed and x-factor.
By attacking in combat, a burst meter goes up at the top which is shared by all party members. During this mode, not only do characters deal more damage quicker, but this also adds some new options to your arsenal, which are introduced slowly as you progress. Field burst abilities can be activated during burst triggers, allowing you to gain numerous boosts based on which character you pick. You can, for example, extend the length of the burst, buff yourself further, or even revive yourself should you die.
Unfortunately, we didn't get chance to see the combat system at its fullest potential, as we encountered a pretty major bug as part of the growth system. This is supposed to help you specialise characters further, but, bizarrely, its menu has been left untranslated – and currently causes our console to crash. While we've been promised that a patch is on the way, until a fix is issued it will not only stunt your progress – but make it impossible to progress. This is, obviously, a pretty major flaw.
Fortunately, the alchemy system – which allows you to create new items and weapons – is much less intimidating this time around. Your early endeavours in this area will be tied to the plot, guiding you through the process, and from there new features will be sprinkled in slowly, helping you to learn its intricacies, without bombarding you with tutorials and tons of information at once. Couple this with the fact that there are fewer ingredients to mess around with in the first place, and it all becomes much more manageable – in a good way.
Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is the perfect end to an enchanting and mysterious trilogy, reaching the high point that the series has been leading up to. Newcomers will be pleased that some of the more intimidating features have been simplified, while options such as hard mode will still allow the hardcore to run free. It's just a shame that a critical launch bug has crept into the final release, meaning that this is hard to fully recommend until it's been properly patched.