The Atelier franchise has been running for a long time – sixteen years to be exact. And in those sixteen years, developer Gust Corporation has produced fifteen entries in the main series and a further seven side games. With so many Atelier titles on offer, it's easy to completely dismiss Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk as 'yet another one of those girly JRPGs'. It sounds the same as the other titles, and, yes, the box art is still plastered with cute anime-style teenage females. However, despite being far from the defining game of the genre, Ayesha does offer a reasonably unique and enjoyable experience.
Like its predecessors, the title revolves around the art of alchemy, that is, mixing together foraged ingredients in order to create synthesized items, such as medicine and food. In this entry, our bewildered protagonist is Ayesha Altugle, an apothecary who enjoys picking flowers and casually battering Slags in her spare time. In an obligatory JRPG twist, Ayesha's little sister Nio has disappeared, supposedly having been 'spirited away' while gathering herbs from a ruin. The main storyline sees the star adventuring across an epic map in search of clues about the disappearance of her younger sibling – and in turn perfecting the ancient art of alchemy.
A nice addition to the plot is that Ayesha's story can conclude in a variety of different ways, including one True Ending. Each finale depends on which side-quests you complete and how many character events you trigger throughout the course of the adventure. It's possible to achieve the True Ending in your first playthrough, but it's most likely that you'll have to finish the game a couple of times before you determine all of the correct quest variables without a walkthrough. There's also a time system and a game ending time limit, which takes place over a period of three in-game years. Time is spent by synthesizing items, travelling across the map, battling, and even resting to recuperate health. The mechanic also means that certain character, story, and side events are triggered when Ayesha arrives at a specific location on a particular day, such as the monthly bazaar.
The gameplay itself starts off slow, plagued by boring fetch quests and painfully short dungeon crawling sequences. However, as the hours roll by, Ayesha becomes gradually more exciting, and the difficultly curve starts to increase. As the map opens up, you're treated to more interesting side-quests, unlocked by character relationships and new environments. There can be up to ten quests available at any one moment, giving you plenty of options to fill your time.
Ayesha is first and foremost a release about foraging ingredients and nurturing friendships, occasionally forcing you to hunt down a few monsters and skip through the odd dungeon. The battle system is initially rather underwhelming, adopting a tried-and-tested turn-based mechanic. This may seem boring to begin with, and the slow level grinding can feel like a chore, but as soon as you have the option to choose party members, upgrade weapons, use alchemy bombs, and skills, the combat becomes much more satisfying.
Unlike most JPRGs, namely the recently reviewed Hyperdimension Neptunia Victory, Ayesha isn't overly sexualised. That is, unless you ignore the optional skimpy swimsuit DLC. Instead, Gust opts for a more delicate, colourful, and light hearted narrative tone, focusing on the innocence and purity of the young cast of characters, instead of staining the story with steamy sexual references. The personalities are quirky without being outrageously unbelievable, and side-plots become an interesting and welcome addition to the main storyline.
Ayesha is supplemented by a gorgeous aesthetic, mixing cel-shading with beautiful watercolour overtones. The character models work well with this style and look lovely, and there are some nice colourful locations and backdrops dotted around the map, such as the stunning, yet modest Half-Florescent Field. However, there is one slight hitch with the visuals, as sadly, while the art style itself is pleasing, the game can look dated, at points comparable to a late PlayStation 2 title, albeit a very pretty one. It's also a shame that the vast majority of monsters that you engage are simply colour palette swaps of previous enemies that you've encountered earlier on in the game, which is purely down to lazy character design.
The frame rate also often stutters, especially in bigger areas such as the bustling market town of Vierzeberg. Animations and character movement, including simple acts such as running, can be rigid and awkward visually. Furthermore, the game's camera is locked, which can be particularly frustrating in dungeons and meadows when you're looking for monsters or areas to gather materials from. As expected from a title of this nature, there is a lot of text to scroll through, but with a script that can only be described as average at best, it's unlikely that you'll find yourself reading the vast majority of it.
The audio in the game is a hodgepodge of the very good and the very bad. On the one hand, the soundtrack is excellent, a perfect combination of epic battle themes, wistful melodies reminiscent of Wild Arms, and even a dusting of cheesy J-pop. Composed by Daisuke Achiwa, Kazuki Yanagawa, and Yu Shimod, the music is truly a defining feature of Ayesha, providing the perfect backing for every in-game situation.
However, the voice acting and dialogue sections leave a lot to be desired. While the majority of the cast are voiced reasonably well, the performance for the protagonist Ayesha is dreadful. Her high-pitched squeaks and slow, dull musings are enough to make even the most tolerant of gamers set their TVs to mute. It's also perhaps worth noting that unlike Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland, and other earlier Atelier titles, Ayesha does not have a dual voice option, meaning that you won't be able to play the game with the original Japanese dub.
Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk eschews the traditional battle-centric approach present in many modern JRPGs, opting for an intriguing alchemy system instead. This mechanic encourages you to explore new and distant lands, where you'll be able to experiment with many different methods of potion and item forging. Complemented by a beautiful watercolour and cel-shaded art style, and cloaked in an aura of innocence, this is an enjoyable adventure, but it's let down by some occassionally mundane gameplay, frame rate issues, and voice dub faults.