There lies a world shrouded in mysterious ruins from a forgotten civilization, and just what power it harbours, no one knows. It's this settlement of uncertainty that is the home to Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk, and the beginning of the Twilight trilogy. Fortunately, there are no sparkly vampires hidden here.
You'll play as young herbalist Ayesha, a modest medicine maker who lives close to the ancient ruins that her sister disappeared in three years ago. While visiting her grave, she encounters a mysterious old man who changes her life forever, revealing that her sister isn't dead and can be saved. Left with the guidance that alchemy and the flowers found within the ruins are key to her rescue, she's given three years to recover her sibling before her demise. With a smile on her face, hope in her heart, and a cow called Pana, Ayesha sets off to discover the mysteries of the aforementioned world.
As a story of exploration, you're encouraged to get out there and discover with little direction. You traverse by employing interconnecting dots on the world map. At these points, you'll find towns and dungeons, while new areas will unlock after you've visited old ones. Locations marked with an exclamation mark are places with events happening in them, where you'll discover plot exposition, party members, and also alternate storylines that you can engage with. Each of these are custom tailored to the specific character, and will run over the course of the entire game as they grow and change with you. While the main plot is your overall objective, character side stories are equally fulfilling and enjoyable.
Completing all of the subplots is worth your time thanks to the memory diary, Ayesha's own personal records of her worldly adventures. Every time that a major event happens, she records them to look back upon them fondly. More importantly, each event gives you a perk, be it increasing your health points and damage, allowing party members to gain experience out of combat, or even making items that allow you to teleport back to town instantly. Some need to be bought using memory points, however, that are earned by fulfilling tasks within the game, such as fully exploring an area or killing all of the monsters there.
Alchemy is still key to the experience, so it's a good thing that our humble apothecary is already good at it. Using components bought from shops, gathered in the field, or dropped by enemies in combat, you can create a wide array of items for use in battle – or just to fulfil random town-folk's requests for a bit of extra dosh.
The crafting system itself goes as deep as you are comfortable with. You can craft items pretty easily by selecting an entry off the list, which reveals the required ingredients to make it. New recipes are obtained by progressing through the storyline, doing side-quests, or simply by buying them from your local shop. You can make basic versions of most items with simple parts, but meticulously choosing your ingredients will enable you to fashion more powerful kit.
Combat will feel natural to fans of RPGs, with a classic turn-based structure. On the right-side of the screen you'll find a vertical display showing the order of everyone's turn, with enemies on the right and allies on the left. Heroes can either use an attack or a battle skill that varies from character to character. Some skills will affect a wide area, while others may inflict status effects, such as lowering an enemy's defence. The characters themselves have a very small skill set – Ayesha having none – so when you find a set up that you like, you'll likely stick to it.
Extra features spice up the combat. For example, Ayesha can use some items that she has crafted to heal the party or damage the enemy. As your catalogue of recipes gets more varied and your alchemising gets better, she'll become the core of your battle line up. Using your support bar will be vital for tough battles, too, or simply making short ones even shorter. Characters can use a special bar to help attack an enemy from behind for extra damage, or even protect a character from a killing blow – and this is something that has to be perfectly managed for the tough boss encounters.
As expected from the Plus version of the game, it comes with extra tidbits not included in the original PlayStation 3 release. The original DLC is included as standard, adding two new areas, along with two extra party members. A hard mode has been implemented as well, with extra boss monsters. Furthermore, as with the other plus releases, character outfits are available so that you can give the heroes a different look. An album option has also been added to the menu, which will show you a list of goals on a 9x9 grid, unveiling part of a picture as you achieve each square's requirement.
Atelier Ayesha Plus: The Alchemist of Dusk offers the perfect start for fledgling apothecaries. However, while its features are vastly improved over titles in the previous trilogy, its combat system is outshined by successor Escha & Logy. Thankfully, for those playing exclusively on the Vita, this issue can be cast aside, and you'll find an in-depth storyline with oodles of character development here.