In more recent years, annual releases have become something of a staple in the games industry. The footballing mainstay FIFA set the trend, aiming squarely for the wallets of the football-obsessed teen boy, with Call of Duty following suit when it saw what a money spinner it could be. One of the lesser known yearly running series though, is that of Atelier, a girly role-playing game revolving around the magical art of alchemy. Marking the fifteenth game in the long running Atelier series, Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky is the fifth instalment for the Playstation 3, bringing with it a mix of role playing, turn-based battling, and item crafting fun, this time with two main characters to choose from.
From the game's anime-inspired intro, we're introduced to the game's dual protagonists - the innocent, bubbly Escha and the aloof but kind-hearted Logy, two young alchemists due to start in the local government R&D department on the same day. But instead of placing the weight of a world-saving quest on your shoulders from the outset, Atelier starts (and stays) small, giving you a number of simple quests to get your feet wet as you explore the monster-filled ruins, forests and deserts that surround the small rural outpost of Colseit. With the fate of their department resting in their hands, it's up to Escha and Logy to complete each set of quests within the set four month in-game time-frame, battling monsters, harvesting raw materials and cooking up items with alchemy, working to raise their ranks and keep their jobs. Of course, all work and no play would make a dull game, but with light-hearted conversations, plenty of goofing around and tons of cake (Escha's a mean chef along with being an alchemist), Atelier is a breath of fresh air amongst the epic quests of most other role-playing games.
Depending on which personality you choose, either the cutesy Escha or the mysterious Logy, you'll see what is essentially the same overarching story through two different sets of eyes. Much like Tales of Xillia did, there's certain conversations, events and scenes that are specific to each individual, with Escha's tale focussing more on friendships, alchemy and cooking up cakes in cauldrons, whilst Logy treads a slightly darker and more serious path, with more battles, monsters and mysteries to contend with. The two different perspectives encourage multiple playthroughs (as do the game's multitude of endings), while the pair's contrasting personalities keep the game ticking along. Escha's upbeat enthusiasm, optimism and occasional eccentricity meshes well with Logy's more serious, studious and straightforward city boy persona, while a myriad of extra party members and townsfolk, each with their own unique personalities, all ensure that there's rarely a dull moment in the town of Colseit and it's surrounding ruins, forests and dungeons.
As you can probably guess from the title, alchemy is central to Atelier. Working in Research and Development with a huge cauldron at your disposal, its up to Escha and Logy to cook their way to success, mixing raw ingredients together to make new, improved items to save their department from closure. Whether its cooking up a replacement cog to fix the town's rundown windmill, rustling up some much-needed distilled water for a nearby town whose water supply has run dry, or creating a bomb with a specific explosive effect, crafting is at the crux of everything you do. Once you have the relevant recipe, you'll need to choose from your stash of ingredients, as you'll often have several variants of a single ingredient, each with their own unique properties, before mixing them up and choosing a few key properties for you new item, swallowing up a chunk of your in-game time as it cooks. As you progress through the game, you'll unlock several variations of the basic alchemy mechanic which let you create your own weapons and armour, break down items into their constituent components to figure out their recipes and more.
Of course, in order to alchemise stuff, you're going to need materials - and while you can buy some from the town's shops, the bulk of your ingredients will need to be foraged from the surrounding areas. Heading out into the wild, each area has a number of glowing spots where you can harvest bits and pieces for your recipes, before taking your new found grass, gems and rocks home to make more useful items. While it doesn't sound too interesting on paper, Atelier's collect-create-collect mechanic is surprisingly addictive, at least in part down to the system's massive scope - letting you create a pimped out base material which you can then incorporate into your weapons to create a seriously souped-up sword is pretty rewarding, as is the sense of achievement when you finally figure out how to create an explosive with a specific effect for a quest.
Atelier isn't all sunshine and skipping through forests picking daisies for your potions though - outside the city walls there's a very real threat of monsters, and despite being researchers, you still need to learn how to swing a sword. Battles with creatures are a simple, turn-based affair, with you and your opponents taking it in turns to attack each other with a range of physical and magical attacks. Each hit you land helps fill up the 'Support Gauge', which can be used to have one of your party leap in front of you to take damage in your place (often at a lower level to what you would ordinarily take), or gang up on enemies and do extra damage with a 'Support Attack'. Making effective use of these support moves effectively is key to surviving in the wild, particularly as you only have limited inventory space for healing items. Given the game's emphasis on alchemy, it comes as no surprise that you can also use any bombs, explosives and poisons you cook up in your cauldron in battle - giving you plenty of reason to play around with recipes to create the ultimate consumables for your adventures.
What may come as a surprise to many is that Atelier Escha & Logy, much like it's predecessors, has a time limit to your adventure. Outside of the cutscenes and strolls around the town of Colseit, pretty much everything you do costs days. Whether it's synthesising items with alchemy, exploring ruins or travelling from place to place, each activity cuts into the time you have. Each in-game year is split into thirds, and you have four months in which to complete each main task given to you by the R&D higher ups, before fitting in as many extra tasks as you can for some bonus credits. As long as you manage to complete your primary objective within the allotted 120 days, your department will still receive funding and you'll keep your job - as for what happens when you fail, we have yet to find out. You see, even though time is constantly marching on, the time limit is still very easy-going, and you can generally finish your main task within the first month or so, leaving you three more with which to mop up all the sub tasks, cook up a load of new items and explore areas to your hearts content.
In fact, about the only fault we have with Atelier Escha & Logy is that it's initial hour or two is a little bit dull, as you walk from cutscene to cutscene and tutorial to tutorial, with characters banging on about stripends, government funding and other business formalities that you don't really need to know. All the basics of alchemy are explained as you go along, but the more complex stuff is largely glossed over or left for you to figure out for yourself, through trial and error. We would have appreciated some rundown of what each of the alchemical elements are, and whether jigging them around have any repercussions - what exactly would swapping an earth point for a water point actually do for your item, for example? How does 'adding viscosity' affect things? And what exactly is the difference between properties and effects? The answer seems to be to experiment, but when you only have a single instance of a crucial (or rare) ingredient, having your concoction come out without the correct effect can be a bit annoying.
Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky is a bright and bubbly concoction that's full of charm, fusing a simple and addictive battle system with a surprisingly deep and rewarding alchemy system. The emphasis on item crafting may not be to everyone's taste, but for those who manage to hit it off, you'll find it eats up a large portion of your time. While it may not win any awards for epic stories, it certainly makes up for it's slightly lacklustre plot (that only really gets going towards the end) with well-written characters, whose interactions range from the touching to the hilarious all the way through. If you're on the lookout for an accessible and laid-back role-playing game, Atelier really shines - but be wary, as once you start playing, you'll find it hard to put it down.