When you think of alchemy, you probably think of wispy-haired wizards, holed up in towers, turning lead into gold. You probably don't think of cutesy teenage girls pottering around pastel-coloured workshops, making everything from health potions to bombs and pies in their cauldrons - but this is just what the long-running Atelier series is all about. From the French for 'workshop', each game centres around the day to day life of a budding alchemist, learning the ancient art in an effort to save [something] that's important to them, whether it be a missing sister's life, a way to explore a far off ruin or rebuilding a once-great kingdom. The latest in the Atelier series, Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, marks the end of the dusk trilogy, a series with (slightly) more of a serious tone that follows the spread of the mysterious Dusk, a force which seems to be sweeping the land, drying up water supplies, killing vegetation and making the local wildlife angry, and as such, the future is looking pretty bleak.
The hook this time round is that there's two protagonists - two female alchemists, both going by the name of Shallie. The first is Shallistera, a socially-awkward princess from a far away land, who's set off on a journey to save her homeland from a drought, in place of her ailing father, the clan's chief. Shallotte meanwhile, is a bubbly girl who hopes to 'make it big' someday, although doing what she's not sure, and spends most of her time taking various day jobs to help make ends meet, whilst practising the alchemy her late father taught her. Each has their own unique story to play through (at least for the first half of the game), as they work to master the ancient art of alchemy, save Shallistera's village and help Shallotte decide on her future - and it's up to you which girl's tale you play through first. We plumbed for Shallotte, drawn to her fun-loving, optimistic nature and awesome taste in hats - and her confusion about her future seemed all too familiar, reminding us of finishing university with a not-too-great Chemistry degree and no idea what to do with it.
At its core, Atelier Shallie is a role playing game. There are towns to explore, quests to be done in and around the town of Stellard, turn-based battles to fight and levels to gain. Centring around a new 'Life Tasks' system, the game essentially gives you a constantly updating list of objectives to complete, ranging from story-related quests, such as talking to specific characters, synthesising certain items (thanks to your alchemy skills) or exploring a particular area, to random extra objectives which boost Shallie's combat and gathering skills. These latter tasks tend to be more general goals, such as defeating a number of enemies, using various items and performing synthesis - as well as ones for simply jumping or swinging your weapon around. Each task you complete gives you significant boosts to your combat or alchemy experience, usually pushing you up a level or two in the process - so it's well worth spending time working your way through the bonus objectives.
But Life Tasks aren't the only thing to keep you busy - Stellard's Request board always has some new things to do, whether it's slaying troublesome monsters, locating an elusive item or synthesising something specific. Whether you choose to play as Shallistera, who agrees to help out the people of Stellard in exchange for a hand with her village's water problem, or the hard-working Shallotte, making a name for herself by taking on jobs from Raoul at the Union, requests play an important part in each girl's story, as well as earning you a bit of cash on the side - cash which can then be used to buy all important alchemy recipes and ingredients, or used to fund weapon and armour upgrades. There's a very Rune Factory-esque vibe going on here - at least, if Rune Factory replaced its romance with alchemy.
As in most role playing games, your quests and tasks will lead you to ever more dangerous areas, where you'll face off against tougher and stronger enemies. The harder the enemies you face, the more that +1 stick of smiting you've been using just won't cut the mustard, and the more you'll be needing more than a plaster to patch up your wounds - and this is where the game's twist comes in. While in most role playing games, all you'd need to do is collect the dough your enemies drop, in Atelier Shallie, you can't just stroll into a shop and buy much better armour or weapons, or stock up on potions. Instead, you have to make it yourself, making use of the game's alchemy system.
Both Shallistera and Shallotte are budding alchemists, which means they can mix various items together to create new ones. Not too dissimilar to cooking, each item you make requires a recipe and a different set of ingredients - sometimes specific items, like honey or anti-bug grass, and sometimes from a general family of substances, such as 'plant', 'cloth' or even 'smelly'. Depending on the ingredients you use, you can alter the strength of the resulting item, or give it some additional effects - for example, substituting a taun grass for a mutated taun will boost the amount a Refuel Pad heals, while making a bomb with mixed oil as a fuel adds critical damage - but swapping it for a permeating toxin will poison your target instead. As the only way to get potions in the game, not to mention the enemy obliterating bombs you can make, you'll spend a while tinkering with the synthesis system. You'll also unlock the ability to 'imbue' your weapons, armour and accessories to make them stronger or give them bonus effects - and despite the name change, it's pretty much identical to alchemy, just performed at Miruca's shop rather than your character's atelier.
As the game progresses, your Shallie learns new skills and abilities that let you fine-tune your creations, giving them special properties or traits. Whether it's altering the order in which you add the ingredients or using one of your additional alchemy skills, it soon becomes a bit of a balancing act to make the perfect items. Each ingredient in a synthesis has a set number of 'skill frame' boxes associated with it, and fitting skills into these spots - which themselves take up varying amounts of space - lets you play around with various attributes and properties, affecting the synthesised item in the process. These skills range from improving elemental powers (fire, wind, water and earth) to increasing the number of items produced from the synthesis to adding various stat bonus to the finished item, such as increased speed or defence or fetching a higher price in stores. Initially the system feels a lot like guess work, but before long you'll be a dab hand with the spoon, making all kinds of fancy items with oodles of bonus effects - we promise.
But in order to perform alchemy, you first need ingredients - and while some can be bought in town shops, by and large you'll have to head out into the surrounding wilderness to gather them yourself. Getting to these more exotic locations is as easy as choosing a dot to visit on the world map - and once you're there, all you need to do is keep an eye out for the glowing patches on the ground that show you where the ingredients grow. Depending on which of the Shallies you choose to play as, you'll also be able to perform character-specific gathering actions, such as fishing as Shallotte or dowsing for rare items as Shallistera. As you gather, mine, fish and dowse, a bar will fill up too, and once full, can be used to trigger various Field Events - bonuses that can net you rare items, alter the amount of stuff you can gather or bring out more powerful enemies to battle, with much better rewards for beating them.
You see, the wildlife around the town of Stellard isn't exactly all that friendly, and many of them are spoiling for a fight. In each area you'll find a number of enemies wandering around, and running into one will trigger a battle - although if you can manage to creep up on one and whack it with your weapon, you can start the battle with an advantage. Combat is a simple, turn-based affair, in which you and your party of ditzy young girls called Shallie, talking fox-like things and slightly crazy witches take it in turns to attack, unleash special moves or use all manner of alchemised bombs, poisons and healing potions on the cantankerous creatures that inhabit all the best gathering spots. Annoyingly, though, occasionally, you'll stumble on a random, overly powerful enemy on the field, with no way of telling you're up against a super-charged foe until your whole party gets wiped out on the first turn, and while there's no such thing as a game over - your party simply come back to life with a single health point after being kicked out of the battle - it can feel a bit unfair at times.
One element of the battles that existing fans will already be familiar with is the Assist system, although it has been simplified somewhat for the latest iteration. During battle, you effectively have three characters in the fray with a further three in reserve, who can be called on to lend a hand, trading places with the current front-line character in the process. Assist Attacks let one of the characters in the rear leap in to land a follow-up attack on the enemy, and can be chained up to three times (one for each of your reserve characters), with escalating damage each time, before ending in a final, more powerful Variable Attack for massive damage. Assist Defends meanwhile, let one of your spare folks leap in to take the damage from an incoming attack too, helping to spread the damage around a bit, and ultimately making battles that bit easier. The new Burst status ups the ante even more, with a bar filling up as you battle - and once it hits 100%, the damage you deal drastically increases, making light work of more challenging enemies. Exploiting a combination of Assists and Bursts is key, although you're unlikely to have too many issues with the battles anyway, as, by and large, they tend to be on the easier side.
Those who've played an Atelier game before will likely be familiar with the series' time management system, where every action, from synthesis to exploring to gathering, eats up a certain amount of days from the time frame in which you have to complete the game (usually three in-game years or so). While these limits were always rather lenient, none is more lenient than Atelier Shallie, which forgoes the system completely - giving you however long you want to complete your tasks. As someone who tends to get a bit angsty when time limits are involved, no matter how generous, being able to take things at our own pace makes a nice change.
We're always pleasantly surprised by the Atelier games - as a bit of a niche series, they never really gets the massive media push of the Final Fantasies, Kingdom Hearts and the like. They may not have the epic overarching tales of the latter, preferring instead to focus on more personal character-specific storylines, but that doesn't make them any less worth your time, particularly if you prefer slower paced, story driven games. And with no time limits to worry about this time round, Atelier Shallie is fast on it's way to becoming one of our favourite Atelier games yet, ending the Dusk trilogy on a high note.