Sunday, February 15, 2015

REVIEW - Atelier Ayesha Plus: The Alchemist of Dusk.

Atelier Ayesha Plus: The Alchemist of Dusk is the Vita port of 2012 PS3 title Atelier Ayesha, which itself was the kickoff of the Dusk trilogy (merely the latest trilogy) in Gust's eighteen-year-old franchise of female-friendly JRPGs.

JRPGs as a general rule adhere to certain tropes and tenets, and in many ways, Atelier adheres to them as well.  Battles are turn-based and there are quests to complete - but in so many other ways, it feels very much its own creature - and very separate from many of the clichés and problems its genre is often heir to.

How is Atelier Ayesha Plus?

Picture, if you will, the bustling plaza of a small town.  A picturesque and sleepy burg, the town is perched atop a massive scar in the earth - a great canyon so large that "canyon" does it a disservice, as it fails to suggest the world-cracking calamity that collapsed the Earth into a bottomless nothingness as far as the eye can see, just beyond the town walls.

Through the gates of its plaza come old couples on their Sunday walk, energetic youths desperate for bigger and better things and tired craftsmen, yearning to create a masterpiece that will offer some real financial security.  Into this throng of normal-looking folks prances a teenage girl in an emerald dress that appears to consist largely of frills, ribbons and the wings of the fairy folk.  She walks up to each and every person in that plaza, in turn, and greets them with a smile.

Sometimes, she shakes her head and looks a bit disappointed, for a half-second, before she beelines for the next citizen to strike up a conversation and perhaps reach into her satchel to hand something over, and receive something in return.

"Who's the blond?" remarks a stranger to the town.

A citizen, nearby, shrugs his shoulders and says "Ayesha," as if no further explanation is required.  Soon, the girl walks up to the stranger and greets him with that giant smile.

"Hello Sir - how are you today?"

And before long, he's told her how he's doing.  He's told her that he's in danger of shutting down his company, which has a contract clearing the rail tunnels to the east, because his supplier of dynamite has gone out of business and he'd give just about anything to-

"Will this do it?" she asks, offering an explosive device the size of a wagon wheel and a guileless look of optimism.  He stuffs his coin purse into her hands and takes the colossal bomb, unable to believe his good fortune.

The citizen steps forward and asks if she'd found the Angel's Tears he needed.  She holds out a glittering vial of some otherworldly liquid, and smiles as she receives payment.

"Made it just last week, so it's fresh!" she chirps.  And then, she's gone, followed closely by another girl with a miner's pick slung over one shoulder, and a preteen in a witch's hat three sizes too big, gliding just above the cobblestones on a little broom.

The stranger watches this miniature circus of absurdity leave, shakes his head and looks down at the earth-shattering ordnance she'd handed him.

"I'm saved," the stranger mutters, still in shock.  "I'm saved!  Who is that girl?"

"That's Ayesha," the citizen shrugs.  "She comes and goes."

Ayesha's childhood pal, Regina, is a dab hand with demolitions.

So it was that Ayesha would travel between the towns of her region, providing supernaturally-produced produce to the townsfolk.  She kept a small, clean and humble room in each town - always given freely by one of the town's denizens, seemingly in exchange for nothing more than the blond supermechant's good will.  She travelled hither and yon, and when she found her way blocked by the colossal creatures that call the dark corners of her world home, she relied upon her bag of mad tricks,  childhood friend, Regina (handy with a pickaxe) and secret witch-in-training and miniature con woman Wilbell voll Erslied, whom she meets after Wilbell stole her wallet and tried to sell it back to her.

Wilbell quickly realizes that despite Ayesha's intellectual handicap (Ayesha is an idiot when it comes to anything beyond her craft, with no concept of guile, dishonesty, betrayal or even romantic intentions), she can likely turn quite a profit with the blond at her side, and ingratiates herself into Ayesha's circle - so long as Ayesha promises never to reveal to anyone that the little girl in the pointy hat, riding a broom, is a witch.

The game has a lot of character, is what I mean.  It gently sweeps the player through quaint little towns, meeting zany folks like Marion, the diminutive agent of a foreign power, attempting to track down an errant criminal and Linca, Marion's nothing-but-business bodyguard who really, really wishes Marion would let her cut her hair and maybe wear some pants.  There's Fred, the baker in the region's largest town who is just insane about bread - like, super duper insane about it.

He's also in love with Marietta, the clerk at Harry's store (Harry's nuts about collecting the odd and the obscure), but Marietta is obviously crushing on the brusque Keithgriff, Ayesha's sometimes-mentor in the ways of alchemy - not that Ayesha has any idea.  She's either too stupid to pick up on stuff like that, or too completely dedicated to her discipline to keep room for it in her pretty head - but we, the audience, do.

I could tell you the story of the time Marietta came in to Fred's shop when Fred was in the middle of telling Ayesha about his new kitten bread (shaped like, not containing), and then he stands at attention like a soldier and can barely get two words out before Marietta left - or the time Ayesha and Regina kicked the crap out of all the miners in a monster-killing competition in Regina's home town, and won some choice liquor for their trouble which Regina promptly got proper fucked on.

Atelier Ayesha is a game bursting with life and cheer and character,  You'll find yourself swinging by Harry's shop just to see what Marietta's up to, or permitting your party makeup to be dictated entirely by which of the game's heroines you find most entertaining.  For my part, I could not endure the thought of relying on a hero who didn't dance around her witch's hat before lobbing a pumpkin bomb into a throng of enemies.

The game's combat is earnest and pleasant, as far as turn-based RPGs go, with a lot of smooth additional systems thrown in for good measure.  Beyond the ability to use an action each turn, each hero has an action gauge that can be used to perform additional moves in concert with their allies - which, in turn, is affected by their position on the battlefield.

An ally can block an attack on a friend from almost anywhere, but will only perform a "pursuit" follow-up attack when both heroes are standing side-by-side.  They can pull off "back attacks" - guaranteed crits - when they are positioned behind an enemy, and their action gauges will fill to the point that they can perform some seriously game-changing feats if a fight goes on long enough... but not many fights do - and not many of those fights are very memorable.

It has one of those nice systems where, if you whack an enemy on the field before it whacks you, you start with initiative.

The only one I clearly recall was the single boss-esque fight in the entire game - one of those fights you're designed to lose - and otherwise, you do battle with a motley crew of mostly-adorable enemies who tend to be pretty susceptible to the effects of high explosives.

Ayesha herself, it should be noted, is simultaneously the weakest and most powerful character on the field, with a melee attack whose impact shares its profile with the gentle dab of a kitten's paw, and a backpack full of insane shit that no one outside the military should have access to.

Your strategies, therefor, are never so much about how you're going to survive this fight and kill these monsters, but almost-entirely about how much of your arsenal you're prepared to part with in the process.  The Himmel Schenk, for example, detonates with teeth-rattling power once a round or so - but are you sure this fight will last more than one round?  These enemies look tough - but are you sure if you drop one of your big bombs you won't just take them all out at once?  That's kind of a waste of a bomb, when you've got Regina and Wilbell here, ready to help out.

And you don't want to waste those bombs, salves, environmental powers and buffs - they cost rare, high-quality ingredients to craft, and even more precious, your time.

As Keithgriff tells her upon their first meeting (and, as in every Atelier title), Ayesha has a limited amount of time in which to complete her quest - three years - and nearly everything she does eats up days of it.  Travel across the world map burns up days at a time.  High-end, high-production alchemies can require a week or more, and gathering reagents in the field can take hours.

The clock is always working against you, and when you fail your quest on your first playthrough, you'll feel slightly betrayed that the game didn't nip at your heels a bit more.  You just get to the end of year three, the game ends with a puff of pink smoke, rolls over into New Game+, and you have the opportunity not to muck it up, this time - if you wish.

I'll admit - I didn't wish.  I didn't feel compelled to spend another three in-game years with Atelier Ayesha's pleasant but ineffectual combat, mostly because the narrative - beyond being absolutely charming and stuffed with characters you'll grow to love - doesn't instil a real sense of urgency or meaning into its proceedings.

Ayesha isn't off to save the world or her beloved homeland - nothing that clichéd and mundane - she's just trying to rescue her sister.  Certainly a noble goal, but not one that's presented in such a way that it grips the player by their lapels and drags them along, desperate to ensure Ayesha ends up happy.  I have no doubt that, whatever happens, Ayesha will end up happy - I don't believe she has the capacity be anything less than cheerful for the span of five minutes.  The entire game is a frothy, light-hearted thing, and while it's a pleasant nosh it's never... meaningful.

Still, it's different in a lot of meaningful ways.

The game is a beautiful, gentle, water-colored thing with lovely set pieces, lovely environments, lovely heroes.  This is a JRPG in which there is not a bad guy.  There is no single evil person in Atelier Ayesha, unless you're counting that one weirdo who set up a fake stall at the monthly Bazaar in Vierzeberg and tried to hustle Ayesha into buying some crap, but Marietta shut that right down.

There is nothing particularly dark or unpleasant in the entire game.  It's just lightness and cheer and comedy and character - and it's a story that's dominated entirely by women.

I think it might be possible to get some men into your party, but I've no idea how.  Instead, all its heroes are of the fairer sex, and they never feel exploited or subjected to fans service (within the game itself).  They're never treated as objects, and it's pleasant to play a game (particularly, it's worth noting, a Japanese game) in which you never feel like a woman was placed in front of you for the titillation of a male audience.  It's a game about girls for girls.  It's like The Babysitter Club or How To Make an American Quilt.

You don't see many games like that, and that's really cool.

There's also something... classically feminine about the fact that Ayesha and the hero of every Atelier title are women whose craft is that of creation.  That is either a brilliant championing of the traditional domestic practices of women, an incidental byproduct of the series' (nicely deep) crafting systems, or a distressing stereotype.

And why is it that the only costumes I can change Ayesha in to are a swimsuit or a wedding dress?

Clearly problematic.  But I've heard there are other costumes you can unlock that are a lot cooler.  Costumes you'd actually want to see Atelier Ayesha's heroes wearing.

...which I never unlocked.  Similarly, I've heard people talking about boss fights - which I've never seen.  I didn't know you could finish a JRPG without a boss fight, but Ayesha has gone and done it - and these whispers clearly suggest a game of greater depth and scope than I experienced in my single playthrough.

I may return to Ayesha one day to ferret out its secrets, drop bombs on some bosses and perhaps get Ayesha into a prudent little jacket-and-capris ensemble - but that will require a certain appetite.  A desire for the lightest and fluffiest of JRPGs, with the most languid pace and the most endearing casts.

If nothing less, there is nothing ill to be said of Wilbell voll Erslied.  I'll play the next Atelier game just to see more of her hijinks.

"Looks like I got stronger again - hahahhh!"

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