A review of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea (PS4)

This is a road I didn’t plan on taking over the last few months, but sometimes things just happen without your planning for it. And so I’m here reviewing my third Atelier game in a row, the DX PS4 edition of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, and the final game in the Atelier Dusk trilogy. While Shallie bears some resemblance to the first two entries Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy, it also represents a major shift in the series through its removal of a standard gameplay element established by those games and by the previous Arland trilogy. My feelings about this game are also a little mixed, though still favorable on balance — I haven’t played a bad or even middling Atelier game yet, but I think the situation with Shallie is a little more complicated than with any of the others I’ve played so far.

Starting a few years after the end of Escha & Logy, Shallie moves us to still another part of the world, this time one that’s pretty well and truly fucked. The vast Dusk Sea is a massive desert with a few settlements clinging to its edges around the few remaining sources of clean water. The people of Lugion, one of these villages, are anxious about their now dangerously low supply of water. And so Shallistera, also known as Shallie, an alchemist in training and the daughter and planned successor of the chief of Lugion, sets out with two trusted men of the village on a ship (yeah, the ships in this world can sail on sand; I don’t think it’s explained really but no big deal) to the one place that might have a solution to their problem: the oasis city of Stellard.

Shallie might technically be a princess, but much like Meruru she doesn’t have an ego about it.

And Stellard is where we meet our other protagonist: Shallotte Elminus, also coincidentally an alchemist in training nicknamed Shallie. Shallotte is a native of Stellard, doing her best to help her mother manage things by synthesizing goods and taking any jobs she can at the city’s Cooperative Union. These jobs mainly consist of picking trash up off of the streets so far, since she doesn’t yet have the recognition she wants from the Union or its president Raoul, but Shallotte is still ambitious and wants to make a name for herself as an adventuring alchemist. Or something like that.

Your endless optimism is killing me, Shallie, please stop.

Of course, fate brings these two girls together soon enough. On her way to Stellard, Shallistera’s ship is chased by a massive dragon, and while sailing full speed to escape it loses control and rams into Stellard’s harbor, causing serious damage. Thankfully, the local authorities and populace don’t really blame Shallistera and her party for this since they know about the dragons lurking around the sea, but it’s still an awkward introduction to Stellard considering they’ve come seeking aid.

So in order to gain the trust of the city, Shallistera agrees to help with their problems. It turns out that despite its reputation as a city of water, even Stellard is drying up, and threats like the dragon lurking around the Dusk Sea in their area aren’t helping matters. And in the course of her work using alchemy to help Stellard, Shallistera meets fellow young alchemist Shallotte. The pair quickly bond over the unlikely coincidence of their shared nickname and profession and agree to join forces to bring water back to the land and help everyone, both in Stellard and back in Lugion.

It’s here that the story really gets going. In this final game of the Dusk trilogy, your object is quite literally to try to save the world, since without any water sources everyone will obviously die sooner or later. All our characters are aware of the urgency of the situation, and while there still seems to be plenty of water flowing in Stellard at the moment (enough that there’s a “Water Festival” event with all the girls in swimsuits late in the game supposedly meant to honor the Lord of Water or something, which hell, you won’t hear me complaining about that even so) things are absolutely dire at this point, even more so than in Escha & Logy, which dealt directly with the world’s declining environment.

Despite that urgency, Atelier Shallie is the first game out of the modern set of Atelier titles, starting with the original Rorona in 2009, that eliminates the series’ time management element. It’s no longer necessary to keep track of any calendars or clocks while in the field or the atelier — you can now do whatever the hell you want without worrying about running out of time and getting a bad end. While I got more or less used to the time management in these games, especially in its more lenient form in Escha & Logy, it was nice to be free from the calendar for once.

As far as I’m aware, Shallie also marked the end of time management in Atelier as a whole, aside from one deadline in the later PS4 entry Atelier Firis that I hear is so easy to meet it’s barely worth mentioning. I don’t know how long-time series fans feel about all this, but though I can appreciate some things about it as I wrote in my Ayesha review, I ultimately don’t mind seeing this aspect of the games go. Even if Shallie has a plot that would have made a time limit very easy to justify.

I wonder if there are any parallels we can draw between this world and our own? No, probably not.

Unlike the other games in the trilogy, then, Shallie is broken not into months and years but chapters, ten in total. After choosing which Shallie you want to play as, the first chapter begins, starting with some plot advancement through character events and dialogue during which you’ll be given tasks to complete. Once the Shallie you’ve chosen as your protagonist (I’ll mostly refer to them as Stera and Lotte from now on, a convention that the game itself starts following around the story’s halfway mark) has completed the major story-related tasks she’s been given, the chapter moves into a sort of free mode in which she’s able to practice her alchemy and explore the world gathering ingredients and beating up monsters for money and experience. You have the option of moving on to the next chapter once you’ve fulfilled enough “life tasks”, which you can check on the menu screen, but you can also stick around in free time after meeting those requirements if you don’t feel like progressing right away.

And you might not want to move on immediately, because the Cooperative Union offers a lot of lucrative jobs in the form of combat and synthesis requests. This time you get real money instead of just candy for your troubles, which is useful since you’re not getting a government stipend this time around. Stera and Lotte also don’t have to submit reports to the bureaucrat Solle (who is still around; he’s moved to Stellard to help with the Dusk problem and has set up shop in the Union, but he’s a little more mellowed out now, which is nice. He even joins your active party this time.)

As usual, your party grows pretty quickly. In addition to the two Shallies, who can both use items in battle, you’re joined by new characters like the treasure hunter Jurie and her dour alchemist younger sister Miruca, Stera’s protector Kortes, and the katana-wielding homunculus Homura, along with returning characters like Escha and Wilbell. A few of these characters also offer their services in ingredient gathering and item creation. Solle delivers reports about the changing environment around Stellard that can affect enemy and ingredient density in certain field areas. And then there’s Miruca, who fills the role of the modern-style alchemist that Logy took last game — she’s the one you’ll be going to for your advanced weapons and armor. (Logy does show up eventually if you’re playing Plus or one of the DX versions to help Escha out a chapter or two after she arrives in Stellard, but he doesn’t have a workshop this time around. Thankfully, he’s a great asset in battle, so he does have more to do than filling out Solle’s endless paperwork. Lucky for him.)

That old-style alchemy Miruca made reference to above comes in yet another form in Atelier Shallie. This time, ingredients have from 0 to 4 slots that can be filled with attributes that hopefully improve the resulting item. While it’s still partly based on the Ayesha alchemy system, it’s much easier to use, easier even than the elemental point system in Escha & Logy, and I have no complaints at all about that. And since Stera and Lotte are both traditional alchemists, they use the same synthesis styles, so no complications there either.

A lot of things about Shallie seem streamlined for the player’s convenience: the removal of the time limit and calendar, the new alchemy mechanics, and even the combat system, which takes the Escha & Logy three member front line/three member back line and removes the positioning element, putting everyone in your party in a single line in front of the enemy. The only gameplay element that’s been complicated a bit is the search equipment setup, which now takes the form of a big grid that you have to fit your items into like a bunch of Tetris blocks. Why does the Globe attack item take the shape of a [ ? No idea, but you have to deal with that shit or else use an item attribute that reduces the space it takes up, which I did a lot.

On top of all that, Shallie looks pretty nice. This game was originally released on the PS3 in 2014, near the very end of that console’s life, and I imagine it gave that PS3 a real workout with some of the elaborate special attack animations in battle. I understand the original Shallie suffered from slowdown problems for that very reason. These issues are apparently even worse in Shallie Plus on the Vita — out of all the Plus versions, I’ve heard that Shallie is the closest to being unplayable only because the Vita couldn’t handle it, at least in the way it was ported over. I don’t know the first thing about the technical aspects of these issues, but I do know that the DX edition on the PS4 doesn’t have any such problems.

Making weapons at Miruca’s workshop.

As expected, the art and music are excellent as usual for the series. Hidari’s characters and CGs look great (I’m especially a fan of Miruca — I like those dour indoor types in general, and her “gothic lolita blacksmith” look is certainly unique, though how the hell she keeps that hair so curled all the time is a mystery.) And the settings this time are especially nice. Stellard really looks like it would be an appealing place to live, with a relaxed port city kind of vibe that makes me wish I were there hanging around in an outside bar in the warm breezy air.* Though maybe it would be more appealing if it were surrounded by an ocean of water than of sand, but then, even some of the wastes in and around the Dusk Sea you explore to fight enemies and gather ingredients look nice in their way.

Considering all the polish on it and the streamlining and quality of life improvements made to the gameplay, you might think Shallie DX would be a good place to start for an Atelier beginner, even despite the fact that it’s at the end of a trilogy. After all, the Atelier games I’ve played so far are usually pretty self-contained stories even when they’re parts of larger narratives, and in a very general sense, Shallie is the same way.

However, I’d advise strongly against playing Shallie if you haven’t at least played Escha & Logy first because of just how much it focuses on characters from the first two games in the trilogy and their stories in the course of its narrative. Stera and Lotte have their own stories, of course, and these largely involve new characters like Jurie, Miruca, and Kortes. However, the returning characters take up a lot of screen time, and while much of that time is spent talking with and working alongside Stera and Lotte, a lot of it also involves references to past events in Ayesha and especially in Escha & Logy that entirely new players would have no idea about.

Of course, the Shallies have no idea about any of this either, and very often in cutscenes they’re listening in on their seniors’ conversations, taking a more passive role in that sense. That’s not unusual, since around the middle of the game they’re surrounded by more accomplished alchemists who they look up to, most notably the protagonists of the first two games in the trilogy. However, it might put the player in a weird position if they have no idea about the importance of the seed Escha brought over from Colseit, for instance, or about the unusual relationship between Keithgriff and Ayesha — and they wouldn’t if they haven’t played through the rest of Dusk.

The reunion scenes between Escha and Logy also mean a lot more if you’ve played their game and know about the stuff they went through together, and especially if they were into each other in your own playthrough like they were in mine. There’s some of that energy here in Shallie too.

For that reason, I think that if you start with Atelier Shallie you might feel a bit lost in its story. This is even more the case because Shallie provides a true conclusion to the Dusk series and to its larger “dying world” narrative. Even Atelier Meruru, which relied heavily on returning characters in the Arland trilogy, didn’t feel like an ending to the story in the same way, since Arland was quite a bit lighter in tone and took a more slice-of-life approach than Dusk (which might be why it’s the one that got a fourth installment in Atelier Lulua much later on — it’s probably easier to add another sequel to a series like that.)

Of course, if you want to start near the end of that story, you’re free to do so, and you can probably get a lot out of Shallie on its own. I just think it’s more satisfying if you play through it understanding what the hell Escha, Logy, Solle, Wilbell, Ayesha, and the rest of the returning characters are talking about when they get into past events in conversation, which happens quite a lot. And unlike in Escha & Logy, some of these past events have immediate importance to the plot. I’d say you can even get away with playing Escha & Logy first, though Ayesha is a good game too, so why not just start at the beginning?

Katla, originally from Escha & Logy, trying to convince the Shallies to join her morally questionable water-hoarding scheme.

None of this is a fault against Atelier Shallie, really. It was clearly designed to be the finale to this story about a world on the brink of death, and I think it pulls that off well enough. However, the relationship between Stera and Lotte did seem weirdly loose and rushed in places. Shortly after they meet, for example, Stera is already thinking about her approach to the drought situation in terms of what Lotte would do, treating her more like a very old friend than someone she’d just met a few days or a week ago. The same is true for Lotte in a few parts of her story. The two clearly contrast in some ways — Stera being more methodical and careful and Lotte being freer and more impulsive — and while the dynamic between Escha and Logy in their own game worked really well partly for that reason, in Shallie that relationship feels a little flatter.

To be fair, the game never really depicts the two as joined at the hip, though they clearly see each other as friends. They do have a major argument partway through their stories that gets resolved fairly quickly, but other than that, their relationship doesn’t change all that much other than their dropping the use of “Shallie” to refer to each other and picking up the nicknames Stera and Lotte instead, seemingly in a mutual acknowledgement that they’re very different kinds of people. I liked that one subtle change in their relationship, but in general, where they end up doesn’t seem very different from where they started out.

I have to say this is a really cute CG and scene, though it feels unusually intimate for these two considering what comes before and after it.

The removal of the time limit also changes the pace of the story in some weird ways. Though I’m not exactly lamenting the passing of that old Atelier time management tradition here, the way Shallie deals with pacing is a little awkward. Once you’re done with your main story tasks and enter the second “free time” half of a chapter, you have to fulfill a certain number of tasks Stera or Lotte have on their list before proceeding. This is really easy to do; you can pretty much synthesize and fight monsters and fulfill requests for money freely and you’ll naturally hit that target after a while.

However, if you’re taking too long messing around, your protagonist’s “happiness meter” will fall. This didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but then I noticed Shallie (Stera in my case in the first playthrough) started literally slowing down — her walking and running speed slowed dramatically. This is how the game encourages you to stay on track without the old time limit. Once you’ve hit your life task goal and are ready to move on to the next chapter, the game prompts you to do so, but it doesn’t force you — you can stick around in your current chapter if you feel like it, but in some cases you’ll be stuck on this slow mode until you move on.

This is a novel way to try to keep players on track without the calendar and time limit mechanic, but it also feels kind of artificial and frustrating. It also happens sometimes even if you’re doing your best to stay on track, especially around the middle of the game when there’s a lot to get done, though by the end of the game at least your happiness meter stays at maximum so you can finish up whatever you were planning to do before moving on to the final fight.

Like killing this giant thing. It just showed up out of nowhere, actually scared me for a second. Powerful enemies like this will start spawning in previously cleared areas after a while.

But Shallie still has plenty of positive points about it. The choice of protagonist this time around matters a little more than last time, since unlike Escha and Logy who basically are joined at the hip (even in this version of Shallie) Stera and Lotte largely take their own paths, especially in the early chapters of the game. Even after their stories converge around chapters 4 and 5, the two practice alchemy in different settings, Stera on her ship and Lotte in her mother’s house. And generally speaking, they know they have their own paths to follow, though their friendship is always maintained as a central aspect of the game. For that reason, I’d say you get a bit more out of a second playthrough of Shallie in terms of variety than in Escha & Logy.

The game also does sum up some of the returning characters’ stories nicely, especially Ayesha, Odelia, and Keithgriff’s that started all the way back in Atelier Ayesha. The same is even true for a couple of non-returning characters, one of whom is even tied in to a major plot point that explains some of the side events in Escha & Logy. So if you have played the trilogy straight through, Shallie provides some satisfying wrap-ups in that sense.

And though there are some things I didn’t love about the game’s execution, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the game as a whole, because I did. Atelier Shallie is well-made and adds some more colorful and interesting characters to the Dusk story. The alchemy is still satisfying, especially if you’re an obsessive like me. And I really did like Stera and Lotte as the protagonists, setting aside the aspects of their relationship that felt weirdly out of place or rushed.

But to fully appreciate this game, I think again that you need to play Shallie after you’ve gotten through at least some and preferably all of the rest of the Dusk trilogy. This might seem like a stupidly obvious statement, since Shallie is the last game in the series, but since Atelier games are so often touted for working well as standalone games, I think this needs to be mentioned. It would be a shame to play a game like this without being able to fully appreciate it, anyway.

Lotte is still a bit much to take sometimes though. That doesn’t change.

And that’s it for Atelier Shallie and for the Dusk series as a whole. I bought the Dusk Trilogy DX package last year, and I’m happy that I’ve finally played through the whole thing. It’s a unique, interesting, and enjoyable trilogy of games, and as a whole it’s well worth playing through as long as you’re not allergic to turn-based JRPGs or bored shitless by gathering ingredients and crafting items. If you are, you’d better just avoid Atelier entirely, at least up to the Ryza games, which have adopted a kind of hybrid turn-based/action system of combat.

Speaking of that, the first Atelier Ryza is the next Atelier game I’m playing. Yes, I’m skipping over the Mysterious series for the moment, though I do intend to get the recently released DX package at some point. However, I think I need a break from Atelier for a while now. I have a few other games to get around to.

But rest assured: I’m not even close to done with this series yet, and at the rate Gust puts these games out (about one a year) I may never be done with it. And that’s fine with me. You can’t have too much of a good thing, at least not in this case. 𒀭

 

* Is it pretty obvious that I need a fucking vacation? I guess it is now.