Deep reads #7.1: Better living through alchemy (or, why I like Atelier)

When you hear that a game has crafting in it, what do you immediately think of? Perhaps some thrown-together tacked-on gameplay mechanic like “put this piece of wood and this piece of metal together to make an axe” or “make this weed you found on the side of the road into a potion.” Crafting has a bit of a bad reputation as a gimmicky and unnecessary mechanic among gamers, at least here in the US — to the point that when I’ve tried to sell a few friends on the game series that’s the subject of this post, I’ve had to assure them that even though it’s full of crafting, it actually implements it really well. I swear. Just hear me out, please!

And yes: I’m talking about the Atelier series. Considering how many Atelier titles I reviewed last year — between those and the Blue Reflection games, officially noted as the “Year of Gust” on the site — this new deep reads post might not be such a surprise, even if I did keep you all waiting for a long time on it.

At first, I was planning to put this post off until I finished the Mysterious sub-series, since I’m almost halfway through that now-tetralogy at this point. But I felt like writing it now for various reasons, some of which have to do with opinions I’ve read about the Atelier series that I very much disagree with and that I’d like to offer counters to. Also, I think after having played almost eight Atelier games, I have a pretty good feel for what the series is about. Gust keeps releasing the damn things, too, at least once a year, so I don’t think I’ll ever truly be “caught up” anyway.

As the Arland trilogy taught me, time is extremely valuable, even if there aren’t any monster invasions on the way. (Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland DX)

Another important note before I start: this post is not going to take on the entire series from start to finish. As with my Megami Tensei deep reads post series, I’m admitting upfront that I haven’t played most of its many titles. However, I have played a lot of the Atelier games since the major series overhaul that started with Atelier Rorona at the start of the series’ PS3 era. The series as a whole stretches all the way back to the 90s, starting on the PS1 with Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg in 1997. However, my understanding is that Rorona wasn’t quite a total change to the series but more of a return to the old alchemy-heavy style of the first games, a shift back away from the more standard JRPG gameplay of the PS2 Atelier Iris trilogy.1 So maybe a lot of what I write about these later games will apply at least generally to the earliest ones. I also have the excuse that a lot of those very oldest Atelier titles (Marie through Viorate I think, 1 through 5) were never localized, at least to my knowledge.

Anyway, enough with the apologies and explanations and on to something hopefully more interesting. First, a few questions that some new players might be asking themselves:

What’s all this about alchemy?

The typical Atelier game centers around usually one and occasionally two alchemists. Said alchemist protagonist(s) almost always happen to be girls (the one exception I’ve played being Logy from Escha & Logy — he’s one of the very few exceptions to that rule.) Though they come from different circumstances and sometimes even from entirely different worlds, these girls always have bright futures ahead of them, though that’s sometimes not apparent at the outset. However, all their various quests, goals, and ambitions can be achieved with the help of their families and friends and most uniquely with the help of alchemy, the practice of gathering and mixing all sorts of ingredients — plants, liquids, metals, minerals, and so on — to create the widest range of goods imaginable, from poisons to medicines, from explosives to apple pies.

The first time I ran into this alchemy concept as a game mechanic was in the also Gust-produced Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia. While the Ar tonelico games aren’t part of the Atelier series (though they arguably do have links to at least a few of the games) and are very different in both storytelling style and gameplay, they have item-crafting functionality in common with Atelier. The crafting system in Ar tonelico is called synthesis, and while it’s pretty simple and not at all essential to get down to actually beat the games, it does add some nice flavor, especially with the inclusion of sometimes strange and silly recipe notes from the characters making the items. Not quite simply “add wood to metal to make metal beating stick”, then, even if it isn’t all that complicated mechanically speaking.

Okay, I don’t have a screenshot of Ar tonelico synthesis, so instead here’s a conversation from Ar tonelico II. I think I have a thing for certain haughty girls who are really sweet on the inside, but that might be a subject for another post.

Alchemy in Atelier is a different matter. Starting with Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland in 2009, the series again placed a serious emphasis on item-crafting not simply as a helpful tool but as a necessary mechanic that’s also central to the plot. There’s no “fuck this crafting nonsense, let me go fight a dragon boss” option in these games for two major reasons: 1) your power in battle is directly tied to what sort of equipment and attack/defense items you’re using, almost all of which you’ll have to craft to get better than a garbage setup, and 2) the game, depending on which game you’re playing, won’t allow you to progress and might even give you a game over if you’re not keeping up with your alchemist duties and balancing those with your more typically JRPG-style map exploration, enemy-killing, and loot-finding ones.

The choice of the term alchemy for this system of crafting is interesting in itself. Before I’d even heard of the Atelier games, I knew alchemy as most of us do: that old scientifically dubious practice of turning base metals into gold. Historically, alchemy was more than just “turn this lump of iron into gold so I can get rich”, but that was naturally a lot of its appeal. Never mind that if any of these guys had ever found that secret iron/lead/whatever-to-gold recipe, the vast increase in the gold supply would have destroyed its value — they weren’t taking economics classes back in the 1300s. It’s certainly possible to turn one element into another by splitting atoms through nuclear fission and fusing atoms to create heavier elements through the far more energy-intensive nuclear fusion (also the process the Sun uses to convert hydrogen to helium.) But naturally, old-fashioned alchemists didn’t have such technology. They were making potions and probably dumping rat’s tails into them or some nonsense.

That was alchemy in our world: a bullshit science in the vein of astrology, or at least until physicists started shooting atoms at each other in the early 20th century. However, the line between alchemy on one hand and actual chemistry and medicine on the other was often blurred — alchemists could also act as legitimate medicine-makers considering their knowledge of plants with real healing properties and the like.

And there’s the possible connection to alchemy in the world of Atelier. Medicine is always one of the very first items you’re tasked with making, and it’s naturally in high demand and extremely useful in combat. The difference in Atelier is that even aside from the realistic medical benefits of herbs and so on, alchemy as a whole is entirely real and can be done with nothing more than a big pot and a stirring stick — as long as you have the learning and skill to master the recipes.

Speaking of recipes, in Atelier, baking is also an essential and extremely important aspect of the art of alchemy. I don’t think any “real” alchemists ever tried turning lead into a Mont Blanc. (Atelier Meruru DX)

No small feat in itself. Alchemists in Atelier are valued for their knowledge and skill (if not always for their wisdom — that one depends on the alchemist.) Training is intensive, and the few people with the aptitude for it spend lifetimes honing their crafts. While the techniques used in alchemy differ a little between each sub-series within the wider series, it seems to be the case that some kind of inherent skill is required before someone can even hope to start training. What that inherent quality is I can’t say, since the games I’ve played don’t really say themselves, but that’s not important: all you have to know is that your protagonist(s) have that skill along with the necessary motivation to practice and learn.

What’s an atelier (and how is it pronounced?)

The pronunciation thing is a real debate, no joke (Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky DX)

Another common thread that links all these games together is the player’s workshop, or atelier. These terms are pretty interchangeable, and though I haven’t seen it used, laboratory would also fit well. I’m not sure why the creators of the series landed on the term “atelier” specifically, but I like it — it adds to that old European feel a lot of the series has, with its Renaissance/early modern European-looking cities and towns and its characters with largely French and German-sounding family names.

Atelier is a French-to-English loanword, and here a French-to-Japanese one. In its original and English definitions, an atelier is specifically an artist’s workshop, referring to both the fine arts and more practical crafts like dress-making and architecture, something more like a studio than a lab. A search for “atelier” on Google, aside from references to the game series, brings up both art and fashion-related spots around my city. So unless アトリエ/atorie has a different meaning in Japanese, the use of “atelier” as an alchemy workshop is a little unusual here.

Then again, maybe it isn’t. Alchemy in the Atelier series seems to be just as much an art as a science, with alchemists adding their own personal touches to their work. And since you can craft armor, pendants and other jewelry with defensive attributes, and even dresses that fall into the armor category, I guess “atelier” really does fit. (Just don’t ask how such things are produced by mixing a boiling solution in a cauldron: that question was never meant to be answered.)

As for the proper pronunciation of Atelier: excuse me for being all proper, but it should be pronounced in English in the French way in my opinion. I’m not British, but I’m going with Cambridge in this case, and the other authorities agree. The Japanese title atorie might also be a clue — while Japanese can’t quite get the l sound down with the syllable リ (somewhere between li and ri) that エ at the end points to the original French pronunciation. But for fuck’s sake — even if you’re going to pronounce that r at the end out of habit or because saying a French word feels too fancypants for you, at least don’t call it an atleer.2

Ayesha Altugle in her atelier. No safety gear required, even though it really looks like she should be using some. (Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX)

Your atelier can take various forms: most often it’s a dedicated workshop, but your alchemist girl might resort to dragging a cauldron into a corner of her family’s house or her room if she doesn’t have that option. You might even be doing alchemy out on the road in a makeshift tent workshop. But no matter what form it takes, when you’re in that atelier, you’ll have access to all the resources you’ve collected and been given in order to brew new potions and craft new items and armor.

The atelier isn’t just a workshop, however. Most of the Atelier games I’ve played turn the your workshop into a meeting place and sometimes a regular hangout spot depending on where it is. And in the cases they don’t, the practical effect is the same, because the alchemists always become pillars of their respective communities if they aren’t already. The powers of alchemy can be used for good or evil — you can synthesize some massively destructive items in your atelier, after all. But while disreputable alchemists aren’t entirely unheard of in the series, your protagonists are always the good sort. They differ in personality, sometimes wildly, but they all have a strong desire to help their friends and to be a positive force in the world as a whole.

Which brings me to the final question I’d like to address, and in an extremely long-winded way:

What’s the appeal?

I’ve gone on a lot about ateliers and alchemy and how to pronounce French loanwords, but here’s the key question. What’s the point of all this item synthesis and why should I care? And why are most of these alchemists wearing such frilly fucking dresses? Don’t those ribbons get in the way of the cauldron-stirring?

And what about Sophie’s massive sleeves? (Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book DX)

I can’t address the practicality of those frills and ribbons, but I can describe what I find to be the appeal of Atelier. I can only speak for myself, though I expect a lot of other fans will agree on these strengths of the series.

1) The art and aesthetic

Getting all fancy with “aesthetic” here, but there’s a good reason for it. Gust games are generally known for their excellent art design: between the Atelier, Blue Reflection, and EXA_PICO series, I doubt there’s a single title that doesn’t have at least pretty impressive art.

Atelier in particular stands out for its art and character designs, and all the more so because of the several artists who have worked on the series, bringing their own unique visions to it. In my Atelier reviews, I’ve noted the breakdown of the wider series into subseries, often into trilogies (that may later expand into tetralogies or more: see Atelier Lulua and Atelier Sophie 2) and each of these subseries to date has featured a different art director. Playing these games in roughly sort of chronological order as I’ve been from Rorona on, I’ve prepared to be at least a little let down by the new artistic direction in the following subseries, but that hasn’t happened yet with the very partial exception of the Atelier Ryza series as far as I’ve played it. At worst, the art and general style might just not appeal to me quite as much, but I still end up pretty much liking it and feeling the new style suits the new general direction of the game.

Toridamono’s work is my least favorite out of the four Atelier subseries I’ve played, and he’s still a damn good artist whose work I like a lot, which should speak well for the rest of the series’ art. (Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout)

Among the three other art directors of the series I’ve played — Mel Kishida in the Arland series, and also responsible for the art of the Blue Reflection games, Hidari in the Dusk series, and Yuugen and Noco in the Mysterious series — I can’t even rank them against each other. If Toridamono’s just a notch below them according to my own tastes, the rest are on the same extremely high rung. If you’re imagining one of those tier rankings that have become so popular among streamers and VTubers these days, based on its art alone, Ryza is in the A rank and the rest are up in S.

But what is it about the art in these games that I find so striking? Part of it might be that old European feel most of the games have. Dusk is a little lighter on that feel, though there are still hints of it in especially in Atelier Ayesha, but generally the makers really seem to love the look of those 16th/17th century west European cities and towns. I might be completely off here, but as an American, I think we tend to have a love for that look too, maybe because it feels a bit exotic and also because we don’t have anything similar in our own country aside from the architecture that’s designed specifically to mimic those styles.

I believe this is part of the cover of the original Atelier Rorona for the PS3, the one you absolutely shouldn’t play because the Vita and DX PS4 remasters/remakes look far better. But damn if Mel Kishida’s art isn’t amazing anyway.

More important are the character designs, which are usually memorable and excellent. I’m no visual artist and I’ve never created a character design because I can’t draw worth a shit, but I know what I think is memorable and looks good and what doesn’t, and I haven’t played an Atelier game yet that failed to impress in that way. I’ll just say I own that Artworks of Arland artbook for a reason. I’d own artbooks of Hidari and Yuugen/Noco’s work too, but those don’t seem to exist or else I haven’t found them. I’ve posted examples of their work throughout, especially of Hidari’s, so here’s another CG I love from the Mysterious series:

Just ignore Sophie’s weird gold beret outfit. That one’s not her fault, anyway; it was a gift from another character with some pretty damn dubious tastes. But note the bottle hanging at her side — a nice touch that many of the alchemists’ outfits include considering how often they have to gather materials and work out in the field. (Atelier Sophie DX)

I haven’t seen another game series with such a strong emphasis on costume design, either. It’s most obvious in Atelier Sophie, which contains an entire side plot about Sophie wearing her grandmother’s old alchemist outfit from way back when she was out in the field to gain her courage or something (not the one above; it looks a lot better in my opinion) but this focus runs throughout the series. Of course, unusual costumes in JRPGs are naturally nothing new (see Final Fantasy) but that aspect of Atelier is also notable. Whether it’s a positive is up to you — I feel Ryza drops it a bit in favor of a somewhat more practical-looking “adventurer” look if that’s more to your taste — but I find it adds some great spice to the series.3

If only to see our characters running around in the field and into battle in this getup. Not exactly made for combat, though at least the knight in the front line is dressed for the occasion. (Atelier Sophie DX)

2) The slice-of-life relaxation

Plenty of JRPGs provide breaks to their players in the form of easygoing character interaction, but again, no series I’ve found places such an emphasis on that as Atelier. While you’ll certainly face plenty of challenges in the series, up to and including difficult bosses to fight and the occasional world-ending crisis, most of my experience with Atelier has been pretty relaxed. There are certain story beats I’d grown up to expect after playing other JRPG series as a kid: someone in your party will betray you at a key moment, your home base or town that seems safe will get attacked at some point and you’ll have to flee, your protagonist will probably end up romantically tied to another character, most likely the female lead. And of course, some godlike entity is almost certainly controlling the supposed ultimate bad guy from behind the scenes and you’ll have to beat it up to prevent all life from being destroyed. Some series put their own unique spins on these JRPG tropes (Megami Tensei for example), but they’re tropes for a reason.

You’ll barely find any of the above in Atelier. Hardly any betrayal, much less of the dramatic “top 10 anime betrayal” kind complete with the speech trying to justify the traitor’s backstabbing. Very little romance, outside of some yuri-flavored teasing that never ends up going anywhere (by far most common in the Arland subseries) and an option to get Escha and Logy into an implied romantic relationship in their game that’s otherwise not at all central to the story.

I don’t blame Logy for dating his coworker, hard to resist a girl who can put away cake like this. And yes, Escha is as she looks: another cute cinnamon roll-esque character. I think I have a thing for them too as long as they’re not overdone. (Atelier Escha & Logy DX)

And while Atelier does feature crises, these aren’t always the world-ending kind. The crisis in question is usually a lot more personal than you’d expect: for a few examples, the protagonist trying to track down her missing adventurer mother (Atelier Totori), working to convince her father to let her become an alchemist (Atelier Meruru), or making a trek across the world to sit for an alchemist certification exam (Atelier Firis). A couple of other games do feature potentially world-ending threats, most especially the Dusk subseries (Ayesha, Escha & Logy, and Shallie), which centers around an ongoing catastrophic environmental decay (what an idea — I just can’t imagine that happening in real life, can you?)

But even the Dusk trilogy contains plenty of relaxation and slice-of-life messing around. This is such a staple of Atelier that it would be impossible to imagine the series without it. While exploration and combat are certainly important elements to every Atelier game I’ve played so far, they aren’t the central elements — they take place alongside a lot of necessary work in the atelier.

The combat is fine if you’re all right with turn-based systems, and it does feature some big changes from game to game, most notably in the Ryza series that shifts to a more action-based battle mechanic. I just don’t find the combat a particular strength of Atelier, though a few games do interesting things with it. (Atelier Ayesha DX, with admittedly one of the less interesting battle systems.)

And while your alchemist protagonist is brewing her potions and baking her pies in that cauldron, she’ll receive visits from friends and the few townspeople who are important enough side characters to get character portraits. Building relationships with your party members is a must, but even the shopkeepers in most Atelier titles have roles to play beyond the typical “Hi ___, look at the new wares I have for sale” fare — they’re very often interesting characters in their own rights, and some of them might even join your party.

That’s no mistake: typically the protagonist herself is a shopkeeper, at least of a sort. As the local alchemist, and sometimes the only one in town, part of your task as the player is to fulfill the requests of customers, some of whom are shopkeepers themselves who might go on to sell your wares at a higher price. Everyone benefits from the arrangement: you gather the materials and either sell them or more often use them to synthesize a product that only you can create, and the shopkeeper provides a wider market for the salve, cake, dress, or whatever else it is you’ve made. It’s a small-scale economy at work — not a very complicated one, but then it doesn’t need to be. There’s plenty of complication for you to deal with elsewhere, as we’ll soon see.

Pamela’s shop is the most popular among the town’s men — they all hang out there so much that their wives start complaining about it. Maybe you can see why? That’s right: it’s all the amazing perfume she sells that Rorona synthesized for her. (Atelier Rorona Plus)

All these relationships your protagonist(s) build with their families, friends, and townspeople — even with the odd ghost they might meet during their explorations — these all contribute to the generally relaxed feel of the series as a whole. Because of my near-oppressive work schedule (though a typical one for my profession, sadly) I’ve had to drop every other JRPG for the foreseeable future. Even my beloved Megami Tensei has fallen by the wayside. But Atelier is somehow still keeping me in its grip, and I think its strong relaxed slice-of-life aspect is part of the reason why it’s managed to draw me back in.

3) The alchemy

Alchemy. (Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream)

There’s a good reason I decided to make this edition of my deep reads a series instead of a single post: this fucking alchemy system deserves its own post. Let me correct that: systems, because there’s well more than one. The fact that I’ve spent so many hours crafting items in Atelier where I’ve groaned at two minutes of crafting a sword in some other game and asked why I had to bother — that still escapes me, but I’d like to figure out just why the hell that’s the case, and I’d like to get to it in the next post in this set.

I’m prepared to be totally wrong about at least half of what I end up writing about alchemy in these games, because there are actual experts out there and I’m not one of them. But I’ve gotten used to being wrong about things, so it’s no problem for me. Until next time!

 

1 I really don’t know how I missed out on Atelier Iris back in the day considering I was pretty big into JRPGs at the time. Their exclusion from this post series feels like a serious gap, but it’s not one I can do anything about. The same goes for the Mana Khemia games, which despite their titles are canonically part of the Atelier series.

2 And here’s part of why I think barely any fans lament the loss of the English dubs for these games following Atelier Firis. Though the fact that most of us are probably weebs who default to the Japanese voiceovers also has something to do with it. And no, I don’t blame the VAs at all: I blame the localizers who should have been in charge of giving them proper direction, or maybe Gust if they didn’t allocate a sufficient localization budget to bother with that. I hope those VAs are finding plenty of work elsewhere, anyway. I think Crunchyroll is dubbing a lot of anime these days.

3 This raises an interesting question about the target audience for such games. There are male characters in the Atelier games too — lean pretty boys, muscular tough guys, and a few in between or miscellaneous types, and often with their own interesting designs. But the focus seems to be far more on the ladies, and combined with the very flowery aesthetic I wonder if Atelier has a larger female player base than other RPG series might.

Then again, there’s such a strong emphasis on the ladies that I also suspect the series might be aimed specifically at guys. As I noted at the start of my Disgaea deep reads series way back, Marl Kingdom seems to have had a similar issue with being considering “for girls” when it was localized, possibly with an eye to capture more of a female player base. But I also think the market has changed a lot since then. Then again, I’m no marketing expert or video game historian, so I’ll leave those questions to them.

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2 thoughts on “Deep reads #7.1: Better living through alchemy (or, why I like Atelier)

  1. I still think I’ll be convinced to finally give one of these a try after having read so many of the posts you’ve written about them. It’s just really hard to read someone gushing over a series and not go “damn…maybe I should try this even if almost none of the things in it appeal to me.”

    Also – Ha! Atleer.

    • I’m happy to hear! I love this series as a whole, but considering how you feel about turn-based combat, the Ryza games sound like they’d be more your thing. The third one is coming out soon too, so you get an entire trilogy to play if you’re into it.

      And yeah, that dub. The Ryza games aren’t dubbed into English, but considering the quality of dubbing in past games, I don’t know if that’s such a big deal unless subtitles are really a dealbreaker.

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