Sometimes you might end up being surprised by a game. It was certainly a surprise that the Atelier series turned out to be not only enjoyable, but one of the most underrated RPG series to ever come out of Japan (barely). The games are famous for their cute pastel graphics and their focus on female protagonists, as well as genuinely charming characters and many item creation mechanics. So how does the latest entry into the ‘Mysterious’ trilogy round out the mini-series? Well, let’s take a look.
The story follows the adventures of two alchemists, the strangely named Lydie & Suelle, who are both sisters and possibly twins. The game does seem a little confused about this last point, at different times saying that one sister is the older sister but then also frequently referring to the pair as ‘twins’. They live in a one-room house with their father who is, frankly, terrible at the whole ‘parenting’ thing, rarely providing food for the pair of minors he’s supposed to be caring for. The two sisters work as alchemists to put food on the table and pretty much fend for themselves as they try to make their Atelier the best one in the world, because that’s what they promised their dead mother.
Okay, so as you can probably tell, the story is a little strange, but that is not in and of itself a problem, nor is it unexpected from this series. So for now, let’s ignore the child neglect going on and just focus on the two real main characters: Lydie & Suelle. Apart from the fact that they both have normal names that have been pushed through a word mutilator, the two main characters are possibly the worst from the past 3 games. This isn’t to say that they’re bad characters, just that they’re more annoying and less endearing than either Firis and her sister, or Sophie and her talking, flying book.
One of the oddest things going into this game was the lack of English voice-overs. Now, obviously an English voice over in a Japanese game isn’t always necessary, hell, there are plenty of games out there that are much better for retaining their Japanese dialogue, but when the other games in the series had English as a feature, and the sequel doesn’t, it just feels like they weren’t trying as hard with this one. In general, ‘not trying as hard’ can pretty much sum up the feeling of the game overall.
The combat system is almost exactly the same as it has been for the past 2 games: basic JRPG turn-based combat with some slight variations. In this case, you have the ability to protect your weaker characters, basically the two sisters, from physical damage by having one of your stronger fighters jump in the way. As features go, it is pretty useful as any combat you experience before gaining this feature can attest to. Your main characters hit like wet noodles and take hits like they’re made out of jelly and cardboard.
The turned-based system is certainly something you’re likely to have seen before, even if you’ve never played an Atelier game in your entire life. You wait for your character’s turn, then you select a command from a list of several abilities, like using an item, special moves or the old-faithful ‘attack’ option. Then once you’ve made your selection, your character performs the selected ability and stands perfectly still while they wait for someone else to have a go. Obviously, this is a tried and tested method of RPG combat, and if you’re into the style, then it functions perfectly well here and provides a solid example of the mechanics done well.
Other than fighting enemies, one of the main things you spend your time doing is synthesising items in a cauldron by mashing several different types of items together and then playing a small Tetris-like puzzle. This is actually one of the areas where the game has managed to make improvements over earlier entries in the series. When adding items to the synthesis board, you can now not only rotate each individual piece so it fits in better, but when you place one piece over another, it no longer erases all of the previously placed pieces, instead only overriding the blocks which have overlapped. This makes the synthesising much less frustrating, and that’s pretty good since you’re going to be spending most of your time in the game synthesising.
Although the synthesising has been improved upon, there are other elements that feel more like a step back rather than forward. In the last game, the world was done in a much more open style as the main characters traveled the world, exploring open areas and staying wherever they wanted to set up tent. Atelier Lydie & Suelle has gone back to the style of the first game in the trilogy, favouring tighter areas that you repeatedly visit from a hub area to collect the resources you need or complete the side-quests that you are undertaking. This style worked well enough in the first game, but here the areas feel much less fun to explore, and at times the materials you have to collect are less than obvious. Not to mention there have been one or two occasions where the game didn’t end a quest despite having actually handed in the required item, which meant another copy of the same item had to be made to get the game to continue properly.
So you explore these areas fighting monsters and gathering different materials so you can complete different commissions and advance the ranks of your Atelier so you can fulfil you promise to your dead mother and make it the best in the world. There is slightly more to the story than that, mind you. The aforementioned ‘dead mother’ makes some mysterious appearances, and the father’s constant neglect is hinted as having something to do with the mysterious magical paintings that the girls find themselves occasionally exploring, but the main thrust of the game is following the daily lives of the game’s protagonists as they bumble through a pretty twee life, dead mother not withstanding.
When you’re not making explosions in your Atelier or running around the wilderness looking for 7 different types of rabbit spit, you can spend your time exploring the local town and interacting with the different characters you can come across. The game has some pretensions towards humour, which almost always fall flat on their face, not least of all because the characterisation is a bit all over the place. There is the two girls’ main rival in the game, for example: Lucia. Lucia is a character that is either a complete arsehole or is the most socially inept person in the history of the universe. There are times when she seems like she is just trying to get on with everyone but keeps accidentally annoying them, but then other times she is very clearly gloating and looking down on the twins for their less successful shop. It is possible that this character was supposed to come across as someone who struggles to be a good person or that she’s spiky to avoid getting her feelings hurt, but evidently this just hasn’t come across with the translation to the English subtitles.
Visually, the game is pretty damn similar to the past few games. Everything is far more stylised than it is realistic, and the colour palette is mostly bright and colourful. The 3D character models are competently made, but the animation can at times just entirely fail to be acceptable. There is a moment early on in the game where one of the sisters waves and her hand looks like it was made out of paper and was being controlled by the world’s worst puppet master.
Luckily, at the other end of the spectrum, the hand-drawn graphics have made a comeback as well. They’re primarily used in menus or during synthesis, but on the occasions that they do pop up, they manage to entirely steal the show. In many ways, it is a shame that the game doesn’t use them more often, they might have been more interesting than the actual animated 3D models used in most of the cutscenes.
Overall, Atelier Lydie & Suelle is not a bad game, hell, it’s not even a mediocre game, it really is a good game, just not as good as it could have been. It really just feels like the developers were starting to run out of steam by this point, and it’s hopeful that this will mark the starting of another mini-series within the Atelier series at large, possibly bringing back some of the magic that the games are famous for. It is a real shame that the ‘Mysterious’ trilogy couldn’t go out with more of a bang, but if you’ve enjoyed it all so far, then you can just kick back, relax and enjoy a very simple ride with Atelier Lydie & Suelle.
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platforms: PS Vita, PS4, PC, Switch
Release Date: 27th March 2018