Monday, March 30, 2015

Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dust Sea (PS3) Review

Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is technically the third and final installment in an Atelier trilogy that began with Atelier Ayesha.  For those who've never played an Atelier game, it works fairly well as a stand-alone title.  The references to previous games are tastefully done, and those things that carry over are explained in subtle enough ways to not seem like boring repetition, even when one has played previous games.  To describe the series in a nutshell, it’s basically RPG-meets-crafting sim, where your main character uses alchemy to craft items.  Much like the second game in the series, Shallie lets you choose between two potential main characters: Shallistera, the future chief of Lugion village; and Shallote, an inexperienced alchemist in the city of Stellard.  To add to the confusion, both girls go by the nickname “Shallie”, hence the title of the game.  For the purposes of this review, it is important to note that I chose to follow Shallistera’s story.

Unlike previous games in the Atelier series, this particular one has done away with time limits.  The previous games had a limited number of days, weeks, months, etc. in which to accomplish specific plot-related tasks and events.  Shallie has done away with the restrictions of a time limit, instead using a complicated stamina system to try and push players forwards with the story.  As in previous games, there are plentiful items to craft, and a variety of hunting or gathering tasks to complete for bonus cash.  This becomes increasingly necessary the further into the game you progress, simply because like most Atelier games, money isn't very easy to come by.

The battle system is fairly simple and very easy to grasp quickly, yet offers enough variety to assist in preventing boredom.  Like other Atelier games, it is turn-based, with the ability to (eventually) swap back row support characters for front row active characters.  The addition of a Burst gauge, an Ultimate gauge, Field Bursts, and various other effects allow the player to control the battlefield with ease, provided the player is paying attention.  That being said, experience distribution is still something that came off seeming completely random.  There were times where battles will net a grand total of 1 experience point, and others where you fight the exact same group of enemies and yet earn more.  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to how earnings are calculated, which can be frustrating when trying to level up.

The only thing about battles that frustrated me was that some characters have different skills depending on if they’re in attack or defensive stance, and it was never made clear how to switch between the two.  It would just…happen.  Which could be very inconvenient when I needed Kortes' attack skills and he was—for whatever reason—suddenly in defensive stance.  One change I really liked was that they removed the MP requirements for performing alchemy.  Instead they made some of the higher level items require MP for use.  And, with the addition of a key Burst skill for the main Alchemist you pick, unlocking later in the game, those items could be used without reducing the item count (if the player chose Stera) or duplicated without impacting turn order (if the player chose Lotte).

Character growth is static until level 40, when the player unlocks something called the Growth system.  This addition allows you to customize the growth of your character, aiming them towards improving specific stats and granting them bonuses.  It allows a player to carefully enhance the characters he or she plans to use primarily for those tasks they are best suited for, or to compensate for a perceived weakness.  It is important to note that as of launch, the Growth System has a fatal flaw, where it will freeze and crash the game when that particular menu is loaded.  As of the posting of this review, there has been a patch to correct this flaw, and the system now functions as designed without crashing the game.  Without the patch, however, that section of the game is completely unusable.

Graphics-wise, the game is nothing to write home about.  Don’t get me wrong, here.  The art is well done, backgrounds are clear and crisp, and everything is HD, with no jaggies or clipping.  However, there’s not really anything to make it stand out from the previous two in the series, and something that actually does stand out is the variable frame rate.  Now, I’m not one to complain about graphics, normally, but this really threw me.  There are times where everything is smooth, crisp, and clear, without any issues whatsoever.  Yet during numerous cut scenes, the graphics would hang just long enough to be noticeable.  Also, there would be numerous times where a character’s mouth movements wouldn’t synch up with the audio.  This is particularly noticeable for Wilbell during her Ultimate attack, and if she gets the killing blow in a battle.  While not major, game-breaking flaws, they were slightly off-putting, if only because they’re shoved in your face.

Video game music is one area I have always felt needed more attention.  What is the one thing everyone who ever played Crono Cross will say?  No matter what their personal opinion of the game, everyone thought the music was beautifully done.  Atelier Shallie does have a good sound track, with multiple battle tracks and gently understated field music, so you never find yourself overwhelmed with sound.  The voice acting is realistic and believable, sounds perfectly natural, and never yanks you out of the game.  About my only complaint with the audio ties to the intro.  Or, I suppose I should say “intros”, since there are technically two.  Both opening sequences are, to put it bluntly, boring.  No action, in some places little to no color, and music so low that would put a raging bull to sleep.  There is nothing to recommend them, nothing that would ever get someone watching them excited for the game.  It’s almost a shame the intros are both so bad, if only because the game is so much better.

Overall, this is a well-made game.  Barring the one critical component failure that has thankfully been patched at this point, it doesn’t really have any glaring issues that make me want to put the controller down and throw my hands up in frustration.  The removal of a time limit allow the player to go through the game at his or her own pace, and compensates for every other perceived failing.  Battles are challenging but not truly difficult, with a few exceptions.  Synthesis recipes are plentiful and varied, ingredients plentiful and for the most part easy to come by with a little determination, and the plot—while not exactly the most compelling story—has enough to keep a player’s interest and resolves the trilogy nicely.  I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the series, as a good way to introduce one’s self to the world of crafting RPGs.

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