Review: Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island (Nintendo DS)

Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island
Developer: Gust
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: SRPG/Simulation
Release Date: 10/27/09

Just about everyone’s familiar with the typical RPG plot: you’re put in the shoes of a chosen one who get swept up in some grand scheme involving the end of the world. So off he (or she, depending on the game) goes to try and stop it, accumulating other chosen ones in his entourage and running into many an obstacle along the way. Eventually, after trekking through many dungeons, taking down a bunch of henchmen and Big Bad wannabes, and some character building moments here and there, it all culminates in a epic and climatic final showdown with the Big Bad.

This is not one of those games. If anything, this would be a game about how that kooky salesperson in the final dungeon of the game peddling equipment and items as though the apocalypse wasn’t pending (and of course won’t deign to give the chosen ones any kind of discount) got their start. Except you don’t actually do that in this game, alas.

Some parts of the schematic outlined above are present in Atelier Annie, though it emphasizes the use of alchemy in creating items in order to accomplish various tasks and incorporates some business management with the RPG aspects. Let’s see how well this game executes that combination.

The game starts when Annie’s parents grow exasperated with Annie’s constant lack of interest in doing much of anything other than frittering the days away dreaming about marrying up so that she’ll never have to work a day in her life. In desperation, they turn to her grandfather, a famous alchemist. In an attempt to remedy this, he sends her to Sera Island to participate in the development of the resort and in the alchemy contest being held there. She’s less than enthused with the idea of being stuck on the island for three years and having to actually work. That is, until the king offers the hand of his son or daughter as part of the prize for winning the contest. Upon hearing that, she becomes fired up and eager to win the contest so that she can wed the prince. Hey, at least it gets her motivated.

After the premise is established, you’re given full run of the island. The story’s far more character driven than plot driven – there’s no sense of urgency driving the story forward, in the form of the end of the world or anything else. The plot serves as more of a backdrop for you to do whatever strikes your fancy on the island, emerging briefly every April and October with the contest assignments to give the game some sense of direction, then stepping back again until the next assignment. You’ll often bump into various characters as you go about your business and learn more about them in the process. Their interactions and antics are often entertaining to watch, though you’ll probably end up skipping through the text of conversations you’ve already seen on another playthrough. You may find yourself poking around different places in town to see if any events get triggered. However, they can crop up at inopportune times, as you might be running around in the middle of doing something, only to be derailed by a conversation, after which you forget what you were going to do in the first place.

A narrated comic book style introduction plays whenever you start up the game that depicts the events leading up to Annie’s current situation rather amusingly. Sadly, there isn’t more like it in the game itself, though the character portraits still do a good job in conveying the events that unfold. There’s also a little animation showing two white balls representing the ingredients being combined converging into Annie’s hands whenever you synthesize items that looks nice enough, if compressed. Though considering how much you’re synthesizing, you’ll probably be mashing the A button to get through the process as quickly as possible and thus not seeing much of it anyway. The character sprites are cute (even if they all have beady eyes), look like they’d fit right in the palm of your hand, and are animated well enough, though you only see them whenever you stop by a place in town, in the gathering fields, and in battles. During battles, the characters stand on transparent 2×3 grids over where the battle is taking place, with the portrait of whoever’s turn it is displayed (yes, even the enemies get their own picture) while the action takes place on the bottom screen. It works, but it’s nothing dazzling.

The soundtrack is upbeat and suits the general mood of the game. The background music changes as you go from place to place, which helps prevent any one song from getting monotonous. I especially liked the boss music and the tune that plays whenever you’re in the workshop by default (which you can change by examining the little music box in the workshop). There’s a lot of voice acting, though only Japanese voiceovers are available. Some bits are not translated, such as when you speak to someone, when you examine some items, the in-battle quotes, and the victory quotes after battle, and after a mini-game. Granted, you could probably mostly figure out what they’re saying from context and tone of voice, but being able to understand those snippets adds a bit of color i.e. Fitz going (basically) “What?! …Oh, Big Sister Annie!” whenever you talk to her after you’ve maxed your amity with her. If that bothers you, you can always just turn the voices off. Considering how much voice acting is in this game, it’s understandable why they couldn’t add an option for English voiceovers alongside the Japanese considering space limitations on a DS cart, similar to how much of the voice acting got trimmed out of the DS port of Disgaea, though of course the lack of options might still bother some people.

You can use either the stylus or the buttons to get around, though the stylus is required for the resort’s mini-games. There’s no real exploring here; rather, you pick a place off the menu and you’re there. The game mainly focuses on alchemy, gathering materials for said alchemy, and building up resorts. Every April and October (in this game, the year begins in April) you’ll receive an assignment for the contest asking for a specific item. The sooner you complete it and the more compliant with the assignment’s specifications your submission is, the better prize you earn and the more money you receive towards resort management, which is separate from your spending money. In order to create items, you need to have their recipe, some of which you can buy in the library, some of which you earn from completing requests. While you could get by with using the cauldron for the whole game, using the other tools on items they’re best in (like the alchemy egg for medicines and accessories) increases chances of success – helpful when your alchemy level is still low – and also improves your chances of hitting a stride and making more items than intended (which doesn’t consume more ingredients). Until you’ve built up your alchemy level sufficiently, you can also fail at synthesizing more complicated items, which also wastes ingredients.

Sometimes characters will come to you with a request to synthesize a certain item. They’ll only ask for items you have recipes for, so you don’t have to worry about them asking for anything you can’t make. If you don’t want to be blitzed with requests you might not have the materials for, hold off on buying too many recipe books until you’ve gathered enough materials. At the same time, characters don’t always appear in their usual spots, which gets somewhat irritating when you’re trying to give them something.

Each item has a trait – normal, red, blue, purple, quality, cute, and so on. You can assign traits to items through the use of supplements through either normal or special synthesis. In normal synthesis, the result is not guaranteed to have the trait you’re trying to assign to it, but you get full experience towards your alchemy level. In special synthesis, the result is guaranteed to have the trait you want, but you only earn half of the experience you would get from normal synthesis, and you can only use special synthesis to assign a trait you possess an almanac for. You can’t buy or find supplements anywhere, so you have to synthesize them yourself. If you use equipment with an enemy’s weakness, you’ll inflict more damage if it’s a weapon or take less if it’s armor. Supplements can only have one trait at a time. For example, if you create a Red Supplement 2, then try to create a Blue Supplement 2, all your Supplement 2s will become blue, and you’ll have to synthesize some Red Supplement 2 again if you want to use that to assign the red trait to something.

Considering the sheer number of items you accumulate, other ways to organize your items (by trait, number, name, etc.) would’ve been nice, as it can take a bit to flip through your inventory to find what you’re looking for. Some item classifications are odd – how do bombs and globes count as medicine? I could maybe see it if the globes cure a deficit in sense of direction, but considering that’s attempted at one point to no avail on a navigation-challenged character, that seems dubious. Both deal damage in battle, so I suppose in this case living could be considered an affliction they’re suffering from that they need to be treated for, ergo explosives equal medicine. But that’s kind of pushing it. Also, a small niggle: you have to actually have an item in your inventory for it to be recorded in the almanac, not just seen it listed in the store. However, after you’ve seen the item, it’s no longer listed as new even if you don’t buy it, which makes it harder to track which items you still need to acquire to fill out your almanac. But that would probably only really bother someone who cares to complete the almanac.

While you can buy some materials in the general store, you’ll have to get most of them from gathering spots. You can bring up to two people with you to gathering spots, and random encounters can occur while you’re walking around and gathering. Battles are simple turn based ones you see in many RPGs – pick an option, watch your characters and the enemies take their turns. Turn order is determined by the speed stat. You can hold down the Y button to speed through the animations. Whenever characters gain levels, their HP and MP are restored, and at certain levels they will learn new skills. Which skills they can use are determined by whether they stand at the forefront or the rear. In the forefront, they can deal more damage, but also take more damage, while in the rear they take and dole out less damage. The type and range of attack your character has varies with the weapon they have equipped; some weapons inflict magic damage, while others inflict physical damage. Naturally, some enemies are more susceptible to one type than the other.

As per one of the main goals of Annie’s stay on Sera Island, you have your own shop (which Pepe manages) and can build up to five resorts. In order for them to thrive, people need to feel compelled to go there and spend money there. For that to happen, people have to know about it and the facilities have to be worth visiting. To accomplish that, you build up the resort’s fame by doing various jobs and renewing the place. In order to renew a resort, it has to have a certain amount of fame. Your shop levels up when the other resorts are developed enough, and you can bolster its fame through quests at the adventurer’s guild.

You can ask any of the playable characters to be a clerk, and they have different strengths and weaknesses. For example, Hans does well with art related places like museums, but not with recreational ones, while Kyle’s a theater buff and dislikes outdoor places. At each resort, you can play a mini-game which can net you items. They go up in difficulty as you upgrade the resort and play them. Occasionally, the manager of the resort will ask you to help them with a task, which can range from polishing a desk (which will induce fatigue if you don’t take breaks) to a memory game involving being shown objects on a shelf, then being asked to point to where each object was. Successfully completing these mini-games will increase the resort’s fame.

Most everything you do takes up time – creating items in your workshop, traveling to and from gathering places and resorts (unless you use a Return Gate to warp back to your workshop), and digging up items. Thankfully, wandering around town doesn’t take up any time, enabling you to run around doing quests, shop, and trying to trigger character events without advancing the clock. The time limit and continuously advancing calender might seem intimidating at first, but the pacing of the game is actually more flexible than you might think. The sections between assignments are given are completely free to use however you want, so you do still get time to do what you couldn’t do before. It would behoove you, then, to complete assignments as soon as possible not only for the Gold prize and resort money, but also for the free time that affords you.

There are seven possible endings, and which you get depends on how and whether you complete objectives. For instance, you would get different endings if you choose to focus on fighting or on alchemy, or to stay true to Annie’s personality and slack off for the whole three years. The game is more geared towards multiple playthroughs than a single long one. However, the requirements for some of the endings can be tricky to nail, especially if you’re not using a guide. If you’re aiming for a specific ending, you might have to plan out your time in advance in order to meet the requirements. When you load your completed save, you can choose whether to start with most of the items you had in the last playthrough. If you choose not to, all your items are sold and you instead start with the amount they’re worth in your wallet.

I beat the game in a couple of days, and that was with me taking my time and reloading an earlier file in an attempt to find something before finally deciding to just continue on. The second playthrough went by faster, partly because I knew what I was doing and had more of an actual goal in mind and partly due to skipping a lot of the text of events I’d already seen. Trying to match enemies’ weaknesses with equipment that has the appropriate trait can feel like a roulette because you often encounter groups of enemies who all have different weaknesses. That being said, the enemies are easy enough to take down even without exploiting weaknesses and with normal equipment. Enemies shouldn’t be a problem as long as you keep equipment decently updated and there’s someone in your party who can deal magic damage (either with a weapon or items) and someone who can deal physical damage. You do have to rely on luck to find what you need from gathering spots and to assign an item with a specific trait during normal synthesis, though.

I found it hard to pull myself away from the game, which likely did play a role in how quickly I got through the game. That was in part because I’d be afraid of losing track of what I was doing if I did because there’s usually so many tasks to juggle at once and in part because I’d keep thinking “Let me just do one more request/go to just one more gathering spot…” and next thing I knew hours had passed. However, that enthusiasm waned somewhat after the second playthrough, and it’ll probably be a while before I pick it up again to aim for the other endings. Still, it managed to hook me and made me want to track down other games in the Atelier series.

An SRPG (well, if you take the S to stand for strategy, as most would at first look) and a business management simulation is not exactly a combination that would come up in people’s minds when they think of either genre, nor is a slacker of a protagonist. The combination itself is pulled off well enough here, though the individual components are simplified compared to other games in the respective genres. While the game is officially classified as an SRPG by NIS, the only SRPG elements present are the grids, being able to move your characters from row to row, and the turn based battles. Most of the management aspects are handled by Pepe, and the only role you play is filling various requests from the managers of the resorts. So the management in this case consists of managing requests and building up fame in order to renew facilities as soon as possible. In addition, the game differs from the games in the Atelier series that have received localizations, which consist only of the Mana Khemia and the Atelier Iris games, though Atelier Rorona is slated for a 2010 release. Those games were still heavy on alchemy, but also focused more on the RPG aspects, imminent end of the world plot included. Those who have played those games and expecting more of the same here might either be disappointed by how simplified and light this feels in comparison or be intrigued by the change of pace. Those for whom the idea of doing the same thing over and over and constantly creating items gives them hives might want to find something else to play. The Harvest Moon crowd might enjoy this, though there are no dating sim elements, nor can you marry anyone, despite the fact that the game tracks friendship levels for each character.

The Scores
Story: Enjoyable
Graphics: Above Average
Sound: Good
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Good
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Very Good
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Decent
Miscellaneous: Great
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island is an enjoyable lighthearted RPG and simulation hybrid. Even with the imposed time limit, it still manages to be open ended enough to be conducive to multiple playthroughs, which you’ll need if you want to see everything there is in the game. The interactions between the characters are often fun to watch, even if they can sometimes knock you off track for a bit. While the RPG and simulation aspects are both relatively simplified, they still come together to create an entertaining experience, though it’s more of a niche game.

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