There’s something particularly addictive about Koei Tecmo’s Atelier franchise. On the surface, its games look like silly, whimsical anime-esque experiences – and that certainly is part of it. But to dismiss an Atelier game as just another drop in the ocean of cutesy JRPGs would be doing it a disservice. The core series gameplay is built around its alchemy system, where ingredients gathered during exploration or through battle are used to make myriad new creations. It isn’t always altogether accessible, but each entry in the franchise invariably gets its alchemical hooks into you pretty quickly.
Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists: Ateliers of the New World moves away from that captivating mechanic entirely, and for quite a while I was worried about how engrossing it could be with alchemy gone. Well, perhaps “gone” isn’t entirely the right word, but it certainly has been relegated to a more supporting role. You play as Nelke, a young woman with zero talent for alchemy, who’s been given the unenviable task of turning a neglected, desolate town into a prosperous, thriving city.
Instead of the usual alchemy-focused Atelier gameplay, this is more of a city-building and resource-management simulator. You still head out of your town of Westwald to go on adventures, accompanied by friends and allies you’ve met, but these are entirely on-rails sequences, punctuated by automatic item-gathering vignettes and the occasional monster encounter. As for alchemy itself, Nelke is useless at it, so instead you’ve got to delegate such tasks to the alchemists living in your town.
This is where the game appeals most – for older Atelier fans, at least. This is a crossover of every game in the series to date, from the recent Mysterious trilogy right back to 1997’s Atelier Marie. The central protagonist(s) of each title join Nelke eventually, usually accompanied by a few of their game’s supporting cast. Their arrival is tied to your story progression, and for the most part, you’ll be meeting characters in roughly chronological order. As someone who started the series fairly recently with Atelier Rorona, a lot of the “Hey, check out who it is!” factor in the early hours was lost on me. Once familiar faces starting showing up, though, I was in deep.
As Nelke gradually surrounds herself with more and more alchemists, each of them having been dragged to her world from their own for mysterious reasons, her responsibilities as Westwald’s administrator will expand. You oversee pretty much everything regarding the town’s growth. Deciding which buildings to place, and where to put them, is the most basic of your tasks. You’ll have to build shops, ateliers, farmland and so on, and staff each of them with the people best suited to the task. Then you get to decide what the farmers grow, what the alchemists create and what the shops are selling.
After I was past the initial hand-holding part of Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists, I became far more invested in the town’s development than I’d expected to be. Aside from ensuring your townsfolk are all hard at work at their respective jobs, you’ve always got a larger goal to work towards, provided by Nelke’s father. As the lord of the region, he wants to see Westwald develop into something worthwhile, and it’s up to you to ensure it happens. You’ll need to battle with the game’s clumsy user interface at times – they aren’t especially informative, and crucial info tends to be absent from some menus – but for the most part, I was very quickly invested in the growth of my town.
The occasional few hiccups aside, the system is fairly intuitive. Ingredients and resources are accrued through expanding your farmland or conducting investigations, which you can go on yourself or dispatch people to do it for you – or both! Crucially, though, you have to personal unlock an area and explore it before you can send other people there, so delegating everything is a no-go. After you’ve set them up in an atelier, your alchemists can use the materials on hand to create all manner of things, which can then be used for more complex syntheses or sent to one of your stores to sell. There’s also research to be done, the most important of which are necessary to advance the story.
Unfortunately, in typical Atelier fashion, the tutorials in Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists are terrible. They’re needlessly verbose and complex, often spending paragraph after paragraph explaining simple concepts. That they often end with polite “Please check this feature out!”-esque messages only adds insult to injury: I’d be happy to give this a try, only you’ve made it sound like I’d have an easier time trying to read a book with a blindfold on. This is a years-old gripe of mine, but it’s a crucial issue. Atelier games are complex but in a good way. These impenetrable, unhelpful tutorials will only put new players off. In the event that you want to re-read one to check something, well, you can’t. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Fortunately, the underlying systems are fairly straightforward, and it doesn’t take long to learn how everything works. The first few turns of the game – which comprise the week itself, where you’ll give everyone their jobs, and the weekend where you can pursue research, go on investigations or bond with characters – felt terribly slow, with little happening besides Nelke and her pals bemoaning their new circumstances. This, too, is familiar Atelier territory: it’s not uncommon for them to bombard you with tutorials and exposition before they finally decide it’s safe to let you go off on your own.
When you’re not exploring the nearby regions for resources and monsters to battle – both of which are often the focus of requests from the townsfolk – you can spend time bonding with the other residents. These scenes can come in many forms, including your standard getting-to-know-you conversations, often about the world that person came from, to interactions where an alchemist might provide you with a new recipe or idea for a new construction project. You only have a limited amount of time during your weekend holiday, however, and you have to strike a balance between bonding and investigations, the latter of which ends your downtime completely, no matter how little of it you actually end up spending in the field.
Really, it’s only alchemy taking a backseat that sets Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists apart from the main series. The story itself is Atelier through and through, with Nelke on the search for the mysterious Granzweit Tree and an enigmatic sage character. Of course, she’s joined along the way by a bunch of eccentric and loveable characters, only now the roster has grown to encompass pretty much every alchemist in the series.
Unfortunately, there’s no English dub – the localizations and voice acting are pretty solid, especially in the Dusk trilogy – but it was interesting to see how my favorite characters sounded in their original Japanese. The character designer from the recent Mysterious trilogy returns to work on, well, every character in the game here, so I imagine it’ll be interesting for fans (especially of the older games) to see how their favorites look in a new style.
The Atelier games have never been the most visually impressive, and sadly not all that much has changed from the games I played on the PS3. In-game character models are more detailed than back then, sure, but their animations are still hilariously wooden as if they were all constantly doing their best impressions of a walking robot. On the other hand, the character illustrations during dialogue are gorgeous, and enemies in the field are as cute and charming as ever. And if you’ve never heard an Atelier soundtrack before, you owe it to yourself to find one and listen ASAP. The music here is as varied and moving as ever, and it includes several remixes of old tracks (including workshop themes for each alchemist).
If you’re looking for a traditional Atelier experience, Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists: Ateliers of the New World might not be for you. As a celebration of the franchise’s history, however, and as a town-management sim, it’s hard not to play it for hours and hours at a time. Aside from its dated environment visuals and awkward, lethargic character animations, this is an Atelier game with lots to love: it’s charming, compelling and very much the sort of game you can play for hours on end. That there’s no hands-on alchemy can be disappointing, but having every protagonist in the history of the series together makes this an unmissable experience for Atelier fans.