Atelier Escha & Logy Plus: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky

"If your average JRPG is an adventure anime interspersed with slice-of-life moments, Atelier Escha & Logy Plus is a slice-of-life anime interspersed with adventure."

Ever since I saw the gorgeous artwork of Marie from Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg here at RPGFan back in 1999 or 2000, I wanted to know more about the Atelier series and their developer, Gust, and I also wanted to actually play some of the games. At the time, JRPGs in the US were still getting their sea legs after Final Fantasy VII opened the floodgates, and several series still remained in Japan, Atelier being one of them. Years later, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana came out for PlayStation 2 and I loved it. I particularly loved the character interactions in that game, especially uncovering the backstories of shopkeepers Blair and Veola.

Apparently, enough people also loved Eternal Mana that the Atelier series has now become a surprisingly ubiquitous cult favorite among both Japanese and Western fans of RPGs, and other Gust-developed series like Ar Tonelico and Mana Khemia have made a few waves as well. I didn't much care for the Ar Tonelico or Mana Khemia games, but the Atelier games I played (Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island) were delightfully charming. Therefore, I was happy to try out this enhanced Vita port of Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky, which features all the DLC from the 2014 PS3 version as well as new character and story content not found in the original that fleshes out the protagonists' relationship in unique ways.

Players can choose one of two protagonists, the unflappably cheerful girl Escha Malier or the earnestly private boy Logix "Logy" Ficsario. The clever bit of wordplay here is that the Japanese word for "and" when used between two nouns is "to" (pronounced like "toe"), so Escha "to" Logy is a play on the word eschatology, which means studying the end of the world or the end of time. This suggests a slightly darker undertone than usual, but given how much I enjoyed the tragic backstories of Veola and Blair in Eternal Mana, I was certainly receptive. The darker undertones and major plot revelations don't make themselves known until the later chapters of the story, which is a very slow burn.

Unlike most JRPG plots where the big, bad, end-of-the-world conflict takes center stage, the plot in Atelier games focuses more on the day-to-day trials, tribulations, and interactions of a tight-knit cast of delightful, small-town characters, with the protagonists working to build, rebuild, or expand said town. Creating and synthesizing items to fulfill these "another day at the office" objectives is the meat and potatoes of Atelier gameplay, and if you can't get into that, the game and series is not for you. Basically, if your average JRPG is an adventure anime interspersed with slice-of-life moments, Atelier Escha & Logy Plus is a slice-of-life anime interspersed with adventure.

This slightly askew focus is precisely why Gust RPGs, particularly the Atelier series, are divisive among JRPG fans. People seem to either love them or loathe them for the same reasons. I think the preference toward or against Gust RPGs is partially based on what you value in an RPG. If you're looking for a game with high production values, epic storytelling, labyrinthine dungeons to explore, or innovative design, you had best look elsewhere. On the other hand, if you're looking for a game that oozes charm and has meatier in-town gameplay mechanics than merely "go to shop, buy hat, equip hat," Gust RPGs are worth a look.

In addition, though Atelier games impose deadlines to complete major objectives, their pace is generally more relaxed and their vibe less urgent than your average RPG. The overall progression of the game can lull you into a comfortably addicting daily routine, which is different from more typical RPGs driven by a sense of urgency to defeat the "big bad" before it's too late. What some gamers may deem routinely comfortable, others might find repetitive and constricting. What I'm trying to say here is that Atelier Escha & Logy Plus is an Atelier game to the core and makes no pretenses about it. That being said, the pace may be too relaxed for some series fans and they may also find some of the gameplay elements skewed toward easy.

In Atelier Escha & Logy, the town in question is a small but growing frontier town called Colseit. Colseit's rapidly becoming a hub for trade and commerce and their government is understaffed, trying to keep up with the growing demands of a growing town. Enter Logy, an alchemist brought in from Central City to work alongside newly hired alchemist Escha, who grew up in Colseit. Having two alchemists in town is unconventional, but Colseit needs and deserves these two highly capable protagonists. The town itself is charming, with some amusing inhabitants, but none get the kind of backstory and development that, say, Veola and Blair did in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana. The lion's share of character development and fleshing out is given to Escha, Logy and their interpersonal relationship.

It's not very common for Atelier series games to have two protagonists to select from, but Escha & Logy Plus does. When a game allows me to select a protagonist, I always select the girl. However, I decided to flip my script this time and play as the boy instead. The storyline does not differ significantly between Escha or Logy, but there are subtle differences, such as unique dialogue with some NPCs, different internal monologues when pondering situations, a few different cutscenes, and some character exclusive sidequests. Both Escha and Logy are achingly cute in their own ways and their interactions are positively charming.

My only issue was that during interactions where the chosen character can select dialogue responses, there are icons next to them to indicate whether it's a friendship response or a love response. While this makes it easier to steer the Escha and Logy relationship in the direction you want, it also makes dialogue choices feel contrived. As a love-adventure fan, I want to feel like I'm selecting my dialogue naturally and letting the end result be a surprise. I'm sure some players are fine with the blue smiley face or red heart icons accompanying dialogue choices, but I would have liked an option to turn them off or have them only show up during subsequent playthroughs to make the other endings easier to obtain.

I rather enjoyed my time playing as Logy, largely because his voice actor did a fantastic job. The English voice acting, as a whole, is what I expect from dub jobs these days: generally competent, but with some exceptional standouts and some questionable choices. The Japanese voice pack is downloadable from the PlayStation Store and I found the Japanese voices smoother, with less acting disparity between characters. That being said, I still kept the voices in English because I preferred the timbre of Logy's English voice over his Japanese voice.

The music itself is quite good, integrates well with the game, and induces that comfortable, homey feeling. There weren't any hugely memorable hooks or epically bombastic pieces, but the game never really calls for music like that. The most exciting pieces are definitely the battle themes, especially those for major and minor boss-level enemies. There are a few vocal themes as well, but the song that plays during the kaleidoscopic anime intro had some shrill instrumentation through the Vita's speakers. The use of good headphones mellows that out, though, and I heard no shrill music anywhere else.

The graphics are a treat to look at. The character models have lush cel shading, feature finely intricate details in their outfits, and animate fluidly and expressively. Environments are not as intricately detailed as the characters, but they look seamless and feature eye-pleasing color palettes. Several cutscenes featuring anime stills pepper the narrative, and they're nicely drawn and always evoke the feelings they intend to. For example, the more amusing cutscenes elicit chuckles whereas the serious ones convey some gravitas.

Atelier games are not exactly known for their battle systems, so it's worth noting that Escha & Logy Plus has a very refined turn-based battle engine. Six characters can enter battle, with three on the front line actively fighting and three on the back line waiting to be swapped in. When a character is in the back line, their HP and MP recover. I love how, before an enemy attacks, the press of a button can have one of the other party members cover the targeted ally. Landing hits in battle builds up a Support Gauge where, when one character attacks, others can do support attacks as well, leading to party attack combos like in Valkyrie Profile. It's good to learn how battles work and exploit the system, because even the earliest enemies have a decent amount of HP and sometimes hit hard. Encounters can be spotted beforehand in the small explorable areas, and battles take some time due to the size of enemy clusters in any given encounter.

My biggest pet peeve with Gust RPGs, starting with Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, has been miniscule fonts. In the modern era of HD RPGs, miniscule fonts have become the new normal, and they're also my biggest complaint. Sadly, Atelier Escha & Logy Plus follows this trend, and there is no option to make font sizes larger. I shouldn't have to sit super close to the TV to read text, nor should I have to squint to read it on a handheld's already compact screen. The lion's share of this game's 30-35 hours is spent in the item synthesis menus, and while the fonts are clear and the text colors are pleasing, they are still too small for such a text-heavy and menu intensive game.

Another issue I have with this game is the jumping mechanics. Strolling around town and traipsing through dungeons is fine, until you have to jump. Jumping is clumsy and imprecise, making the rudimentary platforming sections more of a chore than they need be. Thankfully there are no sequences like Xenogears' Tower of Babel, which required pinpoint accuracy with floaty jumping, but the jumping in Atelier Escha & Logy Plus still feels like an afterthought.

Atelier Escha & Logy Plus's delightfully breezy charm is par for the Atelier series, but may not appeal to an RPG fan looking for a more Final Fantasy-type experience. The relaxed and routine nature in Escha & Logy Plus may be too lackadaisical and repetitive for some. If you think of JRPGs like a water park, Atelier Escha & Logy is akin to floating down Lazy River rather than careening down a twisting water slide at breakneck speed. So, yeah, if you're looking for that "Lazy River" type of RPG experience, give Atelier Escha & Logy Plus a try.

© 2016 Koei Tecmo, Gust. All rights reserved.