"If Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists accomplished one thing, it's getting me into the series at last."
If you know me, you probably know I'm a fan of anime-like games, so you might be surprised to learn that I've never played an Atelier game before. While I've always been interested, I could never find the time amidst the torrent of other great RPGs out there. However, when I heard Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists would incorporate town building, I was interested right away. Never mind the fact that this game is a celebration of 20 years of Atelier by having all of the series' protagonists together in one game; I was interested in the town-building aspect. After diving straight into this crossover game, here's a summary of my first Atelier game experience.
After graduating from an academy in the capital city, Nelke wants to pursue her dream of investigating "Sage Relics" left behind from the past. She argues with her father, who wants her to stay and work in the capital. Eventually, her father gives in and allows Nelke to move to Westwald, a village that is close to the ancient site of the Granzweit Tree, a Sage Relic that has disappeared without a trace. The condition he gives her is that she must develop Westwald into a thriving city, or else she must come home. A couple of days later, Nelke encounters Marie, an alchemist from another world. Shortly after, other alchemists mysteriously begin to appear in her town. Nelke makes them each an offer: live in Westwald and help develop it, and in exchange, accommodations and alchemy workshops will be provided. All parties are mutually interested in the Granzweit Tree, as the alchemists believe it is the key to their return home.
Attempted alchemy is the scenario that brings all of the series's alchemists together in Nelke's world. Each alchemist has found a recipe in their homeland, and when trying to synthesize it, the resulting explosion transported them to Westwald. I guess this excuse to bring characters from across the series together works out in the end, but the explanations for the non-alchemist characters' sudden arrivals are a lot less specific. They just wander into town with no real explanation as to how they arrived, are given a short introduction by the alchemists who know them, and that's it.
Through the story's quite slow progression, it's clear that the focus of the story is on the alchemists themselves and how they interact with each other. As a game celebrating Atelier's 20th anniversary, this is the right move. There's nothing particularly amazing here in terms of original story content, which is a bit unfortunate. I do like the cast, especially Nelke, so they pick up the slack of the story. I like it when nobles in video games are more down to earth, breaking away from the traditional haughty and prideful personalities, and dealing with others the same regardless of position. Unlocking the true ending requires you to do research synthesis to uncover the mystery of the Granzweit Tree. Otherwise, you only get the regular ending with Nelke accomplishing her father's task of building up Westwald.
You can really tell the way in which characters' personalities have changed over the years. You have characters like Marie and Viorate from the first Atelier games, who are more mature with odd quirks that make them fun characters. Then you have more childlike characters, such as Lydie, Suelle, and Firis, from the recent Atelier games. They are more straightforward and much of their character is on display right from the start. This game could be used as a gauge to see the changing trends of the series for its characters.
I hope you have some kind of understanding of economics, since you'll need it when you're playing this game. In school, I remember learning about the three stages of economic development: gathering, processing, and selling. You will gather materials in the field or produce them at various facilities that you've built in town, process those materials into useful items at your ateliers, then sell them at your stores to gather capital. All of this is so you can buy more facilities to produce more materials, so you can synthesize more items, so you can sell more items to make more money. This circle of life is what keeps the money flowing, and you'll need it to accomplish your main goal of this game: growing a city.
You have to make sure you get this right too, as you have a time limit to accomplish the tasks that Nelke's father gives you. Like other Atelier games, you have a turn limit to complete your objectives. They can range from getting the citizen count up to a certain number, building certain facilities, or making sure to make money for consecutive turns. Nelke's father also assigns smaller sub-tasks that will help you gain more citizens and net you a lot more cash than other sub-tasks, so it's worth it to take these on. Sub-tasks are given either automatically, as requests given by characters at random, or by "visiting" them. Visiting each character during the "holiday" will deplete your action gauge, which limits how much you can explore during investigations. There are multiple things that you can visit characters for: gaining EXP, increasing friendship, getting a recipe for a unique building, or taking on a request. Besides leveling up friendships in order to meet requirements for researching items needed to achieve the true ending, I found getting requests pointless past doing the initial ones to recruit characters into your party.
"Investigations" are where the RPG part of this game comes in. Investigations take you along a straight path to the goal. You can either walk or run, but walking will allow you to gather resources, while running will get you towards the end faster. There are multiple areas with approximately seven paths to explore in total. You only have a limited amount of time to clear each route, so getting to the end will likely always be your goal, given the time constraints of the game. Battles are turn-based, but your speed stat determines how fast you are able to take an action. During your turn, you can choose between various buffs or damage skills, or using the items you've synthesized. There is no actual inventory for items, so they can all be used, even if you don't have any. However, items can only be used once per investigation, so you do have to be careful about how many times you use them. Using anything other than your basic attack costs an action point, which are earned by using these basic attacks. To help speed battles along and give you an advantage, there is a "Burst" gauge that fills up over time. Activating it will give all of your characters a speed boost so their turn arrives faster.
You have five characters in a party, with the only controllable characters being this game's original cast. Any alchemists are computer controlled, with only their special skills available to use manually. Thankfully, the AI is competent and will attack, buff, and heal as necessary. The alchemists are mostly the same besides their special skills, so feel free to use your favourite two, or spread them out to spend time in battles with more of them. I found the battle system fairly simple, and it never evolves once you learn the basics. The game did scale well, with no need to grind for experience. Given the time limit, I'm glad this was the case.
The graphics look pretty good, but I find the animation of the character models to be a bit stiff at times. In general, the models seem to look a bit rougher than what I've seen from other Atelier games, but I think that's due to the sheer number of characters they had to create for this game. Looking at Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists alongside the recent Atelier Lulua, it's tough not to make a comparison between the two titles.
The sound department is all right. The music is peaceful and relaxing, and the voice acting is well done. The only thing I wish is that there was more of it. The game will transition from a long cutscene with voice-over to a shorter cutscene with none at all, even if it's on the same subject they were discussing in the previous scene. And like most Koei Tecmo titles, the game is Japanese dub only.
If Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists accomplished one thing, it was getting me into the series at last. I don't know how fast I'm going to move on to the main series, but I've had my first glimpse into the world of Atelier and I'm interested. Town building was fun in this game, and it made me feel like a real manager of an economic enterprise. I enjoyed my time in this world, and if you have been thinking about this one, give it a shot if you can.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.