ate·lier | \ ˌa-tᵊ l-ˈyā \ (noun)
1. An artist’s or designer’s studio or workroom. | 2: Workshop.
In 1997, the small Japanese development studio Gust accidentally stumbled onto a formula (and franchise) that would grow into something they could not have imagined. Prior to the first game in that series, Atelier Marie, they had released one PC-98 game and four PlayStation games with middling response in Japan. After Atelier Marie, however, things began to take a turn for the better, and within the next five years, the Atelier franchise would go on to have five main titles and one spin-off.
To date, those first five games have never officially left Japan. While one might — and I do — hold out hope for localization, it is unlikely to come without significant Japanese ports or remakes. For comparison, consider the decades-long lag on localizations for games such as Romancing SaGa 2, Romancing SaGa 3, Trials of Mana (Seiken Densetsu 3), Earthbound Beginnings, Persona 2 Innocent Sin, Moon, and so many others.
Many titles in this series have been localized since, so with that in mind, any gamer new to the franchise without knowledge of the Japanese language might wonder: where to begin? To answer this question, it is important to understand the evolution of the series’ story and mechanics, as well as the anthologizing phenomenon.
Identifying Order: Project A#
Starting with the latter point first: the Atelier series has a main, numbered franchise, though the numbers tend to be hidden in title screens and in tiny text on different portions of the packaging. For example, Atelier Marie is “Project A1,” Atelier Iris ~Eternal Mana~ is “Project A6,” and Atelier Ayesha is “Project A14.” As of the time of this article’s publication, the latest title in the main series is Atelier Ryza, “Project A21.” One might find this a daunting collection of games, then, as the franchise quantifies well beyond mainstay Japanese RPGs such as Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and even Fire Emblem.
Regarding the evolution of the franchise: the non-localized titles began with light RPG elements, focusing more significantly on the work of alchemy. Alchemy is central to the entire franchise, as your atelier — your workshop — generally involves a cauldron wherein all sorts of magical, mystical, and pseudo-scientific phenomena occur. As the series began to evolve, Gust went out on a limb and attempted a more linear, combat-focused RPG with Atelier Iris ~Eternal Mana~. At the end of that trilogy, Gust began to dabble with time management mechanics and would later go full force with those mechanics in the Mana Khemia duology and the Arland trilogy. In fact, some gamers were so frustrated with Atelier Rorona’s strict time management mechanics that Gust re-issued Rorona before beginning the Dusk trilogy, offering added story to make the Arland trilogy more cohesive, and more importantly, easing up on many of the time management gimmicks.
It is important to remember that with anthologizing comes reduced development time and cost. You see, every few Atelier games take place in a self-contained world: a region or continent, some of which may connect to others, and some which seem to take place in their own universe or timeline. These trilogies and duologies are easily identified by subtitle. For example, the Arland trilogy (A11-A13) refers to Rorona, Totori, and Meruru respectively as “The ____ of Arland” in their subtitles. Arland comes as a special exception, as a surprise fourth game in its grouping, “Atelier Lulua: The Scion of Arland” was released nearly a decade later as Project A20.
Diving In: Choosing a Trilogy (or Duology)
These -ologies go very well together, and as far as starting the franchise goes, it would be foolish to jump into the middle or end of a trilogy. With this in mind, one can narrow starting place options as such:
- Atelier Iris ~Eternal Mana~ (Project A6, first in the Iris trilogy)
- Mana Khemia (Project A9, first in the MK / Al Revis duology)
- Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland (Project A11, first in the Arland trilogy)
- Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk (Project A14, first in the Dusk trilogy)
- Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book (Project A17, first in the Mystery trilogy)
- Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness & the Secret Hideout (Project A21, newest title)
I could make decent arguments for starting at any one of these points. However, there are important factors to consider. For starters, there is the matter of availability. Atelier Iris has never been ported or remade since the PlayStation 2, and is not presently available as a digital download on the PSN store. Therefore, those who want to start with the earliest available title will need to search for secondhand copies, though they are not terribly expensive. Because of the Iris trilogy being firmly rooted in traditional RPG mechanics, and there being no time-limiting mechanics (outside of subquests for Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm), this could be a fun place for really hardcore fans to get into the roots of the series. This is where I started, personally: at the time, I had met with NIS America about their plans to localize this unique title, and I will never forget playing through this game just after E3 that year. Atelier Iris was one of my favorite games of 2005.
Likewise, the Mana Khemia duology is exclusive to PS2 … unless you want to include a particularly disappointing PSP port. These games are fun: they boast large casts, and they demonstrate Gust’s evolution toward heavy time management systems; Mana Khemia takes place in an “Alchemy School” and various alchemy projects are due every quarter. Enjoyable as they are, I do not think this a great place to first jump into the franchise.
The Arland trilogy … one could make a decent case for starting with Atelier Rorona, particularly in its revamped “Plus” form (available on PS3 and Vita). Rorona was the first title in the franchise to be released after Gust was acquired by Koei Tecmo, and the superior graphics engine made the Atelier franchise advance leaps and bounds from PS2 to PS3. The trilogy boasts some memorable recurring characters and a world that is easy to get lost in. Plus, one could choose to play through A11-A13 and then skip to A20 to get a full Arland experience. I couldn’t argue with that.
Jumping forward, because I want to save my favorite pick for last — The “Mystery” trilogy has its ups and downs. Players who want to start with Atelier Sophie (A17) may find the experience rewarding. However, this trilogy is notorious among gamers for having some significant weaknesses in the execution of its story, particularly with character portrayal and dialogue in Atelier Firis (A18). Our review is no exception to this.
If you wanted to work backwards, and see the latest Gust has to offer, Atelier Ryza is an absolutely fantastic game. And, like most of the games before it, it boasts an absolutely stellar soundtrack.
Dusk (ding ding ding!)
But for my money, if you want to “Start an Atelier” (game, not open your own real-life workshop), Atelier Ayesha (A14) and the Dusk trilogy is the way to go. Having learned lessons from developing the Arland trilogy, Gust built something truly magical with the Dusk trilogy. Atelier Ayesha as a standalone title, would have been good enough; the story centers around the young alchemist Ayesha, looking for a way to rescue her sister Nio, who seems to be trapped in some kind of alternate dimension. In her desperate search for a solution, Ayesha (and the player) begin to learn about the dangers facing this world. As the name “Dusk” suggests, this is a world that seems to be on its last legs. The soil is eroding, making farming and agriculture particularly challenging. Flowing waters become stagnant or dry up altogether. The winds cease to blow, making travel by hot air balloon (the best available technology in the steampunk-lite industries of the Dusk world) harder and harder. Cities, kingdoms, and nation states of all kinds are struggling to communicate and trade. And as Ayesha completes her personal quest, she has only begun to tap into the larger question of how to save her dying world.
Moving through the trilogy, gamers are treated to a particularly strange title, Atelier Escha & Logy (Project A15). In Japanese, the word for “and” is “to,” which means that the Japanese title is Atelier Eschatology — the study or understanding of the end times, or end of an era. This clever pun also serves to let the player know that, like a handful of other titles in the Atelier series, the player will be choosing to play as one of two protagonists, the female Escha or the male Logix (nicknamed “Logy” by his partner Escha). As this game takes place in the same space and time as Ayesha, players will have ample opportunity to befriend characters from the Ayesha cast, though Ayesha herself has become so powerful and so famous among alchemists by this time that Escha and Logy can only hope to receive her assistance in their quest to revive the world around them. Across the trilogy, Escha and Logy has the most “steampunk” feel to it, as there is an emphasis on the balance of nature and technology, and this story also has the most on-the-nose environmentalist message of any game in the entire Atelier franchise, let alone the Dusk trilogy.
Finally, Atelier Shallie (A16). Surprise! This one is yet another “pick your protagonist” game. Two young ladies with two very different backgrounds happen to meet, and they happen to share a nickname. Shallistera is a rugged adventurer looking for an opportunity to save her hometown from drought. Shallotte is a novice alchemist and a city girl with a very different demeanor. Both from humble origins, the Shallies will eventually find reason to meet the protagonists and other memorable characters from Ayesha and Escha & Logy.
All three titles in this trilogy feature solid voice acting in both English and Japanese, ridiculously good soundtracks, and some of the most in-depth, complex item synthesis across the entire franchise. Simply put, this is an excellent trilogy.
Dusk Goes DX
As a bonus, I should note that the Dusk trilogy is also the most accessible and affordable trilogy from the Atelier franchise to date, as it presently exists as a package deal in its revamped “DX” form on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Steam. As I write this, the digital trilogy will set you back 90 USD. However, these DX remakes feature unique content that was previously only found on the Vita versions, which individually would cost far more to download on a now defunct (though much-loved) handheld. And for those who care to shop around, please know that the physical copies of the Vita upgraded games have skyrocketed prices on secondhand markets. I personally paid more than I care to admit collecting this trilogy for the Vita. The new DX package is wildly convenient, and hands-down my recommended place for prospective Atelier fans to get their start. Should you enjoy it, you can work backward through Arland and into the PS2 titles, or forward into Mystery and beyond.
Speaking of “beyond” — I would be remiss if I did not note the various side story / spin-off titles in the Atelier franchise. Many of these have not been localized, and those that have come with mixed reviews (example: Atelier Annie for Nintendo DS). One recent spin-off that I have personally enjoyed is the town-building Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists, which includes cast from nearly every game in the Atelier series, even the ones that have yet to be localized.
And let’s not forget music, its own reward
Finally, given my penchant for game music, I must emphasize the incredible, genre-spanning soundtracks for these titles. Early in the series, NIS America recognized the quality of these soundtracks, often including single-disc “best of” soundtracks with copies of every game. Koei Tecmo has done the same, though these days they tend to save those for limited edition copies. If you head to RPGFan Music, you will find a vast collection of reviews written by myself and other RPGFan staff for nearly every Atelier title, both original soundtracks and various types of arranged albums, all with audio samples to whet your taste (ear?) buds. Yes, to date, there are almost 100 printed soundtracks for this franchise, and you’ll find over half of them covered among our reviews. If you’re going to start an Atelier, you’re going to need some great music to accompany the experience!