When I was assigned Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island (we’ll just call this one AA, thank you very much), I was seriously wondering what I had done to piss off the gaming gods. You see, I had just finished the lackluster A Witch’s Tale which was a dreadful attempt at creating an RPG that was “for everyone”. At the exact instant I hit the “submit review” button for that one, AA showed up on my doorstep. With an anime 12-year-old beaming at me from the cover art, I resigned myself to another painful 10-15 hours of slogging through a dismal land of clichés and dull combat.
Initial impressions of AA did little to quell my fears. The story opens with a storyboard sequence describing how 12-year-old Annie is horribly lazy and has no desire to do anything except marry into money and eat bon-bons on the couch all day. Her grandfather, a world-famous alchemist, takes exception to this, and has a cheery little group of elves pick up her bed and cart her off to Sera Island during the night. When she awakens in a strange place, her mentor (a fairy named Pepe) explains that she has been entered in an alchemy contest that involves both creating unique items, and sprucing up the rather barren resort island of Sera in an effort to draw more visitors and make money. The graphics, while wonderfully drawn and detailed, all involved cute little big-headed sprites traipsing around a cheery little town and fighting some rather cute little monsters.
Oh boy, this review’s going to be painful.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself completely enthralled by this fun, creative, hilarious, and completely addictive RPG-meets-simulator creation. Much like Annie’s own crazy alchemy concoctions, AA does an amazing job of combining a seemingly random number of different RPG ingredients – characters, story, combat, alchemy, graphics, and music – into something that is, at the end of the day, both delicious and wholly satisfying.
As the title suggests, AA’s gameplay revolves around alchemy, or the crafting of items. While many RPG’s have some sort of crafting element involved, very few make it the main theme of the entire game. Early on, Annie receives a cauldron that she can use to combine various ingredients. Many of these can be bought from the General Store, but most of them will need to be picked up from gathering points scattered throughout Sera Island. Travelling to each of these gathering points is done by simply selecting them from the menu, and Annie and her party of 3 will go there automatically. Each area is unique, and you’ll see most gaming staples represented. There’s a forest area, a desert area, a lava area, a mountain area, a snow area, etc. Each area displays a number of question marks that indicate gathering points, and you simply walk up to them and press A to begin gathering. You typically gather between 10-20 times at each location before it runs dry and you move on to the next one. You will, however, encounter random battles during your gathering exploits. Battles are handled by a very rudimentary turn-based combat system with Annie & Crew on one side, and the monsters on the other. Combat is probably the weakest aspect of the game, since your only options are a basic attack, one special ability, a super attack (can be used once per battle), or using an item. 99% of battles are simply decided by pressing A again and again until the baddies are dead, and it’s a shame that they didn’t incorporate a more robust combat system.
AA is set on a strict 3 year timeline, with every action – combat, traveling, or alchemy – taking up a specific number of days. The main storyline revolves around Annie receiving an alchemy assignment every 6 months, which she needs to complete in order to receive a large chunk of change. If she does well on the assignment, she receives a massive payout, and doing a mediocre job will yield significantly less. The choice is yours, and even if you slack off and completely ignore the assignment, the game will continue through all three years. Since there are multiple endings, it’s worth it to play through the game multiple times in order to see what can happen. The entire 3 years only take about 12 hours of actual gaming time, so this isn’t much of a problem.
The bi-annual assignments feed directly into the simulation model for AA. Unlike most RPG’s, the big payout you receive can’t be used to purchase any items, weapons, or armor, but rather to purchase improvements around the island. You’ll purchase locations like a bakery, a park, a theme park, or a hotel, and will be in charge of managing each of these new venues. Purchasing upgrades can help to generate money and attract more tourists, and leaving the locations stagnant will cause them to actually lose money, which takes away from your ability to purchase or upgrade additional locations.. You’ll receive financial reports from each shop on a monthy basis, so you can see which ones are successful and which aren’t. This resource generation and simulation model is quite fun, and will have you striving to do the best you can on every task in order to get the big bucks and upgrade the island.
In addition to the main storyline assignments, you will receive a constant stream of item requests from various team members or townsfolk, or you can pick up alchemy jobs at the Adventurer’s Guild that gain you both money and fame. These jobs are typically of the “craft or gather X number of Y items” variety, but the near constant stream of new alchemy ingredients, new crafting recipes, and the ability to imbue items and weapons with specific traits that make them more valuable or effective, ensures that the process will never get dull. And while crafting items is simple enough in the early game, the late game requires some crazy combinations of incredibly hard-to-find ingredients that will require you to search high and low at every gathering point. Of course, this means lots of random combat against some very difficult enemies, but such is the price of success.
Thankfully, Annie isn’t alone in her quest to become the best alchemist on Sera Island. She is joined by a dozen or so additional characters, who are an absolutely fantastic supporting cast. AA provides excellent dialog localization and some genuinely engaging and often highly amusing interaction between the colorful and eclectic group. All the dialog is done through static talking head portraits and dialog boxes, and there is an extensive amount of script involved. Nearly every time you enter a new area or travel back to your workshop, you can bet that one person or another will be there with a story, a joke, a new assignment, or some combination of the above. I have a pretty low tolerance for lame dialog, but I was surprised at how much I really enjoyed the story and became genuinely interested in each individual’s story. There’s a few awkward moments (one of them commenting about the size of Annie’s “boobies” felt pretty out of place) and a bit of the humor doesn’t translate over that well, but overall I was highly entertained throughout the entire game.
There were a couple issues that hampered the game somewhat. The forced 3-year timeline was the biggest problem. I felt like I was under a constant time crunch to get jobs or assignments created, and I often found myself missing due dates on jobs or forgetting to do something because the time was simply flying by so quickly. Compounding this issue is the fact that towards the endgame, the rare materials can be very difficult to find and the random battles at the gathering points become significantly tougher. This meant lots of trial and error trying to locate things, which caused the constantly ticking clock to become even more of an issue. Some of the alchemy recipes could also be quite confusing and coming across the recipe for that final required item often felt like simple luck of the draw instead of something I actually had control over. These issues never overpowered the fun atmosphere of the game, but I often felt myself getting frustrated towards the end.
I hadn’t played a game in the Atelier series before, and was really expecting to dislike this entry. This is one of those pleasant surprises that sneaks up and grabs ahold of all your gaming time when you least expect it. Multiple endings will keep players involved for a long time, and the game seems to have an innocent and ever-elusive “fun factor” that seems to be missing from so many high minded RPG’s. Don’t let the cutsey anime graphics and basic combat system turn you off, or you’ll end up missing what is a thoroughly enjoyable and remarkably fun ride.