Atelier Annie: Alchemist of Sera Island
Game type: Item Creation... RPG? Action game?
Time demand: Not generally long at a time, and not very long overall
Platform: Nintendo DS
Released: 03/12/09 (JP); 10/27/09 (US)
What it is: The latest in the "Atelier" series, much of which hasn't made it over to the U.S... just the Atelier Iris and Mana Khemia games before this, I believe. The series in general (at least, what I've gotten to play) tends to be JRPG depending heavily on item creation. You play alchemists, after all, so the focus is on using alchemy to create items.
I'll admit I was really looking forward to this, the first Atelier game in a while that wasn't part of a previous subseries, but I was, well, disappointed not to put too fine a point on it. Oh, the game is good, and has kept my attention for the past few days, but it has its problems.
Okay, here's the general overview. You play Annie, a lazy-assed girl who gets basically sent-off unprepared to Sera Island, to take part in a renovation of the island into a resort paradise, which also happens to be a three-year contest for Alchemists. Basically the one who does the best in the various contests and does the most good for the island in terms of facilities, etc., wins a lot of money (and the hand of either the Prince or Princess).
As you might guess given the above, the gameplay consists of making your way through the three years. There is a specific contest (or sub-contest perhaps) every 6 months for Annie to participate in, consisting of making a particular item, and to do well in the contest Annie also has to build up to five specific resorts, upgrade them, and manage them to make the most money.
The item creation takes place in your workshop (or Atelier, although they don't seem to call it this in-game despite it being part of the title), at the caldron (sic). You start out with a couple of recipes, and need to buy more from the library, with the exception of a few that are given to you as character events. Creating a batch of items takes one or more days, depending on the item and number you're making, and also requires specific ingredients for each item. Ingredients can be bought from the general store, or gathered from gathering points. Your success in certain recipes also requires your alchemy level to be fairly high - you gain alchemy experience when you create an item, and both your alchemy level and the level of your tools can go up through repeated use.
The gathering points are the second thing that take up your in-game time - traveling from town to either a gathering spot or one of your resorts takes a couple days, and walking around within a gathering point and collecting items from it also takes up time, depending on how many times you gather, and steps you move. You may also end up in random battles in the gathering points, which brings us to combat.
The combat system is, not to put too fine a point on it, overly simplistic. You can have up to three party members, and basically it's a matter of choosing front or back line (for better attack or better defense), smacking things with your weapons, and using Skills a limited number of times per battle (although some items can recharge them). Each character has their own unique skills, two different ones for front-line and rear-line positioning. Equipped weapon type also matters, since there is an elemental rock-paper-scissors thing going on, and different weapons will be able to attack different areas to hit maybe multiple foes. And of course you can use a lot of the items you've created for healing, damage, etc. But it doesn't matter all that much, since there are frankly only a few battles in the game that even offer any challenge, unless you're going into a level that's just too high for your characters.
And there are of course the resorts. There are five spots you can build on, which a choice between two options for each spot. Each resort takes a different amount of funding (a separate fund from your alchemist's personal stash I should add) to build, and you need certain levels of fame and more funding to upgrade them through three levels. Fame (and items and cash) can be had by picking up quests at the resort (all of them to create or gather certain items, except for one for each spot which is to find a certain mascot character), and the higher your fame (and resort level), the more money you earn for your resort funds each game month, with a little bit thrown into the mix by the clerk you choose for your resorts and how you choose to order him or her around.
Along with the jobs for your resorts, you can also pick up jobs from the adventurers' guild in town, which are... pretty much the same thing, really. Make items, turn them in, except that these are timed while the resort quests are not. These jobs give you money, and fame for the shop attached to your workshop. That's about it. There's not really even anything to managing your shop - you don't actually make items for it or choose things to sell or anything, it's just all treated behind-the-scenes like a resort.
I suppose I should also mention traits as well - they're one of the things that add depth to the item creation, after all. Each ingredient has a trait, with usually a few different types of that particular item with different traits. (A fruit called a Lando for instance, which can be Red, Blue, Big, Yellow, and so on.) To get a trait onto an alchemized item, I think there may be a chance of it using just the traits in the ingredients, but usually you add supplements (which in turn are also alchemy-created items - using a red lando in the supplement made from landos for instance gives you a chance at a red supplement). Using a supplement has a good chance of giving you the trait in the finished product, but isn't fool-proof. You can also collect and use Almanacs, which either always give the trait or give a much better chance at it (I'm not sure which), but give you half the alchemy experience for the item creation.
This is... well, mostly the game. You build resorts, try to improve them, make items, go to gather items, and take part in the six-month contests. Oh, and there are also character events around town that let you gain more people to switch into your party (or clerk position), some of which have you creating items for them, and friendship levels with each of these characters (raised by events, or through having them in your party or being a clerk for you). But unfortunately there's not even that much to THAT. You don't woo and marry different characters a la Harvest Moon or The Sims, and as far as I can tell, the only real difference the friendship levels make are that a) you get more of their individual stories as their friendship goes up and you see more of their events, and b) I *think* one or more of the endings may take character friendships into account. But for the events themselves, you don't even get to choose dialogue options, or anything. They're just... there. And repetitive after the first playthrough.
So what's the goal behind all of this? Well, apparently to win the overall contest, and really that's the only part of the game where there seems to be any real challenge. It's a bit hard to do *everything* in the allotted time, since even just wandering around between gathering points and your resorts takes time, as does creating the items in your workshop. (Character events don't, thankfully.) And in that precious time you not only have to finish up the sixth-month contests, but also build up your resorts as high as possible, AND have them be nicely profitable, which can be tricky especially on your first playthrough.
Then when everything shakes out at the end of three game years, you get one of seven (I believe) different endings. You can win the contest of course, or get an ending that is basically a giant "YOU SUCK, you did nothing," or, well, I'm not sure what all endings there are. I've finished the game twice so far (I received it on Friday, for the record, which tells you something), and got the same ending each time - a fairly good one, but not quite the "you win the
The thing I guess that the game has going for it is the fact that there ARE the different endings to strive for, and the fact that getting the best one is a challenge. I just wish that there was more meat in the process - maybe more to the friendship system, and/or the combat system, and/or more variety of jobs to do, and/or more to the management of the resorts/shop... there's a LOT that could have been done with it, really. So it's just... disappointing that we've got the bones of a great game, but not the actual meat.
Recommendation: If you absolutely love item creation games, or the Atelier series in general, it might be worth a try. It's not a BAD game, just overly simplistic (and short). But if you haven't tried the series at all before, I'd personally go with any of the Atelier Iris or Mana Khemia games, first. (If, of course, you have the proper game systems...)