Going into the month of December, there was one game I knew I was going to purchase. It was the latest in one of my favorite series, and I'd been looking forward to it for months. No, it was not Final Fantasy XIII, it was Atelier Lina.
I bought my copy of Atelier Lina - Alchemist of Strahl shortly before the start of my winter holiday (with its accompanying internet blackout period), so I knew I'd have plenty of time to play before I'd be able to post an impression. Perhaps I had too much time, in fact. This is my first impression ever to reach the third draft.
So first, some revision history. I'd blundered halfway through my first play-through before an important aspect of the game seeped through the rocks in my head: Lina is a merchant as well as an alchemist. Up to that point, I'd been running on a shoestring budget since precious few requests coming from the stores actually give cash for items. The biggest part of my cashflow had come from monster bounties, which weren't always forthcoming if I mistakenly agreed to hunt a certain type of monster out of season.
My realization? I needed to sell stuff. Lots of stuff. Old habits die hard, and I'd been hoarding loads of minor items which I could have been selling for a profit instead. It was too late to salvage my first game from the jaws of failure, but I amassed enough cash to buy and outfit a nice new wagon and have lots of materials for the new game plus.
On to the second play-through. Things went much more smoothly this time around, and I was even able to fulfill the goal the fairy elder had set at the start of the game, only to be tasked with another, and another, and another.... All this, and I was still getting new and different character scenes, and a couple of areas of the game were still locked because I hadn't spent enough time in the mining town.
Still, I took notes, and by the time I got to my third play-through (it's Atelier; they play fast) I was ready for some serious business. I had the best trade routes marked out, as well as which characters told me about them. I knew which of the game's fifteen stores paid best for various items. For example, the blacksmith in the capitol city, a lady by the name of Alista, would pay almost ten times the going price for belladonna, just because she thought they were pretty. Kirim, the jeweler in the academy town, gave the best prices for certain rare stones, while Torga, the blacksmith of the mining town, seemed to pay more for used armor.
"...and not just because she's the first Atelier heroine on the DS to actually look like a girl."
Towns, towns, and more towns -- here's one point where Lina differs significantly from Atelier Annie (which for many people in the audience may be the only Atelier game they know). While Annie had but a single town, with a handful of stores and a strongly centralized social network, Lina features five separate towns, and a total of fifteen stores parceled out amongst them. As a merchant, Lina has to strike up a professional relationship with each shopkeeper, taking item requests and bounties or selling what items they'll accept. As items and cash pass back and forth, stores will eventually level up, which expands their potential inventory as well as their pool of requests to choose from.
The number of towns also affects the story side of the game, in that the sorts of large-group character interaction seen in Annie aren't as common. Each town has its own set of characters, each with their own personalities and quirks. It's just not as easy to get them all together in one spot. In many ways it feels more like the older games in the series, even to the large splash pages of art that accompany major character scenes.
And then there's the wagon. Lina's primary mode of transportation also serves as her mobile storage spot and home away from home. There are a variety of models to choose from, each possessing a different balance of speed and storage capacity. As well, there are various items which can be equipped onto it, expanding one or both of those values. Most importantly, the wagon is also where Lina stores her tent, which can be set up in towns or in the field for saving and alchemy on the go.
At first I was a little concerned about how this title would turn out. It was scheduled to be in stores only nine months after the previous game of the series, and while that's enough time to produce a new model human it's a pretty short gestation period for a game series. Fortunately, Atelier Lina manages to hold onto everything that makes the series fun, while being significantly different from its DS predecessors. Lina has turned out to be a great main character, and not just because she's the first Atelier heroine on the DS to actually look like a girl. She's chirpy, buoyant, and plays well as a foil against most of the other characters in the game.
In my opinion, one of the strengths of the Atelier series is how different each iteration can feel while keeping to almost the same format. There is little in Atelier Lina that one cannot find elsewhere in the series, but that doesn't keep it from being a unique title in its own right.