Gust's Atelier series has taken many twists and turns over the years, and few so many as in Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea. Third in its subset of the series, it takes place in a world hanging on by a thread. Ever since the tragic and unexplained conclusion to the Age of Alchemy, the various corners of the continent have slowly been succumbing to the Dusk. Sources of water run dry, monsters are rampant, and even the seas have evaporated away as the world turns to desert.
Enter Shallistera, a.k.a. Shallie, a young alchemist who has traveled far to find succor for her ailing village. Enter Shallotte, also a.k.a. Shallie, who does odd jobs around the city of Stellade in order to support her mother, all the while dreaming of bigger things. These two seem like a foregone conclusion, the alchemic equivalent to a girly buddy movie, but for the longest time they don't actually meet. Once the prologue is over and the two have their opening scenes, I had to choose — and unlike the previous dual-hero Atelier games, this choice had a major impact on the next several chapters of the game. I picked Shallistera, and didn't see Shallotte except in the background of certain scenes for four whole chapters. Even now, I don't have both Shallies in my party, though I'm sure that's coming.
Despite the odd coincidence of nicknames and an interest in alchemy, these two don't seem to have much in common at first. Shalistera is a dark-haired princess, quiet and shy, while Shallotte is more like something out of Shibuya — loud, impulsive, with green hair and questionable fashion sense. It's obvious some scenes were written with both ladies in mind, especially those that introduce secondary characters, so the fact that they both answer to "Shallie" made things easier on the voice acting director, for sure.
The regular flow of the game follows a familiar pattern. Shallie (whichever one) works hard to fulfill jobs handed out by the Stellade merchants' association for the betterment of the city and region, while at the same time making various items in order to advance her own knowledge of alchemy. So far, this doesn't sound too far from the usual formula, right? There's just one little detail, or rather the absence of one little detail, that makes a big difference. When I first got into the meat of the game, I had to take a moment to stare at the screen to realize what I was seeing, or rather not seeing.
"There's just one little detail, or rather the absence of one little detail, that makes a big difference."
What's the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Atelier? Calendars, deadlines, and time management — all of which are missing from this game. The Dusk subset was already a ways removed from the management-heavy Atelier games of yesteryear, so Shallie isn't too much different from its two predecessors, even with such a drastic alteration to its basic formula.
So how do we measure forward progress without time metrics? Shallie and Shallie have internalized checklists of things they want to do, called life tasks, which take up a similar function to the assignment board in Escha & Logy. In each chapter, there's a main series of plot events to get through, and then Shallie is free to pursue her own life interests for a while. These include goals in alchemy, such as getting specific traits on items, but they could just as easily be things like satisfying a sense of wonderlust or enjoying life by jumping up and down a bunch of times. Each one also has a bonus attached, including various stat gains or EXP bonuses.
The crazy part is, these life tasks are about the only real source of EXP in the game. Monsters rarely hand out more than single-digit experience, even with high bonuses from attack combos. Get a handful of good life tasks out of the way, however, and the next fight may jump you several levels. My current record is six levels gained, due to a bunch of finished tasks combined with a massive damage bonus (bomb the bunny sheep!). It's one of the stranger interpretations of the phrase "personal growth" that I've ever seen in a game, but it works.
The changes to the battle system deserve some mention as well, though they're mostly regressions. Battles are definitely simpler than in the previous Dusk games, or even some of the Arland games. The constant shifting of positions is no longer a basic element of combat, and assist attacks don't even make an appearance until a fourth character, the swashbuckling homunculus treasure hunter Homura, signs up for adventure and shiny-shinies. On the other hand, a look over the available screenshots shows me that there's a lot to the battle system I have yet to see just yet, so it may have some surprises in store as more characters join the party.
This is definitely a bleak world that I'm exploring, though. The sea floor lies bare and littered with the bones of marine giants, and on the actual continent large swathes of land have been consumed by encroaching fungus. Of all the Dusk games, this one leaves me with the fewest clues as to where it's going or what relics of the ancient alchemists, twisted by the ravages of time, might be behind it. I intend to find out, though.