Atelier Shallie: Alchemist of the Dusk Sea is the latest in the Dusk trilogy of the Atelier games. Preceded by Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy, Shallie features two protagonists. Shallistera is the princess of a small village whose existence is threatened by the encroaching Dusk. She journeys to the town of Stellard seeking answers to her hometown's troubles, and that's where she meets Shallotte, an energetic girl who's struggling to prove herself as an alchemist. The two Shallies must combine their prowess in alchemy to discover the source of Stellard's drought and find a way to save both of their homelands.
Shallie is a lighthearted game set in a grim world. It's postapocalyptic and set in a town where the only source of water is drying up, but the characters are optimistic, and the tone of the game is bright. It's more about fixing problems than being crushed by them. Since it's the last title in the trilogy, it assumes players have knowledge of the characters. In fact, Atelier Shallie Plus brings back multiple characters from the previous games, including Ayesha and Logy. There are new plot events related to these characters, including more fleshed-out cut scenes and a more comprehensive ending.
The new story content in Shallie is fun. It ends the Dusk franchise in a more final way than the original version by tying up some loose ends so the world feels less incomplete. The new character dialogue is fun but suffers from not involving the Shallies much. The majority of dialogue leaves the two theoretical protagonists playing second fiddle to older characters.
Atelier Shallie follows the same premise as most Atelier games, but rather than following a set plot, you have to complete Life Goals, which are specific mini-objectives that gradually advance the plot. Some involve alchemy, some involve combat, and some involve helping people. There are a handful of plot-mandated objectives, but you're generally able to spend your time however you like and still advance the story.
Completing a Life Goal earns passive rewards that make it easier to do other things. Spend a lot of time synthesizing, and you might earn bonus combat experience so your character can level up without a lot of fighting. Some bonuses feed into each other to make the game feel less grindy. The downside is that it's unfocused since the player has to decide what to do, and that can feel lackluster.
Perhaps the biggest change Shallie made to the franchise is the removal of the time limit. Unlike the other Atelier games that came before it, it no longer forces you to manage time, so you have as much time as you like to finish any tasks you want. During your free period between story missions, you have a "motivation meter" that slowly goes down if you don't advance the plot, but it goes down very slowly, and the only downside is slightly slower gathering and crafting. Once you hit the end of the game, even the motivation meter goes away, allowing you to spend as much time as you want crafting items and building friendships.
The lack of a time limit makes the game feel more relaxed, but it also takes away some of the tension. A lot of the gameplay design decisions were made with time limits in mind, and without them, some things feel a little pointless. Trying to optimize your gathering or crafting feels unnecessary when there's no downside to screwing up. On the other hand, it's also more relaxing to play. You can take your time, do side-quests, and see everything in the game without feeling pressured. Depending on the kind of player you are, this could make or break the game for you.
As it's an Atelier title, most of your time is spent on crafting items. Shallie uses a pretty complex new system. You collect ingredients and put them into a cauldron. After they are mixed together, you use special cards to upgrade each ingredient, with different ingredients having different elements and number of card slots. By chaining together cards of the same element, you can build up a chain that can be transformed into more powerful attributes or effects for your alchemy.
The alchemy system is fun, but it's weaker than its predecessor Escha & Logy and the next game in the series, Sophie. Once you start getting high-level cards, the alchemy process becomes a repetitive process, and there's less room for customization or optimization. Since chains are so important, you'll likely end up relying on the same small handful of cards and let some of the less useful ones languish on the sidelines. It's still plenty of fun, but just probably the weakest of the three recent Atelier games.
The alchemy becomes very important once you delve into the combat system. Atelier Shallie has a classic turn-based combat system that's similar to the other games in the series. You have up to six people in combat at once, with three characters in the front and three characters in the back who can hop in to support attacks. You can swap at any time, but a character who swaps in needs time to cool down.
Compared to the other titles, Shallie puts more focus on its Burst system. Damaging enemies enough puts the players into a Burst status, where all damage is amplified and characters can support attack multiple times in a row with greater effects. In addition, characters in the back row can provide Field Effects to add additional bonuses, such as HP regeneration and shorter wait times. It's a neat mechanic that makes combat feel fast and intense, though it can sometimes seem overpowered.
Atelier Shallie Plus includes all the DLC content from the original Shallie, including the playable bonus characters Escha and Solle. In addition, it adds Ayesha and Logy as playable characters. While all these characters (except for Solle) are alchemists, they function as regular characters in gameplay terms, with their own special moves instead of using the alchemy items available to the Shallie. On the other hand, they're extremely powerful characters and the cast feels almost bloated. Even with six characters available, you'll bench over half your team. As with most of the Plus games, there's a lot of bonus content, including some difficult optional bosses. There are also some new scenarios and plot events revolving around the additional characters. In terms of bonus content, Shallie is the best of the Dusk Plus trilogy. The new content smooths out a lot of Shallie's rough spots, so Shallie Plus is easily the definitive edition of the game.
However, Atelier Shallie Plus shows the limits of the PS Vita compared to the PS3. None of the Atelier Plus ports have particularly consistent frame rates, but Shallie suffers more than most. It also has longer loading times and poorer performance. Like the rest of the Plus games, it isn't enough to drag down the experience since the games are slow-paced, but it does stand out when the screen goes entirely black for a few moments when you're gathering items. It even crashed on me a few times. It's not unplayable, but it's certainly a step back from Escha & Logy. The voice acting and music haven't changed much from the PS3 iteration, which is generally a positive. As with all the Atelier titles, the soundtrack is excellent and bolstered by the ability to use older Atelier songs as your leisure.
Atelier Shallie Plus: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea is a satisfactory addition to the franchise. It smooths out a lot of Shallie's PS3 weaknesses and is a genuinely fun game, though it suffers from being the weakest in the Dusk trilogy. Anyone looking for a solid and enjoyable lighthearted JRPG will find a lot to like here, and almost every improvement is for the better. Some nagging performance issues prevent it from being better than the PS3 release in every way. Shallie Plus is a good buy for fans of the franchise, though newcomers may want to start with Ayesha or Escha & Logy instead.
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