You can find this review in full at GBAtemp.net:
The Atelier series is one I’ve come to be fond of despite only dabbling in one or two of its western releases. Tasked under varying circumstances with completing requests in a set time limit, the games often see you gather materials through foraging and JRPG battles, before synthesising them into something greater with alchemy. This loop of gathering, creating, and fulfilling goals is satisfying and keeps you engaged as your tasks gradually become more difficult and the areas you have to explore grow. Roll on Nelke and her legendary group and we find ourselves with something similar, and yet not quite the same.
An Aristocrat’s Tale
The premise of Nelke isn’t all too difficult to grasp; an excitable aristocrat sets out for the small village of Westwald as its new administrator in hopes of developing it into something bigger. Alongside this, you have a secondary motivation in wanting to uncover the secrets of the sage relics, the legendary Granzweit Tree rumoured to be hidden nearby. Finally, adding the fact the lord of Westwald is Nelke’s father, you have a constraint to keep the game somewhat grounded, as well as an excuse to weave in the series-standard timed tasks.
Of course, Nelke won’t be alone on her adventure. With her from the start are her maid Misty and the village chief Knoss, but it doesn’t take long for your party to expand as alchemists and familiar faces from the franchise’s history appear one by one through a myriad of botched alchemy and mysterious teleportations. The setup is undeniably simple, but does what it needs to in providing a stage for what is ultimately a grand celebration, largely reminiscent of how Fire Emblem Heroes used gateways to other worlds. Even not knowing the majority of the characters present, I found myself having a great time interacting with them and seeing them develop; I can only imagine how happy somebody who played the first game back in 1997 would be to see the its protagonist Marie again.
Though the game takes a while to get going as you battle through full-screen images bombarding you with tutorial information for the first hour or so, there is a genuinely satisfying experience to be found. The general gameplay loop can be broken down into two parts: weekdays and holidays, with a turn being made up of one of each. To avoid being sent back to the capital, Nelke is given tasks from her father to complete within a certain number of turns, and it’s here you’ll generally find yourself thinking ahead. One early task for example asks you to remain in profit for three consecutive days. With this in mind, you want to sell expensive goods. To sell expensive goods, you’ll want to synthesise them. To synthesise them, you’ll want the right materials. To get the right materials, you’ll want to setup your farms and gathering squads. On top of that, you’ll also want to watch how much you spend in labour and building costs; you need workers and you need to get things setup, but you also need balance. The early tasks introduce you to the supply chain and making profit as a whole in a surprisingly organic way given the direct approach taken for the initial tutorials. Once you’re free of them, you really find the game opening up and leaving you to decide what type of growth suits you best, and how you want to achieve it. It’s definitely a slow game at first, but sticking with it provides you with a fantastic satisfaction as you begin to see your efforts bear fruit, bombs, and whatever else you decide to make.
Moving onto holidays, you come to a more relaxed setting. Gone is the balancing of books and maintaining of profits, new strategy arising from how you choose to split your time. During each holiday, your time is divided into 12 segments, where they can be spent either visiting your townsfolk or exploring a variety of areas for items and enemies. Visiting people will enhance your relationship with them, giving the characters you like a bit more screen time, as well as potentially triggering events and providing you with bonus tasks. Exploring on the other hand rewards you in a far more direct way, providing you with an additional means of gathering certain materials, or fulfilling the requests of villagers that may have asked for specific monsters to be slayed. As an idea, I quite enjoy how this is split. With each visit consuming two segments and exploration going for as long as you still have time, or reach the end of the path, you’ll find yourself adjusting your strategy throughout the game depending on what your current situation requires. Where I feel the game falls somewhat short however is in the exploration itself, and how it’s completely detached from what I would consider to be a modern series staple.
Instead of moving through a dungeon area with roaming enemies and gathering spots, you find yourself automatically walking across a linear path. As you walk, your team will stop at random to pick up items or encounter enemies, your only input being whether they walk or run. Even after entering an encounter, I found little reason to interact when combat can be trivialised to the point of putting it on auto and letting my team win for me. This part of the game finds itself in an awkward middle ground where it’s not sure who it wants to cater for. On one hand, it tries to look back at the fans coming back for their dose of Atelier charm and throws them a fairly generic JRPG battle system and the general idea of material gathering from previous games; on the other it tries to streamline the process to fit better with the gameplay loop you’d expect in a town development game. Playing it, I found myself wanting either more or less. Were this to be streamlined further to a completely automated activity, I’d be able to return to the weekdays sooner and focus on a part of the game I genuinely enjoy. Were it to further embrace the series’ roots and go for fuller dungeons and progression in this respect, it’d have room to make a far more unique title and embrace traditional JRPG tropes in a natural way. In what feels like an attempt to bring two audiences together, I can’t help but think both are made to suffer.
Atelier for the Ages
Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists is an interesting game if nothing else. Celebrating a brilliant 20 years of history, it succeeds in bringing familiar faces together, tasking the player with building what feels like the setting for another game entirely. From the building designs, to the vibrant artwork, to the casual and slightly repetitive background music, everything feels so perfectly in place. While it saddens me the game doesn’t give you the option to run through your creation and really experience your work as you have so many towns before it, it goes to further emphasise this is an Atelier game like none before it. Whether it’s one for you is difficult to say, but for anybody looking for some laid back town development, accompanied by charm and vibrance by the bucket load, it is a must buy.