When you think about it, alchemists, like the two trainee protagonists in Atelier Eascha and Logy, are kind of like wombles. Making good use of the things that they find, they sit around a cauldron/workbench, and bash the bits and bobs they've collected into new, shinier things. So exactly like a womble, only a bit less hairy.
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Scaling down the PS3 version of the alchemical role-playing game, and bundling in all the post-launch downloadable goodies, Atelier Escha & Logy Plus marks developer Gust's fifth foray onto Sony's handheld, giving you a great way to scratch your wombling itch while on the go. A handheld take on the first Atelier game we ever played - which just happened to be the first in the series to give you a choice of two protagonists, one male and one female - this new, updated PS Vita version offers the same base game, only with a number of new extras, features and tweaks too - but is it worth the entry fee?
Much like buses, Atelier games tend to come in threes, with each trilogy set in the same 'universe', complete with cameos from key characters and references from the previous games - although with each game still having their own self-contained stories, playing them out of order isn't a huge deal. Technically the second game in the 'Dusk' trilogy, Escha & Logy follows two fledgling alchemists working together in the local R&D branch of the government offices, helping the locals with their requests, while gradually unlocking the secrets of the mysterious 'Unexplored Ruins' nearby. This isn't your usual role-playing game tale of world-saving teens - it's a much more everyday tale, of the bubbly, clumsy, sweets-obsessed Escha and the more serious and studious Logy. With it's light-hearted conversations, cast of kooky characters and plenty of goofing off, there's rarely a dull moment in the quaint little apple-orchard town of Colseit. Two main characters means two different stories to play through too, even if many of the overarching story and missions of the two are much the same.
Arguably the biggest part of Escha & Logy is it's alchemy. A magical process by which you can turn raw ingredients into something useful by mixing them together in a cauldron for a while, the game's focus on alchemy means that you'll spend much of your time making your own healing items, bombs and weapons, as well as key quest items too. All you need is a recipe, enough raw materials, and a high enough alchemy level to get going - and the possibilities are pretty much endless. It's a surprisingly deep system, and one that you'll need to exploit and experiment with throughout the story. For example, making a fairly basic Healing Salve takes three things - a plant, an oil and a liquid, but its largely up to you which specific ingredients you choose for each category, and different items used in the mix will have different effects on the finished product, upping it's healing power, curing additional ailments or adding stat boosts when used, depending. As you get more experienced with alchemy, you'll be able to tinker with the properties of your finished product even further, to make your own tailor-made items for battle.
And battle you shall, because all those different alchemical ingredients can't harvest themselves. By heading out into the wilderness surrounding Colseit, you'll be able to nab yourself all kinds of rare and wonderful ingredients for your alchemical concoctions - but the wilderness isn't that friendly a place, often crawling with angry beasties spoiling for a fight. Battles are turn-based, with you and your companions taking it in turns to attack, defend and use items, as you whittling down your enemy's health. But Escha & Logy adds it's own spin on the traditional turn-based formula, by letting team members help each other out, with a well placed 'support attack' letting you dish out extra damage, while leaping in front of a vulnerable team mate lets another character take the damage in their place instead. The latter is especially useful in tough battles too, as the team mate that takes the damage will take less than the protectee would have, reducing the number of expertly crafted healing items you need to use.
It's not all fun and games though, and sometimes Escha and Logy need to buckle down and actually do some work for the R&D office, lest their department's ranking starts to head south. Organised into terms of sorts, each lasting roughly four months of in-game time long, you'll be set a number of quests to complete before the time is up, with the story progressing alongside. Usually, you'll have one main objective, and several smaller optional tasks you can complete for bonus marks in each four month period - which is usually oceans of time to get everything done and more, so there's not usually any reason to rush. Bear in mind though the one more unusual quirk of the Atelier series - everything you do in the game costs time, and you only have a finite amount of time each term to get everything done. Synthesising, travelling on the world map, gathering raw materials, resting to regain health and being defeated in battle all drain days from your timer, so you'll need to try and balance everything out so as not to run out of days before you've completed your main quests.
Generally speaking, your tasks from term to term won't be vastly different - for example, the main mission of the first term is to create some replacement windmill parts via alchemy, and involves heading out of town to gather the ingredients, before lobbing them in the cauldron for a couple of days, and bob's your uncle. Outside of that, the smaller quests tend to ask you to use a certain number of healing items, craft a particular item, or battle a number of times - generally pretty straightforward, easy to accomplish things that you'll mostly do without realising it. Not necessarily hugely imaginative, then, but it's nice to always have something you need to be doing, and something to be working on - although some of the later ones that involve alchemising bombs and such with very specific properties end up being more trial and error than well thought out alchemy.
In fact, while alchemy in general is the main push of the game, it isn't quite as simple in action as it really should be. While the first couple of hours of the game are largely marching from one cutscene to another, and from one tutorial to the next, the nitty gritty of alchemy is sadly glossed over a lot. Sure, the basics of following recipes and such are covered, but the more complex parts are largely left for you to figure out for yourself, through trial and error, often leaving us with more questions than answers. How does the order you add the ingredients affect things? What exactly does swapping a water point for an earth point do to the finished item? Will adding viscosity have any negative repercussions? And what exactly is the difference between properties and effects? Trial and error seems to be the answer, but when you only have limited amounts of a particular ingredient, or are running low on time, having your item come out without the desired effect can be a little irritating.
For all intents and purposes, Escha & Logy Plus is much the same game as it's PS3 predecessor - the main story and characters are pretty much identical, the alchemy is near interchangeable, and most of the explorable areas are carbon copies too. However, there are a few extras thrown in that may make it worth double dipping for hardcore Atelier fans - extra episodes show more of the story between Escha and Logy, detailing a certain 'promise' made between the pair at the end of the game, while Nio Altugle (the missing sister of the previous Atelier game's protagonist, Ayesha) becomes a party member for the first time, alongside a number of extra tough boss fights. As always, the Plus version also includes all past downloadable add ons, bringing you even more choice for party members - including wayward witch Wilbell, young merchant Katla and the brilliant prodigy Micie - as well as a number of outfits for all your party members, some brand new for the Vita game.
If you fancy a light-hearted, alchemy-fueled role-playing game to take with you on the bus, it's hard to go wrong with Atelier: Escha & Logy Plus - but for those who've already played it on the Playstation 3, it's still essentially the same game, albeit with a few more bells and whistles. It's also worth noting that it's a digital-only release, meaning that you'll need to have a sizeable PS Vita memory card to store it on too, while the £32.99 price point may put some off, despite it being around 60 hours or more of game if you play through both sides of the story.
Format Reviewed: PS Vita