We're becoming something of an old hand at these Atelier games now, with the folks at Gust/Koei Tecmo having churned out a new instalment in the light-hearted alchemical role-playing game series every year for the past decade or more. Combining charming stories, cutesy characters and a crafting system that sees you making everything from healing potions to bombs and parts for the town windmill, all thanks to the magical form of cooking known as alchemy, the Atelier series may not have changed a great deal over the years, but as the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Marking the nineteenth instalment in the series is Atelier Lydie & Suelle ~The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings~, a game with some very important tildes, and the last of the 'mysterious' sub-trilogy, bringing to a close the world we've come to know and love through predecessors Atelier Sophie and Atelier Firis.
Set in the quaint seaside town of Merveille, in the Kingdom of Adalet, twin sisters Lydie and Suelle have been running a struggling Atelier - kind of a fantastical workshop - with their father, barely scraping together enough money to eat. Having made a promise to their mother on her deathbed to 'run the greatest Atelier in the kingdom, together, as a family', the girls are determined to turn the business around, while their father locks himself in the basement, painting pictures all day and night. When a national directive sees the town trying to attract more alchemists by offering monetary rewards, Lydie and Suelle jump at the chance, and set about working their way up the ranks, on their way to becoming the best Ateliers in the land. However, their mission soon takes a turn for the unusual, when officials enlist their help in discovering the secrets of a series of mysterious paintings, each of which houses it's own special world, chock full of rare materials perfect for alchemy.
In terms of the story, the game itself is much more about the daily life of the twins, their friends and other townsfolk than any epic world-saving tale - it's a sweet little slice of life tale which covers the day to day happenings of running an Atelier. Whether it's crafting some healing items for a nun, chastising your father (affectionately known as 'dummy-daddy') for spending all the food money on paints again, or staring longingly at the queue outside competing Atelier Borthayre, there's a strong focus on every day life - or as "every day" as it gets in a game as fantastical as this. That's not to say life is straightforward for the pair either, as getting to be the best Atelier in the kingdom requires lots of hard work, with long hours spent synthesising items, completing the various requests from the townsfolk, and gathering materials and battling monsters in the wilderness.
As the whole purpose of your shop, everything you do in game revolves around alchemy - a magical art that involves cooking various materials up together to create new items, from cookies and health items, to bombs and paintbrushes. With the twins' father being a bit of a lacklustre alchemist himself, it's up to the girls to try and figure things out largely on their own, discovering new recipes as they go. 'Recipe Ideas' give you various conditions to meet to unlock new alchemical recipes, generally by fighting enemies, gathering new materials and synthesising new items, and each and every item you create helps to raise the twins' alchemy skill, letting them try out harder recipes and make more impressive items, in turn getting them closer to becoming the best alchemists in the land.
Of course, alchemy is only as good as the materials you have to hand, and a large part of the Atelier games is gathering the ingredients for your creations. Heading out of town to nearby forests, caves and fields, you'll find glowing bushes, plants and rocks where you can pick up materials, stowing them in your basket to take back to your Atelier. Even materials that look the same on the surface can have vastly different properties, effects and qualities to them, so getting a variety is key, ensuring you always have something in stock that will fit into all manner of different creations. Needless to say, you'll be doing plenty of gathering along the way, and with new places opening up as you play, there's always somewhere new to check out.
One of the funkiest additions to Atelier Lydie & Suelle, are the titular 'mysterious paintings' we eluded to earlier on. Gradually unlocked as you go through the story, these pictures have been painted by especially gifted alchemists, and actually house an entire world inside, with rare and unique materials perfect for giving your Atelier the edge over your competitors. There's lush flowered meadows where a mysterious woman resides, an underwater world, and a spooky forest full of ghosts and ghouls to name but a few, with the materials and enemies found inside themed accordingly.
Inside the painting worlds, you'll come across occasional obstacles that block your way, requiring some of your alchemical knowledge to proceed - in the case of the spooky forest, some talking trees block your path with vines, refusing to shift unless you brought them some fertiliser, which you can find in the surrounding forest (if you're lucky). A bit further down the road, poor old Suelle gets herself cursed, and in order to lift the spell, you'll have to sprinkle holy water - found in a nearby well - on the gravestones, requiring you to find and gather the water first.
Of course, out there in the wilderness, there's many a creature that's cruising for a bruising too - and many that leave behind key ingredients and materials when defeated. While not warriors as such, Lydie and Suelle can defend themselves, with the help of some special abilities and a few homemade bombs and healing potions, in Atelier's trademark turn-based battles that see characters, friend and foe alike, take it in turns to attack, use items or sling special skills in combat.
In battle, the twins' abilities complement each other nicely - Suelle is the much more battle-ready of the pair, having twice the health of her sibling, and dealing more damage, while Lydie has various buffing spells she can use to increase her allies' attacks, and is the only one of the pair who can use healing items. As the story progresses, more characters will join them on their quest, and party members can pair up, one in the front line, one behind, letting those in the rear unleash follow-up attacks for extra damage, or pair up for a powerful co-op 'Combination Art' attack. With an alchemist in the rear, you also gain access to the new 'Battle Mix' option, which lets Lydie and Suelle cook up an alchemical concoction in the midst of battle, helping you turn the tide of battle with a well-planned ice bomb.
However, as Lydie and Suelle soon learn, there's more to alchemy than just throwing materials into a cauldron and simmering for a few hours. With crafting new items being essential not only to your progression through the story, but also letting you explore new areas, and survive enemy encounters (thank God for healing potions), there are a number of different tricks you can take advantage of to create stronger and better items.
Different materials have different properties, effects and elemental traits, and by mixing and matching these, within the constraints of a particular recipe, you can give the finished item different powers - like a healing item that also cures poison, or a bomb that leaves enemies with a health-sapping burn. Some recipes specify a particular ingredient, while others give you a bit more freedom and just ask for a material from a general family - thread, plant or magical grass, for example - with your choices having an effect on the finished item.
In practice, each material has its own shape (think Tetris-style blocky shapes) and colour associated with it. When alchemising an item, you have a number of differently-coloured bars you can fill to power up your item, with certain milestones imbuing new, or better, effects - match the colour of the material to the coloured bars in your target item and you'll fill them up, making a better item in the process. For example, picking materials that are mostly green when making the healing pads item will add more and more to the green bar, boosting the health recovery effect from XS to S and beyond, depending on how good your base ingredients are. The more you can fill the bar, the better the final effect will be. Shapes also come into play as you place the materials into the central grid - overlap one of the coloured squares with a material of the same colour and you'll boost the corresponding-coloured bar even further. We promise it's not as hard as it sounds!
All of these facets - the alchemising, the gathering and the battling - work together to help increase your Atelier's rank, as you try to become the best in the kingdom. Feeding into the government-approved 'Atelier Ranking System', you'll need to pass a series of exams (think important quests) to raise your rank, all the way from G to S. However, the only way to be eligible for an exam is to increase your reputation with the locals, which means a lot of hard graft, working your way through Suelle's 'Ambitions Journal', which is essentially a list of various tasks to help boost your popularity. From helping out townsfolk with requests and spending money in local stores, to improving your synthesis skills and taking out various monsters, there's plenty to keep you going, as you gear up for the next exam.
The Atelier games have had a bit of a weird relationship with time in the past - some entries give you a time limit to work against, or various milestones you need to meet before the end of the story, while others have foregone it completely. Atelier Lydie & Suelle sits firmly in the latter camp, with no real time limit to worry about - while everything you alchemise, gather or fight eats up a chunk of the seemingly infinite constantly-marching-on time, as does travelling from place to place, there's no real consequence for dawdling. About the only time-limited factor in the game is that side quests do have a deadline - usually of a good few weeks, so you don't want to put them on the back burner for too long - but there's no way to get a game over, or fail your Atelier Rank tests, by taking too long.
To be honest, about our only real gripe with the entire game is that, for what is the first time in the series' history that we can remember, Atelier Lydie & Suelle doesn't actually have any English voice acting, instead sticking with the original Japanese voices and subtitling everything into English. Given our penchant for Japanese games, it's certainly not the first time we've had to play a game that does this, but it is always nice to have English dubbing, Atelier included - especially as the cameos from Sophie and Plachta, and Firis and Liane (from Atelier Sophie and Atelier Firis respectively) - jar a little, as we're used to their English voices. There's also sadly no PS Vita version of the game, although that's somewhat to be expected, given how much last year's Atelier Firis struggled to run on the handheld.
All in all though, Atelier Lydie & Suelle ~The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings~ is another fun little role-playing game, with a focus on crafting items through alchemy. The twins, with their constant banter are rather fun protagonists (although Sophie is still our personal fave), and the story is definitely stronger than last year's Atelier Firis, wrapping up the 'mysterious' trilogy in style. The new painting worlds are a funky new addition too, bringing with it some rather quirky and unusual map designs, while the tried-and-tested formula of battling, gathering and alchemising is as addictive as ever.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4