I’m still putting off dealing with Atelier Escha (which, ugh, that game) but in the meantime, here’s a fun entry into the series, and the only handheld one released in the US.
It’s a lighthearted and super-adorable game that I found really fun and features some of the great town-sim elements I liked so much about Meruru. It was incredibly short, though.
I had a really tough time tracking this game down, then found it randomly at a used-game shop in Minnesota (along with the equally-rare spinoff series, Mana Khemia — apparently it’s midwestern game shops that have the good stuff, who knew). So if you’re like me and obsessive about having hard copies of DS games, which basically no one is, this could be a limiting factor.
Let’s talk about character designs!
Annie is AMAZING. I love love love this! It’s adorable, practical, and exactly the kind of design I wish more games had.
What isn’t so amazing is that the game then turns her looking like an actual adventurer into some kind of awful running gag, where she gets teased for, I guess, not wearing a dress and stilettos to go herb-hunting in the wilderness. It only comes up a handful of times, but it’s supremely annoying when it does. I kind of wonder who’s to blame for it — did the character artist craft this and then someone higher up felt like they needed to reassure players they weren’t trying to upset the status quo? Or did the writing team crank out “unfeminine for the lolz” first and the artists followed suit? Does it differ between the English and Japanese versions?
That said, there were actually some super positive elements to the game — a grandfather mentoring a granddaughter isn’t something you see very often, nor is the “lazy good-for-nothing” personality type on a female character. And I liked that the story is really about Annie finding her passion and the thing she’s good at and learning that work can be rewarding. These kind of character arcs are very much reserved for boys, usually, and Annie herself isn’t given any personal criticism that feels gendered (unlike, say, Totori’s constantly being told she’s weak and cowardly and useless).
The basic premise is that Annie is a lazy girl whose grandfather finally gets sick of her mooching ways and ships her off to an island to be a forced participant in an alchemy contest to revive the island’s economy and continue her family’s alchemical legacy (whew). Initially reluctant, she agrees when she hears both the sizeable amount of prize money at stake and that the winner will marry the prince — being a trophy wife suits her laziness.
Inherent to the plot is the upending of the “just marry a rich man” cliche, which was also pretty cool. In the ending I got, Annie is offered a chance to become the in-house alchemist at the palace, and gladly throws away her wifey ambitions to take on a job she loves. In the best ending, she’s offered the prince’s hand, but objects on the basis that she wants to pursue alchemy instead. It’s really great.
As for gameplay…
The game itself is much like Meruru in its town-sim elements, but actually makes the townbuilding an even bigger aspect, which I enjoyed. I also really liked that FINALLY you have some spare time to pal around and aren’t working on a constant time crunch. The rpg elements are more in the background than in the other games, too, which I was okay with.
The biggest objection I have is that it really is very short. I have a feeling this is to make New Game + playthroughs easier, but I would have preferred, say, the same amount of years but longer days with each action taking up less time. Also, a clearer system for where friendship events are happening would have been super useful, as would have an alchemy exp bar — not being able to see your level progression was a bit odd.
But overall, super cute. Still a pretty niche series, but if it’s your niche, this is a super solid game to get.