I’ve spent dozens of hours synthesizing the best paper possible and yet I still feel empty inside.
Somewhere in my second hour, trying to catch a Balloon Fish so that I can take an alchemy exam, I broke. Atelier Lydie & Suelle The Alchemists of the Mysterious Painting had been plucking on my nerves for a while. The Atelier series has a good hook and at its best is an addictive, Switch-perfect experience. But at its worst it’s: tedious, half-baked, awkward, and obnoxious. I can’t hate Atelier Lydie & Suelle, but a good concept is totally wasted on an otherwise weak game.
The Atelier series puts you in control of an alchemist in a world where literally anything can be created with the right combination of plants, animal material, and bugs. What makes these games so compelling is how alchemy is represented by a series of complex and intertwined systems. Each recipe requires a combination of ingredients, but affords tremendous flexibility in picking them. The ingredients have attributes that can add buffs or properties to the object they’re used to synthesize. These attributes can be passed from one item to the next by chaining together synthesis, rewarding careful planning. Even two items of the same type often show wild variation in quality and attributes. The order ingredients are added to the mixture and how they’re placed inside a grid has a huge impact on the ultimate result. With the ability to fine-tune over 100 recipes, the game lets you make tremendously customized items.
It works because you’re always making new things and therefore you’re always getting better. New ingredients allow the creation of new items. New items let you make new recipes, take down new enemies, and access new places. New enemies and places yield new ingredients. When things are clicking, the next trip into a dungeon, represented as “living paintings” in this game, might be the one that unlocks the recipe for a new healing item or a new bomb. It could give you access to new material for making weapons and armor or new accessories to buff your characters. Progress is self-perpetuating. Even the dull “dungeon” areas, where the party ventures to collect ingredients and to advance the story, are exciting because of the new material they’ll provide for alchemy.
Except, at some point it stops. Progress slows. The game begins to demand increasingly specific requirements in order to unlock new things - in order to progress the story. You become beholden to not just finding the exact item you need, but also potentially finding one with the right attributes. On multiple times, I could not easily advance the plot without just wandering around looking for a random fish.
If I had seen the fish before, I could check the in-game Encyclopedia to see which of the 10+ zones feature it, even if it doesn’t tell me where in the zone to find it. But just like everything else, it feels unfinished. I can’t sort the Encyclopedia alphabetically; I can sort it by the game’s arbitrary “item level,” but I don’t know what level a Balloon Fish, so instead I flip through 24 pages of items only to see I’ve never encountered one and don’t know where to look. The in-game Encyclopedia has been largely rendered obsolete by Gust’s inability to make it user-friendly and by the fastidious work of fans documenting all the game’s items in Google Sheets.
The Encyclopedia is deeply emblematic of a lack of polish. For a game that’s largely played via menus, they’re all horrible. Sorting and filtering functionality makes going through ingredients possible, but it takes far too long to find the exact right ingredient I need in order to make a “High Class Rainbow Neutralizer,” so that I can complete a request.
The world looks like it’s from a different era - featuring both simple, and often ugly, level geometry and textures. The primitive character animation results in events like a hard cut between characters standing and sitting because they don’t have a “sit down” animation and a weird trot being both the walk and run animation - just played at slightly different speeds. The framerate is a mess, with frame drops happening consistently both docked and portably.
The game is not dubbed, featuring only the original Japanese audio. It goes with this intensely anime-style writing. Cute girls saying weird things to other cute girls. It’s insipid, grating, and stupid, but manages to still be funny sometimes. Beyond the silly dialog, the plot is extremely predictable and not particularly engaging. This game’s writing will drive away people who don’t have a tolerance for this sort thing. Even having some tolerance for this kind of writing, I found that it grated on my nerves at times.
Atelier games have a great hook. I’ve always enjoyed the time I spent with them, but with reservations. Lydie and Suelle requires ever more gracious reservations than usual. The alchemy mechanics will always be the highlight, but so much of this game is sub-standard that it it drags the entire experience down. It’s a shame, because this concept deserves better. If making items wasn’t so much fun it would be extremely easy to write this game off. If the game was ever-slightly-more polished it would be a solid recommendation. Instead, this game’s a shrug. It doesn’t earn the credit it gets and instead just perpetuates a good idea that’s been at the core of this franchise for two decades. This series needs a lot of improvements before the next entry; hopefully series’ developer Gust will put in the work. If they do, I’ll be there to play it myself.