Fanservice! (No, Not That Kind)
HIGH Getting the hang of semi-automated synthesis!
LOW The second-to-last goal is a punishing slog.
WTF So that’s what’s going on with Pamela? I have so many questions!
A fanservice tribute that’s far more engaging than it has any right to be, Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists takes the well-established formula of the franchise – an alchemist learns their trade while developing a town and meeting interesting people – and flips it on its head.
The Nelke of the title is not another adorable alchemist, but rather the city manager responsible for giving out quests and hiring alchemists to synthesize goods. Every entry in this series has been about improving a city to one degree or another, so it makes perfect sense that a side-story would focus on finally being the person in charge of that, rather than one of the alchemists helping out.
Nelke, the titular city manager, is dispatched along with her trusty maid Misty to the town of Westwald. Her task is to develop it from a tiny provincial hamlet into a bustling metropolis. Players have one hundred turns to increase the population a thousandfold while dealing with monstrous threats that crop up along the way.
A mostly menu-driven experience, each turn has two distinct phases – a weekday, in which the player assigns workers to tasks and chooses where to build new structures, and a weekend where they visit with the various side characters, research new inventions, and explore the countryside for new ingredients. Both are quite fiddly and management-based, but satisfying as well. Like most Atelier games, deadlines abound and a 100-turn hard stop hangs overhead while each of the ten storyline quests have their own limit.
Town building is completely intuitive. Each area of Westwald is represented by a grid on which buildings and paths can be placed. Space is at a premium, so there are tough decisions about what to construct, especially at the beginning when funds are short and only two new edifices can be raised each turn. Deciding between building fields to generate materials, ateliers to transform them into finished goods, or stores to sell them in can be a challenge. Getting a perfect balance going takes practice, and I’ll admit to reloading early saves many times as I was learning the ropes.
However, those ropes aren’t that difficult, and once Nelke hooked me on its central loop of building the town, accepting contracts, and managing item production, I found it to be one of the most accessible management sims I’ve ever encountered. This is clearly aimed at players who haven’t necessarily spent much time with building sims before — there are no little details like sewer lines or traffic patterns to fuss over; so as long as players ensure that every building has access to a walkway, they’re free to focus on producing and distributing goods.
At first, players have to decide on every item coming out of each atelier, carefully checking ingredients to make sure they have plenty of everything. A quarter of the way through the campaign, large-scale commissioning is unlocked, and Nelke truly hits its stride. Suddenly, instead of having to make sure every prerequisite box is checked, players can simply ask for X number of a given item, and let the alchemists take it from there. This shift leaves the player more time to worry about how to stock shops and where to get the raw materials from.
The weekend half of each turn is just as involved. With just six time units available each turn, players have to decide whether to chat with characters to level them up or accept quests to earn funds and raise affinity levels with them. This is especially important because it’s only by befriending alchemists that they’ll feel comfortable enough to come up with the recipe ideas that will allow them to solve Nelke’scentral mystery.
To top it off, every point spent interacting with characters represents less time they’ll have to take part in the combat minigame – the only way to unlock new material collection routes.
Instead of standard Atelier overworld collection, in Nelke the player selects a supporting team and then watches them walk or run down a 2D path. From time to time they’ll stop and grab some materials, or get drawn into a standard turn-based RPG battle. If they make it to the end of a route, they’ll unlock the next, more difficult location. Constantly moving forward through combat areas is the only way to get access to better crafting materials, so even on her days off, Nelke has to carefully budget time.
All of the gameplay elements work wonderfully, and the developers at GUST have again knocked characterization and storytelling out of the park.
I can only imagine the challenge the writers faced when attempting to meld characters from half a dozen different sub-franchises without compromising the presentation of any of them – but they managed it. Each trilogy of Atelier games is set in a different world, and many characters cameo across many of the installments, which leads to multiple scenes of characters learning about their twins from alternate worlds. This starts out as a joke, but the writers pull some clever trickery to make this repetition a crucial element of the plot, which I can’t say any more about, lest I delve into spoilers.
Nelke‘s overarching story will be familiar to anyone familiar with Atelier — a great evil is buried somewhere near the town, and the heroes have to seal it up or put it down. Luckily, the writers lean into this series trope and use it as a reason to get the characters excited about the situation. After all, every single one of them has been through this exact thing before, so of course they’re going to have great ideas for how to fix Westwald’s monster problem! If the plot has one flaw, it’s that the the villain never seems like a threat major enough to require a panoply of alchemists to fight it.
The perfect melding of two genres, Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists: Ateliers of the New World succeeds by taking the best elements of both and cutting all the fat. It’s an experience casual enough on both the management and RPG fronts that it’s the perfect game to introduce newcomers to the series. Most importantly, Nelke is in touch with the series’ heart — at every turn, this is a story about how anything can be accomplished if people are willing to work together, and as saccharine as that may sound, the heroine is so guilelessly positive that it works.
Disclosures: This game is developed by GUST and published by KOEI Tecmo. It is currently available on PC, PS4, and Switch. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4 Pro. Approximately 50 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+ and contains Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, and Suggestive Themes. This is the tamest Atelier I‘ve ever seen. No language stronger than “hell”, almost no violence – and even though players are sometimes asked to sell wine and beer, there’s less drinking than usual. And since it’s rated E10+, that means there’s probably not even a bathing suit scene anywhere in the game. It’s the first Atelier game to be utterly kid-friendly!
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: There are no audio cues. All spoken language is Japanese, and everything is subtitled in English. This game is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. It uses standard RPG controls, with the thumbstick selecting items from menus and face buttons interacting with them. Shoulder buttons are used to alter the speed of combat.