I'm currently looking for paid writing gigs, so if you might want anything written shoot me a message (craighats at hotmail dot com).
In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
If there's any sort of (reasonable) inquiry you'd like me to address, please don't hesitate to be in touch.
Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
I frequently recommend obscure games to others: this often means urging players with more “mainstream” sensibilities than mine to venture into somewhat intimidating territory, at a loss for how to react to certain unusual features and design choices, if not scared off outright. With this series, something of a stand-in for what would otherwise be “regular” reviews, I attempt to not only give readers a general idea of what to expect from an unusual game but offer some additional insight into how best to approach and enjoy it even if it’s something completely new for you – as well as what makes the experience special for an avowed enthusiast like myself.
I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if the above was your first reaction to this blog’s title – despite publisher NISA’s bestowal of a limited-edition premium set and a full-featured official site to boot, the recent debut of Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island was about as subdued as a launch gets – as of this writing, nearly two weeks after its release, only a small handful media outlets have so much as bothered to acknowledge the title’s existence, let alone delve into it at all. While such a low profile is probably enough by itself to set off some potential customers’ “kusoge” alarm bells, I advise fellow players not to be dissuaded; in fact, I wholeheartedly recommend Annie to anybody looking for something interesting on the DS. As befits its inclusion in this segment, however, this game is a bit difficult to compare to more familiar ones, even the kindred Atelier Iris series – though most seem content to just call the game an RPG, it’s rather tricky to even attach a “traditional” genre label to it.
Of course, these very same characteristics are exactly what make Annie the perfect choice for my maiden “How-To” effort, as my goal here is to lower at least some of the more intimidating barriers between this quirky offering and those who would probably have some fun with it…if they knew it existed, not to mention what it’s about. Even if this game ends up not sounding like your cup of tea, hopefully you’ll still at least walk away a bit more aware of what’s waiting out there in the more remote corners of the gaming landscape, if not more inclined to someday explore those far reaches yourself. Without further ado, then, here’s this blog’s first “How-To” article, and Atelier Annie.
Know Your History
While not “directly” related to the game, one thing worth knowing even before you dive into Annie is that, while the name might be unfamiliar to most of us, it really isn’t an out-of-nowhere “rogue” release - to the contrary, it’s merely one of the more recent entrants in a long-running series that launched the developer, Gust, and has continued to define it right up to the present. The company’s first release, Atelier Marie, hit Japanese shelves during the 32-bit era, but it wasn’t until 2005 that the West finally got a tentative taste, via Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana on the PS2 – since then we’ve been treated to a pair of Iris sequels as well as their Ar Tonelico and Mana Khemia cousins. The fact of the matter, however, is that all of the Gust games we’ve gotten here so far, the Iris line included, are merely offshoots of the “core” Atelier formula - Annie, as it turns out, is the first “true” Atelier game to make it out of Japan.
While the aforementioned “sister series” are true-blue JRPGs, the central, traditional Atelier entries take that part of their names (in case you were unaware, the word means “workshop”) especially seriously - while all of these games place some amount of emphasis on item creation, Annie and its Japan-only predecessors (the protagonist of one of them actually makes a cameo appearance here, though most Western players won’t recognize her) truly dive headfirst into the art of alchemic crafting, going so far as to make it the centerpiece of the entire experience. While this setup comes off as unusual to most of us, who are used to spending most of our “active” RPG time wandering around and beating stuff up, it’s worth keeping in mind that this “new” style is actually the gameplay foundation that the series was built on, and the reason it has been so successful in its home territory. I’ll go more into the specifics later on, but for starters just make sure to remember what this title’s release represents in the big picture - it’s far more than its dearth of media coverage suggests.
As important as the alchemy element is to the series, however, in this section I’ll attempt to detail what I personally consider to be Atelier Annie’s greatest single defining feature - its willingness to do what so few other RPGs dare, and sacrifice flashy grandeur in the interest of rich, if sometimes earthy, intimacy. If you’re expecting to save the world for the umpteenth time when you start this game up, you can forget it - your loftiest goal here is basically to become a successful entrepreneur, a scenario, for a change, that most of us out here in the real world can relate to on some level (minus the arcane mysticism part, of course…unless you work in derivatives trading). Moreover, don’t expect any larger-than-life Heroes of Destiny here - just for starters, our protagonist, Annie, while endearing and likeable, is also incredibly lazy, to the point that her only long-range goal is to marry some rich guy and never have to work a day in her life. The only reason that she’s involved in the game’s crafting/development competition at all is because she was entered without her consent - even then, she decides to stick it out due to the opportunity it offers to get her foot in the door with the local royal family.
To get another bit of exposition out of the way, you won’t be spanning continents, galaxies or dimensions in Annie – here, the player spends the entire game restricted to one small island, much of that within its lone central town. While such a diminutive setting might sound unbecoming of even a portable RPG, this isn’t a case of shortchanging on the developers’ part, as the experience in its entirety is built around keeping things neatly and deliberately condensed, instead of being spread as thin as possible in the interest of showcasing a parade of exploding planets and civilization-devouring demon gods. Annie instead opts for a mundane setting, a modest cast, and a light, comedic storyline to keep players involved in the title’s daily goings-on; as the genre competition appears determined to prove that they can put the biggest swords, wackiest hair, and most preposterous and pretentious plotlines onscreen, Gust is betting that a more down-to-earth backdrop can actually prove more intriguing, in its own way, than yet another multiverse-spanning quest-to-end-all-quests, and is willing to go all-in behind that notion.
If you take the time to look back at it, you’ll find that one of the things which made the first Atelier Iris particularly popular among even Western fans was its own relatively small sense of scale - while not as limited in scope as Annie, you still never venture all that far from beginning to end. In exchange, though, you get to know your surroundings and their inhabitants better than you’d normally expect – it’s no exaggeration to assert that several of the game’s shopkeepers are better-developed and more memorable characters than the playable denizens of many bigger, more popular RPGs. While even subsequent Iris titles lost some of this homey face-to-face charm, Annie does her darndest to bring it back, and with an extra dollop of kookiness on top – to provide just a handful of examples, the town librarian sneaks in dried squid for a snack at work, your fairy mentor goes nuts whenever someone insults his height, the snarky local wildlife can be recruited/bribed into mascot duty, and two of your manliest party members are caught at least once playing with action figures (and lament afterwards that the disapproving women “just don’t get it”). Obviously the atmosphere is almost never grand or serious in any sense of the words, but if the player doesn’t insist that every game be an exercise in overbearing grimness, it can still be plenty inviting - perhaps even, dare I say it, refreshing.
Take in the Atmosphere
While Gust has very recently branched out into 3D graphics with Atelier Rorona and Ar Tonelico III on the PS3, the company is still noted for its loyalty to the old school – even the entirety of its PS2 output was largely sprite-based. Annie, as you’d probably expect, sticks with 2D visuals as well, and as is frequently the case on the DS this was a wise decision - while the stumpy sprites, mostly-static backgrounds and dialogue portraits, and slightly grainy bits of anime footage might not do anything particularly striking or new, everything is rendered with care, and each individual element, from the locales to the character designs, works to draw players into the game’s unapologetically mellow, silly mood. Everyone has a large stable of expressions and poses to draw from during story vignettes, and moreover these pictures, non-animated though they may be, frequently zip and swoop around the screen in a manner somewhat reminiscent of a puppet show when things “get interesting” - hardly a technical marvel, but in their own way actually add to the madcap charm of the proceedings.
The game is also easy on the ears, as its music is pleasant and unobtrusive - while you’re unlikely to get too many of these unchallenging, melodic tunes stuck in your head, the background mood is always well-supported on the aural front. All things considered, there’s actually a rather wide selection of songs included, as almost every character, gathering point, and even each individual shop in town has its own unique theme. Voice samples, for their part, are also varied, and Japanese only – as a non-speaker of the language I personally had no problem with any of them (and was particularly glad to hear the series’ traditional “barrel!” exclamation), but gamers with less tolerance for seiyuu have the option to switch them off. Also worth a mention are the gloriously goofy sound effects – when a character says or does something off-kilter (which is often – thankfully, aside from a few minor grammatical errors, everything is capably translated), expect a cartoony “boink” “klunk” or “fweet!” to be there right on cue. All told, the nuts and bolts of this game’s presentation aren’t going to blow anybody away, but there’s still plenty about it to admire - hats off to Gust for skipping out on the reviewer-friendly surface gimmicks and sticking to what works best for its unique output.
So long as I’m discussing the superficial stuff, I might as well take a moment to detail the contents of the RosenQueen-exclusive “Premium Set” (which, needless to say, I sprung for). What immediately struck me was that the nicely-illustrated outer cardboard packaging was labeled in Japanese, right down to the “CERO” rating icon - apparently NIS decided to use some of the surplus from the game’s home-country release instead of printing up a whole new batch, much as Atlus did with the pre-order figurines offered with Hammerin’ Hero. Of course, the actual game inside was the U.S. version, but everything else appeared to be straight outta Nippon – in any event, each of the two figures (one of Annie, one of her fairy tutor Pepe) come in a pair of smaller inner boxes (each bearing some additional illustrations), they and their bases wrapped separately in plastic. While I can’t go too much further since I left my pair sealed, I will note that they aren’t made of the cheap plastic you might expect- there’s a bit of weight to them. According to the website this edition is sold out (only 550 of them were made available), so if you’re a latecomer interested in snagging one you’ll probably have to keep an eye on eBay or the like at this point, where they’ll almost certainly go for a ways more than the original 40-dollar retail price before long.
Be Prepared for Anything
Okay, time to get down to business – what, exactly, is it like to actually sit down and play this game? The answer is a bit more complicated than you might expect from the aforementioned generic “RPG” label that most outlets have hastily slapped onto Annie – while some requisite elements are in here, there’s a good deal more going on than that. As was already mentioned, the central mechanic at work here is the alchemy system, through which you’ll create most of the game’s items – there are several layers to it, but it’s not as intimidating as it seems at first. Most of the time, all you need to do is 1) Buy or earn a recipe book that details a particular item, 2) Find or buy the ingredients the recipe lists, and 3) Head to the workshop, select them off a list, and put them together. Sometimes you’ll want to include a special additive known as a “supplement” to infuse a specific trait or go with a tool other than your cauldron to increase your chances of success, but especially early on it’s largely just a matter of budgeting your time and money efficiently to get the stuff you need by the time you need it.
By the way, about that…second only to crafting this game is all about managing your resources. You’ve got three years of in-game time to build yourself up, and almost everything you do will permanently cost you some of it – want to visit an item-gathering point or new property you’ve built? The journey there from town will run at least one day. Once you arrive, the more items you gather the more days pass - even the crucial act of crafting takes time to finish, so you’ll want to make sure you’ve got everything you need before starting on an order. Money is also a precious commodity – hopefully you’ll have ample opportunity to take some requests from the Adventurers’ Guild, which nets you cash for personal supplies and equipment (which, by the way, you can’t forge yourself this time around), but you’ll also want to devote time to improving your facilities as well as winning the island’s major crafting competitions, which send money to a separate account used solely to build and upgrade new tourist attractions. There’s also the matter of deciding which party members should remain in your active group and which should be left to run the store – regardless of who you pick, these same allies will sometimes approach you with their own special requests, whose results can affect your overall affinity with them. It probably won’t take long for you to feel a bit overwhelmed, especially if you’re not a regular player of “simulation”-type games.
Thankfully, everything is laid out pretty efficiently, and completing most tasks is largely just a matter of selecting stuff off a menu and hitting “confirm” – no roulette wheels or fluctuating meters to worry about. The game can also, thankfully, be controlled almost entirely with the good ol’ d-pad and face buttons – the stylus is required for a few mostly-optional mini-games, but while these certainly won’t be the highlight of your experience they’re mostly harmless diversions. The final “nuts and bolts” component of Atelier Annie, namely the combat, will be discussed in more detail a bit later on – pretty much everything else you need to know about playing the bugger should be right in here. It’s a lot to keep track of at first (at least, again, for the non-Sim City crowd), but it fits like a glove once you get into the swing of things, especially coupled with the added motivation of seeing how your sometimes-eccentric in-game neighbors will react to various facets of your progress (or lack thereof).
Keep Yourself Occupied
One addendum to the above summary that I feel should be understood is the firm conviction that Annie players be ready to give themselves in-game goals to shoot for – the game puts up very few blinking arrows to follow, so all comers had best be prepared to largely chart their own courses. If you’ve come to despise the much-maligned “hand-holding” that so many modern games feel obligated to include, you’ll definitely be at home here – the only real “story progression points” are the occasional alchemy competitions, which you’re actively encouraged to complete as quickly as possible, so as to have plenty of free time before the next one rolls around. During those in-between periods you’re pretty much completely on your own – what you devote yourself towards, whether it be your facilities, your alchemy skill level, your recipe stockpile or something else entirely is your decision and yours alone. Depending on how thoroughly you bother to address your areas of need during this “downtime” (to use the term very loosely), you might end up well-prepared for the next major challenge or in for a tough road ahead, but either way it’s solely your responsibility to figure out which path to take.
That said, on another level the game is a relatively linear one – whatever you do, the major deadlines are the same, and most of the key plot points (up until the final results) develop in similar fashion, so there’s not much risk of getting yourself completely lost if you’re willing to pay some general attention to what you’re told. So long as you show up to receive competitive assignments when you’re supposed to you’ll definitely reach the end of the game in one form or another – to make the journey more than a mere waiting game, however, the player must develop his or her own goals and a plan to achieve them, because once your time and money have been wasted they’re not coming back until next playthrough. Of course, you’ll have to wait a bit before I get any deeper into that aspect.
Fill In the Blanks
Another personal trait, if you possess it, that will definitely help you enjoy Atelier Annie to its fullest is a fondness for seeking out and getting ahold of every darn thing it has to offer – after all, the game certainly offers up plenty of eminently chase-able shiny things to keep you busy. As if to drive the point home, you have near-constant access to a master record of all the people you’ve met, monsters you’ve brought down, and items you’ve obtained, the latter of which is several hundred entries long – if you’re the type who will not rest until every last “???” entry on those lists has been filled in, you can be prepared to stick with Annie for some time, and enjoy every minute of it.
Of course, the most productive way to rack up new trophies for yourself is to synthesize stuff, so you’ll definitely be spending some quality time with your cauldron. Beyond that, though, you’ll also want to regularly check in with everyone and everything nearby even if the game doesn’t specifically tell you to do so – stopping into even a seldom-visited part of town or gathering point may set off a story sequence, which may in turn result in a new locale being opened up or a new ally joining your crew. On the other hand, plenty of these scenes, usually brief but numerous, are just there for entertainment’s sake, and might wear on the nerves of players who just want to “get on with it” – suffice it to say, while the game moves pretty quickly overall it definitely behooves you to take your time and smell the flowers. If that’s not your bag you’re free to ignore a lot of the superfluous elements, but you’ll also be largely missing the point of playing a title like this if you do; an experience like Atelier Annie is meant to be savored, not gulped down whole. Those who prefer to swallow their games in one bite are thus well-advised to steer clear – anyone else, however, is welcome to settle in, give the menu a thorough look-over, and eagerly rub their silverware together in anticipation.
Make Hotels and Bakeries, Not War
While most of this article has focused on Atelier Annie’s “quirks” and alternate ways of approaching them, at this point I’m obliged to spend a minute discussing something that can really only be viewed as a weakness on the title’s part – namely, the combat. It’s not a game-killer, especially considering how relatively minor an element it is, but a blemish is a blemish, so anyone who demands a robust battle system from their (pseudo-)RPGs will be disappointed. In a nutshell, as you walk around gathering points, and even when you’re in the middle of picking stuff up, groups of enemies will randomly accost you – what follows amounts largely to a simple turn-based exchange of blows until one side or the other collapses or retreats. This is especially disappointing considering how interesting and involving most of Gust’s PS2 offshoots were in the combat department – even more ironic is how battles in Annie are about the only thing not tied to the all-important progression of time, unlike Atelier Iris 3 and Mana Khemia, which encourage efficient battling to keep yourself on schedule. In short, it’s a totally unnecessary missed opportunity.
Once you’re swept up into battle, everyone has a basic set of options (fight, item, run, and switch row) as well as a couple of unique skills affected by the character’s position – unfortunately, there’s little else to the system beyond enemy weaknesses to certain weapon and armor traits, which can be synthesized onto your equipment before sallying forth. Good stuff is pricey, however, so you’re unlikely to have much of an armory to draw from – frequently you’ll be reduced to power-leveling and uber-equipping a single party while leaving everyone else behind, not to mention spamming powerful bomb and healing items to make up for statistical deficiencies (interestingly, characters will sometimes shout several different things when using various items in battle, so it’s at least slightly entertaining to experiment with that). In the end, combat ends up being just one more thing to allocate resources to, as opposed to anything resembling an enthralling diversion from the usual song and dance – as if in acknowledgement of this, you’re even given the option to “fast-forward” battle just as with the story and synthesizing sequences. On that note, if the developers truly couldn’t be bothered to include a more robust combat system, then they should have fully integrated the leftovers into the game’s aesthetic and made fights semi-automatic a la Half-Minute Hero – as it stands, the battles are the part of Annie that you’re likely to enjoy the least.
Play It Again, Annie
Last but not least, while three years might not seem like very long in a game where days pass in seconds, it works well given the title’s portable format – not to mention that there’s plenty of reason to take another trip or two through after the first time. There are a total of seven different endings to achieve – the one you get is affected by both which aspect of the game you placed the most emphasis on, and how successful you were overall. Once your first run-through is done, you can either start a fresh file from the beginning, or opt for a “New Game Plus” which allows you to take your leftover pocket money and most of your items along for a quicker and easier second go-round – on that note, I’ll also venture to say that unless you’re a lot more proficient at the game than I am (which is certainly a possibility) getting the coveted “Meister” result on your first play-through is very tough to do.
Even if you disregard the endings themselves, there’s still no way you’re going to see everything on your first time up to bat – the strict time limit severely reduces your chances to muck around creating non-vital items (unlike the PS2 Gust titles, which give you several opportunities to basically experiment as long as you please), not to mention that your options, especially when it comes to facility building, are also limited by space, so you won’t be able to construct or acquire everything in one go no matter how fastidious you are. Thankfully, even if you take your time the game doesn’t drag any longer than it needs to, so it’s definitely not a Disgaea-esque case of “you need to be nuts to try to 100% this thing”. Each time through there’ll be something new to try, so any player who finds the game’s unique style agreeable should definitely get their 30 bucks’ worth out of it – the only complaint I can muster here is that unlike the PS2 games no galleries or other bonuses are unlocked upon completion, but that’s a rather geeky nitpick.
Well, that’s about all I can think to say offhand about Atelier Annie – much like its titular protagonist, it’s hardly perfect, but to its credit has no grand illusions about what it is, and if you take the plunge and get to know it, can be a lot of fun to hang around. Heck, you might even come to admire it, in a way, for handily and cheerfully doing what so many of its contemporaries seem to consider beneath their dignity. Obviously most people, even devoted gamers, will never so much as hear of Annie’s existence, and of those relative few who do give the game a try not everyone is going to like it – one might consider this a cross that such a game has to bear just for being what it is, but to those who discover and experience it that’s all gravy. Of course, obscurity or strangeness in and of itself isn’t ample reason to praise a game or be proud to have tried it (I learned that the hard way), but I can’t deny that there’s something special, at least to me, about playing a so-called “hidden gem” that just isn’t found anywhere else, even in well-regarded “AAA” titles – I liken it to the feeling of rooting against the odds for a gutsy underdog, in sports or any other venue, who you can’t help but love even if he falls short of the big, prestigious title, because you know he’ll never stoop to abandoning his convictions, or his love for the game, in the name of short-lived self-promotion.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this new kinda-review format, and definitely encourage you to check this game out if it makes you curious - at this point in time, NIS apparently has no plans to bring either of Annie’s fellow DS Atelier titles (Lise and the upcoming Lina), let alone any of its Japan-only past entries, over our way – all we currently have to look forward to on this front is Rorona on the PS3. As such, Annie is very much an anomaly, and an exceedingly lucky one for us, considering how few titles like this get picked up for localization in the age of multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns (and half a year’s worth of major releases being pushed back due to competitiveness concerns). Hopefully this little write-up of mine gives you some idea of whether or not Atelier Annie is for you – if the article’s format was effective enough to be helpful, let me know, as I’ve got another title in mind to cover soon, if anyone would be interested. Either way, thanks as always for reading – after all, even for someone who relishes the strange and unknown, it’s always nice to have company.