A Look Back at Gust's Games for PlayStation Vita - ArticleAdam Cartwright , posted on 13 October 2019 / 1,019 Views
This is the fifth entry in a series of articles I’m writing that look at the output of a number of Vita-supporting developers from launch through to the present day. I’ll be examining their history in the games industry, the games they released on Vita, how those titles performed, what games they could have released but didn't, and finally I'll provide an overall conclusion on their Vita support.
Few developers know their audience like Gust; the historic Japanese developer has been around for two decades and in that time has continually catered to the same group of fans who enjoy their well-crafted, slice-of-life JRPGs that are often built around unique alchemy mechanics. Gust found a solid audience match on Vita, which meant the company supported it well from its early months right through to its discontinuation, and along the way gave us a sea of enjoyable titles.
History – The Atelier Factory
Gust is a company that was literally born on PlayStation – its initial titles all hit the PS1 before the company slowly transitioned over to its successor, yet just a couple of years into its history Gust had already made a name for itself with the Atelier series.
These JRPGs invariably cast you as a young girl trying to find her way in the world while learning the ancient art of alchemy (making new creations and items by combining ingredients together in a cauldron), while featuring turn-based combat and exploration/gathering elements thrown in for good measure. It proved to be a winning formula that spawned dozens of sequels, ports, and remakes following the original entry Atelier Marie in 1997, landing on nearly every viable console out there at the time, from Saturn to Windows to Game Boy to PSP.
Of course, Gust did explore other ideas at times, the most successful of which was the Ar Tonelico series, which saw its first entry land on the PS2 in 2006. The franchise was built around the idea of ‘song magic’ – using music and words to craft powerful abilities - and focused on the struggles between humans and the Reyvateil, a race of artificially-created beings. Thanks to its often emotionally touching stories, fascinating world, and unique combat system it proved to be a success, spawning two sequels and proving Gust was more than just an Atelier factory.
Still, as console generations moved on Gust reverted back to its tested formula, delivering trilogies of new Atelier games and never deviating far from the gameplay its fanbase had come to expect.
Vita – A Little Experimentation
While the majority of Gust’s output is turn-based JRPGs, its first title on Vita was a little bit of a detour that had its foundations in the firm's final PSP release, acting as a rather experimental period in its history.
Mostly, the PSP had been a dumping ground for ports of home console Atelier games – things like Atelier Violet and Mana Khemia, which worked well enough on a portable. As a parting gift for the console Gust created Atelier Elkrone, a spin-off entry that turned the franchise on its head by offering an otome visual novel experience where the novice alchemist heroine chooses from various handsome men while training in her craft. Created in conjunction with Idea Factory’s Otomate label, it proved that there was more to the franchise than the core formula that had served it for the past decade and a half, although sales were rather weak in Japan at just 13k.
Gust followed this up with its first release on Sony’s newest handheld by building on the visual novel experience gained with Elkrone but took it in an experimental new direction. Ciel nosurge followed the adventures of a young girl named Ion who has lost her memories and uses strange fairy-like creatures known as Sharl to help rebuild her past. As the plot unravels, it quickly becomes apparent that the game takes place in the Ar Tonelico universe, acting as a prequel that takes place thousands of years before those games.
Ciel was unique in a number of ways. You literally talked to Ion through a screen which was ‘connected’ to your Vita via a terminal in Ion’s world, providing an oddly personal experience unlike anything else on the market. It was also released episodically following the initial launch in 2012 and required a constant internet connection to track the passage of time, although this was rectified with the later Ciel nosurge Offline version. It received mostly positive reviews and ended up selling nearly 70k across all versions in Japan, although no western release ever materialised.
That wasn’t the end of the Surge Concerto universe, though; it was revisited with a direct sequel named Ar nosurge in 2014 which, rather confusingly, was revealed only for PS3 and before all of the DLC episodes for Ciel had been released. It launched to muted commercial success on Sony’s home console, so Gust quickly realised it needed to rectify this and offer a version on handheld instead, which followed just 6 months later in the form of Ar nosurge Plus on Vita.
Ar offered a more traditional JRPG experience that Gust fans would have been used to – turn-based combat, exploration and gathering, and even a bit of alchemy mixed in. It worked very well, even if the story could get a little convoluted at times, and was seriously rewarding if you were willing to put the time in, making it a hidden gem in the Vita’s library.
Atelier Plus a Little More
Despite experimentation with the Surge Concerto titles, most of Gust’s output on Vita was business as usual, which meant tonnes of Atelier, albeit definitive versions that offered more content than their console counterparts.
It all started in November of 2012 with Atelier Totori Plus, an expanded version of the breakthrough PS3 entry that followed the sweet and loving titular alchemist in her adventures through Arland. By just adding a few pieces of extra content (new bosses, costumes, dungeons, etc.) Gust provided a compelling enough package to encourage fans to buy the game all over again. It sold 75k in Japan (a massive success by series standards) and was quickly followed by the other two entries in the trilogy, Atelier Meruru Plus and Atelier Rorona Plus (the latter of which was a more substantial remake than a simple expanded port, which made sense as the original was the company's first ever fully 3D game).
Gust quickly followed these up on Vita with even more PS3 ports using the same mantra – adding a little bit of extra content to encourage double dippers. The first of these was Atelier Ayesha Plus, the debut entry in the Dusk sub-series, which opened to series-low sales on the handheld in Japan, suggesting fans were getting a little burnt out with the volume of releases. As a result, Gust took a little more time with Atelier Escha & Logy Plus and Atelier Shallie Plus, adding even more content to both, including whole new elements to the story in the latter and implementing better performance optimisations for each, making them much more essential for long-time fans (plus the dual protagonist design was still fairly new and novel).
Now out of games to port across, Gust started a brand new trilogy (Mysterious) with Vita as a central platform. Atelier Sophie was the first release. It boded well for the future on the console; Sophie was an impressive port with solid performance and nice graphics that clearly had a lot of care poured into them, which couldn’t be said for its follow-up Atelier Firis, an open-world game that was clearly too advanced for the system, with major slowdown throughout, even if it was ambitious in its design. The trilogy was concluded with Atelier Lydie & Suelle, which became the first Atelier title on Vita not to release in the west (Escha and Shallie even got physical releases), showing Gust’s new priorities towards the Nintendo Switch.
A New Era
Possibly as a result of its acquisition by Koei-Tecmo, Gust was afforded a lot of freedom from around 2015 onwards to explore new ideas, which led to some of the firm's most ambitious (if not necessarily best) releases.
The first of these was Nights of Azure in 2015, a gothic action-RPG with yuri undertones that had the player battling demons in a land of eternal night. It was clearly a step outside of its comfort zone and unfortunately another technical mess on Vita, featuring poor resolution and slowdown. The game as a whole received somewhat middling reviews when it landed on western shores, with critics citing its repetitive combat and environments. It was followed by Nights of Azure 2: Bride of the New Moon a few years later, which alienated some fans by changing the servan-based combat system. While both landed on Vita, neither was made available in English.
Blue Reflection was another experiment for Gust, although this time it played a lot more to the developer's knowledge and strengths. A high school RPG with turn-based combat featuring magical girls who can cross over into another dimension, it offered social links and a compelling story that ensured it received fairly positive reviews (and it was gorgeous to boot). Unfortunately, the Vita version failed to hit western shores yet again and Koei-Tecmo cited the title as underperforming in sales.
Gust's final new idea during this period was the city-building RPG Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists: Ateliers of the New World. Acting as a celebration of all the previous entries in the Atelier series, it mixed up the gameplay by simplifying the alchemy, battle, and exploration mechanics but added the ability to create and grow a settlement to your liking, including placing buildings, growing populations, and managing resources. It proved to be an addictive formula, although once again the Vita version remained Japan-only.
Gust is continuing to explore new frontiers even beyond Vita, currently working on a turn-based RPG based on the Fairy Tale anime series (for PS4/PC & Switch), but otherwise is still sticking to the standard Atelier formula, which suggests an uncertain future for the company if sales keep declining post-PS3/Vita. Finally, Atelier Lulua was a return to the Arland universe, which was a moderate success, while Atelier Ryza is the start of a new sub-series. Perhaps one of these will strike it big, but mostly it seems they’ll continue selling to the same audience that made the games on Vita a success.
In terms of pure volume, there are few developers I’ll examine in this series of articles who have created more Vita games than Gust. Its brand of otaku-friendly JRPGs found a fantastic home on the handheld, ensuring positive sales figures both domestically and abroad, as well as positive reviews, and there’s very little the company didn’t being to the console during its life.
Unfortunately, the company's ports often suffered from performance issues and many fans noted increasing fatigue in the slightly-tweaked-every-year formulas, although when it experimented outside its comfort zone the results weren’t always better, even if we often didn’t see these new ideas on western Vitas. Still, despite these issues Gust's games definitely enhanced the Vita’s library and I’m incredibly grateful to have them. If you’re looking for an enjoyable portable JRPG, look no further than one of the eight English Atelier games - I’m sure you’ll have a brilliant time.