Neruke to Densetsu no Renkinjutsushi-tachi ~Arata na Daichi no Atelier~
By Thomas Froehlicher 07th Apr 2019 | 2,266 views
The Atelier series has been part of the RPG landscape in the West for almost 10 years now. Throughout this already lengthy history, only Atelier Firis managed to revolutionize the series, thanks to its open world. This year, in order to thoroughly innovate the series, Gust decided to tackle a new genre: city-building. Management has always been a strong aspect of Atelier, so this may well have been the right avenue to take.
For the first time in the series, the heroine of the game is not an alchemist. Young Nelke is an aristocrat, the daughter of the local lord, sent to develop from scratch a town known as Vestbalt. At first, she doesn't have much help with this task, since she's only introduced to Kunos (the chief of a nearby village) and the architect Hagel (who is traditionally the smith in the series). She's therefore delighted to see professional Alchemists suddenly arriving from nowhere.
Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists relies on a triangular system composed of farming, crafting (via alchemy), and retail. Alchemists use raw materials grown in fields (or found outside the town) to synthesize goods, which are later sold in shops. The player thus needs to build the necessary facilities in order to ensure smooth economic cycles. For example, you may set up a field that produces wheat. That wheat will be turned into flour and then into pies by one of your alchemists in an atelier. Then the pies go to restaurants, where they're bought by townspeople. This final sale represents your revenue.
There are numerous possible production lines and they're spread across various categories, including food, accessories, clothing, weapons, armor, and medicine. So the gameplay on the whole features a stunning amount of content. The money you gain is then used to pay alchemists, farmers, and shop clerks, as well as to invest in more buildings or fields.
But Sim City fans may be disturbed by one thing - there is absolutely no residential type of estate. While in Maxis' games, any increase in your population is proportional to the number of residential areas you have, but the system is much less clear in Gust's title. The number of residents tends to increase in a more or less linear way, regardless of your profit or loss. That's unfortunate and I think the game who have been even better if it had been more nuanced in this respect.
No worries though, because Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists still benefits from extensive gameplay features and a wide range of characters. This spin-off is a sort of "all-star" game and features dozens of characters from all of the previous entries in the series, including both alchemists and non-alchemists. You can find, among many others, Ulrika from Mana Khemia 2, Iris from Atelier Iris, and Lucia from Atelier Lydie & Suelle.
Those main characters come one after another to the village and your job is to place them in the town's facilities in such a way that they help bolster its economy. Each has an area of expertise, so some are better at cattle farming, or in smithery, and so on. They also have levels, so the game retains some of the RPG aspects from the main series. Those two parameters represent their overall efficiency in selling or producing and ensure that optimizing your city can consume dozens of hours.
Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists features a very pleasant atmosphere, for it inherits all previous Atelier music themes but in joyful, remixed form, and of course it boasts beautiful art. Gust also contracted numerous famous voice actors and their performances are stellar. It's just a shame that many parts aren't voiced. Still, the large number of characters available makes this an extremely enjoyable entry for fans, and a remarkable tribute to the series so far.
On top of the shops, ateliers, and fields, you can also place small decorations in your town. There's a very wide range of structures (plants, statues, benches, etc.) that allow you to add a personalised touch to your town but which also impact the gameplay. Placing a table, for example, will increase clothes sales by 1%. The ability to move any item or building at zero cost is also highly appreciated.
Nelke's managing skills are put to the test in ruling the town, and of course, so are yours. Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists requires you to meet demographic or economic objectives within a limited number of turns. Which means that, yes, Gust's spin-off goes back to the principle of adventuring within a limited amount of time, which hasn't been the case in the main series for quite some time. For example, you'll have to hit a certain population threshold, build specific types of buildings, or stay in the black for a set period of time. The requirements are quite varied and never fail to surprise throughout the whole game, ensuring a high level of interest all the time. I've been hooked for 50 hours and have yet to get bored or tired of it.
A turn is equivalent to one week in the game and you'll need to set instructions for every character in every district before you start the working week. The game fast forwards the weekdays and shows the results on the last day. If your business sense is good, the city will experience growth. If not, you might lose money and cripple production channels, making it impossible to meet your current objectives.
100% focussed on business simulation and management, Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists is loaded with graphs and charts illustrating profits, losses, and stock levels. Gust's title is so detailed that there's a graph for each of the hundred or so items in the whole game! The more you progress, the more complicated the recipes become for contracting alchemists, who can only create a limited number of goods. You also have several more districts to look after by the end of the adventure, and managing the raw materials for all of them requires some skill. Characters need to be sent outside the town to fetch other materials like ore. It's like having a giant puzzle in front of you; fitting the pieces together is extremely complex, but at the same time increasingly challenging and rewarding.
Focussing so heavily on the management aspect of the series negatively impacts the battle aspect. On Sundays, Nelke has to gather allies to explore areas around Vestbalt and pick new ingredients. This part is really very minimalist, so for example the player doesn't even control any of the characters and the paths are all straight lines. In short, there's no exploration and no serious attempt at level design in this title.
Party members simply pick up materials from the ground while walking along a linear path, stopping only when a battle must be fought. The fighting isn't very interesting, either; few characters are actually able to join the party and all of the alchemists are blocked in auto mode. They heal hurt party members but spam the same attacks at all other times. The only manual command is their ultimate skill, which comes in handy for tougher battles. Most of the alchemists from former Atelier games don't even have 3D models, so the ones you can actually bring along in battles are mostly the heroines from Rorona to Lydie & Suelle. There are almost no other classes of characters, such as the town helpers, that can join battles either.
The day off has two other important purposes: getting friendlier with alchemists and research. Small talk with other characters raises their friend level. High friend levels unlock new possibilities for research, which leads to improved facilities, opening new districts, and eventually being able to witness all the different endings. The atelier can, for example, be upgraded into a large atelier, which can itself be upgraded into a luxurious atelier. The latter is extremely expensive and requires rare material for its construction, but boosts experience gains and output.
Alchemists sometimes come up with blueprints for very special buildings, called landmarks, which have overwhelmingly positive effects on certain spheres of the economy. The church, the library, or the camp site, for example, increase mining, alchemy success rate, and accessory sales, respectively. By being very difficult and expensive to build, they represent the ultimate reward for good management, much like their equivalents in the best Sim City games.
Gust's efforts to innovate have once again produced superb results. Gifted with a deep and addictive game system, and varied management and building aspects, Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists is a dream-like meeting between Atelier and Sim City. Addictive, lengthy, and true to the original spirit of the series, this spin-off boasts more than enough depth to make up for its dull combat.