Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island

Annie, the lazy granddaughter of a famous alchemist, dreams of wealth and marrying one day, although her grandfather's homunculi transport her, while she's still asleep in bed, to Sera Island to help with a resort project. As one of the rewards for contributing the most to the project is possible marriage to the Prince of Orde, Annie resolves to hone her alchemy skills and work hard. Atelier Annie: Alchemists of Sera Island is the latest iteration of Gust's Atelier franchise for the Nintendo DS, somewhat returning to its roots with a greater emphasis on alchemy and simulation aspects than combat.

Annie has three years to contribute to the resort project, being able to synthesize items at her workshop with various materials and build/upgrade island facilities, such as a park and a museum, with special money gained monthly from these facilities, as well as from completing the six main assignments successfully, exclusively used for the project. Annie, however, does have standard pocket money, the bulk of which she gains from completing tasks at the town's adventure guild (and a meager amount of which she and her companions win from battle), which she can use to purchase materials, new alchemy tools, and equipment for herself and her comrades. Monthly sales from each facility typically depend upon how "famous" each is, with Fame increased by completing special tasks for them, among them being mini-games that are actually fun.

As Annie attempts to synthesize items in her workshop (with up to five different tools used for synthesis and different success rates depending upon the tool used), her alchemy level, alongside the levels of her tools, will gradually increase, boosting the success rate of synthesizing better items. Item synthesis also takes a number of days depending upon the type of item and the quantity the player wishes to create. Also taking a number of days is travel between the town and either Annie's facilities or gathering points where she can collect synthesis materials at no cost.

Before going to these enemy-infested gathering points, however, it's a good idea to bring along two companions, who can equip a weapon, a piece of armor, and an accessory. Gathering points themselves are only one screen big, with icons indicating where Annie can harvest items, and more ultimately appearing as the game advances. While gathering or walking around, random encounters will occur, with Annie and her allies fighting on a 2x3 grid against up to three enemies on their own 2x3 grid. Each of the player's character can fight from either the front or back row, with their special commands varying depending upon their row.

Like the Digital Devil Saga duology, the player's characters and the enemy have separate turn sessions, with each of the former executing their moves immediately after input. Commands include attacking normally (with greater attack damage but greater received damage in the front row, and lower attack damage but lower received damage in the back row), switching the character's row (which mercifully doesn't consume their turn), using consumable items, or using one of their special abilities, many of which become available at higher levels. After the player's characters take their turns, the enemy takes theirs, with some foes able to execute more than one command if the player's party is weaker.

After battle, each character gains experience, with occasional level-ups, and a meager amount of money (not as great as that acquired from the adventurer's guild). Fighting also gradually increases the friendship level of Annie's allies, with maxed friendship in fact necessary for certain endings. There are also occasional bosses, though most of them are optional, with the defeat of the most powerful boss necessary for another ending. All in all, Atelier Annie's game mechanics are reasonably enjoyable, with the only real faults being rare item name inconsistencies and the inability to travel to any destination instantly whenever the player appears on the dot-connected overworld.

Control fares just as well, with easily-navigable menus, the ability to tell how equipment affects each character's stats before purchase, decent use of the stylus, and an overall structure that's neither fully linear nor fully sandbox. The only major shortcoming is the lack of a scene-skip option, with the player only able to "fast-forward" through cutscenes a la The World Ends with You, and the ability to see where the player can trigger such scenes, given their frequency and the fact that some are necessary for various endings, would have been nice, as well. Still, control is reasonably tight in Atelier Annie.

Story is probably the low point of Atelier Annie, given the mostly-downplayed conflict between Annie and rival alchemist Julian, who also seeks to win the island's competition, not to mention the overfrequency of story scenes, especially common whenever Annie enters her workshop, due largely to inane item synthesis requests from her companions. The quirky cast and general humorous nature of the game, not to mention seven different endings, are pretty much the highlights of the game, but the remainder of the plot is insignificant at best.

Music, though, is a highlight of Atelier Annie, having a happy, upbeat, energetic style similar to its predecessors, with NIS America making the rare decision of leaving the voices in Japanese, both saving the localization team money and sparing players from hearing their typically-lousy English voicework; those who find the voices annoying can luckily turn them off in the game menus, but even so, the voices aren't that bad, largely fitting their respective characters. Overall, a superb-sounding game.

The graphics have their quirks, as well, given the cheerful colors, nice scenery, and anime portraits with constantly-changing emotions narrating cutscenes, although character sprites are in a disproportionate chibi style, and in combat, the player's characters and the enemy face off on grids floating above the gathering point's scenery. The visuals are by no means ugly, but could have certainly been better.

Finally, the latest Atelier game is fairly short, a little over ten hours long for a single playthrough, although given the seven endings and a New Game+, players can stretch their playtime longer. In conclusion, Atelier Annie very well returns to its roots, given its fun gameplay systems, tight control, solid soundtrack, different endings, and consequential replayability. Those new to the series, as well as long-time fans, definitely owe it to themselves to give this iteration a try, perhaps several.

The Good:
+Alchemy/resort/battle systems are fun.
+Isn't laggy like Gust's other games.
+Great soundtrack.
+Seven different endings.

The Bad:
-Some minor item name inconsistencies.
-No scene-skip option.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo DS
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Controls: 8/10
Story: 6/10
Music/Sound: 10/10
Graphics: 7/10
Localization: 8/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Very Easy
Playing Time: 10+ Hours

Overall: 8.5/10

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