cislyn: (distant worlds)
[personal profile] cislyn
I've been playing the Atelier series for a while now. These are, undeniably, my games. Todd got Atelier Rorona for me for one of my birthdays, and it's been a tradition ever since to grab up the latest game in the series when it becomes available. They're cute, casual, fun little games. They almost universally have a female protagonist, a complex crafting/alchemy system, turn-based battles, and a slowly-widening set of areas to explore and play in.

I think Atelier Shallie, the latest game in the series, is an interesting experiment. It's kind of a frustrating and failed one, but interesting, and in a better written game it could work really well. It takes the idea of control of a character and turns it on its side a little bit. You're playing this alchemist, Shallie, and so of course you have to complete goals and do tasks and blah blah, as Shallie. Nothing radical there. You have the choice of two Shallies to play - Shallistera, or Shallotte. I chose Shallistera.

There's no time limit, which is a radical departure from previous games in the series, and in theory there's no pressure to do anything in particular. But the truth of the matter is that when you're doing the 'main' parts of the story, that's all you can do. Shallie has a happiness meter, and it drops drastically as soon as you deviate from the proscribed course of action, and the lower her happiness the less able she is to do things at all. She's slower, she's less powerful, and the play experience is less fun. All other goals and quests are hidden during the main plot, so you can't see if you're making any progress, or if the things you're doing 'count' towards any of your goals.

And the brilliant thing is they've done all this by putting it inside Shallie's head. There's this little representation of her in profile, and when she has free time, her face will flip to the left, and multiple sections open up in the "life goals" menu. All of a sudden, you can explore lots of different ways to progress and lots of different goals - there are interpersonal goals, alchemy goals, goals for getting tougher in battle. In the middle are her 'main' goals, which are, in theory, most of what she's thinking about, but at this point they'll be vague: "get stronger", "go exploring". Things like that. And as you complete the things she's thinking about there, her head will slowly fill up with color. When it's full, she flips back and wants you to progress with the plot again.

It's ingenious, because hey, you want the experience of controlling another person, a human being with her own desires and goals and objectives? Well, ok. That means sometimes she's not going to want to do the things you want to do. Her goals don't necessarily really line up well with the play experience of a game, of a player controlling her. It forces you to care about what she cares about.

And it fails. It fails hard. Because they failed to make Shallie a character I actually care about. Like almost all the alchemists in the dusk portion of the series, she's shallow, young, naive, and stupid. Oh, SO stupid. I find it incredibly frustrating to play dumb characters who have no real dreams, motives, or desires.

Most of the time when it's time for the plot to progress the 'thought' in her head that blocks out all the other things I'm actually interested in doing is "I'm tired. Let's go back to the workshop and rest." Really? There's this whole world to explore, and all these things you cared about just a second ago, before I smashed that last barrel or killed that last monster and completed the objective which tipped you over the edge, and now all you've got is "I'm tired"?

If the role she was playing made more sense, or the world itself was deeper and more interesting, or the story writing better, then it would be a brilliant system, because it would jolt me out of my player's position and into the position of the character I'm allegedly interested in. I can see how it could work. It just... doesn't.

Add on top of that other minor frustrations and the game ends up being a very disappointing experience. When you complete an objective, or do some portion of it that nudges up the progress bar, it displays on the screen to let you know what's going on. Nice? Not actually. It displays the prerequisite for the task you just completed, and not the task itself! Your task is to gather three times in this region and you just completed it? Oh well. You get to know that what led to that was "Smash 20 barrels". That's a minor quibble that becomes a major one when so much of the focus is on these tasks, and it makes no sense in the context of it being Shallie's mind-state. Why on earth should she be thinking about Y, which led her to want to do X when she just managed to finish doing X? It comes across as random and it's just a really odd design choice.

The game setting itself is potentially interesting - there's this long, slow apocalypse happening, a world-swallowing drought that could be really interesting. And the game touches on it, but after playing the other two games in the series, I admit that I have no faith in the world-building. I like the slow, inevitable feel to it all, but I know better than to expect it to make a ton of sense, or to expect a complex ecological disaster to be handled well.

Shallistera herself is a sort of diplomat, chief-to-be of a small village threatened by the Dusk (the in-game name for this creeping desert doom), and she's come to a larger city seeking aid. And is anything interesting done with her status as a foreigner, a diplomat, and effective leader in training? No. Not at all. Not even a little bit. The city she travels to is ruled by a corporation, which seems to basically just be one rich guy. There's no mention of what the corporation does, who it employs, or how it's the governing body of this city. The actual engaged leadership of the city which Shallie mostly deals with is the "Union", lead by a younger more charismatic fellow who hands out all your quests. And to whom "Central" has sent a bureaucrat, Solle, to deal with. Solle "does reports" and "conducts investigations." Or rather, he tells other people to. The actual structure of the government of any of these places is completely nonsensical, and Shallie's status as a representative of a foreign power - even a minor one - is just completely overlooked. Solle hands out "assignments" to her and tells her she'll have to wait for Central to do things. The Corporation and Union alike basically order her around and commandeer her ship and resources. She doesn't care. It makes no sense.

Shallotte, the other playable character, comes from a poor family and is scraping by to make ends meet. I haven't played her story yet, but I have even less confidence in the game writers to tackle class issues than I do for them to tackle politics. I expect they'll just avoid it with some hand-waving, much the way they have with the political and sociological implications of Shallistera's position.

One of the things I've always liked about the Atelier series is that it tends to focus on the smaller, more personal stories. You're encouraged to care about your relationships with the NPCs - there are in-game rewards to be had for maintaining higher 'friendship levels', though the different games in the series have handled this in different ways. The main plotlines are almost always about small, personal things. Atelier Rorona was about an apprentice alchemist who wanted to get good enough at her craft to run her own shop, and had to navigate the bureaucracy of a city to prove she could do this. Atelier Totori, my favorite game in the series, was about a girl whose mother was an adventurer (just, you know, a valid career choice in that world) and disappeared. Totori wanted to become strong enough to be an adventurer herself, to follow in her mother's footsteps literally and figuratively, and figure out what had happened to her. The fact that she had alchemical talent was a thing she used to further that goal.

I fear that Atelier Shallie's plotline is ultimately not going to be about saving Lugion Village (which the voice actors pronounce inconsistently - one of a number of really irritating things about the English voice acting), or about Shallistera gaining enough confidence to be a leader and make hard choices, or even Shallotte overcoming the poverty she's mired in and the low expectations of everyone around her. It's going to be about saving the world. And actually, that's disappointing. There's not enough character here to sustain a character-driven story, and not enough world here for me to want to save it. I've never seen Lugion village and I doubt I ever will. What I have seen are constant references to the Dusk and how it needs to be fixed in order for things to be ok. I'd love to be invested in that, but I'm not. I don't believe an apocalypse can be solved by a girl with a staff and a big cauldron and her adventuring pals.

I will probably keep playing the game, hoping against hope that it will surprise me with some depth, with some twist. Against all odds, the gameplay itself is fun and fairly consistent. The battles are scaled well and there's enough variety in them that I find them fun. The alchemy system is nuanced enough that I actually like making stuff and experimenting with different combinations. I appreciate that I can just go out and gather stuff or fight monsters or make things without having to budget my time, but I do end up perversely hoping against hope that I won't do anything that Shallie cares about, because then I'll be forced to go on with the plot, and the interesting battles and gathering and free time I have will be taken up with inane conversations (she has a terrible habit of just repeating phrases from things people said - I've dubbed her Shallistera the Parrot) and cameo appearances of characters I didn't like from other games in the series. Oh hi, stereotype of the drawling cowboy. Gosh. You... sure do exist. Can I go make some stuff again yet? Nope? Ok. On with it until I can.

I'm still enjoying the things I enjoy in a game like this. I just wish... well, I wish for a lot of things. It would be super great if one of these days they made a game about a character who isn't basically a kid, for instance. Someone discovering a talent for alchemy when they're already an adult and having to make choices about what to do with that would be really interesting. The goal system in Shallie - with a few tweaks - could also be pretty great, if employed in a story that's well-written and for a character I really care about, with any depth of emotion or experience. I'm hoping that next year's Atelier game (because these things come out like clockwork) will incorporate some of the positive changes from Atelier Shallie. I'd really love to love one of these games again. I haven't in a while.

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Cislyn

December 2016

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