The PS Vita, while held in high regard by those who own one, is a tragically underappreciated little gem of a console. While many couldn’t understand the console and others denounced it as Sony’s second sorry attempt at competing with Nintendo for a share of the handheld market, the system was still an incredibly solid gaming platform, providing some immersive and uncompromising gaming experiences on the go. Sadly, it appeared that even Sony held little hope for the console, as they seemingly abandoned the Vita early on in its life cycle, having only released a paltry selection of first-party support throughout its lifespan. While this may have spelled doom for some systems, this was far from the case with the Vita, as many third-party developers were vying to develop games for the console. The support was so widespread, in fact, that the system had a myriad of options to appeal to almost any gamer’s taste, be that with it’s fantastic line-up of outstanding visual novels such as with Danganronpa or Steins;Gate, or with the, frankly, massive roster of JRPGs that found their home exclusively on the Vita. So many JRPGs found their way to the system that you could easily say that the Vita was an RPG-lover’s paradise. It was one developer in particular, however, that seemed to find itself favouring the system more and more, and developed a large number of games that exclusively stood among the finest on the little Sony handheld. That company was Gust, a subsidiary of publisher Koei Tecmo, and today on our trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole, we’ll be taking a look at Koei Tecmo’s love affair with the PS Vita and how their Atelier series of games was a perfect fit for Sony’s underappreciated handheld. Without further ado, let’s jump right into it!
What is Atelier?
So, let’s start this off right with a brief overview of what exactly the Atelier games are. Starting their life as a Japan exclusive series, the Atelier games are a set of JRPGs with social sim as well as more traditional RPG elements. The games also have something special that makes them unique among their peers – that being the alchemy system.
The alchemy system is pretty much exactly what you think it is – players take some basic materials they have, pop them into a cauldron and craft a new item. Appearing simple at first glance, the system has some incredible nuances. Most of the ingredients will carry traits that can be transferred to the item you’re synthesising, and the item you’re making can even have hidden abilities or become stronger if you use high-quality ingredients. In many cases, if your alchemy level is too low, you will either be unable to synthesise a specific item or will have a high risk of failing the synthesis all together! It’s these nuances and subtle intricacies that make the alchemy system an addictive element to the game overall, and they definitely help to keep players coming back again and again.
Story and Gameplay
Each title typically revolves around a cute anime protagonist, or sometimes two, and their story. These tales are pretty light-hearted and typically aren’t world-ending blockbusters, instead allowing players to focus on a seemingly simple setup that can build into something far more that it would appear at first glance, be that uncovering the mystery behind a mysterious talking book, or attending a school for alchemists. The games usually follow a set formula, whereby players must venture out into the wild to battle enemies and gather ingredients ready for their alchemy, after which they produce newer and better items via alchemy that allows players to battle stronger enemies and venture further into the wild and gather even better materials. You can see how the cycle perpetuates from there. Between the alchemy and gathering, there’s the social interaction elements where you can interact with NPCs and party members and perform tasks for them, which helps build your bond with them and unlock one of the MANY different endings on offer.
Combat is usually a relatively straightforward, turn-based affair, although every game will have its own unique spin on the combat mechanics to help keep the experience fresh and exciting. It’s far from complex, and many entries will need a few hours before they reveal to you all their secrets, but it’s certainly worth the wait!
The Atelier games also have a somewhat more contentious aspect to them, that being the pressure of time management. In most of the games, there is a clock that counts down more and more as you perform actions, be that gathering, synthesising or exploring, and players will be given a set of tasks that they must accomplish within a given time limit. Most of the games are pretty forgiving with their time management, but the Arland trilogy was particularly criticised for its harsh time management and remains a somewhat divisive trilogy, either loved or loathed (depending on your perspective). Despite this, not all of the games adhere to a strict time system, with many of the newer games scrapping the system almost entirely, to the joy of many! The time management, for all its issues, allows players to keep looking ahead, preventing players from getting overly distracted by the minor details and allowing them to focus instead on the big picture and to keep moving from point A to point B. Some people may love this as it keeps them focused, while others may hate having to play a game in a way that they aren’t accustomed to. Regardless, it’s something that helps set Atelier apart from the throngs of JRPGs out there and has helped define the Atelier identity for over 20 years.
The Origins of Atelier
The Atelier series began back in 1997 with a sweet and unassuming little title on the Sony PlayStation, Atelier Marie. After a strong review score from Famitsu and a solid fan reception, a new franchise was born.
Five titles were released exclusively in Japan between 1997 and 2004 and have remained Japanese exclusives to this day – those games being the Salberg games (Atelier Marie, Elie and Lilie) and the Gramnad games (Judie and Viorate). While they’ve never ventured West, it wasn’t long until those of us in the West would be graced by the joys of Atelier!
One fateful day, with the release of Atelier Iris in 2005 for the PS2, a whole eight years after the initial release of Atelier Marie, the Atelier games FINALLY came to the West. While nowhere near as popular as their JRPG cousins Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, these games found a niche audience that immediately took Atelier to their hearts. There are, however, many individuals that would argue that it would take a further five years before the West would receive a true Atelier game.
The Iris and Mana Khemia titles took a decidedly different direction from the traditional Atelier formula, maintaining the turn-based combat and focusing more exclusively on action to craft an adventure for the players, rather than focusing on the alchemy and time-management systems that made the games a hit in Japan.
It wasn’t until the PS3 era, when Atelier finally made the jump to 3D models, that the Atelier series would return to its roots and reinforce that feeling of comfort and relaxation synonymous with the series today, by reintroducing the time-management system and placing a greater focus back on alchemy. The Arland games (Rorona, Totori, Meruru and recently, Lulua) and Dusk games (Ayesha, Escha and Logy, and Shallie) were all well received and provided solid experiences to gamers by introducing a brand new generation to the wonders of the Atelier series. These trilogies also had a set of unique quirks that really helped endear them to players and place them among the finest games in the entire series. The Arland games were a subtle nod to older titles by providing fans with a seemingly familiar experience to those on the original PlayStation, thanks to their fantastic set of lovably sweet characters, a returning time-management system and an alchemy system that rewarded observant players.
The Dusk trilogy, on the other hand, while still maintaining the excellently intricate alchemy system, was a more melancholy affair, introducing players to a slowly dying world where the quirky cast of characters were having to come to terms with their reality and needed to fight to survive.
The Mysterious trilogy, by comparison, received a somewhat more mixed reception, with many fans claiming that the games offered no challenge and that the overarching story had little weight to help keep players invested. Ateliers Sophie, Firis and Lydie and Suelle are probably unjustly criticised in this regard, as they are excellent games that provide us with a different, but no less charming, tale and simultaneously introduce some of the finest characters to have appeared in the series to date. Despite their detractors, the Mysterious trilogy must have done something right, as protagonist and reoccurring character Sophie was able to snag the number 1 top spot for most popular Atelier character in Gust’s 2018 character popularity poll!
Now that we’ve taken a brief look back over the Atelier series, that brings us quite comfortably up to date, where we eagerly await the release of Atelier Ryza in the West next month.
Sony and Atelier: A Lasting Bond
If you were to take a moment and look through the Atelier Wiki, one thing is immediately clear – the gaming platforms that Atelier games have found themselves on over the years tend to lean heavily towards the use of Sony PlayStation consoles. While some of the more recent titles have begun to settle on the Nintendo Switch, and the spin-off titles have always been happy on Nintendo’s selection of handhelds, PlayStation has undoubtedly held a monopoly on the Atelier brand for many years.
Atelier was primarily a home console experience, with all the mainline games from Atelier Marie in 1997 to Mana Khemia: The Alchemists of Al-Revis in 2007 settling on home consoles. That was all to change, however, with the re-release of Mana Khemia on Sony’s brand new handheld console, the PSP. This completely shifted the landscape for Atelier games forever. The PSP allowed gamers to take their gaming on the go, with comparatively high graphical fidelity. This revolutionised how players would approach the series and also opened the market up to a whole new audience of portable gamers. Following the release of the first Mana Khemia on the PSP, three other titles in the series were successfully ported to Sony’s handheld. Atelier‘s future in portable gaming had begun!
The Definitive Atelier – Atelier Plus and the PS Vita
Since the early days of Atelier Marie, the Atelier games have had a tendency to receive re-releases – becoming the definitive version of the game in question. Some of the later games, i.e. from the PS3 era onward, had the DLC, new party members and additional content packaged into these re-releases, and in some cases, were more remakes than re-releases. The definitive re-releases usually received the moniker of “plus” such as with Atelier Rorona Plus, making it immediately apparent that these games are somewhat different from the original release. While many of these definitive releases were on home consoles, there was an obvious need to appeal to a different type of gamer.
So, along comes the PS Vita, Sony’s shiny new wonder console. Where better for Koei Tecmo to port some of their newer games and appeal to a brand new market with their special brand of Atelier gameplay than here? Well, considering that the lifetime sales of the PS Vita are estimated to have only reached approximately 10–20 million units sold, a comparatively tiny total compared to Sony’s previous consoles, the potential for cornering a new market was far from risk-free.
The first game to be released for the PS Vita was Atelier Totori Plus: The Adventurer of Arland. This game was strangely the second entry in the Arland series, rather than starting with the iconic Atelier Rorona, but despite the trepidation, all was soon to be revealed. Following the release of Meruru Plus, Rorona Plus was finally dropped, and to fans’ surprise, this game was more of a remake than a definitive re-release. This game came bundled with a new epilogue that featured both Totori and Meruru and came packaged with much of the original DLC. Gust’s audience also flourished on the Vita, drawing in new fans while still appealing to the existing fan base, which began the Atelier influx on the Vita. From 2012 to 2017, a grand total of nine mainline Atelier titles dropped on Vita, six of which being the definitive Plus versions that were exclusive to the PS Vita.
The success of the Atelier games on Vita was far from astronomic, however, as the games, particularly in the West, are still considered niche titles, with sales figures struggling to reach 20,000 units sold on Vita for the first week of release in Japan. While fans were now able to experience these heartwarming tales of alchemy and exploration on the go, the technical limitations of the Vita were beginning to rear their ugly head. Some of the games were poorly optimised for the system, with Atelier Firis receiving particular criticism for its buggy launch.
Many of the titles would struggle to maintain a consistent frame rate, and others would occasionally crash due to bugs or other issues. Despite this, most of the games ran extraordinarily well on Sony’s handheld, and fans were still able to experience these games in a totally new way. Sadly, however, this was not to last, as in 2017, with the Japanese release of Atelier Lydie and Suelle, gamers received the final game in the series to find a its way to the Vita. PS Vita owners in the West were left bitterly disappointed when Lydie and Suelle was localised, as the game never came to Vita in Western regions.
While we can ponder the cause of this, I’d say the answers stand on their own. The PS Vita was slowly meandering towards the end of its lifespan, and the system hadn’t sold particularly well during its life cycle. To remain on the system would surely guarantee low sales figures and, considering the comparatively poor reception of Atelier Firis, it would make sense to try and maximise the sales potential of future titles. Additionally, the Japanese release of Lydie and Suelle came a mere three months prior to the release of Nintendo’s soon-to-be handheld/home console juggernaut hybrid, the Nintendo Switch.
Possessing the unique selling point of being able to play a game at home or on the go, the Switch was the next logical step for the Atelier series, even if that did mean that the Vita was to be left without one of its biggest contributors. Despite this, the Atelier Plus games from both the Arland and Dusk trilogies would remain exclusive to the PS Vita, providing a unique draw to the system for fans seeking the definitive experience for these games. That was until 2019 and soon to be 2020 with release of the Arland Trilogy DX and Dusk Trilogy DX respectively on both PS4 and Nintendo Switch.
The love affair was officially over.
The vita has been discontinued, production has ceased, and Atelier has moved on to pastures new. What cannot be overlooked, however, is the fact that the system still remains afloat and widely beloved by those who played her and, in my humble opinion, the Atelier titles certainly helped draw a new audience to the system to help maintain momentum and love for the system, even now.
The PS Vita was and is one of the greatest portable consoles ever released. The problem, however, is that very few people have experienced it, and the console has therefore slipped under the radar. Gust and Koei Tecmo were willing to take a shot at the system, and it payed off for both parties, with the Vita receiving some incredible games with a definitive polish, while Koei Tecmo/ Gust were able to monopolise on the unique selling points of the Vita. While the story has reached its end for the partnership between Atelier and the Vita, it must be said that, were it not for the PS Vita providing a high-quality portable Atelier experience, we may never have come as far as we have, and the Switch may not have boasted such an impressive back catalogue of Atelier titles and the soon-to-be-released Atelier Ryza. The series is on the up and up, and the Vita definitely provided a springboard for Atelier to grow and soar.
With that said, thank you once again for joining me this week on our trip down the Otaku Rabbit Hole. I hope you enjoyed your time here. If you did, that’s wonderful and please let me know down below, and please consider sharing this article! If you didn’t, thanks for reading this far, and please let me know your thoughts down below!
Thanks once again for joining me and, until next time, keep it weeby everyone!