For the most part, when a series has been around since the 90s, it's pretty genre-defining. Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest are the essential RPGs, FIFA and Madden are their essential sports titles, Street Fighter is the essential fighting game. So it's pretty wild to come across a series that's spanned 25 years and find it feel so off-beat and unusual as I did with the Atelier series.
To be clear I haven't experienced the series much yet. I was aware Atelier Iris existed mainly because a song from its soundtrack was in an old DDR simfile pack I had when I was a kid. That's the extent of it until a friend started playing Atelier Ryza and was streaming it in a small friends only stream for a couple of weeks. I checked it out, it looked neat, I wanted to know more. So I did what I usually do in those situations and go straight to the first installment: Atelier Marie.
Going to the first installment was tricky, though. The early games in the Atelier series weren't localized and the series as a whole doesn't seem to be a very popular target for fan-translators. That said, one version of Atelier Marie did get the translation treatment: the Playstation 2 re-release that comes bundled with its sequel. Perfect, actually. So I grabbed that.
If you're not aware, an atelier (ah-tell-ee-ey, it's French) is an artist's studio. Specifically it's a wide open studio designed for teaching and apprenticeship. Technically the term is limited to visual arts but has been co-opted in fantasy stories to mean a wizardry or alchemy lab, as we have here. The series focuses on alchemists whose main goal and the game's main course of progression is to simply make stuff. The purpose and specific methods of doing so change from game to game, but the game loop focuses heavily on the game's crafting system.
25 years in, Atelier Ryza has deep meaningful crafting and a robust combat system for fighting things while collecting materials but back in 1997 with Atelier Marie, things were really simplistic. You have a menu-based town to interact with people in, a lab to walk around in and interact with things to make stuff, and places to select from a menu to visit to collect materials and fight monsters. That's it. To make up for the lack of interactive depth, Atelier Marie provides an almost visual novel style series of events and choices to let you further the plot in different ways, unlocking different items you can create.
The simplistic version of the game loop is to make items that you can combine into better items, that you can combine into better items, so on and so forth. Along the line you do requests to make cash to pay your expenses, go out to gather materials, fight monsters as an incidental point to get stronger, and raise your relationship scores with NPCs so they trust you with their problems-- which prompts you to research how to solve them in the Academy library, hence learning new recipes. Plot progression comes from solving people's problems by making stuff, though the plot isn't even really required to finish the game.
The game tracks the date and assigns time requirements to everything. Going out to gather materials can take anywhere from the one day to multiple weeks. Creating materials takes time, increasing with the complexity of the item (up to a month for a single item!). All these little time committments add up and the five years you have can zoom by pretty quick. More pressing though are scheduled events that occur with or without you. Every year the Academy has final exams; you can just miss them if you're out in a forest or busy crafting when they roll around. That's just one example.
So really Atelier Marie is something like a crafting system bolted onto Persona's social system. It's more forgiving than Persona but if you want to do everything you're going to need to keep your eye out for signs plastered around town warning of upcoming events and keep your ear open for NPC chatter informing you of what's going on around town. Asking for rumors and gossip and talking to NPCs is the main method you have of revealing new places to go to gather materials, so making a ritual of going out to talk to people every so often is mandatory.
All of this is just supporting scaffolding for the meat of the game though: the item crafting system. Within your atelier is a giant caldron you can interact with to begin crafting. You craft things by smashing other items together. At the start of the game you can only create three items: Red, Green, and Blue Neutralizers which serve as base ingredients for almost every other item in the game. These are made from the most basic of gathered resources you get from the local forest, lake, and mountain.
Every item requires a certain amount of time to create and a certain alchemy level to have a 100% chance to succeed. Below that, you begin dipping into failure chance, which will just cause a small explosion and consume your materials for no gain. If you succeed, you get the item and some alchemy experience. Most items created this way turn around and become reagents in yet another item, forming a complex tree that eventually ends at the end-game major items. Each tier up this tree you go, the items have a higher item level. You can roughly equate item level to how many layers of creation you have to do to get that item. The highest is eight.
In addition to items being reagents in other items, a lot of items can be consumed for healing, MP recovery, status removal, used as attack items in battle, sold to the shop for a small gold profit, turned in at the bar for requests, or given to NPCs who need specific items for plot events. So it's not just a tree of items turning to other items.
A large chunk of the game, in addition to doing plot events to unlock new recipes, is figuring out where to get items needed in those recipes. While some of them are obvious ("Hebel Lake Water" when there exists an area called "Hebel Lake") others are not. You can frequently get recipes involving items you've never seen before, and then have to figure out if those are created from a different recipe or simply gathered somewhere you haven't been yet. Or, in the most extreme cases, gathered under extremely specific circumstances.
All of this weaves together toward the idea of earning an ending at the end of the game's five year plot. There's something like eight possible endings arranged in a hierarchy with requirements for each. You get the highest ending you meet all the requirements for. For the most part these endings require creating an item of a specific tier level, reaching a certain alchemy level, and then a smattering of various plot and NPC relationship requirements. The best ending requires making one of almost every item in the game, including the famed Philosopher Stone at the very top of a complicated dependency tree, as well as saving your best friend from a disease by creating a panacea. Even getting the "Your friend is sick" event requires being in your atelier at a specific time to receive the event interaction; I missed it in my first playthrough.
If you just want a game that's a crafting system and a plot this is it, albeit incredibly basic. I can only really ding it for two things. First, some of the events and item gather requirements are ludicrous. When you're going out to gather materials for 3 weeks at a time, it can be real easy to miss an event and halting your plot progress. Additionally, some of the item requirements are silly, like going to a specific location on one specific day. The second complaint is it is so bare bones. Combat is almost an annoyance to gate access to things behind having the cash to hire strong NPCs, or being strong yourself. Crafting is simple despite that being the core mechanic of the game.
But it's a first pass. It did really well for breaking new ground.
On the same re-relase is Atelier Elie: Marie's sequel. It's much the same. Same engine, same crafting, same town, same NPCs largely, same plot hooks. It starts out more as a continuation of Marie than its own game, but begins to diverge a bit as it gets rolling.
First, Elie has twice as many items as Marie: 200 to Marie's 100. This is pretty necessary as Marie ran into the problem of having to create the same items a lot to progress. Second, you have one fewer year in Elie, though doing extremely well gives you a post-game with two additional years. Third, once you begin establishing yourself in the plot-gather-craft game loop, the headmaster of the Academy shows up and begins teaching you new alchemy techniques; specifically Blend Synthesis and Original Synthesis.
Blend Synthesis is like normal crafting but you can tweak the ratios in the recipe to try to squeeze higher quality out of an item. Quality is a new mechanic that assigns a grade to each item you create. Some items cap out below the A+ or S grade and require blending to push it higher. Quality makes items give you more reputation points when turned in as a request, and impacts their effectiveness if used for healing or in battle. Ultimately it's not super important unless you're using an item for a plot event.
Original Synthesis is where the game suddenly spirals out into factorials. This allows you to just throw materials in a pot and see what comes out. Any materials, any ratio. Most mixes will fail, but a select few will produce new items either early or exclusively. If you know the recipe for an item you can just make it, even items you learn from books later in the game. If you remember recipes from Atelier Marie, most of them even still work! Several items can only be created this way. Fortunately none of them are required for a good ending assuming you get all the recipe unlocks otherwise.
The last change from Atelier Marie is an entire second segment of the world. Through a convoluted series of NPC interactions, you can learn of a caravan that runs back and forth from your kingdom and its familiar gathering zones to a region far to the west which has its own locations, exclusive materials, a superboss, and the key to the best ending in the form of an NPC you must befriend. This entire area is very easy to miss because learning of its existence requires befriending an NPC in town that only shows up once a week. If you miss it, you lose access to about a dozen materials that are required for a ton of crafts.
Visiting this western frontier will eat a month, easily. So really you should only go when well-prepared, get as much out of it as you can, and come back when you have enough stuff to do everything you need. Sadly every time you gather materials, you have to pay to ship them back to your atelier, so it gets pricey in a hurry.
Oh and your caravan gets attacked multiple times each trip, and the fights aren't trivial. If you haven't been fighting stuff to beef up your party, you won't make it.
Vexingly it's this western frontier that's the location of Atelier Elie's one "Strategy Guide" item. As in you likely need a strategy guide to find it. Atelier Marie's was a flower you could only pick on June 18th of each year, by going to the first gathering location in the game. I at least saw no hints of this. Atelier Elie's is a fruit that can only be picked between the 10th of Stepember and the end of the month, and it's a month away on the western shore. Fortunately in Elie's case the item is needed for one trivial synthesis.
But yeah, these games both resist 100% completion oddly.
Base completion of these games is really in the eye of the beholder. I largely considered a playthrough complete if I created the Philosopher Stone in that playthrough. I think that's a fair yardstick for completion. Just learning how to create it seems to require either a really high alchemy level, or doing one of the game's major plot events. I'm unsure which. I did that in both, though I can only say for sure I got the best ending in Elie.
There's definitely a line between good and bad endings. For these two games that line falls largely at "Did you pass your Academy classes?" but even the bad endings have their value. Outside of the flat "you did nothing at all so you fail outright" endings that require deliberate effort to get, the protagonist of each game turns out pretty alright regardless of the ending. There's no real "losing" in Atelier Marie or Elie; there's just not getting the ending you wanted, or not accomplishing what you wanted with the time you have.
There's a third game in this trilogy, but it's been untouched by localization as of yet. I couldn't imagine trying to play one of these in Japanese. Reading is 99% of it. After that there's a gap until Atelier Iris, which is the first game to be officially localized. After that they all have North America releases.
Two games back to back of Atelier is enough for now though. I'll look at Atelier Iris at some point soon, but not too soon.