Annie’s story begins with a situation we all can relate to: her parents give her grandfather permission to abduct her while she sleeps. The old man whisks her away, bed and all, to the remote island of Sera. It turns out Annie’s grandfather is a famous alchemist, and he thinks that teaching her the trade will save her from becoming a leech on the ass of society. But he’s got old man stuff to do like yell at his Jitterbug and agree with everything Andy Rooney says, so he assigns a fairy named Pepe to guide you. Conveniently, a major alchemy competition is going on, and you’re entered as a contestant.
At the same time, Sera Island is becoming a major resort, and you need to raise money to fund tourist attractions. You earn this money from completing tasks assigned to you in the alchemy competition. These come along periodically as markers in the longer story. Between these assignments, you can take up jobs and gather items to earn cash and experience.
Attached to your workshop (where all the magic happens) is a shop that you manage. You’re able to pick how involved you want to be in the shop’s management. After assigning one of your associates to the clerk position, you can choose to trust the clerk’s judgment, give a few orders, or micro-manage them to death. This is a wise design choice as some players feel like micro-managing, while others, like me, wouldn’t do this for a real-world job that paid well and offered dental and vision benefits--and I certainly wouldn’t pay for the dubious pleasure of doing it in my free time. You will, however, need to purchase and build tourist attractions like hotels and theme parks. This takes little effort (they even come with their own managers) and is more of a means to get additional odd jobs and increased fame.
Combat is merely background noise. Only when you are out gathering items will you face the monsters of Sera Island, whose attacks are merely a speedbump on your path to excavating rare ingredients. Of the several recruitable characters Annie meets early in the game, two may be selected to accompany her on these gathering trips. As long as you make the correct choice about whom to bring (hint: the best warriors are the ones in the hulking gothic armor, not the 8 year old girl who slavishly washes dishes at her parents’ restaurant) and periodically upgrading your weapons, medicine, and armor, you should have no trouble eradicating your foes and working past the decades-old turn-based combat. While I didn’t necessarily mind having to fight, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was getting in the way of my real work. The old school turn-based combat is such a small, not particularly enjoyable part of this RPG, that doing away with it could’ve been a step in the right direction for this title.
The Island has plenty of resources for you to harvest. Besides the materials you’ll need to dump in your cauldron for alchemical purposes, the village is full of people and businesses to help you out. Most are typically RPG-bizarre, like the librarian who talks non-stop about squid jerky. These archetypes have become so commonplace that to not have like elements of quirk in a Japanese RPG would be truly bizarre. And don’t expect better dialogue than ten variations of “I love squid jerky.” By the time “poop-face” is thrown around, you’ll be grateful for the option to quickly scroll through dialogue. Since you spend so much time chatting with these people, it would be nice to have a few different personalities than “loveable goof” and “human of indiscriminate gender,” as well as some more interesting dialogue and story events. Love or hate your neighbors, you’ll need to rely on all of them as you run back and forth collecting odd jobs, recipes, and clothes that make you look like even more of an aristocratic adult baby from 1921.
And you’ll be happy to do it. Gathering ingredients from remote locations, purchasing recipes from the library, concocting goodies in your alchemy cauldron, and supplementing your supply with purchases from the general shop will keep you busy for hours. Atelier Annie’s best magic is the addiction she weaves: I worked long into the night to open up one more attraction or find one more mascot. NISA opens and closes doors at exactly the right pace to keep you playing long after your screen’s glow is the only light in the house. After I finished, though, I didn’t have an amazing sense of accomplishment. Rather, I felt more like the victim of OCD who just spent the whole day alphabetizing my cats. It needed to be done, but there was really nothing to show for it in the end.
Though Atelier Annie’s intended audience is a small, eclectic group of NISA fans, a wider group of gamers could find a great time here if they’re willing to step a bit outside of their genre comfort zones and embrace the oddness of the title.
Atelier Annie is possibly the most fun and accessible entry of the Atelier titles released in the West. The RPG combat isn’t memorable, but the simulation aspects that make up most of the gameplay will keep you coming back for longer than you expect.
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