When discussing the Atelier series, titles such as Atelier Ryza and its sequels or the Arland Saga often come to mind, with good reason! The modern games are fantastic in their own right, showing how the series has evolved and improved over the decades since its first title. Yes, you read that right: the Atelier series has roots running beyond multiple console generations, back to the age of the original PlayStation. The first entry in the series, Atelier Marie: The Alchemist of Salburg, was released in Japan in 1997 but never made its way overseas. This has thankfully been rectified with the re-release and remaster, Atelier Marie Remake: The Alchemist of Salburg. In this review, I will be looking at this title from two perspectives: my own, having only watched snippets of other Atelier games, and that of my wife, who has played many of the PlayStation 3 titles. Neither of us has played the original game, but we are eager to see the seeds of what would grow into a beloved franchise!
Atelier Marie is part adventure RPG, part visual novel, and part time-management simulator. In it, you play as Marlone (Marie for short), a student in the famous and prestigious Salburg Academy within the Schigsal Kingdom. Though the academy is known for producing the best alchemist in the kingdom, Marie is having trouble keeping up, receiving the worst grades in her class (and in the history of the academy). As graduation looms and Marie's seeming failure comes close, her teacher, Ingrid, gives her one final chance to impress her: the student must produce an item with alchemy that the teacher will deem impressive. To accomplish this task, Marie is given a small stipend and the keys to her very own atelier, an alchemy workshop. From here on out, she must make her own way and acquire the necessary skills and materials to craft something dazzling! Oh, and she needs to do this within five years. No pressure.
It is with this lofty goal that we are set loose into the town of Salburg after a bit of tutorialising. The premise of the game is honestly brilliant: you are given your primary goal and are free to do what you wish in the meantime, be it practise alchemy, explore, or just hop into bed and snooze your problems away! Atelier Marie doesn't have a particular item for you to craft in order to impress Ingrid; instead, each synthesisable item has a quality score. Simply create an item with a perfect score, and you'll be right as rain! Be careful, however, as that five-year time limit may not be as abundant as you might think.
Alchemy in the Atelier series is a fun mix of classical alchemy, i.e. combining elements in order to create something new and magic. Your primary instrument is a gigantic cauldron taking up the majority of your atelier, and in order to synthesise, you throw items into it and then swirl, twirl, and mix the concoction for a few days, resulting in everything from healing poultices to amulets to keep you warm. Within the universe, alchemy is an amazingly complex process of mathematical formulae and exact measurements, but it's thankfully dumbed down for us. Just pick a recipe from a list, select how many you'd like to make, and roll the dice to see if you succeed! Apparently, this system is somewhat simple in comparison to the newer titles, where items had traits and stats to consider, but its plainness has a charm of its own! Being a slightly dull pencil in my respective box, the simplicity was appreciated. However, Marie only knows a handful of recipes at the start and only has a small supply of items to synthesise with. To rectify these issues, we need recipes and we need materials.
Finding new recipes is not difficult; the academy itself sells tomes that contain information on both recipes and the materials they require. Additionally, you can also get some upgrades for your atelier, in addition to buying alchemy materials and selling basic items. Regretfully, the academy does not believe in hand-outs (with the exception of an operational alchemy lab), so the tomes and other items must be purchased with gold. Materials, on the other hand, are somewhat simpler: they are found by exploring the land and harvesting herbs, mining rocks, and defeating monsters. The game has multiple locations that offer different resources to gather and monsters to fight, with some containing special events or unique boss monsters for an extra challenge. However, adventuring outside of town is not without risk, which is why Marie must enlist the help of her friends and the adventurers in town to keep her safe; this brings us to one of the main mechanics in Atelier Marie… friendship.
Found in and around Salburg, certain NPCs can be hired into your party as bodyguards to keep Marie safe on her travels. Each hireable member has their own level, skills, and, most importantly, price. Each time you go out with your newly formed posse and return, you will have to pay them their wages. The stronger (or greedier) the person, the higher their rates will usually be, though this is affected by how fond they are of our little alchemist! Each friend has a friendship rating from 0–100, with a higher number correlating with being besties. The higher it goes, the less they'll ask Marie to pay once an adventure is over. You can also increase it by taking said character along when you set off for an adventure or by doing small favours for them.
Now, on paper, this sounds like a very heartless system, motivating players to just grind their favourite cohorts to max level and get the best deal possible. While this is true, the rates your friends ask for are never so high that it's really necessary. The real joy of the relationship system is simply to get to know this fun cast and their backstories! Once you reach a certain threshold with a character, you may see a unique event where Marie interacts with them, and you get to see their friendship evolve. They also start popping into your atelier, asking for generic items or giving you larger quests that increase their bond level even more. These interactions really endeared the characters to me! Suddenly the stuck-up know-it-all wasn't as bad, and the retired and jolly knight wasn't as one-dimensional. According to my wise wife, relationships have been a big part of the Atelier series and have seemingly stayed more or less the same. It is worth noting the remake has added more social events to the game.
So, recipes, staying safe, and getting better gear all cost money. But how is an enterprising alchemist supposed to amass enough to afford all these amenities? Well, there are various ways you can earn money: the obvious answer is to sell the items you have created to the academy. They offer good money for some goods, though this may be offset by the cost of creating said items. The next option is taking exams and doing quests. Ingrid will give you mid-term exams on occasion that act as a great way to earn money but also give you something to aim for in the short term while you work on the five-year deadline; this is also new to the remaster. These tasks start off simple and give you plenty of time to complete them, but the downside is that you cannot turn them in but have to wait for the deadline to pass before you are paid. Thankfully, the local tavern also has a number of quests waiting for a soul brave enough to take them! They vary from returning a certain number of materials to crafting and returning a certain number of synthesised items. Each time you visit the tavern, the barkeep will have a handful of quests for you to do (excluding the ones you've taken on). The difficulty of the task is reflected in the rewards, with the most dangerous missions offering the best ones. If you're lucky, it may also turn out that you already have all the required items or materials handy, meaning you can turn in the quests right away, getting some quick money for your efforts! The biggest thing to note and the largest risk while doing quests, however, are the deadlines.
Arguably the most important mechanic in Atelier Marie is time management; almost everything you do will take time. When you leave your atelier, you can freely walk around town, talk to the citizens, study up on recipes, and get some new quests or gear without having to worry about the passage of time. However, when you return to the atelier (or leave town), a minimum of one day will be spent. That may sound like a lot, but believe me, something taking up only one day is a steal! For example, when you leave town and enter a collection zone, you will find both collection points for materials and monsters, and interacting with anything in them will cost at least a day; this means that collecting two mushrooms and bopping a wolf on the head equals a net loss of two whole days. Additionally, travelling to said zones also takes time, as does returning, which makes it very important to consider how you parcel out your time. I am a stickler for good scheduling, so I enjoyed this mechanic! It was surprisingly fun to plan out the next outing, balancing time away with possible rewards. I can, however, understand how this can be stressful and frustrating for players who just want to take their time.
The game helpfully keeps track of major events and will warn you if your current action will cause you to miss a deadline. Less helpfully, the game doesn't tell you if a quest you picked is doable before the deadline! This is understandable, as the impetus is on the player to keep track of their inventory and how long it takes to craft things, but getting back to the atelier only to notice you're supposed to do ten days of synthesising in five is a bit disheartening. However, missing a deadline is not a big deal, resulting only in a lower reward and minor loss of reputation. In later titles, the amount of time used in gathering and fighting is continuously tweaked, so apparently, this is something even the devs have noticed. With time flying in travel, gathering, battling, and alchemy, it is quite common for you to go from month to month, even season to season, in very short order, making the five-year deadline feel much shorter than I originally thought! Though I complain, I never found the deadlines to be too tight, and the game has many events tied to certain dates, such as a sale in the academy shop or a knightly tournament! These were usually fun to see and honestly made me want to start another save just to see all the ones I missed!
If you feel this running-after-deadlines business is ruining the fun of your wholesome alchemy adventure, the remake has you covered! When you start a new game, you are presented with the option to play the game in Unlimited Mode. When selected, the original five-year time limit is removed, allowing you to play at your own leisure and pace! While other time limits still persist, such as in quests, the removal of the overarching deadline does take some of the heat off of our aspiring alchemist! Another addition to the remake is the Hall of Memories; in this magical building, you can choose the outlook of the wall and floor, allowing you to set up the perfect backdrop for the ever-present Photo Mode most games these days have! I'm not really into this mechanic, so I rarely visited the Hall, but it's a cute idea! Finally, a feature I will praise to no end: the quick load. In a game where leaving the house can cost you a day, being able to load your last manual save with the click of a button is a lifesaver!
The battle system Atelier Marie uses is very similar to that of the newer titles, such as the Arland saga (i.e. Atelier Rorona, Totori and Meruru), consisting of Marie plus up to two friends fighting against a gaggle of foes. The battles are turn-based, so you have all the time you need to figure out your next move! The enemies you face are arranged into a 3x3 grid, with each foe occupying one "square". When it's your turn, you have four options, handily mapped to the face buttons on your controller: you can use a normal attack on one foe, guard against incoming damage, use an item on either yourself or enemies, or you can use the character's special attack! The special attacks vary from doing a lot of damage to one enemy to damaging several enemies in an area (like every enemy in a row). These attacks are powerful but cost MP, so they need to be used sparingly. Regretfully, the special moves your team has available, at least in the beginning, are a bit samey, with two characters doing damage to a row and the others being single targets. My lovely wife informed me that, usually, you have more variation in the attack types available, with characters having skills that hit vertically, horizontally, or even cause status effects! Then again, this is the first entry in the series, so the lack of variety is excusable.
In terms of overall design, Atelier Marie is a bit of a mixed bag. The art we see for characters in cutscenes and whenever they interact is lovely and conveys emotions well without losing the slightly retro designs the characters have. The town of Salburg itself is a nice little hub, consisting of the main thoroughfare leading to the town centre and multiple different buildings placed around it. All of the materials you can collect and items you can craft have their own unique art that makes finding anything new a treat! The game world is also gorgeous, with love and care being taken to make the world feel alive and colourful. I especially liked how the different areas changed between seasons, showing heaps of snow in winter and bright sunny days in summer! The music is also very cheery and upbeat, as in most Atelier titles. There's even an option to switch to the original soundtrack on-the-fly if you feel yourself getting that nostalgia itch. The biggest problem with the design, however, is one of taste.
As with many remakes of older RPG titles, Atelier Marie has adopted an art style where all of the character models in the overworld have big heads and small bodies. This is not a dealbreaker, and the models do look good and represent the characters well, but I dislike this style. It somehow gives the game an unrefined edge. While the chibi characters can emote to some extent, their movements seem limited, and the animations are a bit goofy. The models also make it difficult to tell some enemies apart in both the overworld and in battle, as the only difference is a change in palette. I will reiterate that the chibi style itself is not bad, and it does make the game very cute, which fits the wholesome vibe Atelier games convey. The style just reminds me of Funko Pops too much.
In terms of controls, the game plays much in the same way as other Atelier games, as the gameplay loop is somewhat simple and the battles turn-based, there is no need for complex inputs, and the current control map does its job well. My two main issues with the controls are as follows: when walking around town or afield, you can press a button to increase your walking speed to a brisk jog. Being an impatient man, I do this all the time. Unfortunately, the Run button happens to be the same as the Fast Forward dialogue button, so whenever I entered an area and was greeted with a cutscene, I, more often than not, skipped the first few sentences. Thankfully previous discussions can be reread in the event log, but this felt like a step I shouldn't need to take. The other issue I had was the auto-gather function; when you are in a collection zone, pushing a button will engage a mode where Marie will automatically gather one item from the level. This is meant to make repeat visits to areas be a bit more expedient and make gathering a bit more painless! However, each individual item you gather costs a day. In the case of the PlayStation 5, the auto-gather button happens to be the Start button, meaning I pressed it more than once by accident, trying to open the menu. This is a minor annoyance, but one that could have easily been avoided with a "Are you sure?" check before using up my precious day.
Atelier Marie Remake: The Alchemist of Salburg was a very interesting dive into the beginnings of a venerable series. It was a lot of fun seeing the different mechanics future titles will experiment with and improve upon, and the sheer simplicity of the premise and "main goal" was something we don't really see outside of smaller indie titles. I liked the characters, I loved the wholesome vibe, and the music was as infectious as I have come to expect of the series. The only downsides to the game are ones of taste, finicky controls, and it being a title from the late '90s. I recommend giving it a shot, especially if you've never played an Atelier title before, as this is probably as pure and simple an experience as you're likely to get!
Atelier Marie Remake: The Alchemist of Salburg (Reviewed on PlayStation 5)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
Atelier Marie Remake: The Alchemist of Salburg is a charming game with a delightfully simple premise. Though the game suffers from some finicky controls and a lack of complexity, the world and characters make up for many accidentally skipped cutscenes or days!