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RELEASE DATE (NA): October 27, 2009 GENRE: RPG/Shop Simulator
// review by SoyBomb

Qué sera sera on Sera Island.

Having played Atelier Iris beforehand, I expected great things out of Atelier Annie: Alchemist of Sera Island. Imagine a light-hearted RPG with some funky alchemy elements tossed in, a really colourful battle-hearty delight, and it would be portable! What more could I possibly ask for? Well, apparently I asked for far too much because Atelier Annie was often one of the least enticing experiences I've had in a video game, portable or otherwise. Before I continue, I must specify that I'm not declaring Atelier Annie to be a dry game simply because it didn't live up to the high expectations set out by other games in its series (though it's still true). I'm judging the game based solely on its own merits. And it doesn't have many.

Atelier Annie stems from two words: "Atelier", being the French term for an artist's workshop, and "Annie", a girl's name. Gramatically, the game should be called "Annie's Atelier", but I'll let it slide because I'm a generous man. Atelier Annie stars Annie Eilenberg, a 17-year-old good-for-nothing lazybones who is shipped off by her irate grandfather to Sera Island (in her sleep, no less) to learn how to become a succesful alchemist. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, she has arrived at the same time a multi-year contest to rejuvenate the island's tourism industry is taking place. With the aid of Pepe the fairy, she must synthesize new items... AND help transform the island into a must-see resort!

So you, Annie Eilenberg, have to develop a resort. Every once in a while, you are given an official assignment from Hans, a contest supervisor. They always involve Annie needing to synthesize a specific object, such as an island map or an item to represent Sera Island (in your case, a dolphin pie). Doing so (and doing it well, mind you) will land you a Gold, Silver, or Bronze prize in the big contest; each place will give you a certain amount of prize money that can then be invested in new facilities on the island or upgrading the old ones. Most of the assignments can be whipped off pretty quickly, leaving you with in-game months without any official direction. That's the time when you can travel around the main town and your facilities, taking on jobs that usually require you to synthesize items in your giant home cauldron. Successfully completing jobs means rewards for you and extra "fame" for your locations, which draws more business and more profit for you. It's a cycle; at the end of each month, you get a status report, telling you if your profits and number of clientele increased or decreased, potentially serving as a kick to the behind to get your act together.

But I didn't say a fun cycle. Going back and forth around the island, taking jobs and synthesizing items isn't exactly the most stimulating experience. Plopping a few ingredients into the cauldron over and over for most of the game would be more suited for a two-dollar iOS app than a full-fledged retail cartridge. Granted, there's more to it, but that's the central theme of Atelier Annie: creating items. Synthesizing items also takes time: it will take at the very least one day of your valuable in-game time to create an item. Plus, all that travel by foot takes in-game time as well -- upwards of three days to get from one location to another on the map. But it's the only way to pass the time in Atelier Annie, and believe me, you'll want to.

Chat it up, Annie. Actually doing something can wait.

I say that because of all the inane cutscenes. I know some cinematic games are basically movies with interspersings of gameplay. Atelier Annie isn't quite the same. In some ways, it's worse. There are cutscenes galore in town (and sometimes out of town), and I mean it: TONS of them. And they're not animated in any way; you're looking at static images of characters plus box after box of text. Much ado is made about character development, but their conversations are so disjointed and over-the-top that you can't possibly connect with these people or believe they could ever reasonably exist. Such is the Japanese charm, but the localization team could have taken a few more liberties to ensure the conversations actually flow. Instead, you end up feeling like everyone's messed up in the head and there is barely any intelligent life on the island. It drove me bananas how I would travel from one place to another in town, only to have to endure yet another cutscene. They makes the game longer, but they were also an impediment to me actually getting something accomplished. This was one of the biggest issues I had with the game: way, wayyy, WAYYY too many cutscenes.

But wait... is there ANY fighting in here? Well, yes, but it's clearly not the focus of the game at all. From the get-go, Annie can travel to specific locales on the island to gather ingredients for your synthesis recipes (many of which could be purchased, but you save money by grabbing your own berries... wait, that came out wrong). While foraging, there are usually random encounters where suddenly Annie and two companions (of her choice from a few optional characters in town) spar with wild creatures. The battle system is fairly simple. Each party sits on a 2x3 grid. Being at the front means you deal more damage but take more as well. Hiding at the back increases your defense but decreases your offensive powers. It's basically a match to see if you can outlast the enemy after giving them a few whacks with your weapons. You'll need to upgrade your weaponry and armor at the town weapon shop, or you can synthesize new gear, but only a few times throughout the entire game, just to keep up with the enemies in new areas. Party members tend to easily level up after two or three battles with significant stat improvements, so there's no need to grind much (if at all). The number of battles you'll undertake is fairly low; it's a shame this part wasn't emphasized more.

Atelier Annie has a very static look to it; animation is minimal, limited mostly to the few actually animated cutscenes in the game and during battles. Otherwise, most things are inanimate in this game, and that does make for a dull visual experience. While watching the regular cutscenes, the characters will appear in hand-drawn portraits, similar to other games of this type; the portraits will change depending on their moods. The only other time things move is when Annie is walking around the different locations (which all only encompass one screen). The sprites are drawn with pretty large heads, which makes Annie & Co. look pretty cute. You'll also be subjected to only a small handful of songs throughout the game, so get used to them. Voice acting appears on some occasions, but it is entirely in Japanese. All is not entirely lost: as in every game, attempting to engage with a barrel usually resulted in the character shouting "Barrel!", but this time, we get the squealing "Baaaaaaa-rru!" Doesn't quite have the same ring to it... Though voice in other languages would have been a nice touch, I can live with what I get.

Games of the Atelier series in the past have usually found a good balance between alchemy and the RPG nature of the series. Atelier Annie has failed in this respect, favouring item synthesis (and excessive cutscene use) above all else. This does not make for a mesmeric experience. In fact, there were times when I had to force myself to continue on the quest. That does not signify fun at all. Atelier Annie is a missed opportunity for a great game, and it's an opportunity for gaming that will not be missed by this player.

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