Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists is a departure from the usual JRPG formula that has served the Atelier series well over the years, with Gust using the town building and simulation genres as inspiration for this huge crossover spanning 2 decades’ worth of Atelier characters. Not only did this game need to offer up solid gameplay in an unfamiliar genre, it also had to be filled with enough fan service for long-time followers of the franchise. Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists makes a solid attempt in both areas, and it’s great to see characters from the often neglected early Atelier games, but it stumbles many times along the way.
The titular heroine Nelke Von Lestamm is a noblewoman tasked with the development of Westwald, a small countryside village. Her enthusiasm for completing said task stems from more than just a sense of professionalism though. The Granzweit Tree, a relic created by the late Granzweit Sage, is said to have the power to help people throughout the world. This relic is tied to Westwald in some way, and Nelke believes that she may discover its secrets during her stay in the village. It’s not long before she starts running into some familiar faces too; alchemists from different realms who find themselves in Westwald. For someone with no talent in alchemy, their presence makes developing the village and discovering the Granzweit Tree’s secrets that much easier for Nelke.
As with the mainline Atelier games, this is a fairly light-hearted game. Once you’ve made it through the initial few hours of story, the main plot takes a back-seat to the town building sections. Instead, most story scenes in Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists will instead focus on characters that have been borrowed from earlier Atelier entries. Pushing important story elements aside for most of the game is nothing new to the series, though this game’s length makes it more of a problem. Compared to the typical 20 or so hours it takes to finish most modern Atelier games, Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists easily surpasses 40. The overall playtime and focus on more light-hearted events is clearly done to accommodate the large number of characters the game needs to introduce, it’s just a shame that more time isn’t spent trying to flesh out the world outside of Westwald.
Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists’ gameplay is split into turns which are comprised of a weekday and a holiday segment. Most of your time will be spent during the weekday sections, as this is where you’ll be building up the village. Each turn you’ll be allocated a set construction cost which is used to create new facilities in Westwald. These include various gathering areas that yield materials, ateliers where alchemists can synthesize new items, and shops that sell your creations. Having a good balance of each main type of facility is key to progressing early on, since the money you’ll also need to build is in short supply. Building is actually the easiest part of developing the village, as managing each facility is where most of the micromanagement comes into play.
While gathering areas in Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists are efficient even without a specific member assigned to them, shops work best when run by the right character, and ateliers can’t function at all without an alchemist present. This means that you’ll initially be juggling your small pool of residents between facilities and managing production each turn. Adding to this is the fact that gathering areas can only produce on of their available materials at a time, and alchemists can only synthesize a certain amount of items. The main reason why you’ll be constantly changing up what you’re building and synthesizing is the constant stream of tasks that are given throughout the game. Main tasks are long term undertakings, and are required to progress the story. Meanwhile, side tasks and villager requests give some decent bonuses such as population increases and money, but are not strictly required to beat the game (though they can make or break your playthrough).
Unforgiving Time Limits
Time limits have been present in many older Atelier games, but Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists’ are far more punishing towards early mistakes. If you’re not constantly building each turn or synthesising the right items to sell, you’ll quickly run out of money or fail your current main task. Even if things seem to be going OK, decisions you make within the first few hours of the game can have a negative impact much further in. A big example of this is the village’s population, which turns up multiple times as a main task requirement. This is hard to increase quickly without proper planning, and you’ll nearly always be behind if you don’t take it into consideration early on. Villager requests, which are how you’ll be making a lot of your money to start with, are randomised. If you get a bad set of requests, such as hard to craft items or ones you don’t have the materials for, you’re at a clear disadvantage.
Sometimes it felt like save scumming was encouraged due to this randomness, along with how easy it is to save and reload. It’s clear that Gust thought this might be a problem, and implemented a form of new game plus to try and limit the amount of frustration for players having a hard time adapting to this new style of Atelier. If you fail a main task, the game ends. However, instead of just being able to reload a previous save, you also have the option to retry with a few bonuses. The main benefit is a multiplier to the amount of money and friendship with villagers you gain, since this makes completing main tasks much easier. Achievement points also carry over, which are gained once certain milestones are met and can be spent on useful bonuses. In some ways this feels like half-hearted way to sidestep the game’s difficulty problems, but it does at least ensure most people will be able to complete the game with some perseverance.
For being a main part of each in-game turn, holidays end up being far simpler to handle compared to weekdays. This is where most of the game’s fan service is found, as you can spend time interacting with the various characters you encounter during the story. These will likely be the selling point for fans of the series, though they are a little disappointing. With the focus being on the main alchemists of each Atelier game and Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists’ original characters, very little time is given to other returning characters who don’t even have events once they join your village. The main reason to interact with the alchemists is to increase their friendship levels, as these are required to research new items and unlock the game’s true ending.
Aside from visiting characters and researching recipes, the other main part of holidays is investigating areas outside the village. These sections are the closest this game gets to traditional Atelier gameplay, though they’ve been simplified a lot. After selecting your party members, you choose where to go from a list of areas. Areas are revealed in a set order, and actually being able to explore them costs money. Exploration in Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists is automated, as characters automatically move and gathers items. Running lets you finish these sections faster, which is often necessary since the time you use to interact with characters is also used during exploration.
Combat is also fairly uninvolved outside of a few boss fights. Party members are categorised as either attack or support, with supporters acting automatically. Regular attacks build drive points, which are spent on skills or items. A drive meter also builds up, allowing for a brief stat boost once filled. In general, this battle system is similar to many mobile RPGs. You can set the game to automatically play through battles at increased speed, and there isn’t much strategy when playing manually. Even though exploration can provide materials to use in you ateliers, it doesn’t really add much to the game, instead seeming like a shallow attempt to include some classic Atelier gameplay in Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists.
Lack of Variety
Once the early tasks are completed and you have a better understanding of all of Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists’ systems, the game slowly starts to lose its appeal. Most turns will follow the same pattern, as you craft more items to sell or complete requests. Choosing which facilities to create also becomes less important as time goes on, and as a whole the game lacks the creativity of other simulation games. There’s not much reason to build interesting facility layouts over just creating efficient rows of buildings. Events, the main part of the game for Atelier fans, start happening less often as the game progresses too, making the repetition of each turn even more apparent.
Graphics and Audio
Atelier games have never been the most impressive visually, and that is still the case here. The worst offender is definitely the town building sections, which alternate between bland 2D overviews of Westwald and simplistic 3D views of your districts and their facilities. This lack of detail does help keep frame rates higher later on when the village is much bigger, but it makes building up each area far less satisfying. Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists‘ character models are more pleasing to look at, but animations during cutscenes are often stiff and lack the energy of the 2D artwork. Each character’s artwork is by far the highlight of this game’s visuals, though this doesn’t come as a surprise after seeing so many fantastic character designs in each Atelier release.
The series’ consistently catchy music also carries over into this game as well, though you’ll be hearing the same tracks frequently outside of events. Another less welcome carryover from most modern Atelier games is the lack of an English dub. Considering how many characters from older dubbed Atelier games are in Nelke & the Legendary Alchemists, it’s a shame not being able to hear their familiar English voices again. Not all scenes are voiced in Japanese either, especially side events.