I was a bit suspicious of Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists: Ateliers of the New World ahead of its release. I love Atelier, but a lot of the pre-release marketing made it look more like one of those depressing mobile city-builder games—you know, the ones that are less about city management and more about idly waiting for stamina to refill. When I first got my hands on Nelke and fired it up, those concerns weren’t immediately set aside; indeed, the first time I sent my group of adventurers of an adventure—which trades in the exploration zones of other Atelier games for a linear map that your party automatically follows, while automatically gathering materials, and only occasionally getting into battles—I had some serious doubts.
But it didn’t take too long for Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists to win me over. It’s a different game, certainly, but it has all the depth you’d expect of a city management game, and all the warmth you’d expect of an Atelier game. In other words, it’s delightful.
The biggest difference between this game and the rest of the series is right there in the title: the conspicuous absence of “Atelier” before Nelke’s name in the title. Nelke, the hero of this outing, is no alchemist; rather, she’s a noblewoman who finds herself appointed as the administrator of a sleepy town called Westwald, with the task of building it up into a thriving metropolis.
By a fortunate “coincidence”, not long after Nelke’s appointment, travellers from other realms start mysteriously appearing in Westwald, including—crucially—alchemists. This is where Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists gets the fan-service that will be the main appeal for a lot of folks: all those characters are old favourites from every other Atelier game, going all the way back to the very first games (which never released outside Japan). The whole “sudden dimension tripping” thing is admittedly contrived, but setups for these sorts of crossover games always are, and it’s easy to look past that when Atelier‘s wide array of colourful characters start intermingling in charming, hilarious ways.
That approach is served perfectly by the slice-of-life approach to storytelling that’s typical of Atelier games. While there is an overarching plot, it’s one that doesn’t really ramp up until the latter part of the game, and is kept rather concise even then. Instead, narrative heavy lifting comes in the myriad of little character vignettes that you’ll witness as you play through the game and choose who to visit on your days off from Nelke’s administrative duties. Most characters have their own little arcs that you’ll see through if you choose to focus on them, but they’re not the typical god-killing stuff of JRPGs; rather, you’ll see Iris (from Atelier Iris) trying to figure out how to manage a store—something she never really had to deal with in her life as an adventurer-alchemist—or Rorona experimenting with all manner of outlandish pie recipes.
This sort of low-key attitude has always been one of the Atelier series strengths, finding humour, comfort, and humanity in the daily goings-about of their casts. Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists takes that another level by bringing so many different characters together and just seeing how things play out between them, to great effect. Even if you’re not familiar with all the characters—I’m certainly not—they’re still written with enough personality that even those you haven’t encountered before feel familiar before long.
But “low-key attitude” doesn’t mean Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists is without its emotive and dramatic moments, either. Nelke in particular is an especially empathetic character; she’s driven and determined to succeed, but also struggles with feelings of self-doubt. Indeed, the main thrust of her whole arc is learning to trust in her own abilities, in the way that the people around her do. It’s a story that many people will be able to relate to, and one that unfolds with far more nuance than you might expect. (Also, Nelke’s whole character design is just fantastic.)
The growing assortment of familiar faces also feeds directly into Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists‘ main hook: city management. Your ultimate goal, as Nelke, is to increase the city’s population, but to do that you’ll need a steady income, facilities for alchemists to craft goods and shopkeepers to sell them, and farms and orchards to grow materials. You’re responsible for choosing what to build and where, as well as who will work in each facility and what their focus will be.
This sets up a production cycle that, though simple in design, is eminently satisfying to manage: farmers and adventurers grow and gather materials, respectively; alchemists use those to craft items; shopkeepers sell the stuff the alchemists create; and the money you get from the shopkeepers lets you expand the town, increasing the rate at which you grow, gather, craft, and sell stuff, and encouraging more people to join your town.
In practice, this plays out through a turn-based system. On each turn, you get to choose a task for each citizen, be it growing or selling a particular item, gathering from a particular area of the world map, or synthesising items. Any items grown, gathered, or crafted on one turn can’t be used by the next step in the process until the subsequent turn, though, so the goal is to establish your whole production pipeline so that there’s a smooth cycle and you don’t find your shopkeepers running out of stock or alchemists without the materials they need—something that is, often, easier said than done.
Each turn also comes with a holiday. Before finalising the production tasks for your citizens, you have a day to spend either visiting people—thereby developing their storylines and your relationships with them, and sometimes unlocking new building plans—or heading out on an investigation to discover new areas from which to gather materials.
Those investigations are a more streamlined version of the exploration that usually plays a big role in Atelier games. Like I said earlier, you don’t actually explore the maps yourself—your party just walks forward on their own, automatically gathering materials as they go—but I think this streamlined approach suits Nelke well. There’s already enough to juggle with keeping your town running, and a more traditional dungeon setup would probably just end up overloading the game with unnecessary systems and pad out an already lengthy game.
Still, those adventures will also see you encountering familiar enemies, with battles playing out in a turn-based fashion that mostly sticks to Atelier‘s routes. The one big difference, though, is in how items work: instead of being consumables that you have to keep crafting, you simply get a single use per adventure of any item you’ve crafted previously. That’s not as stingy as it sounds, given a single adventure rarely involves more than two or three battles, and it’s a huge relief to know that you don’t have to worry about accidentally forgetting to stock up on healing salves or what have you before heading out. At the same time, there’s a benefit to repeatedly crafting consumables: they get stronger based on how many you’ve made in total, and give permanent stat boosts to your party upon reaching specific craft count milestones.
So, yes, Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists is a very different game to your typical Atelier game, but that’s no bad thing. The city management at the core of the game manages to be deep and satisfying without getting overly complex, while streamlined takes on exploration and combat bring a familiar aspect to the supporting systems. But it’s still an Atelier game through and through, with a cast of fan-favourite characters spanning the full series coming together to deliver the warmth and relaxed energy that makes these games as delightful as they are.
Koei Tecmo provided a review copy of Nelke and the Legendary Alchemists to Shindig.