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  • A Look Back at the Atelier Series on PlayStation Handhelds

    April 1st, 2018GamespotUncategorized

    Following on from my earlier article about LEGO games on PlayStation handhelds, I got to thinking what other franchises I could examine that had been a constant presence across PSP & Vita.

    The first name that sprung into my mind was Atelier - Gust Corporation's long-running alchemy-heavy JRPG series that has almost been a yearly presence on Vita and had some significant representation on PSP too. There have been ups and downs over the years, but mostly if you're a Vita fan you'll have been well served by Atelier from 2012 to the present day.

    So in this article I’ll be looking back at a history of the franchise on Sony’s handhelds, from its origins on the PSP right through to the latest release on Vita, with an emphasis on the quality of the ports, as well as any sales figures that are available.


    The Start of Handheld Atelier - PS2 Ports & a Fun Experiment

    Before the PSP came along, Gust was no stranger to handheld games - while the company's bread and butter had been releasing games on Sony home consoles (indeed, Atelier was born on the PS1), Gust also experimented with spin-offs and de-makes on Gameboy Colour, Gameboy Advance, DS, and even the ill-fated Wonderswan. What PSP offered - for the first time - was the ability to port the developer's home console titles across to a handheld console with all the features in tact, an opportunity that was leapt at in 2008.

    The first game in the series to get this treatment was Mana Khemia: Student Alliance, an expanded version of the ninth mainline Atelier title. It landed merely a year after the original game and offered extra content, such as additional synthesis items and multiplayer combat. Despite this, it received criticism for its lengthy loading times which, thankfully, could be remedied by installing the title to the memory stick. Still, it was a solid first effort and rapidly received a western release thanks to NIS America, who had localized the PS2 version, making it the first handheld Atelier in the west, pipping Atelier Annie on the DS by a few months.

    This success led to further PS2 ports. First, the sequel to Mana Khemia, subtitled Fall of Alchemy, followed by an earlier duology (Gramnad) with the games Atelier Judie and Atelier Viorate. All three offered expanded content beyond their original versions, although none of them managed to find their way west. For the Gramnad titles this wasn't a surprise as they'd never been localized on their original console (Atelier Iris was the first western-released game in the series) but Mana Khemia 2's exclusion was a bit more questionable. NIS America (the franchise's western publisher) had already localized the game for PS2 in 2009 and went on to release multiple PSP games up to as late as 2013, but for whatever reason opted to skip Fall of Academy - perhaps low sales of Student Alliance were to blame (alongside the well-known load-time problems).

    Still, Gust wasn't quite done with the PSP yet. One final title released in 2012 - Atelier Elkrone: Dear for Otomate. A collaboration with Idea Factory's Otomate label, the game cashed in on the popular otome market in Japan (titles aimed at female players) and unsurprisingly didn't reach western shores due to the fact that the genre hadn't fully established itself overseas yet. It made an interesting send-off for the series on PSP, although Gust rapidly demonstrated it was far from done with Atelier games on PlayStation handhelds.


    Koei-Tecmo Acquisition & Vita Ports

    With the PSP rapidly fading in sales, Gust was left with a decision on where to take the franchise. The mainline series had been doing well on PS3 since 2009's Atelier Rorona, but the PSP down-ports had obviously been a profitable venture too. Rather than migrating to Nintendo's 3DS (which was attempted with 2015's New Atelier Rorona), Gust instead opted for the much more powerful Vita, a platform which was more than capable of continuing the company's plan of releasing its home console games on handhelds.

    This started in November of 2012 with Atelier Totori Plus, an expanded port of the second entry in the Arland trilogy. It was an odd choice - although the games aren't as continuity-heavy as something like Falcom's Legend of Heroes franchise, it seemed strange to begin porting efforts in the middle of a sub-series. Still, thanks to the extra content (including all DLC on the cart and an extra dungeon) fans weren't deterred - the game opened to 27k copies sold in Japan and cleared 75k by the end of 2015, coming close to the PS3 version's domestic sales, which was a fantastic result.

    An overseas release quickly followed in 2013 although - for the first time in the franchise's history - this was digital-only. In late 2011 Gust had been purchased by Japanese publisher and Dynasty Warriors creator Koei-Tecmo. The latter automatically obtained all rights to the Atelier franchise and it was therefore Koei-Tecmo that published the game in Europe and North America (rather than Gust's regular collaborator NIS America). Koei-Tecmo evidently didn't feel the urge to pursue small retail profit margins over simply dumping the title on PSN. It was a massive shame, especially considering NIS America had already shown a willingness to produce physical copies of Vita ports, as it had with Disgaea 3 in 2012 (and given the large file size, Totori could have benefitted from a physical cart).

    Still, Gust continued with its porting strategy despite the buyout, with Atelier Meruru Plus landing in early 2013. Again, this was an expanded port with all DLC included as well as extra content, although performance took a hit in the process with plenty of issues ranging from pop-in to slowdown (thankfully this didn't affect the experience too much given it's a turn-based RPG). Sales were similarly positive clearing 55k domestic copies and a digital-only western release quickly followed.

    The Vita now had the second and third entries in the Arland franchise but was missing the first. Gust had initially said it didn't want to port Atelier Rorona because it needed a full remake to fix some of the more glaring issues that were rectified in later instalments. To its credit, that was exactly what the company did in November of 2013 with Atelier Rorona Plus, a ground-up remake that created a much better experience thanks to prettier graphics, more lenient time limits, and a deeper combat system. Despite being a multi-platform release with PS3 it also proved to be the most technically sound Vita version yet, boding well for the new trilogy of Dusk games that seemed to be an inevitability for the handheld at this point.


    Dusk - Even More Content & a Possible Change of Strategy in the West

    So heading into 2014, Gust had just one thing on its mind for Atelier on Vita - more ports from PS3, kicking off with Atelier Ayesha Plus in March. This was the first entry in the aforementioned Dusk trilogy and brought with it a more serious tone and heavier focus on world-building than the Arland games. It was met with a mixed reception from fans upon its original release and this seemed to show in terms of its sales on Vita, where the title opened to a measly 11k domestically.

    Perhaps due to this muted commercial reception, Koei-Tecmo decided to take things a bit slower with the franchise going forward - it would take a year for Ayesha Plus to reach western shores and 9 months for the next expanded port to release in Japan, which was Atelier Escha & Logy Plus. The first dual-protagonist entry of the franchise in the 3D era is noted as being one of the prettier Atelier entries on Vita (possibly due to the shift to a new engine) and Gust took the time to ensure the port turned out better than its predecessors. It also saw an uptick in sales domestically, although this is possibly due to the fact that an anime was created to help raise awareness of the brand around the same time.

    In keeping with the theme of "more effort", something surprising happened with the game's overseas release in 2016 - for the first time since Mana Khemia on PSP, a physical version of the handheld port was produced. In collaboration with NIS America (ironically the company from whom they snatched away the franchise rights in the first place), Koei-Tecmo produced a limited edition of Atelier Escha & Logy Plus that was sold exclusively through NIS America's store. It was a bold vote of confidence in the franchise and given it sold out fairly rapidly, appeared to be a successful experiment.

    Unsurprisingly, 2016 also saw the Japanese release of Atelier Shallie Plus - the final entry in the Dusk trilogy. While Escha had been a technical step-up for its Vita ports, Shallie was a content step-up - all previous "Plus" versions had included DLC and extra bits and pieces to make them worthwhile, but Shallie had large amounts of new story content to tie up the loose ends which had remained unresolved in the PS3 version (including the return of fan favourite character Ayesha).

    It was a remarkable effort and showed great commitment to the handheld, commitment which would be echoed in the 2017 western release which, for the first time on Vita, was available at retail, at least in Europe (North America got a physical Limited Edition through NIS America's store again). It boded well for the future of the franchise on Vita, but within the space of a year Gust and Koei-Tecmo squandered all this goodwill in spectacular fashion.


    Simultaneous Releases Aren't Always a Good Thing

    In amongst all the Plus ports, the mainline Atelier series continued to evolve and, just as the Dusk trilogy ended, a new one started. But Gust was at a crossroads - the PS3 had faded in Japan and the PS4 was off to a slow start, meaning it had to make a tough decision about where to take the franchise next. Surprisingly, the company opted for multi-platform development for the first time since the fifth generation when Atelier Sophie  had landed in November of 2015. And even more surprisingly, the Vita was included in this.

    This marked the first time a PlayStation handheld got a day-and-date version of a mainline series entry and the actual Vita version itself was a surprisingly decent technical effort, looking the part and performing well. This was rewarded in terms of sales - in Japan, the PS4 and Vita versions sold remarkably similarly and the franchise as a whole bounced back from the sales lows it had seen with Atelier Shallie on PS3, suggesting Gust's gamble had paid off.

    Less than a year later, a sequel arrived entitled Atelier Firis, which looked to be the most ambitious in the franchise's history, mixing in open-world elements with an even more free-form story. Fans were understandably excited for the game's release. Unfortunately, what they got was a disaster - the title was an absolute technical mess full of bugs at launch across both platforms (PS4 & Vita - PS3 had now been dropped) but particularly so on Sony's handheld where even the official trailer showed a framerate in the single figures. Most of the major bugs were eventually patched but the damage was done - Atelier Firis was the series' lowest-selling entry in Japan in years.

    Around the time that Sophie and Firis released, Koei-Tecmo had been making great strides in terms of publishing Atelier games overseas, with Escha and Shallie both getting physical releases. Sadly, this initiative wasn't extended to Sophie and Firis, which launched as digital-only titles in June 2016 and March 2017 respectively. It obviously hurt their sales potential in the west and when combined with Firis' poor reception (videos such as this highlighted the Vita version's shoddy framerate), meant that despite all the efforts that had been made prior to this release, the series' future on the handheld going forward was on shaky ground.

    Still, another year another Atelier - the final entry of the Mysterious trilogy (following Sophie and Firis) was announced to be Atelier Liddy & Soeur and landed in Japan in December of 2017. This time, a Switch version was added and it evidently took priority; the Vita port was another technical mess. The game sold even worse than Firis in Japan, showing how the goodwill built up with Sophie had been frittered away in just over two years (no doubt not helped by the fact that Gust continued to insult its Vita fanbase with terrible ports).

    As always, a western release quickly followed (having just released in March), although this time the Vita version was left out altogether - there wasn't even a digital-only PSN dump to let fans finish the trilogy. It marked a sad end to the franchise for western Vita owners, who had enjoyed a consistently fantastic series for a number of years only to be forgotten about at the final hurdle.


    Future of Atelier Games on Vita?

    Based on everything I posted in that last section, it's easy to see that Atelier doesn't look to have much of a future on Vita. The handheld has received a lot of attention from Gust over the years, but it seems with the company's focus shifted elsewhere it's unlikely we'll get any more entries on the handheld.

    Atelier celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2017 and at least Vita (which had been a fairly important platform in the series' history) got the anniversary game (Liddy & Soeur), but it was a shame not to see an older title remastered for newer consoles to celebrate the occasion, such as Atelier Iris. With this milestone now gone, Vita's ever-dwindling hardware sales, and the fact Koei-Tecmo is no longer interested in releasing on the platform in the west, chances are low that we'll see another entry at this point - but stranger things have happened!



    Vita has done very well from the Atelier franchise - aside from the fact that they're all extremely enjoyable games, by getting late ports for the first few years of its life the handheld has ended up with arguably the definitive version of the series' best entries, with all DLC included and plenty of great new content on top. Equally, the Atelier franchise has done well from Vita, as the gameplay style is a natural fit for handhelds and the audience embraced it, rewarding Gust with positive sales numbers.

    There have been mis-steps along the way - from growing performance niggles to the shocking amount of digital-only entries in the west, things haven't been perfect. The most disappointing decision has to be the note the franchise ended on for Vita - a poor-quality version of Atelier Liddy & Soeur that remained Japan-only, denying western fans the chance to finish the trilogy without switching hardware and still being a bit of an insult to the Japanese fans who did purchase it.

    Still, overall Atelier is a franchise that has flourished on Vita and arguably helped shape it as a handheld - even the older games are still very much worth playing today and, despite some poor decisions along the way, I'm very happy with what Gust and Koei-Tecmo achieved on the console.

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