Nelke is a spinoff crossover game that brings together the majority of the mainline Atelier franchise’s lead casts as well as some supporting characters from each title. The Atelier games are pretty much my favorite long running gaming franchise of all time and the host to a few of my actual just top ever favorite games (Ayesha is in my top 5 of all time), so I couldn’t resist getting this right away.
Instead of being a JRPG where you’re an alchemist this time you’re simply a bureaucrat running a town and so instead of a game focused on synthesis and adventure you get a game very different yet very similar. All the familiar aspects are there but done for you, instead your focus is on building the town, maintaining the economy, dealing with supply, demand, and distribution, and so on – but also while dealing with the very strict time limits of the Atelier franchise, trying to do all that mixed with also needing to go out to gather new ingredients and explore more, doing a balancing act with time management, growing your bonds with each character, doing requests, doing missions, dealing with emergencies, and so on.
I do find it interesting how this time they had to justify this noble girl not being an alchemist as well because there’s definitely precedent for that with Meruru who was literally the princess of the entire Arls kingdom before it merged with the Arland kingdom. Meruru, like the rest of the Arland trilogy, was very unique from the other games and mixed the aspect of her nobility and needing to develop the kingdom in a bunch of ways so that Arland would take them in as part of their own while also being an alchemist-in-training. It’s actually a fairly similar game except in Meruru you get the classic Atelier style of gameplay and you develop the world through doing alchemy personally and such and Nelke clearly drew a lot of influence from it, so it makes it pretty interesting to see this sort of alternate take on the same kind of idea but with entirely new gameplay behind it.
Like I said, the gameplay here is actually pretty involved and complicated in its own way with a lot of the same familiar things but presented COMPLETELY differently than before. It’s actually pretty addictive and fun though and is totally a well made city building sim game and goes into more depth with the economy than even long-running city building sims.
I’ll explain the basics; you get two phases – weekdays and “holidays” (weekends)
On holidays you assign any research you have the requirements for which unlock new specific items that can be synthesized (and are required to progress the game most of the time), spend time forming bonds with the huge cast and seeing the majority of the scenes with characters (every visit with anyone has talking scenes, it isn’t lazy), and/or going out to ‘investigate’ which is where you fight monsters, gather materials, and further your progress to more new materials and ingredients which unlock more things you can build and harvest (again, required to progress). Sadly you don’t get to actually walk around ever, you don’t ever get direct control like that and you can only view your town through a few specific camera angles and even on investigations the game basically plays itself. When you go for gathering they just walk on a path on their own gathering here and there and getting into fights.
The combat can be sped up and done automatically (only basic attacks will be done though) or be actually played like a more normal Atelier combat system with turn based action and having to fill orbs to use special attacks or items (by using your basic attack). A lot of the fights you can auto through, but when you get to harder enemies you definitely need to actually take control yourself. A big part of the holiday is also dealing with the time constraints, you get 16 bits of ‘time’ to use – any visit to anyone uses 2, and all your time in investigations uses it up as you progress on the path. It leads to actual thought being put into even basic things like if you want to talk to someone but ALSO investigate while finishing the route (to unlock the next) you’ll have to balance that out and determine how much to run instead of walk and so on.
On weekdays the city building aspect comes into play. Here you do literally everything related to your village/town/city and every district in it (as well as expanding into more districts). You control a lot here. First and most importantly is actually building things and deciding their placement, building roads to reach them, and building decor that gives various boosts to things (lower costs to build, higher sell rates, etc). The main buildings you can construct have 3 tiers each (with a few paintjobs per tier as well) and are Ateliers, grocery stores, general stores, weapons shops, clothing/accessory boutiques, and a pharmacies. Equally (maybe more, at times) important are, also 3 tiers each, places to grow and harvest very important ingredients which consist of flower fields, vegetable fields, groves, and ranches.
Each of them you then have to pick a shopkeeper/farmhand for from your giant and always growing crew of past Atelier game characters all of which have their own stats based around what they are good or bad at. You can also send them out into the investigation areas to gather ingredients there.
Other buildings you can make are special ones which you gain through your interactions with characters and building up your social ranks. There are a bunch of fun and creative things that add big boosts to various things as well as just look fun and have a nice little character conversation that adds personality to them.
All of the non-special building stuff has to be micromanaged in a few ways. Least of all but still very important is actually keeping supply and demand in balance or else you’ll lose support from your people as well as hemorrhage money because of it. But more important is actually going from atelier to atelier, store to store, and harvest area to harvest area to pick each and every turn (if you need to, though if you play it right it won’t be super often – it took me till my 2nd playthrough to get that streamlined though) what items you want being made at each atelier (and adding more as over time the alchemists can fit more orders in), what items you want being sold at each store, and which items you want being grown.
All these things change often so it keeps you on your toes and becomes a very methodical thing but without being boring because it is anything but easy to keep that balance. Every time you think you have something set up that should work forever, you forget a single ingredient that the Living Pie needs is now being used by a new thing you just started at another atelier…and now suddenly your grocery stores you set to sell Living Pie have nothing to sell and the alchemist making Living Pie isn’t making anything.
As for the ‘story’, there is a very light one about a giant tree made by alchemists in the past to seal a horrible monster which is now trying to break free. From that you end up with all these alchemists from the other games converging in the same time and place (albeit, strangely enough, they aren’t all from the same times so like Rorona does not actually know Meruru until they meet here in this timeline plus she’s her original age from Rorona and not any of the later games and is still obsessed with pies, but Totori already knows Rorona as her teacher and brings up end-game events from her own game, Meruru’s timeline hasn’t finished merging with Arland, etc) and so over time as you progress in the game more alchemists show up along with more of their supporting cast which you can put to work as well. Most of the story in this game is the smaller sub-stories with all the characters and the fun of it being a huge crossover fanservice (not the lewd kind) game.
The ABSOLUTE biggest problem with this game is a mix of two serious issues – and seriously, these things nearly break the game. The game has no autosave. Never. Not at any point in the entire game no matter what does it save on its own, and the save option is hidden away in a menu with nothing else that you’d never think to go to and forget how to get to it half the time as well. Being 2019, you don’t really think about saving much so it’s a rare thing to do even after big events your head just tells you it’s fine.
Well it isn’t fine, and not because maybe you screw something up later that you could have some control over. No, but because of the most damaging flaw of the game.
It crashes. A lot. Hard crashes out of nowhere with no sign of them coming aside immediately when weird things happen like the background disappearing, character art becoming just a black outline, random other things like that, and then within seconds before you can try to quickly save it locks the entire PS4 up for about 45 seconds before it finally kicks you to the bug report screen.
I lost several hours, usually about 4, multiple times because of this. Now, that in itself is just kind of fucking terribly annoying because nobody likes to lose ANY progress in a game, let alone 4 fucking hours. However, Nelke being a management sim with a lot of balancing and time management and a billion choices to make each turn that are all very important to how things progress as well as a lot of RNG in the production/synthesis/sales of things…you end up with 4 hours you cannot replicate, and sometimes that can cost you in such a big way that you may lose the game due to not meeting the requirements of a main task that you HAD before but simply made a few choices wrong this time and just barely didn’t make it. It’s devastating because of that, rather than simply redoing the same things as you would in most games and that just being an act of patience forced onto you by a buggy game. Here it matters a lot more.
Aside those, the game is admittedly a (big) bit too difficult to actually beat. It’s arguably harsher than even Atelier Rorona (the original version, not the awful Plus version which just turned it, and every other game, into Atelier Ayesha and removed anything that made them their own game while also making them basically impossible to lose) which is notable for being probably the hardest of the entire series to-date. However, even Rorona has multiple endings that are easier to attain and – most importantly – the franchise as a whole is made (well, less so with the newer games) with you losing and restarting in a pseudo-NG+ fashion a few times…but while Rorona gives you things from NG+ that actually help given the game is designed around knowing you will restart and use that restart to progress further with a lot of bonuses and carry-over things, Nelke provides you with almost nothing when you restart and you are essentially working with a tiny bonus to absolutely nothing and your mental map of whats expected later on to work towards from the start.
You don’t carry over money, friendship levels, combat levels, inventory, research, or anything else – you literally bring over nothing. It makes it an impossible feat of just trying to perfectly memorize what will be needed later to work towards it way way way beforehand and when you hit your third fucking time of doing that – after all the buggy crashes losing you 8-12 hours, you kind of don’t want to bother anymore especially knowing doing one thing wrong will make you just lose again…and you’ll do 1 thing wrong because you’ll be TOO focused on the future events that you know are why you lost and you wont focus enough on the stuff you need to do earlier that was easy before.
The only other issue I have with the game is with supposed “huge Atelier fans” (read as: people who have only played DX/Plus games and pretend to be fans of a series they know nothing about) being disappointed because a game that IS NOT EVEN TITLED ATELIER and was completely described and marketed as “a spinoff crossover game based around city building” is not yet another Ayesha clone like the only games they’ve played.
Even with these kind of pretty big issues (aside that last thing) the game is a whole lot of fun and absolutely has that “Atelier” feel to it while being this completely different thing. I love the idea, I love the entire concept, and honestly I kinda love how it came out as well. If it were a little less insanely harsh and didn’t have so many crashing issues I’d have nothing but praise for this really creative way to do a crossover and make it stand out as something totally different from the norm for the franchise. If they were going to do any sort of spinoff that didn’t follow similar gameplay this is probably the smartest way they could have taken that short of going full Recettear and having you more directly maintaining a shop (though actually Annie and some others do have that as a focus, so even that would not be unusual and was already done in more traditional non-mainline Atelier titles). It’s such a great way to take a spinoff, especially one focused on showcasing the history of the series, and surprisingly the city/economy sim is really well made and rewarding to progress in.
I absolutely recommend this for fans of the series – it’s not just fun and very easy to get lost in once you get your mind set in the loop of things, but it’s a really great look at the characters from games you maybe haven’t gotten a chance to play (and for some, never will) especially because it covers everything from the very first Atelier of all time all the way through to the end of the Mysterious trilogy. Seeing Elie and Lillie and learning their personalities was fantastic and made me even more certain about going back some day and spending times with the games that turned into one of my favorite franchises of all time. If you are new to Atelier…maybe give this a pass though, because it is literally nothing like anything else in the entire 22 year history of the franchise. It’s also got an added bit of fun from being one of the first times they’ve actually taken the implications in Ayesha and the Dusk trilogy as a whole and made it even more clear that all these games may be taking place in the same world over massive periods of time with the planet basically dying over and over again due to alchemy spreading and destroying the planet after every few hundred years.
Just be prepared to lose and make sure you always are saving.