I never used to be a big fan of crafting in games. It always struck me as more trouble than it was worth.
Indeed, in many games it is -- why would you bother gathering ingredients to craft something if the things in the shops are just flat-out better than the things you can create yourself? -- but the work of Japanese developer Gust has turned my thinking around somewhat. To a certain degree, anyway; I still don't see myself getting heavily involved in the crafting systems in freeform Western titles like The Elder Scrolls and its ilk, but I am certainly not as averse to the idea of a crafting-centric game as I perhaps once was.
The reason for this is, as any Gust fan will tell you, Gust is responsible for some of the best, most satisfying crafting mechanics in the business. And, if conversations with my Gust-loving friends are anything to go by, my relatively limited experience with this developer to date is just the tip of the iceberg; I have a whole lot more fun ahead of me if I choose to continue my journey, which I almost certainly will.
So what have I experienced in this area, then? Well, my primary point of contact with Gust to date has been through three series: Ar Tonelico, Hyperdimension Neptunia and Atelier. Of the three, I have the most experience with Ar Tonelico -- I've beaten all three games in the series multiple times and wrote a rather in-depth retrospective a while back -- closely followed by Hyperdimension Neptunia, which was primarily developed by Idea Factory's Compile Heart division rather than Gust itself and as such doesn't really count for the purposes of this exploration. (Gust's contribution to the first two Neptunia games was, however, enough to be personified as a distinctly Atelier-ish character called, err, Gust.) Atelier is still a relatively new one on me, however -- but with the recent release of Atelier Escha and Logy and the positive reception it seems to have garnered so far, now's a pretty good time to jump into the series.
Let's rewind a moment and talk a little about Ar Tonelico first, though. Although these games weren't primarily designed as "crafting games" in the same way as the Atelier series is, crafting is still a significant part of all three of them. Interestingly, though, the focus of the three Ar Tonelico games' respective crafting systems is not necessarily on getting cool items -- though it is a good means of getting your hands on some of the best equipment in the game. No; rather, the focus is on developing the personalities of the characters, and I think here is at least part of why Gust managed to get me into crafting when so many other games failed to make it compelling for me.
Crafting in all three Ar Tonelico games requires both your player character and one or more of the other characters to help out. The first time you craft an item with each partner character, there's an enjoyable and often humorous exchange between the two of them, often culminating in the partner character asking if they can name the item. If you allow them to do this, all instances of that item throughout the rest of the game then have the new name and you're stuck with an item called, say, "Twinkly Sword!" (with the exclamation point) in your inventory until you either dispose of it or get one of the other partner characters to rename it.
It's a simple but charming system; gathering materials to craft items is something that just happens naturally as you progress through the game, so grinding is kept to a minimum and you can craft often, giving you plenty of opportunities to get to know the characters in your party through interactions you can't see in any other way -- plus you're rewarded for doing so with some nice items, so everyone wins. And when you get tired of it? Just move on and advance the plot. There's plenty of it.
Atelier, however? Atelier is an altogether different beast.
My experience with Atelier to date is entirely based on the first of the three "Arland" games for PlayStation 3: Atelier Rorona. This is somewhat out of date, I know, and I am also aware that the subsequent games (and their enhanced "Plus" versions for Vita) are supposedly significantly better, but as it turns out, Rorona has proven to be an excellent entry point to the series that has not only kept me coming back for more, but has also made me keen to check out both the remainder of the Arland series (Atelier Totori and Atelier Meruru) and the newer Dusk series (Atelier Ayesha and the recent Atelier Escha and Logy).
For those who, like me a short while ago, have never encountered or considered this series before, here's the gist -- of Rorona's game, at least. You take on the role of an alchemist (in this case the eponymous heroine Rorona) and are tasked with frequent time-limited assignments to craft various items and meet certain other conditions. For one assignment, you might be asked to turn in a large number of mass-produced items; in others, smaller numbers of higher-quality items might be required. The assignments are generally fairly straightforward to complete, and while you're working on them you're also free to wander around the town of Arland, get to know people and take on some incidental quests.
Herein lies that Gust magic once again. You're not simply churning out items for the sake of it -- you're making a pretty dress because your best friend Cordelia asked you for one, or some Polishing Powder for the burly smith who lives next door to you, or having a cook-off with your friend Iksel who doesn't believe food made through alchemy can be as good as home-cooked meals. Although the core of the game involves delving into some pretty hardcore number-crunching to optimize your crafting process, the additional context given by the presence of the other characters -- each of whom has their own mini-questline and sequence of events to follow as your friendship grows with them -- gives the whole thing a wonderful feeling of being part of the game world.
In other words, what you're doing feels meaningful and relevant, and that, I think, is why I enjoy the crafting systems of Gust's titles ahead of, very different games like, say, The Elder Scrolls: it's all to do with the difference in focus. In The Elder Scrolls (and other titles like it) crafting is, more often than not, just something to do -- yet another toy in the vast, open-world playground that is the game world. Some people dig that; I don't, personally. I need context.
In both Atelier and Ar Tonelico, meanwhile, crafting is an important part of the game and another means through which the narrative is delivered and advanced. They're systems that feel like they're worth learning not only to get your hands on some sweet items, but also to get to know the characters a little better. And with Gust's secondary talent -- writing compelling, interesting characters -- you will almost certainly want to get to know them all better!
And on that note, I'd better get back to my cauldron; these cabbage pies aren't going to make themselves.