We all have that friend, you know the one I mean. The one that’s just a little bit different from all your other friends. That isn’t to say that’s a bad thing, in fact, it’s probably why they’re your friend in the first place. Still, fiction once again takes the proverbial cake when, due to circumstances rendered completely plausible due to the nature of the world, said friends noticeable difference is that they’re a book. Like, an honest to goodness, talking, flying book…who is magic.
Atelier fans rejoice (?) because yet another instalment in the oh so populous franchise has hit your screens. This time around, we find ourselves experiencing the tale of Sophie, an aspiring alchemist with a quaint atelier in the humble town of Kirchen Bell. For those of you who don’t know, an atelier is a shop, at least it is in this game, specialising in the alchemic arts, which is pretty cool. Jumping back just a touch, that bracketed question mark way up yonder is in no means a jab at this game, it is simply my way of saying that I have never played an Atelier game before, so my opinions on this are isolated. Thus, whichever way I lean may not be indicative of the franchise as a whole. Who knows, Sophie may be an Atelier outlier…but I digress. Honing in on the quaint nature of her town and shop, Atelier Sophie is a rather peaceful game. Despite the monster hunting, which I will get to shortly, there is an overall vibe of calmness throughout the story. Compared to the more standard RPG elements of apocalyptic catastrophies and political deviousness (which is more common than you think), this game was quite simply a refreshing change of pace. That being said, this paradigm shift did rob the game of each and every sense of urgency. With little to no variation between side quests and those that push the story forward, you would not be at fault for forgetting a main mission and wondering why no cutscenes have occurred in the last hour…which totally happened to me at least twice.
Speaking of missions, the running endeavour of the game is that of restoring your beloved friends memories. As her soul is bound in an alchemy book, Plachta has forgotten nearly all of her memories. After an accidental discovery, filling her pages with alchemic recipes sparks an influx of memories, drawing her closer to discovering who and what she is. In order to obtain said recipes, players must fill a gauge by slaying monsters, completing quests and completing smaller, apparently less important, recipes. Despite seeming somewhat paradoxical on face value (needing recipes to get experience to get recipes), Atelier Sophie employs a nifty little sytem to net you non story crucial recipes; ideas. Sure it sounds simple, but let me assure you, that is why it is not so. Under the conveniently labelled Recipe Ideas tab, you will find a snazzy web of question marks, alluding to concoctions not yet concocted. However, you will also find a clue in regards to how to learn said concoction. Example: Examine fountain. Those who bothered to explore Kirchen Bell will remember a fountain located in the plaza and thus, after interacting with it, will be granted the ability to create a new item. Said item may aid in battle, either offensively or by offering a passive boost, progress a character’s individual side story (which are totally a thing) or may instead form the ingredient for an even more powerful item. Things get a touch tricky when to unlock a new item you actuallly require a different item you have not unlocked, forcing you to trace certain chains back there genesis and figure out that slaying a Puni (basic enemy numero uno) is your first step to forging a Philosopher’s Stone. Alchemy sure is a complicated business.
Despite the inherent complexities that may arise in combining a lump of rock and a leaf into a highly combustible weapon, the result would have seldom use were it not for combat. Running your typical four v however many enemies the game decides to throw at you, Atelier Sophie’s battle system is somewhat of a mystery to me. More specifically, level scaling confuses me. Throughout my entire playthrough of the game, enemies fell into one of two categories; too easy or too hard. Not once was there an opponent I found to be a suitable match for my party, I either destroyed them or was destroyed by them, no exceptions. It wasn’t even a time consuming difference, levelling up once completely turned the tide and made me wonder how I lost so badly before. It’s an oddly frustrating problem to have. This situation changes ever so slightly aftet reaching the max level of 20, wherein, probably three quaterd through the game, the system changed and, rather than characterd simply gaining stats, you gain points to spend on upgrades. Not a major difference I know, but it’s a little weird to have it sprung upon you so late in the game, especially when it forces you to add strategy which has never been necessary for most of the game. Though you can pretty easily max out your level if you equip a well built Training Charm and simply get all of the upgrades. That being said, the post game takes on an extrs level of strategy where character stats are no longer good enough, requiring you to acquire a good set of armour and a solid weapon. Again, though I see the benefit of adding difficulty with pre-existing elements, the game does it far too late for it to feel natural. Instead, it just feels a little annoying. Especially when all that stands between you and victory is the fact that you can’t afford an armour enhancement because you don’t have 12,000 kohl (the currency of the realm). Seriously, you’ll need all the help you can get if you decide to challenge the Light Elemental, that lady is tough to take down.
Jumping onto the specifics of combat, one of you’re first decisions will be whether to place a fighter in an offensive or defensive stance. Though each character can alternate between the two on each turn, the more who share the same stance, the bigger the benefits will be. Offensively minded characters will gain additional chain attacks, dealing a sizeable amount of damage to the enemy when the damage is tallied. Defensive characters however will gain a support guard, defending others from damage whilst still lessening the impact to themselves. As these actions are performed, a chain gauge fills and, once it had maxed out, grants one character an ultimate move that will automatically activate. As you might expect, stances alter the effect of said move, creating either an all powerful strike or and all encompassing guard. That being said, it wasn’t for a fair while until I even saw one of these moves activate, so they are far from necessitous to victory. Still, they’re pretty cool. Paring back slightly, the more utilised skills are those that belong to each character, varying from powerful strikes, to area of effect debuffs or simple healing spells. Not too much to say here, skills use an MP gauge, no gauge means no skills, your typical RPG mechanic. Useful though, especially those area of effect ones, enemies are numerous. Items can also be rather helpful, although the degree to which this statement is true depends entirely on how they are constructed. Speaking of which…
Alchemy, otherwise known as throwing a bunch of stuff into a cauldron, stirring, and hoping for the best. Okay, it’s a bit more in depth than that, but still, that’s the basic premise. Through this practice, you will discover that each item possesses a Tetris-like shape, measured on a square grid system. After choosing your ingredients, you will have to place them on said grid with the hopes of completely filling the space. Though this is not always possible, it is preferred, as more spaces filled means a higher quality item. There is also a whole function involving multiple gauges, value, quality, category value and a whole bunch of other specifics, but all you really need to know is that experimentation is key. Mix things up a bit, test out new items, sacrifice a good item to make a great one and choose your colours wisely…it all makes sense in context.
Visually speaking, Atelier Sophie is surprisingly colourful. It’s nothing crazy mind you, it just kinda pops. Trees are a bright light green, buildings are made of the sandiest sandstone and certain characters are difficult to hear over their clothes. That being said, it definitely fits the tone of the world, wherein most serious issues are rendered moot by a simple application of alchemy, preventing even combat from feeling like a negative action. Of course, this could also have something to do with the fact that certain enemies possess goofy smiles, but even demonic dragon knights do not stray to far from the games overall charming aesthetic sense…which is quite an achievement. Again, colour has a great deal to do with this, as a bright yellow dragon who has pretty wings is a whole lot less frightening than one who…isn’t…and doesn’t. Not that looks are an indicator of difficulty, considering one of the toughest opponents in the game is a gentle looking fairy lady. Well, one specifically, her other two palette swaps are pretty easy. Come to think of it, there’s a lot of palette swaps that are more difficult than their brethren…i think alternate colours may be the secret to true power. Well, that and cutting costs when it comes to making character models. Regardless, certain special events within game also herald the arrival of a still, 2D animation which, on top of coinciding with a Trophy, look really nice. Which is nice.
Audio wise, the game is pretty chill. I know that sounds vague, but for the most part the soundtrack is dulcet background tones and smooth ambient flute. Guitars are there to, probably a whole bunch of instruments, but I can’t claim to be a connoisseur of the auditory arts. Well, I could, but it’d be a lie. Still, you don’t have to have an inbuilt metronome to appreciate some laid back, small town tunes. Somewhat in front of this, characters talk using words. I know, remarkable. Overall the English dub is handled pretty well and characters tend to sound as you would imagine them, had you judged their particular book by its cover. That being said, Atelier Sophie suffers from the traditional long play RPG trope of having only select sequences voiced. Sure it’s a quickfire way to tell if something is important, but the mute scenes far outweigh the spoken. Interestingly however, each shopkeepers standard hello/goodbye/thanks for buying spiel is fully voiced. Yeah it’s just one line, but those things are seldom performed. I guess you don’t know what you didn’t have until you get it…or however that saying goes.
All in all, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book (which is totally Plachta, Plachta is the mysterious book) is a fun experience. From learning how to arrange ingredients to create the best Ori Bomb, to using said bomb on one particularly jerky Twin Header who just won’t go down when it’s supposed to, there is more than one aspect to keep you interested. That being said, if you are not a fan of slow paced gaming, you may entirely enjoy this game. Think of it as closer to Animal Crossing than Final Fantasy. Sure you get to fight monsters, but there are quite a few periods of the game where you can go without doing so for hours on end. Even venturing out into the various gathering fields of the game is no promise of combat, since you can just run past the overworld sprites. sure this may come back to haunt you during one of the few scripted fights, but grinding for a short amount of time will completely rectify that particular problem. Regardless, most of your time will be spent completing countless fetch quests and ferrying party members to specific locations in order to complete some specific goal. Okay, so progressing a characters individual side story grants them bonus passive skills, but if I have to create another kind of fertiliser for Oskar, I may just chop down one of the trees he loves so dearly…I mean, I wouldn’t actually do that, but I might kick him in the shin or something. What I’m getting at here is that if there’s one word that does not exist in any book, mysterious or not, in the Atelier Sophie universe, it’s urgency. you shall find nary a sense of it anywhere in this game as finding the perfect bag of flour for a faceless NPC is given the same feeling of importance as helping your dearest friend recover from their near total amnesia. But don’t worry too much, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time vicariously running an atelier, it’s that alchemy can fix everything. Unless you count…no, no it can fix everything, my bad.