Atelier Sophie : the alchemist of the mysterious book
Same old Recipe but it works
Ever since the series took a new turn with Atelier Rorona on ps3, mixing the RPG elements of Atelier Iris and the less known scenario/craft only ateliers in Japan such as Atelier Marie, the basic recipe for these games hasn’t changed much. It’s always the same but evolves (in a good way) with each episode. Graphics got better and better, battle systems evolved back towards what they were like in the old days, even the OSTs got better each time in my opinion, bringing back some epicness in battles. While it has always been at the center of the stories and worlds of the Atelier games, alchemy has started to become more and more important and the alchemy crafting system has evolved and changed with every single game, becoming more complex and adding new customization possibilities (too many for someone like me not too much into crafting but that’s objectively a good thing so i’m not gonna complain too much about it xD).
Storywise, the series has also changed a lot since the PS2 era. While you pretty much had to save the world from alchemic disasters or villains back in the days, the series took on a much more casual and friendly approach. Instead of exploring the whole world and fighting evil antagonists and vicious monsters in a classic J-RPG fashion like before, you now casually go about doing errands for friendly NPCs in a peaceful little village as a clumsy apprentice alchemist. Sure, you still fight battles to go get ingredients and perform some monster slaying quests but the whole thing is focused on rather easy battles you need to go through to perform alchemy in your atelier to make a living helping villagers and triggering events and raising flags for endings. Most fights can be handled easlisy as long as you keep crafting good items, and the harder fights that require top gear and items are usually optional only. A “time limit” has also been introduced in the series (and I really don’t like time limits in RPGs…) meaning your actions were pretty limited (going to any place would take days, fighting took time, gathering ingredients took time, crafting took time, literally anything…) and you had deadlines to honor item orders (make x bombs of x quality rating with x trait before 3 months for instance), as well as time limited events, meaning you could easily miss some endings, especially the true ones. The total alloted time for a playthrough was generally 3 years, which sounds like a lot but when crafting a single item can take several days and going back and forth some areas can take 15 days… Add the time lost when fighting monsters and gathering and it’s not much in the end and you have to carefully plan your actions when going for some endings.
The concept of Time
While this game retains most of what I mentionned about the other Atelier games since the Ps3 era, a number of improvements were made in my opinion. First of all, there’s no time limit anymore! That alone is a huge plus for me and allows me to play as I wish without wondering if I should refrain from doing something or not. Errands still have a deadline but they’re all optional and unlimited. There is still time passing when you perform actions, travel, etc… But without a limit, it becomes a pleasant game mechanic allowing for certain events/enemies/items to appear only at certain times (ghosts coming out at night for instance) giving life to the game with a day/night cycle as before but without the inconvenience of missing out on lots of stuff. I do love hardcore mechanics and potentially missable stuff to pose a challenge, but not much while playing a nice turn based J-RPG. In that type of game, I love being able to explore and battle as I please. What I mean is that I have nothing against missable events, bosses and the like even in RPGs, but not when it means I can’t even backtrack somewhere to see if I missed something or to battle an optional boss otherwise I’m gonna miss a deadline to give candy to someone… (yes there are quests like that xD).
Let’s have a look at the alchemy and battle systems next.
To say alchemy is central in this game and this series in general would be an understatement. This game is all about alchemy, both in terms of story and gameplay. The basic flow of this game is to gather ingredients and recipes to evolve as an alchemist and manage to make the items the story asks you to craft in order to continue. Most of the recipes you will find in the game are “optional” in that regard and allow you to make a multitude of items: components, healing, attack and support items, and even seemingly useless items meant to be used for quests.
However, the alchemy system reveals all its depth later. As you gain alchemy experience making items you also gain skills that help improve quality and traits while crafting. During the kind of mini game that occurs when you’re crafting, you get to strategize and improve stats as much as you can. Almost every item has traits that can be improved or passed on another item, and alsoa quality rating that improves stats such as potency or number of uses for consumables, or even how much space they take in your alchemy bag. With these properties you can pretty much customize your items and gear as much as you want and have fun making the most powerful gear you can to face the optional battles in the endgame. It sounds trivial but finding the very best traits on ingredients can take a lot of time to grind.
All in all alchemy crafting in a pretty fun system that allows you to do whatever you want with pretty much every item in the game. It can just be pretty time consuming if you want something in particular. I’m not a big fan of crafting in general so it’s clearly not my favorite part of the game but it’s pretty good objectively.
The battles in this game are done in the traditional turn-based J-RPG fashion, with a few additional elements. A turn bar shows in which order units will be able to play and when attacks are going to be unleashed. Performing a basic attack will not place you on the same spot on the bar as if you try to unleash a devastating skill, forcing you to be strategic about your commands. A big spell or attack might force you to let the enemy play twice in a row while if you just use an item or do a normal attack you can play yourself twice in a row. It is also possible to delay enemy turns (or be delayed yourself) with status ailments and stuns.
The other strategic aspect of battles is the stance system. You get to choose each character’s stance when you begin a new turn, defensive or offensive. While it doesn’t change the actions you can perform (you can attack in defensive stance or defend in offensive stance) it affects how much damage characters take or deal, as well as which assist moves are gonna occur. Characters in defense stance will take some blows for others or trigger special defensive buffs with enough assist gauge, while characters in offensive stance are able to perform follow-up attacks and trigger special attacks under the right conditions. Eventually some super moves become available for each character and are triggered through this assist system. My only regret with this system is that while you can trigger them pretty consistently by gathering the right conditions it still happens with some RNG involved.
Of course, it is also possible to use many kinds of alchemy items to turn battles around, but their efficiency entirely depends on how dedicated you were at making them through crafting.
Here’s a little sample of the characters that join your team. I will only talk about those who join very early to not spoil the rest of the cast (I really didn’t expect some of them later).
Our heroin is once more a yound and cute alchimist with some degree of talent but is also very clumsy, naive, and has her head in the clouds. She is pretty determined though and wants to learn alchemy to help people.
One of Sophie’s childhood friends and the definition of honor student. She’s smart, strong, serious, and has the whole village’s praise. She also helps take take of children at the church and sings during service.
One of Sophie’s childhood friends and the exact opposite of Monika. He will take every chance he gets to skip work and responsabilities, which annoys his mother that needs help with the store. He always says he can talk with plants, but nobody knows if that’s true.
A devoted servant of the church. Julio is on a mysterious journey that seems to have a link with alchemy. He is thrilled to meet Sophie and decides to stay and help her improve her skills, but who knows what his goal is. But who would refuse the help of a devoted paladin?
What’s an RPG without its cast of monsters and antagonists? Here are a few examples of enemies you can find throughout the series.
The most emblematic monster in the whole Atelier series. Punies are back and they come in all kinds of colors. While really weak and “tutorial monster” material at first, their big brothers can get surprisingly strong. Keep an eye out for the golden ones!
Another recurring monster of the series, the cute little ghosts can be found at night or in dungeons. They pack a punch with magic and are pretty resilient to melee damage. Really love the hats.
Elementals are often either powerful enemies or optional bosses in the Atelier series. Sexy and deadly, they will require some preparation to take down as they will probably wipe the floor with you the first time you try to take them on.
An RPG without dragons is like a meal without dessert. It’s not essential but you feel something’s missing. While these enemies are not original and predictable, you just expect them to be there. Always satisfying to take one down in an epic battle.
My personal rating
- Gameplay 75% 75%
As a turn-based RPG, the basic gamplay isn’t very surprising so I will focus on the extra things. I do think there is too much randomness in what happens with the assist and ultimate attacks system. Sure you can make them happen roughly as you want with enough preparation, but I would personally prefer being able to control the flow more directly. Outside of battle, I also mourn the lack of interactivity with the field: no boulders blocking the path that you need to bomb, no lakes to freeze, plants to burn… these were features in previous episodes and I feel they are missing. Not a core element of gamplay but I do like this sort of things.
- Audio 90% 90%
I’ve always loved the soundtracks of the Atelier series (especially the old ones from the PS2 era) and the ones in the episode are pretty good. Some even remind me of the old ones, which is great for me. Of course, the Japanese voice actors did a great job as usual and all these eccentric characters come to life and enhance the quality of the game.
- Graphics 90% 90%
While not as impressive as other big games in terms of pure quality, the anime feel of the graphics of this game is really succesful in my opinion. You feel like in a nice little anime and the menus look like an art book on quality paper. I really love that kind of look.
- Lifespan 60% 60%
Not very impressive unfortunately for a J-RPG. The story is pretty short and even finishing the game at 100% will take around 50 hours, which is pretty low considering other J-RPGs are usually around 80/100 hours for a 100% completion. While I appreciate the absence of usuless farming, it is still a bit too short for my taste.
- Writing 60% 60%
I honestly don’t have much to say about the sub plots. The village has a lot of little cutscenes happening all the time in the usual Atelier fashion, and it’s pretty cool. You learn more and more about all the key NPCs and the playable characters. I can’t say the same about the main plot though. I won’t poil anything, but the process is always pretty much the same. A few cutscenes, new items to make, go craft them, cutscenes, and the same thing over and over. This would even be fine if the story was very interesting, but I really don’t think it’s the case. I don’t need an epic plot to save the world in every game, but at least something interesting enough.
- Trophies 65% 65%
Trophies are pretty easy like in most J-RPGs. They mostly consist of item and exp grinding, optional bosses slaying, side quest and side event clearing, and heavy crafting. As long as you seriously overcraft each piece of equipment as in every episode of the series, the optional bosses are pretty easy to do. Nothing special about it, it’s pretty standard. I do regret the presence of a bugged trophy that can make you have to start over the whole game because of it though.
The final word for Oskar
“ I’m hungry… ”
As for the rest of the series, this Atelier game was pretty nice. While i’m not a big fan of crafting that much, I do enjoy an atelier game once in a while, with its anime style graphics and events, and very well designed characters. It’s true I preferred the old ones called Eternal Mana back then of Mana Khemia, as they were much more battle focused and story driven than the ones starting with Atelier Rorona on Ps3. However, it’s still a series I enjoy for the peaceful atmosphere, graphic style and OSTs.
I hope the series keeps evolving and finds ways to improve it’s already good formula of J-RPG with a focus on alchemists.