Exploring vast locations, making new items and equipment, and amicable characters are all qualities of Gust’s Atelier franchise that has attracted and kept me coming back to the series all these years. Mixing together fundamental and traditional RPG mechanics with modern flair, it is a franchise that has definitely changed its approach since its inception for better or worst to widen its appeal to a new audience. However, looking back on the many titles up until now, I do feel like the series has lost much of the traditional and creative life it once had long ago. With Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book – the start of a new entry for the long-running franchise – incorporating many of the lessons and ideas inspired from the earlier titles as well as handful of new ones, it does make for an interesting start, yet also one that falls short of the mark for the very same reasons.
Title: Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book
Developer: Gust Co. Ltd
System: PS4, PS3, PS Vita, (PC via Steam February 2017)
As aforementioned in the preface, Atelier Sophie is the beginning of a brand entry for the series, so for those that haven’t played the Dusk trilogy (or Arland trilogy for that matter), don’t need to worry about doing so and actually deem this as a nice introduction for newcomers. Unlike the Arland series that dictated progress based on a time limit or Atelier Shallie that had none, this one is more in line with the latter where players can take time to explore, gather material, fight enemies, and craft items to their heart content. However, instead of exploring new areas to advance the story, progress is made by making new items and discovering new creation pages to fill in the mysterious book Plachta, a talking book that was once human. With there being many more recipes this time around, the player only needs to create or fulfill conditions for key ones in order to continue onward with the story. That being said, with such a condition in place, it is quite possible to rush through the game and even skip some items all together, however, since some items are beneficial for your survival as well as request items to complete optional quest, it is in the players best interest to try to create everything they possibly can and discover the best possible usage.
Like the previous games, the player is in a town where (besides crafting items) have access to a large variety of services such as: buying items, ingredients, and recipes from various shops, taking on request at the tavern, and where you can interact with your party members you meet as the story continues. Unlike the past game that used a time limit to invoke many of the events between you and the characters, most of it happens on its own and still will as long as you meet a certain point in the story and continue traveling with them. However, since there is no time limit, the game does have an in-game calendar based on cycles, and can only get some events to trigger on a particular cycle. As for the events themselves, they are still of the cheery variety as you get to learn more about them, yet in this title, I didn’t particularity find myself being all that enamored with most of the cast to care or found most of the events too dull for my taste.
Just like with Atelier Shallie, exploration still works as before: any area that you have access to on the world map can traveled to and free to go about collecting ingredients you need for synthesis – the process of making items. Of course, you will occasionally run into monsters and where combat plays a role. Just like the past game, combat is still turn-based, but instead of selecting each character actions individually and watching them play out, the game has you forcibly queue up actions for all the characters and watch the battle unfold. While the battle system and choices that went into is about as stale and uninteresting as it can get, it still isn’t that different from the old system and gets the job done. It can be a pain to figure out how to activate your special moves or knowing when you need to exactly get defensive with your characters, but all the same, works fine with a little experimentation. Also, unlike the previous entries, all your party members can also wield and use certain items, which is vast improvement and gives some more variety to what you can do.
After collecting what you need, synthesis is the next step and once again, they change the mechanics of this system for better or worst. In this case and personally speaking, it is a little bit of both. Comparable to Tetris, most of the ingredients you collect will have different shapes and sizes and the goal is to get them to all evenly fit into grid. If you manage to match up the shapes into the grid, the item is able to be created and even better if you can match the shape with corresponding colors, since it allows the created item to get better effects. Since the items that can be created can be done in different cauldrons that affect the size and shape placement, you will and might have to make more cauldrons, or remake ones collected to get the best results. While this is a gross simplification, the system is really easy to learn and by the time you hit end or post game levels will probably find it far more useful than you think.
Since this is Gust’s second release (the first being Nights of Azure) that is doing cross development for the PlayStation ecosystem under Koei Temco’s banner, like always, the PS4 does come with some added visual flair, but still the same product for the PS3/Vita versions. In retrospect, compared to Nights of Azure, the quality and performance for the Vita version is a close match to the PS4 version, so no matter what flavor you are getting, the end result and fidelity is nearly the same plus the ability to switch between a portable and personalized experience or bigger screen one if you purchase both. Needless to say, it is also coming to Steam in the near future as well.
With the development team already hard at work on the indirect sequel, I sincerely hope that a few ideas are taken from Atelier Sophie, yet at the same time, makes better use of them. Much like the weather mechanic and day/night cycles, many of the concepts are there and make it feel like a fresh change of pace, but the amount of utility really doesn’t make that a complete experience. As a whole, the game is a nice reminder of the times that companies like Gust are still around, however also a reminder that some formulas need a change from becoming dull. Atelier Sophie is certainly far from dull, yet being disappointing isn’t necessarily any better.
Pros: Very nice start to a new saga and also entry point for newcomers, nice change in progression from previous series, items and the usage gets more focus, day and night cycle/weather system offer some possibilities, new synthesis system is fun to play around with, adjustable difficulty.
Cons: A few of the new mechanics are barely utilized to the fullest, combat feels too rigid compared to past titles, synthesis is somewhat frustrating to learn at first.
Final Verdict: A little something old, a little something new, and a few things borrowed makes Atelier Sophie a nice change pace, but barely elevates it from the same tiresome formula. It’s a recommended buy for newcomers that want to hop into the series without having to worry about story threads and progression difficulty, yet probably won’t sway long time fans by that much on the “love or hate” spectrum. It lacks a lot of ambition and polish that previous entries had, but still an okay purchase for JRPG fans.