A New Start!
HIGH Executing a full-cooperation attack and wiping out a boss in a single stroke.
LOW Where the heck are those Spirit Crystals?
WTF Weissberg? Is that character named after me?
The Atelier series is relentless in its search for perfection. I’ve played five of these, a new one every year, and each game is audaciously willing to try new things in order to keep the franchise fresh while getting ever-closer to the ideal version of a game about an alchemist struggling to improve her craft. Yes, the core gameplay design is static—learn alchemy, become best friends with people in a town, fight bosses—but each new installment brings huge changes and I’m always blown away because the changes are always for the better.
Coming on the heels of environmental catastrophe and misused technology in the Dusk trilogy, Atelier Sophie is a considerably lighter, more colorful entry. Featuring very little greater world-building, it’s not immediately clear how Sophie fits into the franchise. If anything, it seems like a deliberate attempt to reboot the series for a new console generation. With a new setting, relatively low threat level, and a plot which revolves around inventing alchemical creations as opposed to simply learning them, Atelier Sophie opens its proverbial arms and welcomes new players to the most consistently-excellent JRPG franchise around.
Set in the small town of Kirchen Bell, the game stars Sophie, a girl who wants to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps by becoming the town’s alchemist. She’s aided in this by her discovery of a magic flying book that guides her through the finer points of the ancient art. How Sophie learns alchemy is one of the biggest departures from the last few games—where others had their protagonists reading ancient texts or studying, Sophie comes up with recipes by exploring the world, fighting monsters, and making high-quality items. Rather than looking at the field areas as simple combat zones to mine for materials, they’re transformed into mysterious locations to be explored in the hopes that Sophie will come across a spark of inspiration that leads to her next great idea.
Exploration features a lot of combat as well, and the new system does a great job of keeping things streamlined and accessible. Rather than the standard ‘turn list’ to let players know which character strikes next, the turn-based combat asks players to plan out the moves that their characters will make, and then gives them a chance to watch the result. This turns combat into a more strategic proposition than usual, especially since the player is told the relative strength of each enemy, and whether they’re going to be making a basic attack or attempting a more powerful ‘skill’.
The alchemy gameplay has been completely overhauled once again, this time as something more akin to a puzzle game rather than the careful menu management previous titles offered. It’s the biggest change an Atelier has featured, and it’s a complete success on every level. Figuring out how to get the various ingredients to interlock and get the best possible results is a task requiring precision and patience, and is probably the best conceptualization of alchemy that the series has ever offered.
Notably missing from the game is any obvious time limit on the player. Previous Atelier game set clear deadlines by which certain goals must be achieved, but Sophie has free reign to explore, encounter foes and make discoveries at her own pace. It’s possible that the game has some invisible deadlines and clocks that I didn’t notice—I didn’t find any of the secret bosses, for example—but I finished the game and received a perfectly satisfactory ending without worrying about how long I was taking. The game’s main obstacle is also surprisingly low-stakes. Sure, a major villain wants to do something bad, but it never feels like there’s an apocalyptic threat. In a refreshing twist, the big bad’s villainy has more impact on character relationships than the world at large.
The Atelier series is the most consistently excellent franchise in the JRPG genre, and perhaps in all of gaming. Nearly every facet of this game is a delight—the only times I found myself frustrated were when trying to find a few extremely obscure ingredients for high-level alchemy, and in the game’s odd insistence on not letting me know when an NPC has a plot-related conversation cued up on the map screen. Both of these design decisions lead to more backtracking than necessary, but the characters are so likeable and the world so beautiful that I never minded spending a little more time in it.
While it may not have reached perfection yet, the Atelier series is getting close. Each new title offers a substantive change to the core mechanics, so vets will encounter something new and new players can easily jump in. I seem to say this in every review but it remains true—this is good as JRPG design gets, and I can’t wait to see what the developers have in store next. Rating 9 out of 10
Disclosures: This game is developed by Gust and published by Koei/Tecmo. It is currently available on PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 45 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB this game is rated T, and contains fantasy violence, mild language, mild suggestive themes, alcohol use. Kids should be mostly fine playing the game. The violence is bloodless and bright, with even the most dangerous foes never seeming too scary. As for prurient content, this is obviously aimed at a younger audience than some of the other games in the series. The most risqué sequence is a trip to a lake for swimming, and all of the participants are sure to wear surprisingly conservative swimsuits. There is an ongoing subplot about Sophie’s fascination with why adults so enjoy alcohol, but it’s handled in a surprisingly mature fashion.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing: You will be fine. It’s a JRPG with no fast action or audio cues—everything is written out in text form along with the voices.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.