Atelier Sophie, The Alchemist of the Addicting Fetch Quests
Well, it’s finally happened. After years of writing and talking about Japanese, moe-focused games, it was inevitable that I’d finally get the chance to review one. And a JRPG, no less.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Bookk is the newest in the Atelier series of games; a series so huge that looking into its history gave me Mega Man flashbacks. This is the first of its latest series, so I’m at least glad that I picked this one as a jumping-on point.
So, long story short, I leapt into this game blind, since while I’ve always been interested in the Atelier series, I never got around to buying any of the games. Luckily for me, Atelier Sophieie is, above everything else, welcoming to newcomers. For the first few hours I couldn’t play for ten minutes without tripping over a tutorial, and even though I’m well over twenty hours in, I’m stilltill getting them as new stuff is slowly introduced.
This isn’t to say that the game is simple, though, as every aspect of the game – the multi-stance combat, the alchemy, and even weapon and armor customization – is multifaceted and complicated enough to please JRPG veterans, but explained well enough and introduced so gradually that newbies won’t be scared off.
This is a good thing, too, considering that this is most of what you’ll be doing. The story only moves forward after you fulfill certain requirements, such as making a certain amount of Thing A or doing enough quests at the bar, or whatever it is that it wants you to do at the moment. While the game doesn’t usually give a numeric value on how much you’re supposed to do said thing, Atelier Sophie is always kind enough to let you know how far along you are by showing you a handy little bar that fills up the closer you get to the next main plot objective. Several of these are thinly-veiled attempts to force you to use the game’s various mechanics, such as when the plot wouldn’t move forward until I got several thank-you gifts from people in town (after I threw my lowest-quality items at them as gifts), or when I had to make friends with the various town artisans until they decided to join my party.
Okay, so here’s the gist: You’re a newbie alchemist whose last name is an extremely stupid German pun, and one day you find a magic book in your Atelier who can magically talk and fly. It turns out that this book is not only a far better alchemist than you, but she also has amnesia, so you write as many alchemy recipes into her as possible so as to slowly chip away at her memory until she gets it all back. And you shove her soul into a doll at one point.
If the plot synopsis comes off as a bit short, that’s because there isn’t much of one. Sure, a main villain shows up after a while, and the story tries to point out who it is through what I think the writers believe is subtle, nuanced writing, but nothing ever has any weight or emotional resonance. Even when the story tries to get heavy, or tug at my heartstrings with the ‘totally-just-friends’ female leads, scenes hit with a weak ‘plop’ rather than a dull ‘thud’.
This might have less to do with the writing – bland and generic as it is a lot of the time – and more to do with how the character models are designed and animated. See, Atelier Sophie decided to stick with its moe theme and make the models look like cel-shaded anime characters. On one hand, they’re all beautifully rendered, with plenty of bright colors and that sort of cuteness that feels like you’re playing a whimsical fantasy anime, possibly spearheaded by KyoAni. On the other, their expressions aren’t all that varied. The female characters are either happy or cutely confused all the time, and the male characters (mostly) have bland variants of the same static expression. So we get awkward situations when a character is supposed to be talking about, say, their insecurities about being compared to their father, and they have an expression identical to when they were talking about the weather not even twenty minutes ago.
The developers clearly didn’t have emotional depth in mind when they were working on this game.
That said, the characters are probably the best part about the story, even with the mile-wide dissonance between dialogue and character expression. I cared about them and their troubles far more than the main plot, at least. The cast may still be eighty degrees of bland at times, but they are likable characters; even Sophie, who weaves back and forth between being a generic determined anime girl and a busybody that can never mind her own business. They’re quirky, and never devolve into scream-yourself-awake walking nightmares of annoyance, which is more than I can say for other games of this type.
You know, I wish that I didn’t have so many problems with Atelier Sophie‘s writing, because everything else is really good, and kept me hooked for hours. The music is absolutely beautiful, capturing a whimsical tone that’s never over the top (take that, Ni no Kuni), and varied enough to be iPod worthy. While the environments look sort of samey in places, they’re pretty to look at, and make exploring and looking for items on the overworld a breeze.
The Alchemy system…
This is where the game starts becoming a time sink.
As I said before, everything in Atelier Sophie revolves around this mechanic. The story progresses with it, you make friends with villagers and party members by giving them things that you can make, and you give materials that you’ve made to the merchants in order to get better equipment. Better stuff means better ingredients, which then leads to you making subsequently better products. It’s a devious cycle, and the typical player experience will probably go something like this:
“Hey, I can make things! Wow, that’s a lot of stuff to remember, but the mini game’s pretty neat, so let’s make some stuff. Oh, I’m out of materials, that sucks. I need to go do some quests to get some money, anyway. What’s this? I can get hints to better stuff at the bar? And there’s some new quests? And both need me to go to that new location that just opened up? Well, let’s go; I need the money and I’ll never say no to free stuff (even if I had to pay for the intel)! Oh, crap, these monsters are tough. Time to upgrade my weapons using the stuff I just picked up so that I can go back there to beat up more stuff to facilitate collecting more stuff for alchemy. Wait, when did I continue the story? When did eight new places open up? Don’t rush me, Atelier Sophie, I’ve got a recipe book to fill!”
Now imagine that process, only well over twenty hours of it.
You also better have a strategy guide handy (or wait for someone on GameFAQs to make one for you), because with the time and weather systems, you’re going to have to do a juggling act as you keep track of everything. Time passes whenever you use alchemy in your Atelier, move between locations in town and on the world map, and do stuff on the overworld, such as picking up items or fighting monsters. Some events only happen during particular times of certain days of the week, and the monsters in each location change depending on what time it is. The Encyclopedia helps you keep track of where things are, but it doesn’t keep track of when things show up, so if there’s an item that, say, only shows up in one location when it’s raining, you’re going to be grinding and running back and forth a lot in order to catch it at the right time.
Either that, or you’ll do the more likely thing and run out of room in your inventory before you find that item, and run back to the Atelier to dump off your load before running out and trying again.
I’ll admit that while collecting materials is extremely fun, and I found myself getting sucked in, it can make things a lot more long-winded than it needs to be. Until you unlock the option to get your item uses refilled when you return to town, you’ll spend hours just making items to prepare you for going out and getting more materials to make even more items. You can’t make the items needed to expand your inventory until later in the game, either, so you’ll always have to worry about running out of carrying space until then. Running back and forth, grabbing items, and constantly emptying a rapidly-filling basket of stuff can feel like a hell of a grind, but the mechanics are fun enough to where you either won’t notice, or won’t care.
At least for a while.
The battle system has its kinks, though.
Turns are very fast-paced, and you’ll need to think tactically as you switch between the offensive and defensive stances, but as you start unlocking chain combos and extra attacks and abilities, even regular random battles can take far longer than they should. This is usually because using the offensive stance is suicide against stronger enemies, and it’s always smarter to just stick with the defensive stance if you think a fight is going to last more than one turn. On one hand, this is because using offensive stance makes you as vulnerable as a wet piece of tissue paper, but on the other this is because the defensive special attacks are far more useful by comparison. What would you rather have: an attack that hits an enemy for a bunch of HP, or an ability that raises your max HP and gives you an auto-revive?
There are also some balancing issues that make leveling in the early-game a bit of a pain. Specifically, there isn’t a decent healing item until a little later in the game, and Atelier Sophie‘s equivalent of the cure spell heals so little HP early on that you might as well not bother. On top of that, there is no revive spell until level 13, at which point you’ve long started upgrading your weapons and equipment, and you won’t need it as much. You can also accidentally run into boss monsters that you won’t know are bosses until you end up trying to fight them, which can lead to hilarious moments where you realize that the monster has 800+ HP, you don’t even have 100, and he one-shots your entire party before you have a chance to run away.
For the most part, though, the battles are fine. Really fun, in fact, despite my nitpicking.
…Speaking of nitpicking, I’m just going to say it: the fanservice can get a little distracting. If you’re looking for a cute anime-style game without this kind of thing, Atelier Sophie might not be the title to pick up. Sophie’s doll friend dresses like she’s on a Victoria’s Secret runway — complete with a lacy backless number with garters, sheer midriff, and very little coverage — and most female characters either have random boob-windows, jiggling breasts, or emphasis on their butts and thighs. It just feels a little out of character for a modest Holy Warrior to be wearing skintight pants with an obvious camel-toe, or for a childlike fifteen-year-old girl to wear a skirt so short that bending over would guarantee a panty shot.
Still, it could be worse, I suppose. While it’s definitely worthy of a few groans and knowing eyerolls, it’s not as egregious as other moe titles on the market. It’s irking at points, and doesn’t try to hide its pandering (especially with the dollmake feature), but it’s harmless.
Overall, though? Atelier Sophie gave me Star Ocean 2 flashbacks in the best way, with an addictive battle system, item creation, and a varied cast of likable characters. The story’s weak, but you probably won’t even care. I didn’t care, and I’ll probably clock 20 more hours in after I finish writing up this review.
I love you, Atelier Sophie, and I wouldn’t have you any other way.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PS4 (Reviewed), PSVita ; Publisher: Tecmo Koei Games ; Developer: Gust ; Players: 1 ; Released: June 7, 2016 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP: 59.99
Full Disclosure: This review is based on a review copy provided to us by the publisher.