Atelier Firis’ emphasis on exploration and choice takes the series in a fun and exciting new direction
The Atelier series has slowly been transitioning back to its roots over the past few years. Gone are the days of running around large maps maps, now replaced by quick treks through small areas in order to procure a few ingredients. I know that this is a nod to the original games in the series, and I get that they’re trying to make sure that they stay true to its core values and mechanics. But, if you ask me, it’s kind of boring. Don’t get me wrong, I love alchemy (I mean you would kind of have to in order to consider yourself a fan of the game), but going on long adventures and putting everything you made to good use was so fun. I wanted that aspect back. And, surprisingly, I got what I was asking for, thanks to the latest game in the Atelier series – Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey.
Atelier Firis begins to mark itself as different straight out of the gate, due to the way its narrative is set up. Firis follows the story of a young girl named, as I’m sure can guess, Firis. What you may not have guessed, however, is that Firis isn’t an alchemist – in fact, she’s never even heard of alchemy. Firis has spent her entire life living in Ertona, a town known for two things – its impressive supply of ore, and its heavy stone door that rarely ever lets anyone in or out.. Firis has always longed to see the outside world but, because of town customs, she has never been given the chance to do so. That all changes, however, when she meets Sophie (of Atlier Sophie).
After witnessing Sophie blow up and then immediately fix the door to her town using alchemy, Firis immediately becomes enamored with the concept herself, going so far as to make Sophie her teacher, and deciding to travel the world in hopes of becoming a great alchemist. Firis’ parents and Ertona’s elder weren’t too thrilled about the idea at first but, after quite a bit of convincing she was finally granted access to the outside world with one stipulation – she had one year to become an officially-licensed alchemist. If she passed, she was free to do as she pleased, but if she failed then she was required to come back to the town without any further argument. Talk about pressure!
Much of Atelier Firis is focused on a single, clear-cut goal for players – to get to Reisenberg in order to take the alchemy exam. And because of this, the gameplay is handled much differently than in previous titles. The most noticeable difference is with exploration. In contrast to most other Atelier games where exploration was lighter, serving primary as either plot progression or glorified item hunting, exploration is a big deal in this game. Like, a really big deal. One of Firis‘ biggest features is the fact that it did away with adding in a large number of tiny areas in favor of adding a smaller number of absolutely massive areas to explore. I’ve got to say that, even knowing ahead of time that this game was going to feature some some the biggest explorable areas in the history of the series, I was still surprised with how just expansive many of the locations are. And with an overwhelming quantity of ingredients to collect, monsters to fight, and quests to undertake, Firis‘ gameplay almost borderlines on feeling “open-world” – a quality that I absolutely adored.
Yet another major difference comes in with time management. Atelier Firis isn’t the first Atelier game to feature a time limit by a long shot, but it’s definitely the most comprehensive. Remember when I said that Firis had a year to prove herself? Well, that wasn’t just plot – it’s also an integral part of the gameplay. You have 365 days to travel from one corner of the world to the other, and that really isn’t very long. Every little thing that you do, walking, gathering, fighting, and especially alchemy, consumes time. Because of this you have to be really careful with what you’re doing, but I’ll be the first to admit that that isn’t easy.
There’s a lot to do in Atelier Firis but, thanks to the time limit, you can’t do it all – at least, not during the first portion of the game. And, if you’re anything like me, it’s something that’s kind of hard to accept. I’m a textbook completionist – it bothers me not being able tackle every challenge and collect every item along the way – but with Atelier Firis you have to learn to to say “I don’t have time to do that” and be okay with it. And, since the player largely chooses how the game will progress, you have to get good at setting limits on yourself, and make sure that you prioritize things (especially quests). I spent way too much time in the first few areas, not realizing how quickly time passed, and paid for it later on by having to skip out on several cool-looking activities. It’s stressful, and at times downright annoying, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it works incredibly well in a game like this.
Atelier Firis also places a bigger emphasis on player-driven choices. Sure, there may be overlying goals, but Firis sees to it that players often have several ways of completing them. Players will be able to shape not only parts of the story based on their choices, but their environment as well. By taking the time to complete certain quests, players may find a number of things changing around them. Rare items may spawn, powerful monsters may be come available to fight, and new parts of the map may even open up for exploration. But, as always, make sure that you prioritize!
Atelier Firis largely reverts back to the standard Atelier turn-based combat formula, with characters performing their actions right as the player chooses them. This style of combat makes it much easier to fine-tune your strategies, due to the fact that you know that what you’re trying to due will happen immediately. Burst, now called Chain Burst, has also returned, filling as the characters fight and, once filled up, grants all party members a temporary boost in strength. Atelier Firis also now allows characters to chain their special attacks (if their turns are close enough) during Chain Burst. Not only do these chain attacks do even more damage, but they also build up Linkage – an additional gauge that appears during Burst that, when filled up enough, allows a character to perform a final devastating Chain Strike. Unfortunately you can’t link normal attacks, which is kind of annoying because it’s really easy to deplete all of your MP, but other than that Linkage is pretty cool.
Of course, not everything has entirely reverted to how it used to be. Party setup closely follows the Atelier Sophie mechanics, allowing players have up to five members in their active party (with the fifth being on standby), but this time around you really need to be careful about who you include in your setup. If a character isn’t actively in your party, they’re aren’t actually with you.
Non-active party members don’t just sit around – they travel, just like you. So, if you want to swap out party members, you’re going to have to find said member first. They usually aren’t too difficult to find, often residing in bars and inns in nearby towns, but considering the limited time that Firis has to journey, it’s important to make sure that you don’t waste too much of it backtracking. While this mechanic can be annoying, I actually like it quite a bit. Everything about Atelier Firis begs that you plan things out, and this is no exception.
Alchemy, ironic as it may sound, is really the only beef that I had with Atelier Firis, although it wasn’t a very big one. For the most part it follows Atelier Sophie, featuring a puzzle-like setup where players must carefully place their ingredients in their cauldron (represented by a grid) for maximum effect. The puzzle-ness of alchemy really grew on my while playing Sophie, so I certainly didn’t have any problems with it here. Where I did run into trouble was with some of the more detailed parts of alchemy.
Properly getting effects onto items when synthesizing has become a bit complicated than it should, thanks to the addition of the charge level – a newly-implemented gauge responsible for “leveling up” the effects of each item. It wasn’t anything too difficult to figure out, but I’m not actually sure why it was a necessary addition in the first place. On the bright side, alchemy now comes with “bonus lines”. By placing specific ingredients on these panels, players can give their newly-synthesized items boosts such as an increase in overall quality, or the addition of extra properties. Not a bad trade-off, I guess.
I’m not really sure what it was about the game’s soundtrack, but I just couldn’t get into it. Objectively-speaking, it was actually pretty good. It followed traditional Atelier series musical standards, featuring plenty of wind instruments and mostly lighthearted songs that complimented areas and events well. But it just didn’t have the impact on me that most Atelier soundtracks do.
The Atelier series may not have taken a huge leap in the advancement of its graphical quality (which, to be fair, has always been pretty solid) with Atelier Firis, but that’s not to say that there wasn’t any improvement. The areas in Firis were noticeably more detailed than in past games, especially in forests, ruins, and some of the more populated areas of the game. Firis also presents a wider spectrum of places to visit than most Atelier games which, on top of being fun to explore, add to the game’s overall artistic value.
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey provides a great example of how a game can provide an entirely fresh experience merely by shifting around the mechanics that it already had, as opposed to piling on new ones. From its unconventional beginning, and through the entirety of Firis’ journey, I found myself both surprised and delighted by what this game had to offer. Getting this should not only be a no-brainer for not only Atelier series fans, but anyone in the market for a quality JRPG.
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC; Publisher: Koei Tecmo Games ; Developer: Koei Tecmo Games ; Players: 1 ; Released: March 7, 2017 ; ESRB: T for Teen ; MSRP; $59.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey given to Hey Poor Player by the Publisher.