With over seventeen games to its name, the long-running Atelier series has been able to maintain its niche audience thanks to a steady stream of releases.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book was the series’ debut on the PlayStation 4 upon its release last year. Restrained by the concessions of releasing on both the PlayStation Vita and the PlayStation 3 (which didn’t get a full localisation effort outside of Japan), it may not have quite taken a full leap to 'next-gen' technologies. It did, however, prove to fans that there was still reason to be excited in this long-running series. Now that its latest instalment finds itself on the PC, it gives fans and newcomers alike a whole new reason to play.
"Atelier Sophie... bursts to life with its storybook aesthetic that more than makes up for some of the disappointing visual concessions."
Taking the role of the titular Sophie Neuenmuller, Atelier Sophie follows her career as an up-and-coming alchemist in the town of Kirchen Bell. Taking over her grandmother’s atelier, she discovers a magical floating (and talking) reference book that has somehow lost all its memory. By adding one recipe at a time, it’s up to Sophie to help the “mysterious book” regain its lost memories. Unconcerned with the same melodrama other games of the genre may contend with, the Atelier series has remained a joyful excursion from the norm. Atelier Sophie is no exception as it bursts to life with its storybook aesthetic that more than makes up for some of the disappointing visual concessions.
As always, alchemy is the game’s strongest aspect as well as its largest focus. Where Atelier Sophie keeps things fresh is with its reworked item synthesis system, a more in-depth approach to its well-worn formula. With a tetronimo-like grid, you can align ingredients together based on colour and shape to create different variations of a single item. By combining similar-looking ingredients, your alchemy will become more potent. It forces you strategise in every step of the alchemic process and, more importantly, leaves tons of variety as to which combinations makes for the best items. When complete, items feel personalised in unique ways. Later stages of the game give a sense of accomplishment and ownership that can feel quite powerful when you're done making a new set of high-level weapons or armour.
However, since Sophie is just a beginner, you’ll need to work hard and hone her skills. To gain new recipes you must do numerous daily activities to give Sophie the inspiration needed to come up with new recipes. It’s a narrative concession to its non-combat focused story but nevertheless does its job well. In previous games, this meant you would have to think critically as time moved forward towards an eventual deadline for events. In Atelier Sophie, it instead gives you free reign to accomplish things at your own pace.
Hardcore fans might be disappointed but it seems to be a good manoeuvre to make the series more appealing to those unfamiliar with the series. Instead, time is simply used to give different windows to different events. For instance, certain ingredients or monsters will only be around during certain times of the week. Or perhaps a particular character will be in a different part of town that day, triggering a different event. Instead of focusing on putting pressure on the player, Atelier Sophie uses its time mechanic to create a more dynamic world. It's nothing spectacular, but the addition to the experience is enjoyable.
"Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book isn’t anything groundbreaking, but any fan of the series can attest the Atelier games never set out to be – and it doesn't matter."
It’s unfortunate then that when you do need to venture out into the wild, whether it be to inspire a new recipe or to get the right materials for one you already have, Atelier Sophie isn’t as engaging. Its turn-based battle system utilises an offensive and defensive stance system. Defensive stances will help protect against attacks and help fend off stronger foes. Offensive stances however will utilise party members’ support attacks, wherein your party can dog-pile damage onto enemies, as long as your chain meter is built up to 100%. Your first few battles will feel invigorating but the high wares off quickly. Ultimately, the bulk of the game is spent in battles that feel shallow, even late in the game. The real reward for fighting comes from the potential for testing out newly crafted weapons, but those moments are more rare than I'd like them to be.
With the ability to only take three party members with you at a time, it comes dangerously close to making its cast of characters feel underused. However, thanks to the new friendship level, those that you spend more time with, whether in or outside of battle, will trigger new events like a Persona game. While it lacks the depth of said games on both a systemic and individual level, it gives Atelier Sophie something else to do in your downtime besides fighting monsters and experimenting in alchemy.
You may be wondering why I've done so little to describe the differences between its console and PC counterparts. Mainly, because there are barely any of note. Aside from the ability to change your resolution, Atelier Sophie, like many niche JRPGs of its ilk, is unconcerned with the techno-savvy PC crowd. Whether to its detriment or not, it is what it is. Framerate performed solidly throughout and I never ran into any noticeable hiccups. When compared to Gust's older PC outings, its a noticeable improvement –although stilll remains as simplistic as ports can be.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book isn’t anything groundbreaking, but any fan of the series can attest the Atelier games never set out to be – and it doesn't matter. It’s clear Gust isn’t trying to court non-JRPG fans with their latest release, but instead have attempted to make Atelier more visible for those on the edge, hence its wider release. It offers an opportunity for a new audience to explore this too-often overlooked series. There’s no better time to do so, either, thanks to Atelier Sophie’s ability to know what these games do best.