Could it be after my long, tumultuous, hour-grinding search, I have found a JRPG that calls to me? In the most unsuspecting way Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book has beckoned my attention and delivered a favorable experience. With its simple RPG and material grinding mechanics, this title has found its niche in my game library. Dropping the weight of the typical cumbersome tropes that adhere to this genre, I joyously spent many hours conjuring up new recipes and items from my faithful cauldron, meeting new characters, farming alchemy materials, and battling wacky enemies. For the western audience, this may be what you’ve been waiting for from Gust and Koei Tecmo to reel you in.
The Atelier series has a long lineage. Fortunately in the case of this release (the 17th in the series), you can jump right in as I did having no prior knowledge or biases to the past entries. The story revolves around a young girl named Sophie, who is a struggling alchemist doing the best she can to attain more knowledge and strength. Inside her Atelier that she inherited from her praised alchemist grandmother, she discovers a strange book that seems to have a mind of its own. After apprehensively inquiring who or what the book is, she discovers that it’s a guidebook named Plachta, that contains the greatest secrets and methods in alchemy. There’s only one problem. The mysterious book’s pages and “mind” have all been wiped clean. The only way to bring its memory and vast knowledge back is to refill it with new recipes and materials, only then will the memories come back to it’s sacred pages. Your goal now is to set off and collect and harvest items, explore new lands, meet new characters, and conjure new recipes to help fill the pages of this illustrious book, and discover Plachta’s story.
The way in which the story is crafted, compliments the gameplay loop that I’m sure the developer intended. Whenever you produce a new recipe or discover a new material, it brings back a piece of Plachta’s memory, and clues to her past. I finally felt like I had a sense of direction in a JRPG, simply explore, report to Plachta, and she would open new paths for exploration and items to collect. The idea of “the more you collect, the more you advance” rewards the player and advocates a constant sense of progression. One of the hooks of the Atelier series is the alchemy portions. In AS, practicing your alchemy isn’t so cut and dry as “add this, combine this, press X”. Each time you go to create something, you are prompted to a mini-game where you have to try and align matching colors and symbols. How you choose to complete the mini game grants your specific item strengths in different areas. This function adds a little variety and fun to a mechanic that will be used many times over during a playthrough. I must say the farming material-grind and creation aspect, muster up a Harvest Moon style vibe, and I love it. A cool feature you eventually see is the Doll Make System. Here Plachta’s spirit is transformed into a doll the can be customized using her alchemy. This unlocks different costumes and abilities which can be important if you choose her as a party member.
Just as integral to the alchemy component of Atelier Sophie, is the combat. Combat works on a turn-based ladder system. You can choose the offensive or defensive approach, item use, consumables, ect. for your party, and the actions are carried out in the order the ladder displays. Unlike most intricate, menu consumed JRPG’s, AS’ approach is simple, enjoyable, and not punishing. Instead of avoiding encounters when exploring new zones, I was ready for the challenge in taking on new, higher leveled enemies. Let me say, Atelier Sophie definitely has a variety of baddies. I squared up against ghosts, to tiny blobs, to multi-colored tigers, to enormous bird-like creatures, there was never a shortage of strangeness to go around. What was nice was the player-friendly combat mechanics gave me confidence in my skill set when using my party, and encouraged me to battle more. The real fun begins when you can swap between zany party members and change the dynamic of how your battle plan flows.
Control and functionality in AS fall into the hit and miss category. I did appreciate the layout of the hub world, and found navigating it to be extremely instinctual. Moving Sophie around followed these ideals mostly, but every now and then I would come across wacky control blunders. At first I thought it was my controller and immediately tested it on different games to debunk it, but only found that it was indeed coming from AS. At given times I would use the right stick to view my environment, and the camera would keep spinning several seconds after I let go of the stick. Additionally, there were instances when browsing through the inventory screen where my cursor would just stop moving up or down. After a few seconds, it would catch up and I would regain control. Not a detrimental fault, but something that proved to be annoying after the first few occurrences.
Atelier Sophie mimics the same visual presentation of recent Gust/Koei Tecmo games. After finally finding a game in their catalog I thoroughly enjoyed, it was a slight letdown not being visually treated to something unique. Now this is not meant to undermine the graphics in the least, don’t get me wrong, they’re pretty. They portray a stylized animation with sharp textures and a rich pallet of color, but sadly it doesn’t distinguish itself too far beyond that point. What did distinguish itself to me was how this game was delivered with that sweet, sweet, English dub. After playing so many JRPGs with mountains of subtitles to read through, it was such a treat to have the characters brought to life for me. It allowed the relationship between the character and the player to be much more substantial, giving the character individuality with a voice and personality.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is the straightforward, whimsically entertaining JRPG title I’ve been waiting for. It has opened my eyes to the Atelier series and peaked my interest in possibly becoming acquainted with previous entries. With its simple RPG and material farming mechanics, the barrier of entry to the genre has been brought down. Atelier Sophie stays focused on its narrative and contains an engaging alchemy crafting gameplay experience. Equipped with interesting characters and vast environments to explore, there is much more here than executing recipes and filling that mysterious book.
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