Tackling an RPG is always a daunting task. And other than in the case of games like Dark Souls, the JRPG is always the most intimidating of the genre. The highest levels of concentration, character development, patience, and ultimately time are required to best these beastly games. As a person who has played and reviewed my fair share of Koei Tecmo titles, I went into the recently released (3/7/17) Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey expecting a harsh uphill battle. While this is still a JRPG, I was surprised to discover that this is much different from just about every other game I’ve played in the genre.
Atelier Firis is actually the latest in an extremely long line of games stretching all the way back to 1997. There have been 17 different main titles, several side games, and countless remakes within the franchise. Atelier Firis is the second game in the franchise to have been released on the PS4. What I like so much about this game, to my surprise, is that it’s probably the first casual RPG I’ve ever played. Usually the word casual is a dirty word in gaming, but in this case I mean it as a compliment. What’s been accomplished with this game is that all the best parts of classic RPGs and open world games have been taken and brought together but with only the bare minimum of commitment expectations. Ultimately this has led to probably the perfect starter RPG for new players to the genre or a break from the hardcore while still being able to stay in the same realm.
Visually, Atelier Firis is very much a Koei Tecmo title. You have an open world full of colors and objects of all kinds, both static and mobile, and a high level of detail, but it’s all on the surface. Clothing is one of the best examples of this. Characters, such as Firis, the title character, have very intricate and ornate costumes, but they have little to no depth. They tend to look more like a very well done flat drawing was taken and wrapped around a 3D model. Most of the objects in the game are rather simple, but together create a very lively world. There are little things like barrels and boxes, flowers, rocks, and all manner of decoration scattered throughout the game to give it character. Much of this is interactive as well. You can break certain objects including specific rocks and trees, open doors, and gather materials throughout the land. The enemies, of which there are many different kinds, walk freely through the world as you do. It’s similar to Final Fantasy XIII, where the enemies are just walking about and can be ignored or engaged but when you engage them or they engage you the game enters battle mode. The battle mode is your classic turn based RPG layout where your party stands in a line and the enemies stand in a line on the opposite side of the field. The general visual style of the game is somewhere between chibi anime and Berserk and the Band of Hawk, also by Koei Tecmo. It’s a detailed open world of 3D objects, lots of textures and colors, and many moving parts, but everything is made to look cute and friendly. Even the enemies don’t look very intimidating as they attack you.
The game has a pretty informative but simple HUD. When you don’t do anything for a little while, a command bar appears along the bottom of the screen and then disappears when you move again. In the top right corner is a constant mini-map shaped like a compass. The map itself is similar to the one in Final Fantasy X where it shows the area you can walk in, but not finer details. It also shows where enemies, people, landmarks, and special points are, but not collectible materials. Connected to the bottom of it is an LP bar which is just numbers slowly counting between 0 and 100. In the top right corner is a clock that constantly counts down days and hours with different pictures for various parts of the day. The battle HUD consists of a chain burst bar on the far left, a turn bar on the far right with avatars for each character and enemy in the battle, an action menu floating in the left center part of the screen on your turn, and status bars showing HP and MP for each of your party members at the bottom. Battles look like traditional turn based RPG battles. The attacks have special animations and it all works pretty much the way you’d expect it to.
The menus are a bit different from the usual Koei Tecmo style. These look a lot more like a journal full of notes with you flipping through pages and looking at various fonts and sizes of text. There are lots of little pictures and descriptions all throughout the menus, making everything look very personal. It’s a cute game and most of the characters are young girls, but other than for one specific character, which isn’t actually human, it’s pretty wholesome all the way through. That one has a totally ridiculous, stereotypical Japanese fan service costume though. The cutscenes are directly embedded in the gameplay so the graphics never change throughout the experience except for the opening and post prologue movies. The opening movie looks like an anime. If you just showed me the opening video with no context I’d think it was a commercial for a TV show. The post prologue movie is a combination of hand drawn pictures and gameplay footage. This game runs very smoothly. Only the main character and non-party NPCs actually appear on screen outside of battle and the rest tent, but they all move very well. Overall this is a solid looking game. It’s not Final Fantasy XV, but it’s a nice looking game. It’s cute but still respectable looking. Playing Atelier Firis is a pleasant visual experience.
As I stated before, this game takes strong elements from various other games and brings them down to a more casual level. It’s an open world game split up into regions, but the open world is just big enough. It’s more like Ocarina of Time sized than something too epic like Skyrim. The fast travel system is really convenient because it lets you warp to any rest stop or landmark you’ve found along the way in a given region. And when I say fast travel, I mean fast. It’s nearly instant with no loading. You can’t warp between regions though. You always have to walk back to a certain region before you can fast travel within it. The overall goal of the game is to reach a specific city at the opposite end of the map within the time limit and pass “the license exam”. That’s the next important element. The game has a time limit of 365 days. Time is constantly counting down. You can’t pause the clock even when in the menus. The only time it doesn’t count is during battles and when looking back at the message log. When you rest, perform alchemy, or fast travel, the clock will automatically count down by a scaled amount of time. The days take roughly 15 – 20 minutes to pass. It’s a lot like playing Majora’s Mask with the time constantly counting down, but at the same time you don’t have only three days to play the game. You do still feel the pressure of the clock though. While you do have plenty of time, you’re constantly thinking about whether or not you’re wasting it. There are various ways to use it efficiently and as you progress you start to take it more and more seriously. You’ll avoid certain battles, explore less fruitful areas for shorter periods of time, and rest as little as possible. LP plays a key role in your approach to the game. All actions outside your tent use up LP and it can only be restored by doing alchemy or resting. Resting restores more LP at a time, but it’s also less productive. If you run out of LP then you will be unable to move and forced back to your most recent campfire. There are also repercussions for playing with low LP such as less materials collected at a time.
The key mechanic of the game is not actually battle, but alchemy. The entire plot hinges on the idea that Firis is an alchemist in training trying to improve her skills so she can pass the license exam. Alchemy works really well in this game because while it’s the main focus, it plays more like a mini-game. You collect materials throughout the world or gain them from defeating enemies. When at your tent, which you can set up at campfires scattered throughout the world in an almost Dark Souls style way but way more frequently, you can use those materials to create items based on recipes. The recipes are not set in stone. Materials are classed based on their makeup. There are materials like fuel, water, plant, and metal. But these can occur in the form of many different substances of various weights and qualities. You pick the ingredients you want to use for a specific recipe and create an item. But it’s more interactive than just choosing things from a list. Materials must be placed on your mixing table in a certain way. This works like a static game of Tetris, requiring you to fit materials as efficiently as possible. Different materials have different shapes and colors. Depending on your mixture of elements and layout, the items you create can be of greater or lesser quality. Quality affects the effects of those items. Healing items, for example, can regenerate more or less HP. There is also a bonus element to alchemy in the form of catalysts. Within the 4×4 alchemy placement grid are special lines. These lines can occur in different layouts depending on which catalyst you’re using. There are always two of them though. If you can fully cover one or both lines then your item gets a bonus. This system requires little effort to understand at a basic level, but to master it and get the best possible outcomes will take a lot of planning and practice. You have an alchemy level which grows every time you create something. As you progress through the game and find more recipes, higher alchemy levels will be required to make newer items.
While I really like the alchemy system in general, I don’t like the mechanic for gaining new recipes. You don’t buy them or find them. They just come to you as you play. The game justifies it through the writing, but essentially you just learn new recipes at random as you play the game for no specific reason. Or at least not reasons shown to the player. Alchemy is used as the driving force behind the gameplay. You use it to create items for use in combat, fulfilling quest requests, gaining access to new areas, and various other things. While alchemy is more important than battle, you still need to take combat seriously. For starters, many quests, which gain you money and special items, require you to win battles. You also get special materials for alchemy from defeating different enemies. You can sneak up on enemies and hit them for a first attack, but if they hit you first then they get the first turn. Speed affects the order of turns throughout the battle and can be affected by special skills and status effects. Winning battles isn’t game breaking, but there is a negative affect for losing them. When Firis falls in battle you are taken back to your most recent campfire and restored but you lose a random portion of the materials you were carrying. Battles require strategy just like in any other turned based RPG. You must equip items, weapons, and armor on each party member and make use of their various skills to defeat monsters. I have yet to face any humans in battle. All materials you find are held on your person until you get back to your tent and put them in the container. You only have a limited number of carry spots so you need to make sure you don’t run out of space or you’ll have to throw something away.
As with most party based JRPGs, each party member has a combat level. You can have up to four party members in battle at once and like in most turn based RPGs they all level up for participating, have weapons and armor that can be replaced, and can learn new techniques as they level up. But this game takes the burden of leveling customization away from the player. As characters level up they just automatically learn new combat skills. The gameplay is pretty simple for a JRPG, but it’s still solid enough to be a fulfilling experience. I really liked the causal nature of it all without feeling like the game was pointless. There are three difficulty levels and various ways to approach the game to make it more challenging, but what makes it special is the fact that you really can tailor the experience to your own personal desires and skill level. As with any good RPG, you can create multiple save files and load back to wherever you want whenever you’re in your tent. Atelier Firis gets high marks for gameplay.
The sound is good, but watered down from the normal Koei Tecmo style. This is appropriate because of the game’s overall character. This is the journey of a young, immature girl who wants to have a happy adventure around the world. To have done their usual epic war music would not have played well here. Instead you have a long list of background music tracks that create a positive, happy atmosphere. As with most games by the studio, you have a lot of autonomy with the sound. You can select your music for specific parts of the game such as battle or while in your tent, set volume levels for music, effects, talking, and cutscenes, and pick the speaking language of the characters. You also get access to the entire soundtrack for the previous PS4 game in the franchise. While they don’t talk for all lines in the game, there are many talking scenes where both important and passerby characters have audible dialog in either English of Japanese depending on your settings.
The effects are as good as I would expect from Koei Tecmo. The battle sounds, dialog, and such sound great, but they also did a great job with the open world effects as well. You can hear the main character’s footsteps as she ventures across the land. This gets louder when you run. Hacking away at trees and rocks makes specific sounds depending on what you’re hitting and what you’re hitting it with. The game has a fully functional and in depth sound library of both music and effects that is mixed together perfectly with default settings. As this is probably the first fully open world I’ve played by this studio in several years, I was very impressed by what they’ve accomplished here, but not surprised by it based on their long list of quality sounding games.
The writing is probably the Achilles heel of Atelier Firis. This is a very typical teen girl anime drama plot. Firis is a younger sister trapped in a small village, yearning to go out and see the world. She envies her sister who gets to go out and hunt for food while she’s stuck at home doing chores because her mother is worried about her safety. By coincidence she meets an alchemist who volunteers to teach her alchemy, which she just happens to have a natural talent for, so she can use her newfound skills to survive out in the world. After a dramatic argument with her parents, they finally agree to let her leave town but tell her that she must pass the license exam within a year or return home for good never to venture out again. That’s why you have a time limit. You start off your adventure with Firis, her sister, teacher, and her teacher’s teacher, but the latter two abandon you as soon as the adventure starts. Later you meet other characters and they join your party. I do believe at some point you’ll get back your teacher and her teacher as well though. While the game centers around the plot established in the game’s prologue, it’s not the main focus of the experience. The plot doesn’t develop much once you leave your hometown. Dialog just kind of randomly happens as you do things. It feels very organic, but at the same time the randomness of it takes away from the overall plot. It feels scattered and unrelated. You meet lots of random characters who just pop in and out of your tent unannounced. You help people and complete quests but the story doesn’t really seem to build the way a plot driven RPG usually does. Instead it’s more like Pokemon where you just meet lots of random people along the way to your goal, but there’s no real driving plot development. If they took all dialog out of the game past the prologue, I don’t feel like it would make much difference outside of key talking points about what to do and where to go.
Having not yet gotten too far into the game, I can’t say for sure at this point if the plot improves or stays the same. But I can say that so far any plot that has occurred after leaving the town that didn’t involve a character leaving or joining the party has been pretty much pointless other than for establishing new quests. You have a good amount of text tied to each quest. In your quest book you can find notes about the quest and what you need to do. I really appreciated the level of details given about quests. You get some background information that you can choose to ignore in black text and specific quest goals in red. And quests are broken up into tasks. This chain system works really well because it updates automatically. Whenever you get a new quest or complete one, the quest updates with an on screen notification and automatically starts the next part of the quest if there is one. Tutorials occur in the game both as dialog and as separate text based explanations with pictures depending on what the mechanic in question is. You can choose to skip all tutorials, but they are all very short and easy to understand. While the plot doesn’t suit me that much, the level of detail that was put into the game’s texts without being overbearing is impressive. It’s a very thorough, but efficient game with clearly marked information, an encyclopedia of reference knowledge, and many characters with dialog. If nothing else, it’s a complete experience as far as writing is concerned.
One thing I will say though is that the game’s prologue is unnecessarily long. It took me almost three hours just to get out of the town. During this time there is literally only one battle, little to no organic character development, and really whiny dialog from the main character. I will admit that I almost quit before getting to the actual game because of how drawn out the introduction is. If not for my station as a reviewer I don’t think I would have pushed myself through it. It’s very clear why the game has a post prologue opening cutscene to start the main game.
As this is an open world RPG with a timer, there is a decent amount of replay value. You can play on multiple difficulties in different ways. You can go to different places in different orders each playthrough. You even have the ability to make some key decisions. At the same time, the game has automated a lot of things players are traditionally responsible for managing like leveling up. But I actually like that in this particular game. Again, it’s a causal RPG that doesn’t ask for the level of commitment or seriousness that most JRPGs do. Within a playthrough there are also a number of factors that create replay value such as weather and time of day. Different monsters, materials, and sometimes quests come out at different times of day in different areas, meaning you should explore the same area multiple times under different conditions for different things. The same things can be said about weather, of which there are eight types in the game. Atelier Firis has 45 trophies including a platinum, but this is the first game I’ve ever played that has all 44 non platinum trophies listed as hidden trophies. I found this to be super irritating because you have no idea what you’re supposed to be doing to get that platinum without looking it up online. In a way it makes for a more organic adventure but for trophy hunters it’s a nightmare. I can’t exactly say how long this game will take you, but I do feel like you’ll get at least 60 hours out of it in a first playthrough. Mathematically it comes out to considerably more than that if you ride out to the very last day on the clock, which you don’t have to. I definitely feel like $60 is a fair price if you’re looking for something like this. But it doesn’t compare to a hardcore JRPG in many respects.
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey is a fine game. I thoroughly enjoyed playing it and I do plan on finishing it at some point in the hopefully near future. While it’s simple in many respects, I found the automation convenient and the overall experience quite charming. At times the gameplay even felt addictive in many respects. I went into it not knowing what to expect, but I’m happy to say I was left feeling very satisfied and wanting more by the time I stopped playing.
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