In a world where games like Ni-no-kuni and Valkyria Chronicles sell more copies in the West than in Japan and Tales in the Sky: The First Chapter hits some big numbers on Steam, the world of the niche RPG isn’t quite so niche anymore. It’s to this backdrop of ever-growing popularity that Gust’s Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is released. A niche-RPG by every definition of the phrase, the long running Atelier series follows Alchemists as they roam the world finding ingredients and honing their craft. The start of a new Trilogy, Atelier Sophie also heralds the series entrance to the PlayStation 4. A new platform and a new trilogy could spell downfall, but in Atelier Sophie’s case, the transition has been relatively painless.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book focuses on, you guessed it, a young alchemist named Sophie who has recently taken over her Late-Grandmother’s Atelier (basically an Alchemy hut). The game opens to Sophie struggling and failing to be a successful alchemist: a situation the story seems to imply is not unusual for Sophie. Her dream is to become a magnificent alchemist like her Grandmother, but how can she if she can’t even get simple recipes right? Enter the eponymous Mysterious Book, Plachta. Plachta, unlike most other books, is able to fly, talk and is suffering from a severe case of amnesia. Plachta, as it turns out, regains her memories as Sophie rewrites her alchemical recipes and is then able to impart more wisdom to Sophie. The adventure begins as you explore more distant and darker areas, gradually restoring Plachta’s memory and building your own abilities at the same time. This story might sound simple to some, and it is, but its humorous writing and likeable characters make it shine. Sophie is similar to Serena (Usagi) from Sailor Moon; a bit of an airhead, but honest, friendly, likeable and striving to do her best. Striving to do their best is a theme that seems to apply to almost every character in Atelier Sophie and it really is heartening to see. Atelier Sophie is largely akin to a feel good movie and this generally happy vibe makes you want to experience every moment that it can throw at you.
As Sophie shows early on, being an alchemist isn’t a particularly easy thing to do. As it turns out, creating things isn’t the only thing you do as an alchemist, you also need to gather the ingredients for whatever you’re cooking in that cauldron of yours. To do this, you will need to brave the horrific dangers of the world and go smack some slimes up. Well, while you will be smacking up a lot of slimes and other beasts, the main reason you’re going out is to hit up some gathering points for a whole lot of ingredients. Gathering ingredients to create your alchemical wonders is one of the necessary grinds in Atelier Sophie, and it can become a bit boring over time. During this, you’ll also need to fight off the monsters that assault you as you liberate ingredients for your basket. Atelier Sophie employs a turn-based battle system that will be instantly familiar to avid-RPG fans. To begin, you’ll decide if you will take an offensive or defensive stance (increasing damage given or reducing damage taken respectively) and then choose from a number of commands. These can be to attack, defend, use an item or using each character’s unique skills. The skills do help to make the battles a bit interesting, but this is a largely uninspired system.
While you’re generally finding new areas relatively quickly, the necessity of having to go to each area relatively often to gather specific ingredients does lead to some frustration. When you include the Request system, which generally involves killing specific monsters or gathering specific ingredients (sometimes to make specific items), you really do learn to love leaving certain areas. Potentially, having a higher number of larger areas could have helped alleviate this to a degree.
Now that you’ve got your ingredients, it’s time to get your Full Metal Alchemist on and use the law of equivalent exchange to make yourself some new stuff. To do this, you select the appropriate recipe like the one for Berg Medicine and then you’re taken to a screen where you pick your ingredients. Each ingredient has a number of important features that you need to look at, including its quality, special characteristics and shape. Yes, you read that right, its shape. Why does the shape of an ingredient matter, you ask? Surely, you’re just going to chop it up into tiny pieces anyway! Well, if that’s what you thought then you would be dead wrong. To make sure that alchemy actually requires some skill on your behalf, each ingredient has a certain shape to it, similar to the shapes you see in Tetris. Each ingredient is then placed on a grid representing your cauldron, with the aim being to get all the ingredients on there without them overlapping. If the ingredients overlap, the obviously feel a bit weird about it, and the ingredient that was there first buggers off elsewhere. This results in the quality of your end product being worse than what it would have been if everything fit successfully. This results in a balancing act, sometimes you’ll use a lower quality ingredient because its shape will fit with the rest of your ingredients. It brings a little bit of strategy and fun into something that could have been a simple boring button press.
Being a cross-generation title, Atelier Sophie suffers from the same problem faced by previous titles such as J-Stars Victory Vs+ and Tales of Zestiria; You can tell that the game wasn’t developed with the power of the PlayStation 4 in mind. Environments are small and fairly sparse, with some largely simple textures. The best example is the town, which is relatively small compared to other towns in games, but is split into roughly 7 areas, each with a short loading screen between them. It can get somewhat annoying to get to the other side of the town to turn in a request or see a certain person. While the environments aren’t a wonder to behold, the character models fair better and are detailed and lovely to look at. The art-style also helps, with the colourful anime-inspired art style drawing some focus away from the lacklustre technical aspects of the graphics.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is a lovely tale of friendship, perseverance and following your dreams, filled with a wonderful cast of characters. It may not be the best looking game out there, but the art style is pretty and the characters look great. The grind isn’t for everyone, but if you don’t mind it then I highly recommend giving Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book a shot.
Interesting set of characters
Great anime-inspired art style
Graphical quality could be better