Developer: Gust Corporation
Platform: PS4, PS Vita, and PC
Release Date: March 7, 2017
ESRB: T for Teen
Note: This review is based on the PS4 version of the game
Year after year it has become a routine for me to try out the newest Atelier role-playing games. And, frankly, as someone who plays so many RPGs in general they have been a refreshing contrast among many grander-scaled and traditional examples in the genre, so I have not exactly regretted it either. There is something genuinely charming about a series that cares more about somehow making crafting whimsical and fun (also deceptively deep) with solid RPG fundamentals underneath than anything else.
As I have learned, however, it only really takes one game to really sour one on an entire series going forward. Last year's Atelier Sophie was just that for me. Atelier Sophie was the first entry in the series that I honestly felt like my time was wasted in playing and I probably would have been better off ignoring altogether with how little enjoyment I got out of it. So, to say my enthusiasm for the direct follow-up and newest release in the series called: Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey on PS4, PS Vita, and even PC, was tepid is putting it lightly.
That said, to avoid making hasty judgement about the newest Atelier release, I decided to try and walk a mile in Firis's shoes. Or, well... actually many. Firis does a whole lot of traveling in her game as it turns out.
Unfortunately, Firis's adventure begins rather slow and confined. She has lived her entire life in an underground mining town and has barely caught a glimpse of the outside world. Well, until former main protagonist of the previous entry, Sophie, literally blows open the town's door with an explosive made from alchemy. During Sophie's brief visit Firis spends it learning how to use alchemy as an apprentice and also to convince her family, as well as the local mayor, to let her hone her natural talent for the alchemist craft by exploring the outside world. The townsfolk agree to let her leave town only on the condition that Firis is able to obtain an official alchemy license within the span of one year, or she'll be forced to return home.
After the prologue, the title becomes comes far more open-ended, and with the exception of Atelier Meruru, is probably the most free-flowing of recent entries. Firis only really has to get three letters of recommendations from registered alchemists, and pass an official license test, before the completion of the main story. Everything in-between, from the places to explore or the people you meet, is pretty much up to the player in how they attempt to approach it.
The basic loop of Atelier Firis's main story is exploring new areas, obtaining letters of recommendation, as well as refining both combat and alchemist prowess. With the looming year deadline, which is not even that strict, adds more incentive to continually move forward too (until post-game which I will get into later).
Because of the nature of being continuously on-foot, Atelier Firis plays with series conventions a fair bit. For one, there is no central hub that is in a fixed location to practice alchemy. Firis literally brings her lodging and portable "Atelier" in her magical backpack (a gift from Sophie). Alchemy itself sees very little change from the prior game, despite how items themselves are more disposable now. To put it plainly, it imbues a sort of puzzle-like approach to the alchemy system and the properties, and quality, of items can be changed based on how smartly one smartly implements the ingredient "pieces". Honestly, if there is one thing that did not need much change from the prior game, it was the fun and additive alchemy system.
Just about every other aspect plays and feels better than the prior release. Heck, it even looks significantly better, with a much more fluid presentation featuring well-realized anime-like character models in addition more varied environments to trek through (though, the latter is still very underwhelming for HD console standards.). More importantly are the changes to combat and gameplay progression. Atelier Sophie's biggest problems were in its baffling steps back in regards to combat, poorly handled approach to day/night cycles that caused obtaining new alchemy recipes and gameplay progress to slow to a crawl. All of which have been significantly revamped for the better in Atelier Firis. Combat is faster, more active, and just more enjoyable in general. Progression is a lot less rigid as well, with most content being far more optional and less time of day dependent, leading to far less tedium in the inherent flow than the prior release.
It is an entertaining flow, but not entirely seamless. The open world itself can feel rather empty until essentially reaching the newest town, for instance. Even if it uses a few tricks to maintain player interest, like the frequent "That's it! I've come up with a new recipe." moments for Firis's often bizarre alchemy items when you gather new ingredients or kill different monsters, there is not a whole to lot to do outside of many towns otherwise. This primarily because gameplay progress feels more organic when you have sidequest objectives from townsfolk, or you try to complete tasks to get letters of recommendation, while also concurrently exploring. Regardless, I was rather surprised to realize that I missed entire towns and recruitable characters before seeing the initial credits roll. This shock applied more so when it had only just over fifteen hours of playtime, which seemed rather short even for Atelier standards. Turns out, there was actually much more game afterwards.
Atelier Firis may be the strangest game in the series where I would be willing to argue that the best parts of it are actually after beating the main story. Basically, the time restriction entirely disappears and gameplay features open up very dramatically. This includes areas that were formally inaccessible can now be explored, new playable characters can join, lots of character sidequests become available which lead up to various unique endings, or even gameplay features like genuine fast-travel appear. Which, to add on that last point, the game has serious back-tracking problems otherwise. Though you can optionally get items to increase moment speed prior to it, like a literal magic broom or a certain changeable outfit for Firis (which there are several of with different effects) until getting the fast-travel in post-game.
I think the most important post-game content are in the character sidequests. Most recruitable characters barely have a presence in the main story aside from filling a party member slot. Or, at the very least, they are made more interesting in post-game. One good example is Firis's sister who goes by Liane. She feels like she has one defining character trait during the main story, which is being overly protective of Firis and doting on her constantly. In post-game, however, you learn quite a bit more about her and why she even became even explorer in the first place, which is darker than you would expect. To give further reasoning, a few of them have unique bosses to showcase the cooler nuances of combat, and that they have truly excellent musical pieces to accompany them helps too. Though, I must emphasize, the overall story script is still not great (even if better in post-game), but it is certainly more satisfying than main story and in gameplay context too.
While I would not say it is exactly the peak of the series, Atelier Firis in pure gameplay fundamentals and concepts imply a very promising step for it going forward. It deliberately fixes most of the mechanical/structural flaws of its predecessor to help emphasize the strengths of the addictive, deep crafting system and enjoyable combat system. There is also a very flexible approach to gameplay progression that the series has not seen in quite some time. If the game was simply better at populating its open-world, and did not hide much of its better content in post-game, it'd become a much safer recommendation for would-be curious adventurers.
+ The open ended exploring philosophy allows a fair bit of freedom in how you want to approach the main objective with much that is truly optional
+ Addictive crafting and entertaining combat system
+ Character models look great in-motion
+ Charming soundtrack
+ Post-game is rather dense and is the most satisfying part from both a gameplay and in narrative context
- Open-world can feel rather empty at times before reaching the next town to feed one new potential side objectives
- Too many of the better parts of the game are after beating the main story
- Backtracking becomes an issue for a good while
- Cringe-worthy character writing and storytelling at times
Overall Score: 7 (out of 10)
A worthwhile departure for the Atelier series that both refines the delightful crafting and combat as well while breathing new life into as well with the far more open ended gameplay structure. It is just a shame that it is rather disjointed in the moments it does reach it biggest strides overall
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.