Developer: Gust Corporation
Release Date: June 7, 2016
ESRB: T for Teen
There is something to be said about the Atelier series when it has crafted more main titles than even Final Fantasy. And yet, despite having so many entries stored throughout its' history, Atelier still somehow manages to retain its fanbase with individuals such as myself. There is clearly a winning recipe to their addictive and light-hearted RPG formula focused on alchemy that Gust Corporation still shows no sign of stopping any time soon.
After enjoying the previous release, Atelier Shallie, quite a bit, I was excited to see what the newest entry, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, had in store. It was the perfect opportunity to make a fresh break from the former "Dusk" trilogy and is also the first title to make its way to the Playstation 4 hardware. The end result, however, is that it may very well be the most disappointing title that I have yet played from the series.
Disappointing does not mean bad, of course. The primary reason why I still play every Atelier entry year by year is that they have pretty much always been mechanically solid despite hit & miss aspects on a per game basis. But, that's Atelier Sophie's biggest problem, it does not really feel like it improves any particular aspect. Atelier Sophie certainly changes things but I would be hard-pressed to say they are direct enhancements over previous releases, and in several regards Atelier Sophie feels like an overall step back as a game.
Before getting into all of that, Atelier Sophie goes more back to basics when it comes to tone. The previous Atelier trilogy tried to be more self-serious with its storytelling -- in particular Atelier Ayesha, which yielded mixed results because of its ultimately unrealized narrative and character potential.
Atelier Sophie is far more straightforward in comparison. The fledgling alchemist Sophie finds a mysterious talking book in her departed grandmother's atelier. The book, whom refers to herself as Plachta, tells Sophie that while she is able to help Sophie get better at alchemy most of her memories -- as well as former written contents -- are gone. As Sophie starts to write down new alchemy recipes on Plachta“s pages, the two learn that that may very well be the key to slowly recover Plachta's lost memories, and so, the two decide to help out one another out and become fast friends.
The setup largely transitions into the game's overall flow as well. Whether this comes from exploring areas or trying out new things via alchemy, Sophie will gradually come up with new synthesis recipes to recover more of Plachta's memories. This premise helps makes the title feel more carefree as well. Though I do think it is a solid concept in nature, as there is no looming yearly deadlines or a possible narrative guilt for failing to make progress in time, Atelier Sophie does not necessarily benefit from it. There are two main reasons for this, one being the newly added Day/Night cycle and the other being how retrieving Plachta“s memories very much creates stopgaps to the gameplay progression.
I'll try to avoid being too technical about Atelier gameplay conventions, but the Day/Night cycle is not handled very well in Atelier Sophie. Basically, both characters events in the central town of 'Kirchen Bell', as well as explorable areas outside of it change depending on what time of day it is. The thing is that both character events and item gathering (needed for alchemy, in particular) are linear in nature. So, for example, you may need an alchemy item that you can only get at nighttime, or there may be a character event that only happens in the morning. Both of these can lead to a lot of tedium with the inherent flow.
To add a wrinkle to the disjointed day/night addition, getting Placta's memories, aka the main source of gameplay progression, absolutely requires you do such things to trigger alchemy unlocks that comes from specific character events or exploring environments at certain times.
Even formulas that were totally solid in prior games, such as combat, don't feel as good in Atelier Sophie. They essentially fragment aspects that made the turn-based combat feel surprisingly active in recent games, like follow-up attack and defending allies one another from incoming enemy attacks, into the newly added "offensive" and "defensive" stances. You can still technically use follow-up skills, but only if multiple allies are the same stance offensive or defensive stance, and you have no control over which ally (or what order) they do it in.
Ultimately it feels like an unnecessary and more limiting change under the guise of trying to be more strategic. It also does not help that combat feels noticeably slower because of it. Like much of Atelier Sophie, it is not bad by any means and is occasionally fun later on, but it is a baffling change when previous games simply handled it better.
If there is one aspect that I think Atelier Sophie actually improves, and is not a weird half-step back in, it's the series's signature alchemy system. Like previous releases, it continues to shatter that expectation that crafting is often boring in games and creates an addictive formula when it comes to making one item to the next. The title borrow many alchemy elements from the prior "Dusk" trilogy while adding more of puzzle element to each creation. Basically, each item you add have their own color and shaping, and by adding them smartly to the cauldron it will lead to very useful traits or outright better items. Though it was weird for me to adjust to, unlike the rest of the game the alchemy system grew on me over time.
The shift to new hardware did not help the title either. Now, I pretty much always complain about how explorable environments often look very drab in Atelier games, but it is even less acceptable on the PS4. Sure, the character models are pleasant to look at, and the whimsical soundtrack is great to listen to, but even as someone who is not really a technical snob still thinks the environments look quite awful in this title.
Though I know it won't happen with Atelier Firis on the horizon in Japan, Atelier Sophie is probably the first title to truly make me think that Gust Corporation should give their games another year to polish everything up. This does not just apply to the presentation, Atelier Sophie simply does not feel fleshed out as an Atelier release from presentation, gameplay, as well as the generally boring cast of characters.
Atelier Sophie is probably the first title of recent Atelier releases that I would have honestly been totally fine with skipping outright. Oddly enough, I don't even think it has to do with series fatigue at all as someone who has been following the series pretty much yearly. I simply think Atelier Sophie takes too many steps back from its gameplay systems to its overall structure and is that much less enjoyable because of it. To further reemphasize my main point, Atelier Sophie is by no means a bad game, just an unremarkable step back for the series that makes a very disappointing debut on PS4.
+ Carefree design allows the player to take their time
+ Deep alchemy system with a puzzle-like charm to it
+ Whimsical soundtrack and vibrant character models
-Overall structure feels quite aimless and is very disjointed because of the newly added day/night cycle
- Getting certain alchemy recipes and ingredients can be needlessly tedious
- Environments look awful and are really not acceptable on PS4
- Odd steps back with combat and gameplay interface
- Wholly forgettable characters and storytelling
Overall Score: 5.5 (out of 10)
Though Atelier games have a tendency for distinguish themselves amongst many tried and true Japanese RPGs. Atelier Sophie, however, may very well be the least noteworthy and forgettable title in recent memory to bear the Atelier name.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS4 code provided by the publisher.