Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is a Japanese role playing game developed by Gust Co. A company that appears to not fuck around as this is the 17th major release in the ongoing Atelier series since its debut on the original Sony Playstation, all the way back in 1997. Releasing 17 core titles in 20 years is pretty impressive and to be honest I feel kind of embarrassed that this is my first venture into the adventure that is the Atelier series of games.
For those of us who didn’t spend any time in France during the middle ages, Atelier is actually a French word that means Workshop or Studio, and so, as the name partially suggests, this game is all about running your very own alchemy studio. The game is set in the small town of Kirchen Bell, you take control of Sophie, a budding young alchemist who dreams of one day being able to synthesise objects and items just as strong and powerful as her recently deceased grandmother, to whom the Atelier used to belong. Depressingly though, Sophie is a rather shitty alchemist, barely capable of synthesising simple potions. Eventually, you happen across a 500 year old, talking alchemy book that has somehow remained undiscovered despite sitting in plain fucking sight, less than a few meters away from where Sophie spends most of her life, now you would think that alchemy would become pretty simple from here on out, as this talking alchemy book could probably just tell you what to make and how to make it. But it would appear that the book, whose name is Plachta, has a rather severe, and convenient case of amnesia, and the only way to regain her memories, is to fill her full of alchemy recipes.
Herein lies the main premise of the game. There is no catastrophe attempting to end existence. There are no warring nations that you must stop from destroying the world. There is no hole in the space time continuum that you must close, preventing reality as we know it from imploding in on itself. There is simply Sophie, trying to fill a book with alchemy recipes, so that this book may regain it’s memories, and eventually, it’s human form.
You do this by thinking up recipe ideas and collecting the ingredients needed to synthesis into items and objects. Thinking up a new recipe idea can be triggered by filling certain requirements like picking up items, battling enemies, talking to people or reacting to the environment. Collecting ingredients can be achieved by defeating enemies, finding them laying around on the ground and synthesising them from other ingredients. It’s a really relaxing game to be honest and I find the lack of an important, overarching narrative to really work in the game’s favour.
At this point I think it’s important to point out that just because Atelier lacks an engrossing story you shouldn’t be fooled into assuming that the game lacks substance. A clever tetris-esque crafting system and intriguingly awkward character interactions were more than enough to not only keep me playing, but actively wanting to understand why these characters were speaking to each other in such odd and rather disjointed ways. You could put it down to the localisation of the game or the fact that I was playing with English dubbing, however I couldn’t shake this overall feeling that the characters in Atelier Sophie don’t really like each other at all, and that most of their conversations were full of bullshit niceties and fake as hell compliments.
The battles are all turn based and suffer the same problem that most JRPGS tackel when choosing to adopt this type of system. With just a little bit of grinding, the enemies you encounter are a fucking breeze. Mashing on ‘attack’ is enough to get you through 99% of battles and even if you only spend a little bit of extra time in an area to gain a few extra levels, then you will more or less forever be ahead of the pack and never really find any of the fights a real issue. Which isn’t necesarilly a bad thing, because in the end, battling beasties is just a mechanism to further facilitate the gathering of ingredients you can utilise in your quest to be a totally rad alchemist.
The activity of alchemy in Atelier consists of standing in front of your cauldron for extended periods of time, selecting ingredients and matching them in a weird tetris-esque, square based puzzle system that, depending on the ingredients chosen and the shapes placed within the puzzle screen, produces various items with varying levels of potency, strength and added effects. For instance, if you are looking at synthesising a few potions to sell down at the local pub, then you would be looking for the effect that causes shops to buy the item at an incresed price. There are modifiers that affect attack power, element resistances, selling price, item gathering and a whole slew of other cool effects that can greatly alter the utility of the item being created.
Another factor to keep in mind when searching fields for ingredients, attempting to track down and kill particular monsters or finishing time sensitive quests, is Atelier’s night and day cycles. Certain ingredients will only be available during particular hours of the day, and some enemies will only spawn during certain days of the month, meaning you might find yourself having to purchase hints and rumours from one of the shopkeepers to better your chances of finding your elusive prey, whatever it may be.
Let’s not beat around the bush here, Atelier Sophie: The alchemist of the Mysterious book is anime as fuck. But in saying that, it’s also a rather intriguing game and pretty different to most of the games available on the current generation of consoles. A relaxing and refreshing JRPG that really needs to be played to be properly appreciated. It succeeds in making me wish I had discovered the Atelier series long before now and makes me eager to play more of it in the future.
The Good: Relaxing, refreshing, good gameplay and interesting crafting system.
The Bad: Anime isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The manliest of manly men might be put of by the rather feminine nature of the game.
The Final Verdict: Gust have created a relaxing and refreshing JRPG that houses an interesting crafting system and unique character interactions. The visuals are colourful and bright and look as though they were lifted straight out of an anime, which is a good thing for fans of the genre.