If you’ve ever wondered who creates the items in role-playing games, then look no further than Atelier Sophie. This is the 17th game in Gust’s long-running Atelier series, though you probably haven’t heard of it unless you’re a fan. Luckily, you don’t need to know anything about the franchise to play the game. This entry follows Sophie, a young alchemist who combines materials to create new, useful items. She meets a mysterious talking book named Plachta who has lost her memories. Sophie discovers that writing alchemy recipes into the book helps Plachta regain fragments from her past, and so the path to item synthesis mastery begins.
Alchemy is the meat of the game. By combining various materials, you create brand new items. For instance, you can make medicine by mixing grass, animal parts, and water into your cauldron. The actual process is more engaging and complex, of course. Atelier Sophie visualizes item synthesis using a 4x4 (eventually up to 6x6) square grid. Each of your materials are block formations that you must fit into the grid, Tetris-style. This puzzle element is already fun, but there are even more wrinkles that make it fascinating. Scattered throughout the grid are bonus lights. When one of your blocks overlaps a light, a meter builds up, that when filled grants you a bonus effect like extra power. More lights appear as you place items, and the challenge is to garner as many bonuses as possible. This admittedly takes some time to comprehend, and the in-game tutorials don’t explain it well. However, once everything clicks (and it will), it’s mentally stimulating to build an ideal item from scratch. It’s incredibly rewarding to use your finished products, whether as a tool in battle or as a superb material for better recipes.
While the actual alchemic process is fun, the preparation for it is not. To create items, you must first collect materials and recipes. You can gather materials outside of town in bland locales. Unlike traditional RPGs, each area on the map is a fragmented stage, making the world feel disconnected. A day/night cycle and a weather mechanic
You must also learn new recipes by performing a variety of tasks, such as purchasing an item, fighting an enemy, or talking to a person. Some tasks are clever, but others are unintuitive. Your recipe book gives you hints, ranging from vague to obvious. The story-related recipes require the most legwork and are sometimes a slog to grind for. Nevertheless, there is a sense of excitement when Sophie is suddenly inspired to write in her alchemy book. The only thing missing is her snapping her fingers and proclaiming, “I’ve come up with a new recipe!”
Battles are another part of the equation. Sophie and her party, comprised of the town’s resident entrepreneurs, engage in turn-based combat against wildlife and demons. It’s not actually that fun, but there are some interesting kinks thrown in. First of all, you can see ahead of time what your opponents will do, whether they’re guarding or preparing a devastating attack. Aside from choosing the proper reactionary move, each character also assumes an offensive or defensive stance. When two or more characters take the same stance, they assist each other with either support attacks or protection. As you progress, your characters gain the abilities to perform flashier offensive and defensive moves, sometimes dealing hundreds of damage to every enemy. However, you don’t really control when that happens. A meter builds up with each action. When it reaches 300%, the next character performs her special move, and the meter resets. The battle system itself is decent, but the implementation and overall flow leaves something to be desired. My favorite aspect of battle ties back to the alchemy system. Equipping your strongest weapons and utilizing your best items make a huge difference in battle. The game effectively shows you the fruits of your labor in a powerful way.
Sophie and Plachta are adorable characters, but after their exposition, the story is admittedly dull. Unlike most of its predecessors, Atelier Sophie has no time limit, which means you can play at your leisure without looming deadlines. With no sense of urgency, you can enjoy a stress-free experience with more opportunities to hone your synthesis craft and build relationships with the townsfolk. They are a delightful, eccentric bunch and include a portly plant expert, a shrinking item duplicator, and an ex-mercenary puppeteer. Similarly to the Harvest Moon series, you can give townspeople gifts and unlock a multitude of special events that reveal their subplots. Unfortunately, activating these events is usually a matter of being at the right place at the right time. Unless you go out of your way every in-game weekend to randomly talk to people, you might miss out.
At the same time, without urgency, the game is a bit slow and filled with needless fluff. While there are exciting story moments, particularly Plachta’s growth and revelations that lead to an actual antagonist, they are small parts of what is otherwise an endless grind. There are actual quests that just tell you to wait around, which could have been replaced with meaningful story development. As much as I enjoyed relaxing with the residents, the pacing was tiresome at times. I don’t believe the game needed a time limit to improve its pace, but it needed a bigger motivator beyond restoring a book’s memories to keep things interesting.
The graphics sport a nice cel-shaded anime look, though the textures are a bit rough, even by modern Japanese RPG standards. Still, the framerate is silky smooth, leading to razor-sharp battle sequences. The character designs are cute and wonderfully presented through special CG artwork and a fully-animated opening. The game features both English and Japanese voices. While the English dub performance is solid, only about half of the game is voiced. In contrast, the Japanese dub has voices for every conversation, even those with nameless characters. The peppy, European-inspired town music is a perfect fit for the game. The energetic battle songs are infused with jazz and folk flavors. Special DLC background music from other Atelier games is also packaged into the Steam version of Atelier Sophie. All of the other DLC comes free as well, including a bonus map and exclusive costumes for a certain character.
Overall, Atelier Sophie is a mixed bag. This game serves as a good point of entry for newcomers due to the removal of the series’ notorious time limit, but fans may find the experience middling. While item alchemy is surprisingly fun, the elements surrounding it are not as engaging. The tedious gameplay loop may turn players off before the plot finally gets going. Much like the items synthesized in Sophie’s cauldron, the game excels most when everything comes together – rallying the townspeople to jointly make a gift for Plachta, forming a party of townsfolk equipped with handcrafted weapons and armor, and painstakingly creating amazing items to destroy the toughest foes. At its best, Atelier Sophie devotes itself to its alchemic theme, synthesizing a pleasant experience.
I am a lifelong gamer, having grown up with Nintendo since I was young. My passion for gaming led to one of the greatest moments of my life, my video game themed wedding!