The Atelier series is well known for being a mix of RPG, alchemy and time management. So, what happens when you remove one of the key elements? Gone are the regular assignments and tight deadlines. Instead you have a game which, while still an RPG which focuses heavily on alchemy, this time has a much more relaxed pace.
Atelier Sophie is set in a town called Kirchen Bell and within said town lives an orphan called Sophie. She is a budding alchemist living in her Grandmother’s old atelier. One day while working on some basic alchemy recipes, Sophie comes across a mysterious book and after writing a recipe into it, discovers that the book can speak. The book’s name is Plachta – Plachta knows about an amazing alchemy item called the Cauldron of Knowledge but doesn’t quite remember enough of the details about where to find it. Sophie decides to help restore Plachta’s memories which she does by learning new alchemy recipes.
When I first started playing Atelier Sophie I found the lack of timed assignments to be somewhat strange. I know that not everyone liked the timed elements of the Atelier series but to me they were an integral part of the series and are what sets it apart from other RPGs. Without it I feel the game loses some of its unique charm.
The time element hasn’t been removed completely; time does play an impact in town life. Time flows from day to night and there is a five day week including a two day weekend. Certain characters are only around at the weekend and at night time shops are shut. The weather also changes making this a much more dynamic world compared to previous entries in the series.
Even without the timed assignments the format of the game is fairly familiar. You visit people in town, perform alchemy, and go outside town to find ingredients. Then head back to town, talk to every one again, perform alchemy, venture out again to get more ingredients, you get the picture… Repetitive but oh so very addictive.
An important part of Atelier games has always been its characters, thankfully Atelier Sophie doesn’t disappoint. I genuinely did love the characters and wanted to get to know each and every one of them. They all have their own interesting little side stories which I wanted to see through to the end. For example there was Oskar the childhood friend with the ability to understand plants, or Corneria the cute little alchemist with the ability to duplicate items but who shrinks if she duplicates too much. There are a lot of characters to get to know, some of them will join you in battle and other’s will open up shops in town, there are even some familiar faces who make a reappearance from past games.
There are tonnes of character interactions and one of my favourite things to do after getting back from a trek in the outside world would be to run around town chatting to every character to see what the latest interaction would be.
Within town is Horst’s Café which is where you can go to pick up requests, either to make certain items or fight specific monsters. Some of the side quests have a time limit within which to complete them but as you’re usually given over a month of in-game time to complete them you’ll never feel particularly rushed.
These requests are unfortunately fairly repetitive. There are a few missions that are supposed to level up the requests that you get given but, even after completing these, the requests still don’t really vary. Later in the game you get given vouchers as a reward for completing some requests which can be traded for various items so, although dull, requests are a good way to get money and rare items.
At the Café you can also purchase rumours. Some rumours will change the materials that you can gather in a certain area, others will make strong monsters appear. Although a good idea in theory I found that in practice this system could be quite annoying. At times I wanted specific rumours to appear so I could farm a material but had to rely on random luck and keep checking back to see if the required rumour had appeared yet. I also found it annoying that you don’t know the difficulty of some of the rumour monsters until you’ve purchased the rumour and then gone to visit said monster. Some of the rumour monsters available early/mid game are a hell of a lot tougher then the story battles. Some kind of star or ranking system would have been useful!
Of course a very important part of any Atelier game is the alchemy system. This time you have a cauldron which has a grid where you place materials. Each material is a different shape and the more of the grid you cover the higher the quality, so you have to try to slot materials around each other. If you overlap any materials then the material that was placed down first disappears, lowering the quality. If you place your materials over the glowing lights that appear on the grid then this will increase the effect value of the material. If the effect value is high enough then you will gain effects for example gaining greater fire damage on a bomb.
You’ll find different cauldrons as you play through the game and some of them will have different attributes – for example large grids, higher bonuses, guaranteed no failure etc. It’s a fun system to play around with and it also feels fairly intuitive.
You no longer buy recipe books to learn new recipes instead you discover them by performing various actions, for example investigating a certain location, making an item with a certain trait or defeating a certain enemy. I really liked this method of learning, you’ll get little clues as to what you need to do to unlock a recipe but then it’s up to you to play around and try to unlock it.
In order to progress the story you need to unlock certain recipes. Some of these are really easy and you’ll fly through to the next part of the story but others will take a bit more time and thought to complete.
When you first start to venture outside of Kirchen Bell you’ll only be able to go to a handful of locations but it doesn’t take long for you to get given quite a lot of locations to explore. There are lots of locations to visit but I was a little disappointed, most of the areas feel quite small and are a bit samey. They look pretty but unfortunately there isn’t really much variety and the majority are just one small field which can be very quickly explored. Another point to note is that monsters keep re-spawning which can be a bit annoying when you just want to gather without interruption.
While I loved the new alchemy system the same can’t be said for the battle system. I just didn’t find the combat to be particularly interesting, it felt far too simplified. You can take four people, including Sophie, into battle and each character can either be in an offensive or defensive stance. As you fight you fill up a chain link gauge which, depending on the stance of your characters and the level it’s built up to, will automatically be used for special attacks or defensive moves. You also get to use the typical kinds of battle skills you’d expect and use alchemy items.
In Atelier Escha & Logy I felt like I was constantly using different techniques in battle, swapping between front line and reserve characters, using special support attacks and the powerful double draw technique. Atelier Sophie just felt really stripped down compared to that.
Visually I think Atelier Sophie looks great on the PS Vita, the new weather system and night & day changes means that the world looks and feels much more dynamic. I also liked the various character styles, they’re quite an eclectic bunch to look at but I think it adds to the charm. I found the game camera annoying at first and was constantly manually adjusting it but thankfully it didn’t take me long to get used to it.
I also liked most of the voice acting in the game but will admit that I find Pamela’s voice particularly grating, she speaks too slowly and for some reason that really irritates me! But as she’s the only one who annoys me so I feel that that is not too bad. Unfortunately the music is mostly bland and forgettable apart from in a couple of the boss fights.
The main story of Atelier Sophie is slow to develop but I didn’t really feel that that mattered. I was far more interested in getting to know all the characters than seeing the main story unfold. By getting to know the other characters better, not only will you get to see fun conversations between everyone but you’ll also unlock some pretty handy character skills as well as gaining access to new areas and some really fun side quests. So it’s well worth talking to everyone whenever you get the chance to!
Without the deadlines of a normal Atelier game there’s much more time to explore and do whatever you want. You no longer have to try to balance levelling up your battle skills with levelling up your alchemy skills as well as trying to not run out of time while exploring every area thoroughly and creating the best possible battle equipment. Unfortunately this more relaxed pace also means that there’s much more time to realise that the game’s battle system is particularly weak.
Overall I did enjoy Atelier Sophie, it’s one of those games where time really does seem to vanish while playing it. I’m disappointed with the battle system and none of the boss fights are particularly memorable but because of the interesting characters and fun alchemy system I still really enjoyed it and therefore I’d still recommend it.