The Atelier series is one of Japan’s longest running RPG series’, and Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey is the 18th entry in this series. At their heart, the Atelier games all share similar mechanics; you go out and explore, fight beasts, gather materials, and perform alchemy. What has enabled this series to survive this long is its ability to still feel fresh even with these same mechanics. It does this by having plenty of tweaks to the gameplay and loads of new characters – all of this helping to keep each game feeling different, while still having an Atelier feel. So does Atelier Firis continue this trend, or is it time for the series to hang up its cauldron? Let’s take a look!
Atelier Firis – as the name suggests – focuses on Firis. She’s a sweet young girl who lives a sheltered life in the isolated town of Ertona – an odd town that’s gloomy, and dark, and situated in the middle of a mountain. The entrance to the town is sealed by a big iron door, and you need special permission to leave the town.
Firis is a curious type and desperate to see the world outside and experience things like wind and sunshine. Unfortunately her overprotective parents and the village elder are not keen on letting her leave. This all changes however when an alchemist (quite literally) explodes onto the scene. Sophie and Plachta – two characters from the previous Atelier game, Atelier Sophie – arrive and give hope to Firis that maybe, by using alchemy, she could survive in the world outside.
After a little bit of time spent convincing the village elder that she will be able to use alchemy to explore, it is agreed that Firis can go off adventuring. However, there is a catch to all of this; Firis must pass the official alchemist’s exam in one year’s time – and if she doesn’t then she’ll need to return to Ertona and give up on her dreams. Passing the exam isn’t as simple as just learning a few recipes though, and Firis will also need to gain at least three letters of recommendation from other alchemists who have already passed the exam.
Preparing for the alchemist’s exam is what will drive you forward in the first half of the game, and as you might have already figured out it also means the return of time limits. Atelier Sophie removed time limits entirely and they are definitely a bit marmite; people seem to either love them or hate them. Initially having a year seems like plenty of time, but due to the lightning-fast pace that time is cycling it’s easy to feel a bit like you have a doomsday countdown in the corner of the screen. Time passes when you gather materials, when you perform alchemy, and even walking from one side of a large town to the other. It can feel a bit intimidating, but I really recommend that you try to relax. The game gives you plenty of time, so unless you get really seriously sidetracked you should have plenty of time to get three letters of recommendation and to pass the exam.
One of the biggest changes to the series is that it’s now open world. It feels like a complete breath of fresh air to be able to explore so many unique areas instead of the small fields from the previous games. There are quests dotted about the land which act as the perfect excuse for you to improve your alchemy and combat skills. The problem however, is that because of the impending alchemy exam you feel like you have to rush everywhere instead of properly appreciating this new open world.
The combat system is definitely a weak point in the game. I’ve previously criticised Atelier Sophie for lacking the depth and complexity of some of the previous Atelier games, and unfortunately Atelier Firis hasn’t improved. It’s only during tough boss fights that I really felt like I got to make use of some of the stronger attacks, as it takes much too long to build up the various gauges – let alone activate them. Also, because of the way the game is structured it’s actually really easy to just avoid most encounters. There are only a few times that the game will force you into encounters, and the big open world spaces mean you can easily dodge and avoid most enemies. It almost feels like the combat system has been added on as an afterthought, and instead the development team has focused on the alchemy system.
Thankfully alchemy is much more interesting compared to combat. The grid-based alchemy system from Atelier Sophie has returned, but this time you’ll be using catalysts (instead of using different cauldrons) to effect the grid. Bonus lines will appear on the grid, and are influenced by the catalyst you decide to use. Placing materials on top of all the nodes on a bonus line will also grant you various benefits – including increasing the quality of the item created, or allowing you to carry over a number of traits. It’s a fun system, and one that’s easy to play around with; something you’ll appreciate, as you’ll be spending a lot of time performing alchemy.
Another unexpected consequence of the open world environment is that I didn’t feel as close to all the side characters as I normally do in an Atelier game. Due to you spending so much of your time exploring, you seem to spend far less time interacting and getting to know your companions – and apart from a couple of characters that I liked, I found the rest quite bland. Whether this is purely due to not having so many opportunities to interact with them, or is down to the result of lacklustre writing is hard to tell. I really hope that the next entry in the series has a better mix of open world elements with stronger character interactions.
When you finally make your way to the other side of the world map and get to Reisenberg you’ll be able to take the alchemy exam. A neat part of the game that tests your knowledge of the world as well as your combat and alchemy skills, I’d definitely like to see something like this return in future Atelier games. Once the exam is over – assuming you pass the exam – you’ll finally be given the freedom to explore the world at your own pace. It’s great that you get given the opportunity to finish the quests you ended up skipping and the areas that you didn’t properly explore in the first half of the game, but it’s a shame that it takes you so long to get this freedom!
In terms of how the game performs on the PlayStation Vita, my initial impressions were not great. It suffers from horrendous slow down when in the centre of Ertona, and at times it actually feels a bit like Firis is walking through treacle while wearing lead boots. Thankfully, Ertona seems to be the worst affected area, and most other locations are fine. There is a bit of pop-up when exploring the world, but as the series’ first attempt at an open world environment I think it does a fairly good job.
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey has made some drastic changes to its formula and it’s definitely a game of two halves. The countdown to the exam puts a lot of unnecessary pressure on the player, and feels at odds with the new open world structure. The game does release you from your time limit chains eventually, but it’s a shame you have to race through for so long before you finally get some semblance of freedom. It’s also disappointing that the combat system seems to be getting worse with each recent iteration in the series, but thankfully the alchemy system is just as entrancing as ever.