Latest posts by Stephen Carr (see all)
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- Atelier Sophie Review – Alchemist of the Mysterious Book - June 8, 2016
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Disclosure: the author was provided with a review code of this game by Koei Tecmo America
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Developer: Gust Co. Ltd.
Platform: PlayStation 3 (Japan only), PlayStation 4 (review platform), PlayStation Vita.
JRPGs tend to be overlooked a lot nowadays. Beyond its niche, the genre is often considered past its prime and it’s rare to see a JRPG receive any high-profile coverage outside of a Square Enix title or Level-5 game once in a blue moon. It’s a shame because several good to great JRPGs trickle out every year and the games in the Atelier series tend to be amongst those. Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is the latest game in the series but is it any good? Can the seventeenth game in the series offer anything new and entertaining?
For anyone who hasn’t played an Atelier game before, each one is an RPG but the twist is that you have to craft all the items you’ll use on your adventure yourself. Healing items, attack items, weapons, armour and more. Better ingredients produce better results and you learn new recipes over the course of the game. Atelier Sophie starts with the title character writing a recipe in one of her grandmother’s old alchemy books. To Sophie’s surprise, the book comes to life. The book can talk, it can fly and it’s up to Sophie to try and help restore its memories and learn why this talking, flying book exists (hence the Mysterious Book mentioned in the title).
Things start out badly. Atelier games have a tendency to be very slow to start and Sophie is no different. The first few hours are almost achingly simplistic. Make an item, watch a cutscene, unlock a new area to explore, repeat. This happens several times. Fortunately, in spite of the slow start, the game picks up after a while and when it opens up, it really opens up; before long, you’ll be juggling whether to stay home and craft items, go out to fight monsters and gather ingredients or explore the town to talk to everyone, viewing all the cutscenes and building friendships with your party members (and others). At one point, I was so obsessed with creating new items that I had no fewer than eight areas on the world map that I hadn’t explored.
There are a few reasons why Atelier Sophie works as well as it does but it boils down to the item crafting system being much, much more fun than in previous games. If you’ve never played an Atelier game before, item recipes used to be acquired after buying reference books from shops. In Atelier Sophie, they’re unlocked after performing certain tasks, such as fighting a number of monsters or crafting an item with a specific trait. More powerful items are still only available after certain points in the story but unlocking the recipes yourself is a lot more engaging than just buying a book from a shop.
The second reason why the crafting system works so well is because Gust have built on what they started in the previous game, Atelier Shallie, and finally made it a mini-game in its own right. Rather than being entirely menu-based, it’s an actual puzzle game. Instead of simply selecting the ingredients from a menu, the player places them on a 4×4 grid and a bunch of different factors determine how strong the ingredient is. As you progress, you’ll find (and craft) better alchemy cauldrons that give you larger grids, better bonuses, the ability to flip and rotate your ingredients to position them better, etc.
Long-time Atelier fans may read that paragraph, look at the screenshots and understandably be worried that Atelier Sophie has taken a more casual turn but have no fear; you’ll still be obsessing over the right ingredients to use, but this time around, you’ll probably have more fun doing it. I can’t stress strongly enough just how well Gust have implemented the alchemy mechanics this time around. If you aren’t addicted to discovering new recipes – and late in the game, there are a lot to discover – you’ll be addicted to crafting them.
If half of Atelier Sophie consists of item crafting, the other half is devoted to combat. The combat mechanics have been changed this time around and not necessarily for the better. It’s still turn-based but involves registering all of your characters’ actions before taking your turn (more akin to a turn-based strategy game, for example). It feels like an effort to make the combat more tactical. Plus, Atelier games have a mechanic where characters who have taken their turn can rush in for a support attack or to defend a wounded teammate. This time around, that mechanic is automatic, whereas in previous games, you could choose who did what. On the plus side, the items and abilities you get to use are a lot of fun. Characters are split between those who are weak but can use a lot of items and those who are more combat-oriented, and the game pushes you to have a mix of both. As combat systems go, it’s fine. It’s not bad by any means but you don’t feel as involved as in previous games. I’d say it’s neither a strength nor a flaw.
The graphics are a mixed bag. The characters look great and the art style has an undeniable charm. Battles are fun to watch too, with over-the-top attacks and effects lighting up the screen. Everything is bright, colourful and full of character. On the flipside, a lot of the environments could be more impressive. There are some locations on the world map where you can look out into the distance and just see some bare and featureless hills. There are only a few places that I found as impressive as many from previous games. Fortunately, the game runs at a consistent 60fps on PlayStation 4, so that’s a plus, but I hope Gust push the boat out on the environments a little more for the next game.
There are a few other problems. Gust titles often have incomplete English voice acting and Atelier Sophie is no exception. I never normally have a problem playing through Japanese games with English voice acting – sacrilegious as it may be for many JRPG fans to hear – but there is so little English voice acting in Atelier Sophie that the world felt empty and sterile. I had to switch over to Japanese voice acting for the sake of my sanity (and to be fair, it’s to Gust’s credit that players have the option of both).
There’s a lack of polish in a few areas too. Fortunately, I didn’t spot any spelling errors this time around – one of my pet peeves with previous games in the series – but did notice a sentence too long for a text box and even came across a menu that went entirely untranslated:
Now that’s a big oversight. Honestly, for the average player who always listens to Japanese voice acting, this stuff won’t be a big deal. It’s easy to overlook if you’re just interested in enjoying the game but for the purposes of reviewing, it brings the game down a little.
There’s one big redeeming feature amongst these flaws: the story. The story’s pretty darn good. For anyone who has never played an Atelier game, they all take place in happy, charming, anime worlds where nothing bad ever really happens and almost everyone is incredibly friendly. This sometimes limits the stories but Gust did a good job creating intrigue about what would happen next in Atelier Sophie. First-time Atelier players should take note that there are a lot of unskippable cutscenes in the game but not once did I ever feel disappointed in having to watch another one. I liked most of the characters and was happy to learn more about them. If I have one criticism of the story, it’s that 99% of it takes place in the only town in the game rather than in a variety of different places but that’s nitpicking.
So, what if you’re a fan of the Atelier series and are wondering if Sophie is worth your time and money? I only became interested in the Atelier games with the Dusk trilogy on PS3 and my view is this; Ayesha had the best story, Escha & Logy had the best gameplay (and was the best overall) and Shallie was a misstep. I appreciate that they did some new things with the combat and alchemy but it was a far easier game and I didn’t find the alchemy mechanics enjoyable.
How does Atelier Sophie stack up to them? Well it’s everything you’d expect from an Atelier game – it doesn’t reinvent the formula much – but personally, I think Sophie is a big improvement over Shallie. In fact, I think it’s second only to Escha & Logy and, if it had a better battle system, I’d say it would top even that. In spite of some of the negativity in this review, the story is good, the combat and graphics are fine and I can’t overstate how well Sophie handles its alchemy. There’s a satisfying, “gotta catch ‘em all” feeling to the creatable items in the game and if you want to do absolutely everything – craft every item, see every cutscene, explore every area – Atelier Sophie will keep you playing for over 40 hours easily. There’s even some impressive late-game content that came completely out of left field.
If you’re not a typical JRPG or Atelier player, there are also worse places you could start than with Atelier Sophie. Atelier games often reference older titles in the series but Sophie is a good jumping-on point for new players. There’s one character from a previous game who shows up but that’s it (and oddly, he acts like a different character entirely). However, Vita players should be aware that Gust often develops Vita-only updated rereleases for Atelier games with a bunch of bonus DLC included, so I’d wait and see if they do the same for Sophie before parting with your cash.
Overall, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is an RPG worth buying if you can overlook some niggling flaws. It feels like the yearly releases stop the Atelier games from improving as much as they should but Gust have done a magnificent job with the things they have improved upon. Atelier Sophie is a long, charming, very addictive JRPG that I’m happy to have in my PS4 collection. As a reviewer, there are a lot of flaws to pick out concerning the translation, the graphics, the voice acting and the combat that can’t be overlooked. As a gamer, at the end of the day, the gameplay and story were both good enough to trump the issues I had with the other stuff.