Here we are, back at it again (no, not “damn Daniel!” That crap is annoying.) with a JRPG. The last one I reviewed was Nights of Azure, which I quite enjoyed. Given that Gust Co. Ltd. showed me what they were made of with that game, I was eager to get my hands on their latest release, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book follows the adventures of an alchemist named Sophie who runs an atelier, a workshop left to her by her deceased grandmother that specialises in the production and sale of potions and other alchemical creations (no not drugs). While perusing the various tomes that are in the shop, Sophie encounters a mysterious flying, talking book named Plachta whose memory has been completely erased (like Geralt in The Witcher 2, but not as badass). The main gist of things is trying to uncover the mystery of Plachta’s origins, while also finding a magic cauldron that will elevate Sophie’s amateur alchemist skills and help her master the trade. Plachta is actually a reference book, and the more recipes that Sophie writes into her, the more memories she will retain. Although it’s a decent setup with some interesting facets, the way the plot unravels and the way in which it is told can make it fairly obscure at times, and ultimately there isn’t really much substance with the
story. The story is buoyed by some interesting characters though, and across your travels you’ll meet various characters who will aid you in combat and have their own story to tell. Interactions with these characters are often quirky, with neat little dialogue that has actually been dubbed in English, with English subtitles included as well. So whether you prefer to listen or read dialogue, both options are readily available to you. Much like your regular RPG, each character that aids you gains experience as well as Sophie herself. Levelling your character means you can take on more powerful enemies and don more powerful armour and gear.
Atelier Sophie makes use of a cel-shaded art style, typical of recent JRPGs like Nights of Azure and all that jazz. Landscapes and areas have an openly bright and vibrant tone, with the use of lavish colours and bold, plain textures. Even caves aren’t really menacing, which really does make the title feel accessible, eschewing blood and gore for a more innocent and fun tone. The game’s difficulty is definitely reflected in this aspect, and doesn’t pose any real challenge, but nor does it seek to. The art style suits the game perfectly and character and weapon models are quite impressive too. Weapons have depth in terms of aesthetic and have a great level of detail. Character models are very bright and bubbly, often lining up with the given character’s personality. To this degree, Gust have done an impeccable job. Every locale I walked through, every piece of gear I equipped and every character and enemy I met was a pleasure to behold.
I encountered no technical hiccups during my playthrough and the gameplay itself is quite polished. There’s a clever use of a day/night cycle that determine mercantile hours and what types of enemies will be roaming the plains you wander. There’s even a date system that determines who will be where. You’ll find yourself naturally acclimatising to the rhythm and flow of the game world, and will have to take into account the fact that some merchants only show up on weekends (like our old mate Xur), and most stores are only open from dawn until dusk. So how does one access combat? Well this is where the game is a little neat. You can walk around town with nothing to fear, however as an alchemist Sophie is sure to require some special materials. This will require her to venture out into the wilderness, where the dangers are far greater. Of course, it’s dangerous to go alone and you can take three companions with you on your journeys outside the village. In the wilderness you encounter many creatures like blobs (that are reminiscent of Chus from the Zelda series), ghosts with coloured top hats and lion-tiger beast things with spiky tails. Walking up to any of the random creatures that roam the wilds will engage you in combat with them, and sometimes running into one on the field will cause multiple enemies to be engaged at once. It’s a luck of the draw thing. Combat is based on a turn-based system, but the moves which you (and your opponents for that matter) use take varying amounts of time to execute so the point at which your turn will occur is based on the move you have selected. You can also choose to flee or position yourself in a defence stance, and doing so will lower damage received from incoming attacks. Successful attacks also fill a Chain meter that allows you to get in some sneaky free moves. This Chain meter can also be conserved and overcharged, and once it reaches a certain level you can unleash a devastating combo attack. In general, combat is an enjoyable (if slightly easy) affair that throws in a few interesting mechanics to keep things fresh.
The music for this game is nothing special, but it works well enough. Much like the art style, the music conveys a very innocent and bright tone, with scores often being very thin in density (this means that you don’t lose specific instruments within the music), which works very well at creating an innocent, playful atmosphere. One thing I did notice was they actually did rehash a piece from their previous title, Nights of Azure. Sure this isn’t criminal, but for some reason it just left a sour taste in my mouth (or a distasteful ringing in my ears). However, the only thing they reused was the underlying progression and not the actual melody, which has been rewritten to better suit the environment in which it is played. The soundtrack does sometimes fall into a trap common to JPRGs in that the music tends to repeat itself and grate on the ears after long stretches.
While Atelier Sophie does many things in a sound manner, there are a few things that do drag it down a bit. For starters, the gameplay can get a bit stale as progression becomes slow and unlocking chapters and memories for Plachta can be time consuming. At points, the story is downright forgettable, and the game tends to rest on the solid combat to pick things up when it gets a bit dull. You’ll also often find yourself repeating menial tasks to progress and the grind becomes very real. Sure you could say that most JRPGS feature elements of grinding, and you’d be right, but there are times where it feels like you are jumping through hoops with next to no reward. My other main gripe is that random dialogue encounters with NPCs happen a lot and become quite annoying. Usually they are intended for some form of character development, but they honestly just start to interrupt the flow of the game.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book attempts to tell a charming story, but ultimately it’s the neat turn-based combat system that makes it memorable. Although it features a pleasant art direction, the game too often relies on repeating menial tasks to progress, but even then it can feel somewhat unrewarding. This one is definitely worth a look for those fans of JRPGs who aren’t necessarily looking for a huge challenge, and despite some issues there’s certainly some fun to be had filling out Plachta’s pages.
Reviewed on PS4