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Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita
Genre: Role-Playing
Publisher: NIS America (EU), Koei Tecmo (US)
Developer: Gust
Release Date: June 7, 2016 (US), June 10, 2016 (EU)


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PS4 Review - 'Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on June 9, 2016 @ 3:00 a.m. PDT

Set against a vibrant background reminiscent of a medieval European town, the Atelier series’ latest standalone installment follows the exploits of a young novice Alchemist, Sophie, who discovers she is the owner of an enigmatic book imbued with a soul.

Buy Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book

The Atelier franchise tends to reinvent itself. There are technically 17 games in the series, but you can easily divide them into subfranchises. The PS3 had the Arland Trilogy and the Dusk Trilogy, games that shared basic ideas but were different in tone, structure and plot. Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is the first in a new subfranchise, so it's simultaneously a sequel and a first game. Much like Atelier Rorona and Atelier Ayesha, this puts it in the weird predicament of iterating on previous games and coming up with something new. The result is a pleasing start to a new subfranchise but perhaps a little disappointing as a follow-up to the Dusk games.

In Atelier Sophie, a novice alchemist named Sophie who lives in a small, rural town while struggling to live up to the grandmother's legacy. While looking through her grandmother's notes, she discovers a half-finished book of alchemy and discovers that it's sentient and houses the spirit of an alchemist named Platcha. The alchemist's memories are lost but can be restored. To accomplish this, Sophie must discover and write new alchemical recipes into the book, so she must venture to dangerous lands to discover things and take alchemy to a whole new level.

The basic structure is extremely relaxed. Sophie wants to help Platcha, but there isn't a major crisis looming in the distance, so there isn't a time limit. Hours and days pass by, but that's only because people are in different locations on different days. It's even more low-stress than Atelier Shallie, since you don't even have to worry about a motivation meter. Unlike a lot of Atelier games, Sophie is designed with the assumption you'll see everything on your first playthrough.

Sophie has a series of ideas that she needs to research, and an idea can be anything from "talk to a person" to "defeat a monster." Most ideas are optional, but each one unlocks a new item for Sophie to craft, so eventually, you'll want to do all of them. The only real push toward forced progression are Platcha's plot-relevant memories, which are restored by certain actions. After each recovered memory, you get a cut scene and unlock new areas to explore. Beyond that, the game is pretty mellow. It's a mixed blessing; although the game is incredibly relaxing to play, it can also feel a bit aimless. If you need to feel guided, even by something as simple as Escha & Logy's missions, you'll probably feel frustrated with Sophie meandering and doing whatever comes to mind.

Atelier Sophie's alchemy system still follows the same basic ideas but has a significant twist. By default, you take items you've gathered and stick them in a cauldron, which is represented by a 4x4 square grid but can be upgraded to larger sizes. Every item has an associated shape, and alchemy is done by slotting the shapes into the grid to increase the quality of an item. An item whose shape overlaps another item will overwrite it. It'll still count for the synthesis, but you'll lose any additional quality that it would've brought to the final product. Early on, this is easy as pie, but later on, the process gets more complex since high-quality items are larger and more unwieldy. Additionally, powerful synthesis recipes can actually create blank spots on the grid where no items can be placed.

There's an additional twist. On the grid are colored orbs, and in addition to having a shape, every item also has a color. If your shape overlaps a colored orb, it increases the item's elemental attribute, which are necessary for unlocking abilities for the final item. Larger items may cover more orbs and thus gain more bonuses, but they're harder to fit in. Any items placed near an orb without covering it increase its value, making it more effective. Therefore, creating optimal items involves positioning your items and using that positioning to create greater alchemic reactions. The final thing to keep in mind is the color of the liquid in your cauldron. If it's the same color as the majority of the blocks, then there's a percentage bonus. If two or more colors are tied for that honor, then all associated colors get a bonus.

To add to the complexity, you also have different cauldrons. For example, one cauldron makes it impossible to fail a high-level synthesis. Another has a time limit but creates extremely powerful items. A third transforms color orbs to match the item placed near it. The list goes on, but each cauldron can significantly change how the game plays and the items you can create. An item that won't hit the necessary elemental values in Grandma's Cauldron might work fine in the Expert Cauldron. You can even use alchemy to alter a cauldron's attributes.

The alchemy system sounds complex on paper, but once you get your hands on it, it's pretty intuitive. It offers a lot of encouragement to try different experiments and find the right combination of ingredients, cauldrons and positioning to create the ultimate items. It's a fun and addictive system, and I spent an inordinate amount of time fiddling with an item to set up the perfect combination of shapes and colors to create a super powerful bomb. There's even a character you can customize with alchemy!

The other major component of Atelier Sophie is the combat, which is a significantly simpler system.  I found the fights to be less interesting, and the lack of fine control over the support system leaves things feeling overly streamlined.  You have a party of four characters, and combat is fully turn-based. Both you and the enemy select your actions, which play out on the same turn, with the turn order depending on player and enemy speed. You can see the exact turn order on the side of the combat screen and manipulate it with moves that slow down or knock back enemies. Beyond that, it's a traditional JRPG combat system. You can attack, use MP to cast spells, or throw alchemically crafted items. All characters can use items, but there are restrictions. For example, physical attackers can't use high-power attack items, and healing items tend to be limited to specific characters.

The biggest change to the combat system is in the Stance system, which replaces the Support system from previous games. Every character chooses an offense or defense stance at the start of their turn. Once a character has acted, the stance activates. A character in offense stance follows another character's attack with a support attack. A character in defense stance blocks an attack for an ally. As you use these moves, you built up a chain meter, and the higher your meter, the more effective these actions are. At max meter, assuming at least three characters are in the same stance, they'll perform powerful special moves that can drain your chain meter.

Party composition matters a lot in the Stance system. You'll want to arrange things so your physical attack character goes first if you need support attacks. If your squishy alchemist goes first, they won't be much use for support attacking or support defending. The difference between victory and defeat tends to boil down to your exact stance positioning. One boss seemed exceptionally brutal until I changed my stance positioning and wiped him out in two turns.

Atelier Sophie is a harder game than the previous Dusk titles. Enemies hit a lot harder, and it's easy to underestimate an enemy encounter and eat a boatload of damage before you're prepared for it. The game has four difficulty modes: easy, normal, hard and despair. Easy and normal shouldn't be too punishing, but hard and despair expect you to have top-notch alchemy and combat skills to thrive. It's not a punishing game, but you're significantly more likely to encounter a defeat in Sophie than in any of the last three Atelier titles. Fortunately, death is a minor issue. Falling in combat returns you to your atelier, and you lose with a percentage of your gathered items for that trip.

There's an interesting risk/reward system at play. Areas in Atelier Sophie can't be cleared of enemies and items because they constantly respawn, but the more time you spend in a single area, the stronger the enemies get. In exchange, the items from that area become higher quality and come in greater numbers. You can even get items that manipulate the rate at which this occurs, either almost disabling it or rapidly speeding it up. Not only is it relatively easy to avoid enemies, but the increased rewards more than pay for themselves. Once you've hit the max level and want to earn Skill Points to further customize your character, you'll want stronger enemies so you can more effectively level up.

Atelier Sophie is the first PS4 Atelier game, but it doesn't represent much of a jump in terms of graphics or quality from the PS3 versions. The character models are nice, but there's a fair bit of recycling, and the environments are rather bland. It's basically the same as the other recent games, but the enemy model variety is noticeably lower newer. The character designs are nice, but a few look slightly ridiculous. The soundtrack, as is the norm for Atelier titles, is excellent and features fast-paced combat music and slow atmospheric songs. Both dub and sub tracks are available, but the dub is enjoyable, and I saw little reason to swap.

All in all, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is a solid if unexceptional addition to the franchise. The new alchemy system is enjoyable, but the combat lags behind its predecessors. The focus on a more relaxed and lighthearted atmosphere than the Dusk games can be either a plus or a minus, depending on the player. At the end of the day, it's an enjoyable and relaxing game where you spend hours crafting the ultimate cake in order to fight a giant dragon, and if that appeals to you, Sophie fits the bill nicely.

Score: 7.5/10

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