Ah, yet another review under my belt that is on a ‘quintessentially Japanese’ game, I’m starting to get quite the reputation for covering this sort of thing. Having said that, this game doesn’t even come close to what I have to review next (watch this space), so without further ado let’s get on with this.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is the latest addition to a long running Japanese RPG series. The Atelier series has spanned several generations, existing since the PlayStation One and lasting all the way through to the PS4. It usually concerns some sort of alchemist or shop keeper as they try and build their business or create something of worth for one reason or another.
This game in the series tells the story of Sophie (shocking, I know) who has inherited a small alchemy shop from her late grandmother. There’s only one problem: She’s pretty bad at alchemy. While going through her grandmother’s notes one day, she comes across a magical flying, talking book called Plachta who promises that she can help Sophie become a great alchemist, and so their adventure together begins.
Along the way, you come across a whole range of kooky characters, both those who will journey with you and battle alongside you, and also those who you just interact with as you explore the town and surrounding worlds. Thankfully, in a refreshing break from tradition, there are few characters in the game that have overt cleavage or are scantily clad, giving the game more of a ‘cute’ (kuwaii, if you will) theme than something overly sexual, which is nice.
The most interesting piece of character design is the character named Oskar, who is a rather large guy who has an unhealthy obsession with plants. Usually, his character would just be a comedy point in games, and would more than likely be the butt of many jokes, however, the designers clearly decided to treat the character with a great sense of respect. There is not one fat joke made about the character during the entire course of the game, in fact no one seems to bring up his weight at all, something that is almost entirely unheard of for a larger character in video games.
Graphically the game goes for the cute aesthetic as I said previously, but this carries over into the world and music as well. Everything looks bright and vibrant, even the truly evil enemies that only appear at night have bright colours that accent their dark bodies. The music is also very uplifting and cheery, fitting perfectly with the atmosphere of the game. Even though the music sticks to the cute and uplifting feeling of the game, it can still manage to feel tense and exciting, despite the constrictions of the game’s stylistic choices.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book‘s gameplay is very classic JRPG, borrowing a little something from the older games of the Phantasy Star series. You choose each character’s actions before anything actually happens, and depending on what you choose that character’s portrait changes place in the turn order, meaning some attacks are quicker than others, adding a layer of tactics to deciding attacks. The combat is entirely driven by menus, but they’re laid out to be as simple and streamlined as possible, with each option (item, skill, run, defend) being laid out to match one direction of the D-pad each, and with the attack command being in the centre. The upshot of this is that each menu choice is only one button press away, and the attack command, by far the one you’ll use the most, is the one your cursor starts on.
Another interesting feature is the use of a stance system, simply meaning that you can be in either an offensive or defensive stance, which alters how your characters can interact with each other. Basically, there is a support gauge. and when it hits 100% your character will either do a bonus attack if you’re in offensive mode or block damage for a character if they’re in defensive mode. It’s simple, but it works.
The main driving force of the game is trying to get new materials to create the various recipes that you think up while exploring places in the world. The only thing that is quite disappointing is that the areas you are given to explore are usually quite small, at least within the first few hours of gameplay at least. The areas out in the world are places where you go to fight monsters and collect materials, but you can also choose to spend your time exploring the town, buying items, or interacting with the various NPCs that you come across.
Strangely, there seems to be a relationship system where you get better acquainted with people and they start to like you more. This system is a little rudimentary, in that the main way you get to know people is to catch them away from their usual spots to trigger some event, which you usually have little or no warning for. There also doesn’t seem to be much of a metric for how well liked you are, in fact I wouldn’t know that talking to people was necessary if it weren’t for the rumours you can buy from the local café that give you game tips.
Something about the town you explore that is slightly more interesting is the fact that the town develops as you play through the game. It starts with about 2 or 3 shops and a church for you to look around, but the more days you spend in the universe the more people move into the town and open up their own shops, meaning you can buy more varied types of ingredients for your various alchemy recipes. This helps to make the world feel alive, it’s growing as you get to explore more and more of it, and along with that the world outside of your hometown grows too.
Part of the story of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is that the magic book you found has lost part of its memory, and the only way that you can get them back is to perform certain actions and write certain recipes into it. As the book remembers things, the plot advances and you get new areas to explore which the book suddenly remembers the way to, giving you access to newer, stronger monsters and rarer or better ingredients for your recipes. The sense of natural evolution present in this game is quite astounding, and it more than makes up for the minor shortcomings of the repetitive combat and seemingly random event triggers.
Developer: Gust Co. Ltd
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platform: PS4, PS Vita
Release Date: 7th June 2016