The art of alchemy is one fraught with the ever-present threat of failure. Mixing together a multitude of varying ingredients has the potential for disastrous consequences, as there is no guarantee that each element will bind together in perfect harmony to create something magical. In that way, the alchemic process is very similar to that of game development; in order for a game to be successful, every single part of the vast interlocking network must work as one. Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book draws upon both of these magical and wondrous worlds, culminating them together to craft an experience is more than just the sum of its parts.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book follows the adventures to the fledgling young alchemist Sophie, who has taken up the mantle of her deceased grandmother to become the town’s resident cauldron conjurer. As she assimilates into the role, Sophie discovers a mysterious talking book named Plachta, who is distraught after losing all of her former memories. Thus, Sophie (and you) set out to cure the papery insomniac. As a concept, the narrative leaves little to be desired in terms of originality, yet the mystery surrounding Plachta is a unique and enthralling addition that successfully manages to capture your attention. All of this, and more, is revealed to you during the opening half-hour of the game, and while it’s interesting – entertaining even – the lack of interactivity throughout the introductory portion threatened to send me spiralling into the realms of sleep.
The laborious pace isn’t helped by the sheer number of gameplay systems Atelier Sophie throws at you during the opening portion of the game. You begin to feel caged and confined, utterly unable to escape the restrictive confines of the constant tutorials baying at your heels. Such a decision is a stark contrast to the open-ended design incorporated by the majority of western-RPGs, and while a more streamlined, linear introduction is a welcomed addition, it also stifles the player’s sense of freedom and creativity.
That said however, the prolonged tutorial phase is very much needed due to the profound intricate complexity of the numerous gameplay mechanics on offer in Atelier Sophie. The level of thought that has gone into every single cog in the game’s vast framework is truly incredible, with not a single system seemly disjointed or out of place. Like a mix of alchemic ingredients, they fuse together to form something greater than the sum of its parts.
The standout component has to be the alchemy system, which sees you crafting a variety of items via a grid-like puzzle system. Almost all of the objects in the game, ranging from crafting materials and status buffs to weapons and equipment, can be synthesised in your bubbling magical cauldron. On a fundamental level, things look simple, allowing you to quickly grasp the item creation concept, yet peel away the surface layer and you’ll find to level of depth you wouldn’t believe. Mastering the choice and placement of ingredients is a captivating experience, and you’ll no doubt loose countless hours in pursuit of the perfect alchemic fusion.
Before we continue, it is also important to note the brilliant integration between the alchemy and progression systems. The two work in tandem, requiring you to go out into the world and discover new recipes in order to advance the plot. Not only that, but uncovering new formulae also allows you to tackle more dangerous areas and enemies, which in turn unlocks new ingredients to collect. You gain a wondrous sense of accomplishment via this unique progression system, as you actively feel like you are development and evolving alongside Sophie herself. Conversely, I do have a slight issue concerning the obtuseness surrounding the discovery of several of the recipes. Atelier Sophie gifts players with several handy hints to point them in the right direction, but often these are too vague to discern. It only encompasses a select handful, yet can be very frustrating, especially if you are a completionist like me. That said, it does little to detract from what is otherwise a fantastic addition to the game.
Such care and thought also extends to the combat mechanics, which – like the alchemy system – are easy to learn yet hard to master. The game takes inspiration from titles like Persona 4 and the earlier Final Fantasy games, in that it incorporates a turn-based fighting system. With a team of four, you and your opponents take turns in dishing out the damage, which can range from simple basic attacks to elaborate special moves and equipable items. Planning your moves is essential, as every member of a ensuring battle takes their turn based on their position on the initiative ladder. At the beginning of every turn, the game will list the order in which everyone on the field can attack. Basing your strategy around such a system in fundamental, and can drastically affect the outcome of a battle.
Another factor that can define combat encounters is the stance system. You have two to choose from: offensive and defensive, and like with the ladder mechanic, selecting the right one at the right time is very important. This links in with the chain structure, a mechanic that acts almost like a boost meter in racing games. Chaining your attacks together by selecting the same stance for your characters allows you build up the chain meter and unleash spectacular group attacks, the likes of which can change the tide of the conflict. All of these elements forge together to create a network that is vibrant with possibilities and potential.
All of these systems, alongside many more such as the friendship, weapons and armour crafting, and skill-point mechanics, blend seamlessly together likes a flavours of a fine vintage wine. Each one complements the others, in it results in a game that will continually astound you with its voluminous gameplay offerings.
Unfortunately, such passion and density fails to translate to the aesthetics of the game. The game world is pitifully bland, lacking any truly definable identity that might set it apart from other RPGs. The countless fields, forests and mountain passes are pretty enough, yet are uninspired in their design, looking more like rural middle England that an enticing and exotic fantasy world. Even your home town, which acts as a hub location, is about as generic as they come. As a result, I never really experienced that pang of excitement that often comes with exploring in an RPG. I want to be wowed by what I see, to have my eyes bask in the gorgeousness of environments straight out of a fantasy tale. Atelier Sophie fails to do any of that; an inexcusable shortcoming for an RPG.
The enemy design also suffers from the same problem. They are all, with but one exception, as bland and generic as a bowl of oatmeal porridge. Without honey. I am baffled as why the variety is so poor, especially considering just how fantastic the mechanical elements of the game are. Surely it isn’t hard to dream up some half-descent monsters that don’t resemble oversized pigeons or totally-not-the-Slime-from-Dragon-Quest, no siree.
If Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book had taken the same level of thought and ingenuity to its world as it had done to its systems, then the game would be something approaching spectacular. Alas, it didn’t, and thus Atelier Sophie fails to reach the lofty heights of JRPG greatness. That said, it is still an unbelievably excellent package, and one take places a welcomed emphasis on gameplay over aesthetics. It subverts the traditional style over substance argument, and while such an avenue might restrict its overall potential, such an approach should be commended, for it has executed it in a truly spectacular fashion.