Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book Review

By Andrew McDanell on June 9, 2016

The Atelier series' Dust arc came to a close with Atelier Shallie, but Developer Gust still has plenty in store for the series and has opened a new chapter in the franchise with Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book. While it may not seem like a huge departure for the franchise, the move to the Playstation 4 and inclusion of new elements may be just what fans are expecting.

Atelier Sophie follows the everyday life of an up and coming alchemist named Sophie Neuenmuller. As a child, she grew up in admiration of her grandmother who was relied on by the people of Kirchen Bell for her services as a skilled alchemist. After her passing, Sophie aspired to be just like her grandmother and now runs her atelier alone on the outskirts of the town.

This all changes one day when Sophie comes across a book left behind by her late grandmother. Not only does it contain notes of alchemy, but upon writing her own notes inside, the book comes to life and begins talking to her. This book, calling itself Plachta, soon becomes a friend and ally to Sophie's desire to become a great alchemist and Sophie returns the favor of aid by writing alchemy recipes inside the book in order to restore its memories.

As Sophie grows, so does the reliance on her by the people of Kirchen Bell. Her childhood friends and adults of the town bring her work and help her in their own ways. Providing her with tasks, protection on her journeys, and even play more crucial roles in her trials ahead. It's a bustling town of different personalities, artisans, and even curious travelers that visit.

The Atelier series has always kept to a tried and true formula of simple tasks that gradually become more and more complicated as the game progresses. These tasks generally fall under 4 categories of alchemy, exploring, gathering, and communicating. While some of these elements are constantly evolving for the franchise, some remain left behind for simplicity sake.

Easily the most crucial of these elements, alchemy, is back with even more improvements to bring a fun and interesting twist to synthesising that fans of the series have grown to love. Typically, the main mechanics for alchemy has always been in combining multiple ingredients and then attempting to gain the best quality or attributes by a process. Atelier Sophie changes this a bit by adding a new cauldron mechanic to the mix. Allowing players to gain even more control over how successful their synthesis pans out.

Starting out, Sophie inherits the cauldron of her late grandmother. However, over time Sophie will gain access to larger cauldrons and even have the capability to craft her own cauldrons with added attributes that enhance her alchemy. The starting capability of her grandmother's cauldron grants her a 4 by 4 grid that each ingredient must fit within in order to gain bonuses. These bonuses are shown by glowing orbs within the grid, and while players can place ingredients on top of each other, the bonus gained at the end for having all ingredients fit will be forfeit. As Sophie gains new cauldrons, the grid size can increase and the bonuses can increase.

It's a nice new addition to the alchemy process, and as mentioned before, it adds more control in the way quality is improved. Outside of the cauldron mechanic, the rest remains the same for the most part. Upon starting the process, players get to choose ingredients that have quality and attributes to them that enhance their properties and the properties of what they are mixed to create. Based on the quality, bonus attributes can be created in the final product as well.

This is all a significant part of why the Atelier series remains an addictive game even in its 17th installment. Seeking out the perfect ingredients that will give the final product the right amount of quality bonus and the attributes to give it more bang is a rewarding venture. A bomb can simply hurt one enemy for 50 damage, but given the proper care a bomb can have a larger explosion range, damage enemies over time, or have more quantity in its stack.

Different to the previous Atelier titles, Sophie doesn't have to spend all of her time with her face in books to learn these recipes. Instead, Atelier Sophie has a strong focus on learning through life experiences. This means that Sophie learns recipes by interacting with people, performing tasks, and setting out on adventures rather than looking for books to read. Each of these tasks required to unlock recipes are listed within her recipe map which charts out what is needed to be fulfilled in order to unlock them. Some tasks are simple, while others require more careful planning like applying specific attributes to a specific crafted item.

This sense of crafting continues to spread into other areas of the character's equipment as armor and weapon crafting returns in Atelier Sophie. Thanks to the artisans within Kirchen Bell, Sophie can apply the ingredients she has gathered and manipulated to create new gear and even enhance them by forging them further. Perfecting a piece of equipment and maxing its attributes are essential to taking down some of the stronger foes on the field.

Ingredients themselves can be bought from vendors throughout Kirchen Bell, but to get the best out of alchemy, Sophie must adventure outside the town and into the wilderness. Each area of the map is compartmentalized and contain various enemies and gathering points. As the player gathers, orbs appear next to the map that indicate that the gathering points offer more and new rewards while also increasing the strength of the enemies. This leads to an interesting risk and reward system in questioning just how much to push your luck and character's capability.

Combat itself seems simple at first, but slowly adds a flavor of complexity over time as enemies get stronger and mechanics are added. It's a simple turn based system with some added flare to keep it somewhat interesting. Basic attacks, skills, item use, defending, and fleeing are the player's options but there's also a new defense and offense stance each character can take. Depending on stances, characters can automatically defend another ally, or even unleash follow up attacks. Chaining stances with other characters can lead to group defense and attacks as well. While combat has never been a strongsuit to many in the Atelier series, it's nice to see additional mechanics added to the mix to keep it somewhat fresh. Protecting the alchemist while dishing out powerful combos and crazy alchemy tools is a bit rewarding even if simple.

Similar to the recent iterations of the Atelier series, Atelier Sophie continues to push away from the time restrictions the series started out with. While there is a new day and night cycle and an inclusion of a week cycle, players are given absolute freedom to use their time as they wish. Allowing for more experimentation and equipment min-maxing. The only caveat to this freedom is the availability of events and certain citizens. Sometimes certain characters will only be available to talk during the weekend for example. Thankfully, nothing seems missable and exploring at night time can lead to more powerful enemies as well as unique items to gather.

Though night time is not the only thing that changes the playing field for the player as they adventure the map and take on monsters. Added to this title is a new weather system that changes on the fly as Sophie walks the fields. One minute simple wolves can be on the field during a sunny sky, but the weather could change to stormy and the enemies may change to demons. It's a system that provides new challenges but also an interesting change to how one can find the materials they need to perfecting their equipment.

All the mechanics Aterlier Sophie has to offer may be easy to jump into for returning fans, but could be overwhelming for new players. Thankfully Atelier Sophie takes its time introducing these elements to the player. Walking through each segment and complicating it gradually rather than throwing it all on the plate at once. Though some of the more desired toolsets like item duplication and equipment crafting take a bit too long to introduce.

The story in Atelier Sophie remains the series only weakness as it does very little to create a driving plot. Though this can be different from person to person as to if it is a weakness or a strength. The plot focus for the majority of the game remains small and domestic to Sophie herself. Her struggles of becoming an alchemist others can rely on and her desire to help restore the memories of her new friend Plachta. Most of the story and world building is done through conversations Sophie has with the residents of Kirchen Bell and Plachta, and while these conversations sometimes provide laughs and heartwarming moments, most conversations become boring and beg to be skipped through.

That's not to say there's little development to be had in the characters, just that the pickings remain minimum. Admittedly, as Sophie is put through her first true trial in helping Plachta, the amount of emotion surrounding the citizens and Sophie herself becomes very compelling and well written. Leading to some very tear jerking scenes of compassion and goodwill.

This is thanks in part to an adorable and likable cast of characters. Created by two separate character designers that may seem to clash, but gives each character a distinct look and personality that works on many levels. Even Sophie herself is adorable and heartwarming to watch as she gives it her all to become a better alchemist. Thanks to the new visual steps Gust has taken, the character models themselves keep getting better while also showing off the creative work of the character designers.

With Atelier Sophie marking the first venture of the Atelier series to the Playstation 4, the unique Japanese anime style of the series has never been more vibrant and lively. Character expressions and movements have taken quite a step forward from their predecessors. While each character has similar poses for each expression, they are still entertaining to look at and are just as expressive as the 2D faces left behind with Atelier Meruru.

Aside from the characters, the improvement in visuals extends to the environments themselves. While the Atelier series has never pushed the bounds of graphical fidelity in landscapes with heavy uses of textures, Atelier Sophie has taken a solid step forward in populating areas to look less empty. Plus the new weather effects and lighting is a significant improvement. Event still, those uncomfortable with the anime style or simple visuals may still find the series stuck in the past in regards to graphic fidelity.

Atelier Sophie delivers on both the strengths and perhaps the weaknesses of the franchise, depending on who you ask. Keeping true to its tried and true formula, Gust brings about the expected, while also evolving the formula in slight ways to keep it fresh. While many may find the lack of a fast pace and driving plot to be a downfall, others may find the slower pace to be more rewarding and provide for flexibility in crafting and building their fledgling alchemist to the max.

Disguised simplicity in a package that can challenge and provide for many hours of experimentation. That's what the Atelier series seems to go for, and Gust delivers on that once again. However, because of their knack for sticking with tried and true formulas catered to their fan base, those outside the fandom may continue to find this series unappealing and too frilly for their taste.

Final Thoughts

For all of Atelier Sophie's great new additions, addictive alchemy, and endless customization, it still remains a game that many will struggle to accept. It's slow paced, puts all of its focus on alchemy, and puts its story emphasis on simple conversations between characters. Something that many would leave to its niche audience. However, giving this series a chance and diving into its offering is a truly rewarding thing. Even if it falls short of being perfect.

Alchemy system and min-maxing is extremely addictive and complex.
Art design is vibrant and characters have great expression.
Elements are gently piecemealed in to ease players into its complexity.
Lack of an overarching story and fast driven plot could bore some players.
Many of the dialog exchanges become repetitive, frequent, and boring at times.
Combat lacks depth and often results in auto attacking.
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