My journey through Atelier continues. After finishing Ryza, I was afraid I might be burned out on the series for a while, but apparently that’s not the case yet. The fact that the Mysterious DX trilogy was on sale at the time also helped my decision, admittedly, but I was destined to play this anyway. So better sooner than later: it’s on to still another world, another story, and a new cast of characters with Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book.
Sophie Neuenmuller is a young alchemist living alone in her atelier on the outskirts of her hometown of Kirchen Bell. Sophie doesn’t have a lot of experience with alchemy yet, but she’s determined to improve her skills, in part to carry on the legacy of her alchemist grandmother, who raised her and taught her what she knew before her passing.
Sophie’s life might seem a bit lonely, living and working entirely on her own, but she has plenty of friends, including her childhood companions Monika and Oskar. All of Kirchen Bell is with her as well — her grandmother was a valued citizen and friend who helped everyone around town, and all that goodwill is also extended to Sophie, who does her absolute best to be worthy of it.
While working as usual one day, something happens that changes Sophie’s life forever: one of her reference books, an old tome she inherited from her grandmother, starts floating and talking to her. At first, Sophie thinks she’s suffering from a hallucination brought on by working too much, but she soon realizes that this is no illusion. The book calls itself Plachta and tells Sophie that it has regained a little of its memory thanks to her writing alchemy recipes in it.
Sophie soon learns that this Plachta was a human girl like her, and another alchemist no less, who five hundred years ago had to transfer her soul into a book for some reason. That reason is still unknown because Plachta has unfortunately lost her memories. But Sophie is determined to help her new friend. By learning more alchemy recipes and writing them into Plachta, she can slowly recover those lost memories. Not just for her own sake, either: as Plachta tells Sophie, she transferred her soul into this book for an as of yet unknown reason, but an extremely important one, making their goal all the more critical to achieve.
Naturally, Sophie has to explore uncharted and dangerous lands outside the safety of Kirchen Bell and its surroundings to gather rare ingredients for her alchemy recipes. As always, our alchemist protagonist has plenty of help from both old and new friends who join her in adventuring. And while Plachta can’t (yet) join Sophie in battle against the monsters that menace them, she helps out by teaching her what she knows about alchemy as her memories return.
If that doesn’t seem to you like much of a story to play through, especially for a JRPG, I’d say you’re right. But that seems to be by design. Sophie is the most slice-of-life, relaxed Atelier I’ve played yet, and that includes both Ryza and the parts of the Arland series I’ve played that were already pretty slice-of-life themselves. So Sophie isn’t really that unusual for the series as a whole, and Atelier is a pretty atypical sort of JRPG series in that sense anyway. This game just carries that more relaxed tendency even further than usual, and I imagine this would have been even more noticeable to players coming directly off of the Dusk series that preceded it.
I don’t want to overstate this point, however. Because there is a plot to Sophie, and the game does require the player to make progress towards an eventual end goal that’s directly related to recovering Plachta’s memories. The big difference is that instead of working under time pressure as you would have been in Arland or in parts of Dusk, there’s no deadline here. Sophie doesn’t even punish you for spending too much time in one particular section of the game by literally slowing you down the way Shallie did, which is much appreciated, because I didn’t much care for that aspect of Shallie.
Atelier Sophie is clearly designed to let the player take their time — everything about it is set up so that you can’t rush the game even if you try. One reason for this slower pace is the alchemy system, and specifically the method this new sub-series uses to teach its protagonist new recipes. There are still a few books lying around for Sophie to read and learn more alchemy from, but the vast majority of new recipes in Sophie are learned simply by doing things. Just doing things, yeah. Fighting enemies, synthesizing new items in your cauldron, or even just talking to people around town or finding unusual spots while out in the field can give Sophie new ideas, which are denoted by a light bulb appearing over her head, after which she writes something in her book (which apparently isn’t Plachta, though she does actually write in Plachta when she returns to the workshop.)
I found both of these new aspects of the alchemy system a bit annoying, especially at first when my options for crafting items were limited. This new system seems to simulate the cauldron itself, giving the player a square grid layout to insert each ingredient into with the variously colored squares corresponding to the usual fire/water/electricity/wind element system and with a fifth white element (holy or something like that? I guess.) The key to improving your items above the relatively crap level you start out with is getting new cauldrons with better properties and larger grids — there’s not much you can do with a 4×4 cauldron, for example, but a 6×6 one gives you a lot more room to work with.
Getting used to the cauldron stuff wasn’t too bad, but the recipe book system that went along with it was slightly more irritating because of how vague it could sometimes be. Some recipes were pretty straightforward about their requirements for being unlocked, but a few others weren’t, and I ended up having to look up a few hints about where to go and what to do to unlock such and such recipe to create a new item — something I never like doing. It may be that I’m simply an idiot, a possibility I always hold open, but I think the game was just being too damn obtuse in a few places.
But maybe it’s not such a big deal. Because there’s no time limit and no penalty for running in circles in Sophie, you’re free to do so, though players who actually want to stick to a schedule might be annoyed by getting caught up with some of these riddles. Then again, there are plenty of side stories available to play through, one for each party member and also for a couple of more major side characters (namely, Logy from the Dusk series and Pamela from Arland, who return confusingly enough as alternate-universe versions of themselves.)
While I felt the side character stories in Ryza were pretty thin, in Sophie they’re somewhat more interesting and fleshed out. As usual, we’re presented with a cast of colorful characters, and for the most part they’re pretty fun to hang around and to help out — you can even give them gifts that they’ll reciprocate later on, a nice way to clear out your overfull inventory of ingredients while also improving your standing and moving their side plots along.
And naturally, some of these side plots also require Sophie to venture out into the field. And going into the field requires her and her friends to fight monsters. Unlike in past installments, every character in Sophie can use items in battle, though only Sophie and a few others can actually handle high-level items well enough to stock them in their inventories. Otherwise, Sophie uses a turn-based combat system similar to those in Arland and Dusk, though with a few twists of its own. I found combat to be pretty straightforward anyway — it relies heavily on having effective attack items on you and weapons and armor equipped with helpful traits as you’d expect, so as usual your alchemist level seems to be more important than your adventurer level in taking down powerful enemies.
That leaves the aesthetics, which are always a big part of the appeal of an Atelier game for me, and with the partial exception of the music (Dusk still has the best soundtracks in my opinion, but the music here is all right — just doesn’t quite rise to the level where I’d want to go back and listen to any tracks on their own) those are up to par as well. Following series tradition, this new trilogy brings with it a new art style, this time courtesy of artists/character designers Yuugen and NOCO. I wasn’t familiar with these guys before, but I like their designs and the art direction in general — Sophie, and from what I can tell so far the Mysterious series in general, returns to the more colorful look of Arland, moving away from the earthy look of Dusk, but again with its own style distinct from the others. I like them all, though; each one fits well with the character of its respective series, which is what matters.
Sophie also adds some of its own flavor in the characters’ costumes, which are somehow even more elaborate than some of those put together by Mel Kishida back in the Arland series. You might have already noticed Sophie wearing two very different outfits above, and then there’s still a third, an old set of clothes her grandmother wore when she was about the same age, which Sophie decides she has to recreate and wear at certain points in the game to embody her spirit or something. One of your party members, Leon, is even a traveling tailor and fashion designer who makes the honestly kind of strange-looking gold shorts and beret getup for Sophie you see above.
Well, it fits anyway — as someone said in a previous game (Wilbell maybe?) alchemists always dress strangely. And Leon is apparently one of those haute couture designers who specializes in unusual dresses like you see in those weird as fuck fashion shows in Milan and Paris, so I shouldn’t question her work.
You might think it’s strange to focus on the protagonist’s costumes so much, but they actually play a minor part in the story this time around. And not just Sophie’s — Plachta’s as well. It’s not much of a spoiler considering the fact that she’s on the cover, but Sophie and friends eventually manage to put together a life-sized, fully autonomous and functional doll body for Plachta and transfer her soul from the book into it. This procedure is part of their plan to help Plachta recover her memories by giving her as close to her old human body as possible, and more conveniently for the player it also allows Plachta to finally join the party and fight.
However, there’s also a “doll-making” mechanic that lets you put new clothes on Plachta. I still have no idea whether it has any actual effect on her skills or stats or anything; my mind was probably too clouded at the time to notice (edit: I’m stupid and it does.) But I do remember what I ended up putting Plachta in for most of the rest of the game once I discovered it:
Anyone who was looking for all the fanservice in Atelier and went straight to Ryza based on the (admittedly pretty damn good) thighs? They completely missed it, because it was all here in Sophie. I’d still say there still isn’t that much fanservice in this game in the grand scheme of things, but the doll-making mechanic does stand out in a funny way. In any case, though, it’s entirely optional — you’re free to leave Plachta in her original Leon-designed costume that makes her look a bit like a tower administrator from the EXA_PICO series. Which hey, those are also Gust games, so maybe it’s not a coincidence.
And none of that’s a complaint, to be clear — not coming from me anyway. No, my only actual complaint with Atelier Sophie is that it returns to some of the old ambiguity in item, effect, and trait descriptions that we got with Escha & Logy. Added to the intentional ambiguity in some of the game’s requirements to learn new alchemy recipes, this can cause some real problems, especially for the player looking to complete their recipe books and craft the absolute best items, weapons, and armor possible. None of that’s necessary to complete the game’s main plot, but since Atelier tends to attract obsessive completionist types (at least I imagine, considering the emphasis it puts on filling out compendiums of items and ingredients etc.) this may still be an issue for some players.
But aside from that still relatively minor issue, I was happy with Atelier Sophie. The slow-paced slice-of-life style of the game was refreshing, and even when I got stuck at points, it was pretty easy to just go with the flow and carry out other tasks in the hope that a solution would eventually present itself (though again, on occasion that just didn’t happen.)
I can also finally agree with the pretty common opinion I’ve heard that Sophie is a good place to start for the Atelier beginner. It still has a lot of depth in its alchemy mechanics, but it’s not all that demanding either, and in some ways it feels like a return to the simpler “cute girl doing alchemy in an old European-looking town setting” setup that Arland had going, only without that series’ restrictive time limits. The only drawback I can see to starting with Sophie (or Ryza for that matter, which I think also makes for a decent enough starting point) is that going backwards from here into Dusk and/or Arland might feel uncomfortable as a result.
But hell, you have to start somewhere, and it may as well be here if you’re planning on getting into Atelier. As usual, I wouldn’t recommend Sophie to those who dislike games with turn-based combat or a lot of collecting items and crafting. Those looking for a deep and/or intense plot won’t find much of that here either.
However, if you’re looking for a nice light slice-of-life game about cute girls doing cute things and also doing a lot of alchemy and killing dragons and ghosts with it, you can’t go wrong with Atelier Sophie. Having only played the DX version, I can’t say how much it adds to the original, but since it’s now the standard it’s likely the one you’d end up getting. Though if you want a physical copy, I think you have to stick with the original plain vanilla version. If only I could get my hands on one myself… but I do have the upcoming direct sequel Atelier Sophie 2 preordered, so that’s some consolation.
Before that, though, I have the rest of Mysterious to get through. As usual, as of this writing I’ve already started the following game in the trilogy Atelier Firis, and I can already tell just a few hours in that it’s very different in its approach from Sophie while maintaining a consistent style. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me — hopefully someplace equally pleasant. So until then.