First impressions: Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream

Before my next month-end post (which itself is going to be slightly different from the usual; I hope you look forward to that exciting surprise) I wanted to have a first look at the latest game I’ve jumped into after finishing Blue Reflection: Second Light. Yes, it’s yet another fucking Gust game — and another Atelier game! I should make a version of that old meme “friendship ended with guy 1, guy 2 is my new best friend” only guy 1 is Atlus and guy 2 is Gust, the way things are going. Well, my friendship’s not ended with Atlus — I’ll return to them at some point.

For now, let’s focus on the newly released Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream, the direct sequel to the first Atelier Sophie released back in 2015. Conveniently, Sophie 1 is the latest Atelier game I’ve completed — I’ve since started the next game in the original Mysterious trilogy, Atelier Firis, but have stalled out on it because of what I think was some Atelier fatigue. Playing five of those games nearly back to back in one year will do that to you. And luckily enough, I don’t have to feel bad about putting off Firis in favor of Sophie 2, since Sophie 2 is between Sophie 1 and Firis chronologically. There’s my excuse, anyway.

You can insert a joke here if you feel like it

Sophie 2 starts with the skilled alchemist Sophie Neuenmuller and her mentor, the human soul trapped in a book-turned-doll Plachta (it’s a long story; go play the first game or read my post on it to learn more) outside their home of Kirchen Bell, traveling the countryside. But their travels in their world are cut short: when they approach a massive strange-looking tree, a goddess creates a magical portal that sucks them into another dimension.

When Sophie wakes up, she’s found and taken in by two merchants, Alette and Pirka, who bring her to their shop in a nearby city. They explain to Sophie that this is a dream dimension, where the goddess Elvira brings those who have dreams she finds interesting. Her world of Erde Wiege is made for such people to try to achieve those dreams. Nobody living here ages, and people can enter it from across a wide range of time periods, so time isn’t much of a concern here. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your view of it, residency in Erde Wiege is also temporary: people are returned to their own world either once their dreams have been achieved or once they’ve given up, asking Elvira’s leave to return to their normal lives. People are apparently also usually given a choice to enter this world — not at all the case for Sophie and Plachta.

Sophie and her new friends in the city of Roytale, the center of this new world. People still might look normal, but the main characters’ costumes are still extremely distinctive as usual

At this point, however, Sophie is most concerned with Plachta, who’s been missing since both she and Sophie were pulled into this world. She’s told that there is an alchemist with an atelier on the edge of town named Plachta, and Sophie figures this must be her, though she also wonders how Plachta set up shop so quickly. However, this Plachta turns out to be different from the one Sophie is seeking out. Moreover, she doesn’t know Sophie at all, even demanding proof upon their first meeting that this stranger really is a fellow alchemist as she claims.

Right to left: Sophie, Alette, and new Plachta hanging out

Despite this awkward first meeting, Sophie and this new Plachta end up fast friends, bonding over their shared profession. They also quickly realize that this Plachta probably is the one Sophie’s seeking out, only from much further back in the timeline than the Plachta of Sophie 1 who was trapped in a book. They still plan to look for the Plachta we’re familiar with, however, and in the course of their planning Sophie learns that even her grandmother, Ramizel Erlenmeyer, is in this world as a young alchemist. Sophie then resolves to meet her past grandmother as well, because of course it can’t possibly fuck the timeline and cause problems in the future if she does that.

There’s a lot of time and space fuckery in this game so far even in its first several hours that I haven’t seen in almost any of the others, easy to justify when your game happens in a dream dimension

Sorry if that was all too confusing. I promise it makes more sense when you actually play the game, since it spends more than three paragraphs to explain the situation. I haven’t reached Ramizel yet, but I’m only about five hours in, and I know she’s a playable character since she’s on the box (and looking pretty damn hot, honestly — didn’t think I’d be saying that about Sophie’s grandma, but I also didn’t expect to see her in a dimensional warp time travel game like this.)

Ramizel down on the lower left. Good thing this isn’t a possible Fry from Futurama situation, talk about fucking the timeline.

As far as the game mechanics go, Sophie 2 isn’t anything too surprising. Its combat is the traditional turn-based type (sorry to the fans of the hybrid style in Ryza, though I think both have their advantages.) It also carries some challenge; I just got past a few dickhead eagles who nearly wiped out my party until I realized I should probably be using my bombs and healing items in combat. As usual, combat in Atelier absolutely requires you to master alchemy as well; you can’t just cheese these games by leveling up and brute forcing your way through.

Also as expected, the game’s alchemy system is based on the “fitting materials in the cauldron” one found in Sophie 1 with some new features. It’s extremely easy to use, even more so than the system in the first game, which required you to fuck around with lousy 4×4 grid cauldrons at first that you couldn’t do much with.

Sophie practicing her craft. This might look a bit intimidating, but it’s very easy to get down.

On that note, I also like the fact that Sophie 2 doesn’t knock Sophie’s adventurer and alchemy levels down to 1 for no apparent reason other than forcing the player to trudge through relearning new recipes. It instead acknowledges Sophie’s expertise and puts her at a fairly high level, though with a far higher level cap than the first game had and with many more recipes to learn as a result. You naturally can’t just make mega-powerful items right away, since that would have made Sophie too overpowered, but this game seems to have achieved a good balance between those points.

Sophie and Plachta are both able to synthesize items. And man, Yuugen and NOCO are good artists; I like their work about as much as Hidari’s and Mel Kishida’s now. They beat even Kishida at creating strange costumes for their characters to wear, which is a plus for me.

The one new aspect of Sophie 2 that stands out to me right now is its exploration aspect. Unlike Sophie 1, which had a pretty straightforward approach to its dungeon and field settings, this sequel uses a weather-changing mechanic controlled by the player to turn rain on and off, thus raising and lowering water levels and opening or closing off certain areas (in a way that’s not exactly realistic, but again, this is a dream world so realism is out the window — something the characters themselves comment on.) I like this function so far and look forward to seeing what it can add to the game aside from letting Gust show off its characters drenched in rain, which I’m sure had nothing to do with this decision.

Well, it probably didn’t. I wouldn’t know.

That’s all I’ve got on Atelier Sophie 2 just several hours in. I’m enjoying it a lot so far, and I hope I continue to enjoy it throughout. Based on my history with Atelier, I’m not too worried about that — the people who work on these games know their stuff if the last seven Atelier games I’ve played are any indication. Unfortunately, I don’t see Sophie 2 making a whole lot of waves out there like Ryza and its sequel did, but we all know at least in part why Ryza did so well here. There’s no denying that appeal. Until next time!

A review of Blue Reflection: Second Light (PS4)

This review took long enough to come, months after talk about the game died down, or what talk there was at least. But of course, my schedule being what it is, it took me three months to play through it once, so it wasn’t quite by choice. “Arrive late and look back” has become my style anyway, so it’s all right — and there are quite a few games that have waited far longer for that treatment (as the NieR Replicant box sits on my shelf. It would be looking at me reproachfully now if it had eyes. I promise I’ll get to you.)

Today my focus is on another game with a distinct art style and an unusual approach to storytelling. The difference here is that this one didn’t get the attention I think it deserved, at least here in the West, though maybe that was to be expected considering its genre and setting.

Blue Reflection: Second Light (titled Blue Reflection: Tie in Japan) is the sequel to not just one but two works, only one of which I’ve taken on: the PS4 game Blue Reflection, the first in the series released in 2017. My feelings about the original Blue Reflection were somewhat mixed, but positive on the whole — I felt the game was lacking in a few important areas, but I generally enjoyed the story and characters and loved the music and art style (headed up by composer Hayato Asano and artist Mel Kishida, both of who returned to work on Second Light.)

The other work that Second Light follows up on is the 2021 anime Blue Reflection Ray, which I started but never finished, again because of my shitty schedule. Getting through a 24-episode series feels like actual work to me sometimes, even when I like it, and that one unfortunately slipped through the cracks for me. If I’d known at the time that it was leading up to this sequel, I probably would have made more of an effort to stick with it.

Not a big deal, though, because while Second Light features both its own original characters and returning characters from the first game and the anime, it also does a pretty decent job of explaining these characters’ relationships to each other when they eventually show up. Not a perfect job — I had the benefit of knowing all about Hinako’s background and her own struggles from the first game with her friends Lime and Yuzu, but I still didn’t totally get the conflict surrounding the sisters Hiori and Mio from the anime Ray and their fight with Uta.

But it’s not realistic to expect a game to explain everything that came before it, and in any case it’s not necessary at all to play the first game or watch the anime to fully enjoy Second Light. At worst you can always just look up a plot synopsis. That warning/caveat/whatever aside, let’s get on to the game itself.

Second Light opens with its protagonist Ao Hoshizaki, a high school student trudging off to summer school in the early morning. She somehow loses her phone and recovers it in an empty parking lot, but she sees a strange message on the screen when she picks it up: “BE REBORN”. Looks like a prank or a stupid spam message of some kind, but shortly after seeing it, Ao passes out and wakes up in a new and unfamiliar world: a fully equipped but otherwise almost empty high school building on a small island surrounded by water in every direction, with no other land in sight.

Ao finds herself living in this strange school with only three other girls about her age: stern, serious Rena Miyauchi, her near-opposite, the mischievous Yuki Kinjou, and cheerful and always hungry hunting expert Kokoro Utsubo. These three, who had already created a makeshift home out of the school, welcome Ao and explain the situation, which they admit they barely understand themselves: they were all mysteriously transported to this place, and all with their memories wiped, aside from the knowledge that they were from a different world than this one.

Ao and her crew (not seen, but they are there) in the Heartscape

The one aspect of life in this strange world that breaks up the monotony is a mysterious place the girls first name the Faraway, and later the Heartscape once they learn more about its true nature. This world seems to be distinct from but connected to the school and its island, sitting just off the island’s shore through a kind of magical portal. At first, the Heartscape consists only of a forest full of real-world items, including food and water that the girls forage for. However, very quickly they realize that this place is connected with them personally when they start to see some of Kokoro’s childhood memories played out  in them.

After confirming with Kokoro that these visions aren’t just shared hallucinations and that they line up with her own slowly returning memories of her past life, the girls agree to explore deeper into the Heartscape in the hopes that they can turn up more memories and discover the mysteries of this new world and their places in it. This plan isn’t without risk, since the Heartscape is also full of bizarre-looking monsters. Fortunately, Ao, Rena, and Kokoro are all “Reflectors” with the power to fight these beings with magical weapons, and also transforming into elaborate costumes (of course — if you’re familiar with this power from the last game, Reflectors are magical girls.) Only Yuki doesn’t have this power, but she does her best to support the team by hanging back and working on essential housekeeping and food preparation tasks.

Rena and Ao lined up for battle alongside Hinako, protagonist of the first game and one of their newer additions.

As the four girls explore the Heartscape and defeat the aggressive demons living in it, they find that their explorations are changing both the Heartscape and their home base back at the school. Every so often, one of them will discover a memory that summons still another girl into their realm, as usual with an erased memory and no idea of how she got there, shortly after which she usually discovers some memory of her own that summons her own Heartscape section into existence.

As their numbers grow, the team also finds that some of them inexplicably possess Reflector powers while others don’t. Yet as their memories are recovered, they all discover ties and relationships that bound them together from their past lives. The odd one out in this crowd is Ao, whose memory remains strangely blank, and who nobody else on the team remembers from their pasts. Despite this, Ao is a magnetic figure — not the brightest or toughest of the bunch, but the type who manages to attract everyone around her, and with a natural drive that puts her pretty clearly and without any dispute in the position of leader.

Ao at a team meeting describing the plot of a video game, but is it this one?

Ao and company do their best to create a comfortable and even a fun life at the school despite their situation. It’s not all fun and games, however. A mysterious blonde girl with a foreboding air shows up from time to time, the very first resident of this realm, but she can’t even remember her own name — yet she has knowledge of the place the others don’t, and she seems to hold at least part of the solution to that mystery. And every time a major event occurs in one of the Heartscapes, a giant crack appears in the sky surrounding the school, slowly widening. The girls aren’t sure what’s on the other side, but they’re certain it can’t be anything good.

A section of Rena’s Heartscape. Most of these maps have normal enemies wandering around with a few stationary intermediate bosses the player has to get past to advance, like the one just ahead indicated by the red marker.

When I wrote about Blue Reflection last year and speculated about a still unannounced but rumored sequel, I said I hoped for a more fully realized version of that game or something similar. Well the world in general might be a giant pile of shit, but sometimes good things happen, because Second Light is what I was hoping for in almost every way. Aside from a couple of complaints about how developer Gust handled its endings and difficulty settings that I’ll get into later, Second Light at least matches and in some areas surpasses the first game in the series.

First and perhaps most obvious is that music and art direction that everyone rightfully praised in the original. The best news that came out about Second Light early on was that Hayato Asano and Mel Kishida were attached to the project. Both contributed massively to the first game, and it would have been near impossible to imagine a sequel without their involvement (and totally impossible in Kishida’s case, since Blue Reflection never would have existed without him.)

A battle result screen featuring Hinako, Ao, and Hiori in their Reflector outfits. Blue Reflection might just have been Kishida’s excuse to draw a bunch of magical girl costumes, and there are at least twice as many in Second Light.

And as expected, Second Light excels in the aesthetics area. It might not be your particular style — the magical girl theme is sure to turn off some players, after all. But if you were already a fan of Mel Kishida’s work on the other Blue Reflection titles, you won’t be disappointed by the art in this sequel. Drawing girls in stupidly frilly dresses with ribbons and bows all over them is one of his main things; you’ve already seen it if you’ve played Blue Reflection or one of the Atelier Arland games. Unfortunately about half of Ao’s crew lacks Reflector transformation ability, at least in this game, so there are fewer physics-defying magical girl costumes in Second Light than you might expect (and Kokoro’s outfit honestly looks ridiculous, and this is coming from a guy with no fashion sense beyond knowing what “business attire” is because I would have gotten yelled at in previous jobs pre-COVID without a suit on.) But even her outfit reflects her skill as a hunter, just like Hinako’s does hers as a dancer, and in general it’s pretty clear that Kishida paid his usual attention to detail here.

This attention extends to the environments in the game, and especially to the Heartscape, which is far more diverse than the Common of the first Blue Reflection. While the Common was themed around general human emotions and pretty well depicted them (red/orange lava and fire for anger, a blue cold-looking flooded cityscape for sadness, and so on) the Heartscape creates real-world environments that have personal connections to each character, warping them in ways that make sense given the otherworldly nature of the place. While each section of the Heartscape isn’t all that large, each one provides an appropriate atmosphere along with its in-game role as a dungeon/field area to fight enemies, gather items and ingredients, and advance the plot by discovering new memories.

Ao standing in the last section of Uta’s Heartscape. The environments in the Heartscape range from natural-looking to manmade and from light to dark, all in accordance with the state of mind of the person connected to it.

The music contributes to this atmosphere as well, both back at home base in the school and out in the Heartscape. Asano’s compositions are written in a similar style to the first game’s music, with a mix of soft piano/synth-dominated tracks for the more pleasant environments and the slice-of-life stuff back at school and hard, driving electronic tracks for the tense situations and battles that come up every so often. Some of my favorites include Thorns That Still Sting, My REAL, Our Days (sounds more like a track from Atelier Ryza with the strings, which Asano also wrote the soundtrack for) and the romantically titled I Can Feel Your Body Heat (another take on the same theme as “Our Days”, and the title is very appropriate too considering the scenes it’s placed in.) But I could just as easily list half the soundtrack here, which I won’t do. As with the first Blue Reflection, I’d say its music alone is worth checking out even if you have no interest in the game.

But of course beautiful art and music aren’t enough to make a 40+ hour JRPG worth playing; it also needs a memorable, compelling story and set of characters, and better if there’s exciting gameplay to tie all that together. With one stumble (at least from my perspective; it might not be depending on yours, but I’ll get to it) Second Light provides those as well. The most immediately obvious change to the gameplay is the combat: while it’s still turn-based, the battle system in Second Light is more complex than in the first game while still being pretty intuitive to get down.

Three Reflectors fight in the front line with one in reserve, and they perform attacks and support skills by using ether points that both allies and enemies collect, seen on the scale in the lower right. Also, I love those huge chains hanging off the back of Shiho’s costume. No idea what good those are doing her aside from looking cool I guess?

The Heartscape is the primary battlefield of the game as the girls make their way through its various environments and obstacles. However, much of my time in Second Light was spent back at that isolated island school, because the old social sim element from the first game was carried over, though in a way I could have never guessed. Blue Reflection had its protagonist Hinako hanging out with her non-magical-girl classmates in a real-world school and the surrounding town. While there is no real world in Second Light to speak of, Ao manages to do the same thing even harder than Hinako did by going on “dates” around the campus with all her friends. As in the first game, these outings provide in-game benefits to the party by creating magical fragments that grant battle advantages, but they also provide a lot of entertaining cutscenes showing Ao interact 1-on-1 with the rest of the cast.

Kirara was consistently one of my favorite dates throughout the game; I love that dark energy of hers. I guess I really haven’t gotten over the whole chuunibyou thing.

If you see Second Light described as a yuri game, this is one of the two reasons why (the other being a relationship between two of the girls that’s undoubtedly romantic in nature and that figures into one section of the plot strongly, at least when said characters start to regain their memories.) It’s never stated outright, but if Ao isn’t exclusively into girls, she’s at least pretty bendy in terms of her interests because she flirts hard with every other girl in the game. While the dates she goes on with her friends are mainly very platonic, the player usually gets one or two dialogue options for Ao to choose from, and every so often one of these options (and sometimes both) is spicy as hell.

I mean what do you call this, really

A lot of this stuff ends up coming off as friendly teasing, but then it’s hard for me to tell as a guy, honestly — it seems like women can be a lot closer physically and perhaps even emotionally without feeling like it has to be a romantic thing, whereas in my country at least, two guys even just holding hands is a pretty sure sign there’s more going on there. When I had a look at the anime The Aquatope on White Sand, there was a lot of speculation early on that it would have yuri themes for what I think were similar reasons, which didn’t play out at all as far as I could tell. Friendly intimacy doesn’t need to include or lead to romance, after all. But man, this stuff is way closer to that hypothetical line.

It’s not a big deal, really, but if the whole date thing might be an issue for you, it’s something to know. I liked how flirty Ao got myself, since it resulted in a lot of funny reactions from her friends. Especially when they reciprocate her teasing and end up getting her flustered. Don’t make those moves if you’re not serious, Ao!

How romantic does this feel on a scale from 1 to 100

Ao also spends time with her friends as a larger group. Some of these interactions involve strategy and planning meetings over how to approach the Heartscape, but most of them are about far more mundane subjects like what to make for dinner or how to arrange their sleeping quarters (one classroom on one floor for the quiet girls and another one below that for the noisy ones, seems fair enough.) All these in-school scenes contribute to the strong slice-of-life element of the game, which I think mixes just as well with the heavier plot stuff as it did in the first game.

Second Light even incorporates a bit of a town-building sort of element in the school’s joint kitchen/workshop area, where Ao and co. can use the ingredients they find around the Heartscape to make attack and support items to boost their battle abilities and build improvements to the school grounds. These improvements give Ao and her friends new opportunities to go on dates to check out/use the new attraction you’ve set up along with providing various combat benefits.

While some of them seem pretty realistic and doable, like a festival stand for making takoyaki (though where they got the octopus is another question, because I never found any myself) most are so improbable that you have to stop questioning it after a while. Like a fucking rocketship, you can just make one of those. Apparently life in this pocket dimension makes pretty much anything possible to do as long as it can be imagined.

Some of the available school improvements make the team’s pool to giant hot tub conversion plan seem downright practical.

The split between slice-of-life lightness and serious drama Second Light provides might feel weird to some, but it completely worked for me. It does a better job of that split than the first game did, though it also has the benefit of not being expected to explain why we never see a single adult or any trace of the characters’ home lives — this pocket dimension really is the perfect storytelling tool, though it’s not a trick that could easily be pulled off again, assuming a third Blue Reflection game might ever come out.

And since I forgot to shove this in anywhere above, the request system is also back from the first game. You’d think Hinako could be a little less vague here, but Ao can always follow up with her friends through text to figure out just what the hell they’re asking for and how to get it. And since both going on dates and fulfilling requests boosts that character’s talent points that can be spent on skills, they’re all well worth carrying out.

As a whole, I enjoyed Second Light, and I’d say even more than I did the first game. It ties up the purposely left loose ends from the original Blue Reflection, and presumably it does the same for the anime, though I can’t say that for sure not having watched it. I especially loved the setting and the slice-of-life element in the game — for someone who doesn’t much care for pure SOL anime, that might sound weird, but it’s different when you’re actively taking part in the story as the player character. And Second Light has all that end-of-world drama to go along with that lighter material anyway.

Yuki, why do we have to text when I see you standing right fucking there

However, I did run into a couple of annoyances that I felt could have and probably should have been avoided. One of these had to do with the game’s difficulty. At the start of Second Light, the player has a choice between easy and normal mode. I wondered at the time where hard mode was — turns out it’s at the end of your first playthrough as a new game plus feature. I found this a bizarre choice, especially since other Gust games (say Atelier Sophie 2, which I started playing just after finishing Second Light) give you a wider range of difficulty modes than this right off the bat, with the additional option to switch freely between them during your playthrough in case the hard or very hard modes prove too much to handle.

This problem is made all the worse by the fact that Second Light starts out with a fair level of challenge on normal mode in the early to mid-game but becomes piss easy as you progress. I still enjoyed playing with the new combat system by the end, but it was more enjoyable when I had to use that system wisely to mind my team’s HP while doing damage to strong enemies and bosses. By the late game, there was no need for tactical thinking — I easily hit the game’s level 50 cap with all the girls before the final Heartscape area, and all without grinding (unless you count fighting in the course of fulfilling optional requests, which I don’t.) The game’s crafting option also allows you to create buff and debuff items that were so effective I thought I was playing a Megami Tensei game, only those bosses can still hand you your ass even when you’ve got all those skills. As a result of all this, the final boss was an absolute joke — it could barely scratch my party even in its menacing final form.

None of this would have been a big deal if I could have shifted over to hard mode to at least somewhat make up that difference, but for whatever reason, Gust decided not to let me do that.

In anime and video games, a schoolgirl wielding a magical scythe is automatically the most powerful being in the universe

This difficulty issue ties in with the other, larger problem I had with Second Light: the ending, or at least the ending you’re given after playing through the game once. I avoided spoilers completely before picking it up, so I didn’t know what to expect when I finished it, but I knew the ending I got wasn’t all that satisfying and that it sure as hell wasn’t the true ending. There is a true ending to Second Light, in fact, but you can only achieve it by completing a new game plus run.

Maybe I’m not being reasonable here. I’ve played other games with a similar setup that lock their true endings behind a second playthrough — for example Atelier Escha & Logy, which is currently my favorite in that series. But Escha & Logy had the excuse of featuring two protagonists with slightly different stories and paths, and all the carryovers you get in second Atelier playthroughs make that new game plus pretty easy to breeze through to achieve new endings if you want them. And in any case Atelier usually offers a lot more to uncover and explore the second time around.

I didn’t get that sense about Second Light — as much as I enjoyed those dates, I didn’t feel the need to play through the game a second time to see the ones I might have missed, The secret areas I couldn’t uncover my first playthrough didn’t entice me all that much either, even with the carryovers Second Light did grant me with my clear file. I also have a god damn life to live outside of video games, which means that given the choice between replaying this game, as much as I liked it, and jumping over to Sophie 2 — well, that choice was obvious. I watched the Second Light true ending recordings on YouTube and moved on.

Anyway, I’d already seen the best scene in the game.

This might just be me finally feeling my age. I’m still technically “young”, I guess (though the kids would call me an old man at this point, and certainly a boomer, since that term now seems to apply to anyone just out of their early 20s and even some still in them.) But I just don’t have time to run through typical JRPG-length games twice anymore. I’m lucky as hell that I can even play these games once each given how much else I have to do, and in the future I may not even have that kind of time left.

Considering that this might just be a personal problem, I can’t exactly condemn Gust for locking that true ending behind a second playthrough. But I can still be annoyed by it, and I am. I’m far more annoyed by it now than I am by the paid DLC, which I’ve more or less come to accept as inevitable since Gust now makes a habit of selling “season passes” for each game. And hell, I buy DLC on occasion myself (like the “night pool” above, that didn’t come with the base game) so I can’t exactly criticize them for that, though they could make the system a little less gougy.

Those complaints aside, Blue Reflection: Second Light gets my highest recommendation as long as you’re into the style and also into turn-based JRPGs, and specifically if you have the time free to really soak in it and enjoy that second playthrough, which I feel I don’t. Not sure how it did in Japan, but it’s a damn shame that Second Light seems to have flown so far under the radar here in the West. You’d think some of our pro journalists over here would tout a game with an exclusively female cast all about feelings and even featuring a clear same-sex romance that’s not simply hinted at. But when such things are featured in a JRPG that isn’t titled Final Fantasy, or in any visual novel at all, they go almost entirely ignored by our press outside of the few who reliably and thoroughly cover the niche stuff. God bless those few. As for the rest in the mainstream: bang up job you idiots are doing. Can you tell I’m bitter?

Update #4 (Squid Game / Blue Reflection: Second Light / Atelier Firis / Komi Can’t Communicate)

Barring any work emergencies, I have a four-day weekend, which is amazing. I barely know what to do with this much time. Except catch up on anime and games while hiding from people I don’t want to interact with, which is what I’m doing now. Fuck the outside and being a social person! I’ve had enough of it for one lifetime. Wake me up when full dive VR happens (or so I’d like to say, but I have actual social obligations to carry out eventually when I run out of viable excuses to avoid them. Again: fuck it all, I say!)

Now that my regular bitter, bile-filled complaints are out of the way, why am I writing still another unfocused mess of a post? There are series and games I want to write about that separately, at least at this point, might not warrant their own posts, so I decided to dump them all in here. As always, proper reviews and commentaries are on their way, along with the usual end-of-month post.

Let’s start with something truly unusual, however, at least for this site: a look at a live-action series.

Squid Game (S1) (a very short no-spoilers review)

Yeah, I watched a popular thing on Netflix. I guess I’m a sellout now. No more hipster weeb cred for me. In fact, normally when I keep hearing about a series that’s exploded in popularity like this one has, I’m more inclined not to watch it, partly because I wonder whether it’s really as good as the hype suggests. That’s not really fair, though — just because something is insanely popular doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. Getting past that whole “popular thing = good/bad” mindset is necessary anyway.

And this time I was intrigued by what I’d heard, so I decided to give said popular series a shot. If you’ve been out in space orbiting Mars and haven’t had any signal for the last few months, Squid Game is a Korean series about a set of games run by a shady organization in which 456 players in serious debt compete for a massive amount of money. And naturally, since the reward is high, so is the risk: players who lose are eliminated in the fullest sense of the word.

We mostly see these death games through the perspective of the protagonist Seong Gi-hun, a down-on-his-luck divorced father with severe gambling debts who just wants to do right by his daughter and his mother for once. Gi-hun, despite all his faults, is a decent man at heart, but he’ll have to navigate a treacherous series of mind games and temporary alliances that test his senses of justice and morality to get at the final prize.

People have compared Squid Game to quite a few other survival game series, but the one I immediately thought of was Kaiji. If you’ve read or watched it, you can probably notice the similarities even from the synopsis above. I saw a parallel in the protagonist too: Gi-hun is very much a Kaiji sort of guy in that he’s unremarkable until faced with a life-or-death situation, when he gains nerves of steel, but all while attempting to stay true to his ideals. He’s far from perfect, but I found him to be sympathetic enough to root for along with a couple of other players who become close to him. The biggest strength in Squid Game I found was how it built its characters — with one massive exception, but that’s something I want to address in a separate post I’m planning.

The games themselves and the organization running them are also interesting. Again, as in Kaiji, these pit debtors against each other, resulting in some instances of teamwork and others of treachery and backstabbing. However, in Squid Game, the contests are all incredibly dangerous adaptations of children’s games. The strange and unique art style of the show adds to its appeal and probably did a lot to get people’s attention, and I think it works well, though I can see how it would put some viewers off.

I can’t give Squid Game an A+ or 10/10 or whatever equivalent you prefer, though, because I had a few issues with it, most seriously with the ending. I won’t get into it here in detail, but I felt the last episode undercut some of the story and especially one relationship that was central to the show, and in a way that didn’t pay off at all. I also found some strange inconsistencies in how the organization operated that weren’t explained.

Despite those negatives, I don’t regret watching Squid Game at all — I really liked it, at least up until the last episode (and well, episodes 7 and 8 were kind of goofy and bizarre in a not entirely good way either) and since the show is now confirmed for a second season, maybe it will somehow build on what it established at the end of this first season. So I’d recommend Squid Game if you’re into this survival/death game genre and don’t mind a whole lot of graphic violence, but with the caveat that the ending is kind of a mess, just not quite enough of one to overturn the rest of the series.

There’s more I want to write about the issues I had with the narrative, but I’ll save it for a spoiler-filled post (and I’ll probably spoil Kaiji as well, since I think there are some good comparisons to be made there.)

Now on to a couple of games I’ve started recently, one of which I’ve mentioned a bit already:

Blue Reflection: Second Light

I do know, yeah.

Since my look at the demo last month, I’ve gotten up to Chapter 6 of Blue Reflection: Second Light, which seems to be a bit more than halfway through the game, and I’m happy to say that it’s fully lived up to my high expectations so far. This sequel has surpassed the original in most ways, with a lot of fun and engaging characters and more fully fleshed-out relationships between them.

The game’s new setting helps: the protagonist Ao and her several companions are all students who have been mysteriously transported to this small dimension that only contains an otherwise unpopulated high school on a small island, with a connection to a strange separate set of dimensions composed of fragments of the girls’ places and memories and patrolled by dangerous and bizarre beasts called demons. Naturally, this “Heartscape” as the girls eventually name it is where all the combat takes place and where significant parts of the plot are moved along.

The start of combat against a dangerous demon in the Heartscape. The girls start out fighting in their normal forms but can transform into Reflectors (i.e. magical girls) and gain new power in the course of battle.

There’s not much else to say yet about Second Light other than the yuri, which the game really went hard on this time around. There were hints of it in the original, but nothing close to what the sequel offers. Ao can go on “dates” with her friends, which just consist of walks to various points of interest in the school like the gym or the pool where a short cutscene takes place. It’s a nice bit of relationship-building, though just as in the first game, spending time with your companions unlocks fragments that can be used to boost the characters’ stats and gain other benefits in battle.

Conversations can also take place on the way to your date spot. And yes, Ao gets flirty with every other girl in the game.

There’s also at least one real deal no bullshit romantic thing going on between two of the girls, though as far as I’ve played, it’s not clear whether those feelings are only one-way or are going to be returned. I’m honestly surprised they went straight for it, though — usually these games dance around the issue, merely hinting at such feelings or playing them partly for comedy (see any of the Atelier Arland games, also made by Gust with Mel Kishida’s involvement) but Second Light went for it without ambiguity. It will be interesting to see how that aspect of the story develops.

I also like this chalkboard note

There’s the update on Second Light, if you cared to have it: it’s good so far, and I don’t see it going bad unless the ending sucks or something. I’ll see soon enough.

And now for still another Gust game, because aside from a couple of other games, I’ve entirely dedicated this year to them for some reason:

Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey

Hi again Sophie and Plachta

No sooner was I done with Atelier Sophie than I started the next game in the Mysterious DX package. Atelier Firis is still another example of just how much Gust mixes things up from one game to the next, because aside from the somewhat similar alchemy system, Firis provides a completely different experience.

Our protagonist is the above-named Firis Mistlud, a girl who is soon to become an alchemist (surprise!) Firis was born and raised in Ertona, a strange mining town that exists entirely inside a cave sealed by a door only allowed to open for certain people. And sadly, Firis isn’t one of them. Highly valued by the elders of Ertona for her almost magical skill at detecting ore in the ground without using tools, she’s stuck where she is for the time being.

But of course, this soon changes. After a chance encounter with Sophie, the protagonist of the previous game, Firis discovers the wonders of alchemy and gets a shot at learning the discipline from her. Together, they manage to convince the town elders and her parents to let her go outside accompanied by her older sister/bodyguard, the hunter Liane, on the grounds that she needs to expand her knowledge so she can help the community more with this new skill. However, there’s a condition attached: Firis has to make it to the faraway city of Reisenberg and pass a notoriously difficult alchemy exam within one year, or else she’ll have to return to her hometown for good.

Outside for the first time in her life, Firis and her big sister face down a Puni, the Atelier version of the slime.

Despite being the next game in the same trilogy, Firis is very different from Sophie. Firstly, in terms of its settings: instead of the relatively small exploration fields and dungeons typical of Atelier that we got in Sophie, Firis features massive landscapes to run around in, with maps that fill out as Firis explores the world around her. That change works pretty well, since it fits with the theme of the game — Firis is all about exploration, after all.

The other change is maybe a bit more questionable, though it was one I already knew was coming: the return of the dreaded time limit. I don’t usually mind time limits in Atelier, but this one has me slightly on edge. The game isn’t kidding when it tells Firis to get to Reisenberg and pass that alchemy exam within a year, because it features a clock and a countdown starting at 365 days, presumably with a bad ending if you fail to meet your goal in time.

As in Sophie, there’s also an LP meter again that restricts how far you can travel without resting.

The trouble is that I have no idea how far I am from Reisenberg or how much I have yet to do to meet the game’s requirements for me to pass this first year. I’ve heard the time limit in Firis is an easy one to clear, so I’m taking my time to level Firis, both in the atelier and out in the field (which I have to do anyway for plot reasons, so it’s just as well) but with a constant eye on that countdown. As a result, I don’t feel like I can enjoy this newfound freedom.

But maybe that’s the point — Firis is under pressure in the game’s story, so having a time limit makes sense when you approach it from that angle. And once she passes the exam, the time limits are apparently all gone for good and I’ll get to explore at my leisure, so I’m looking forward to that.

And finally, moving over to anime an update on a series I may or may not finish:

Komi Can’t Communicate

Now I can see why this series seems to be divisive. Apparently a lot of people really dislike the protagonist Tadano because they think he’s being underhanded in his intentions towards Komi somehow. I don’t really get that impression myself — my read on the guy is that he’s a pretty normal awkward, dense anime romantic comedy protagonist. Sure, he’s obviously into Komi, but then everyone is too. And even so, Tadano and his friend Najimi are among the very few at their school who treat her like a fellow human instead of a goddess.

No, my problem with the series is its side characters. The fears I expressed in my first impressions post have been fully realized: aside from the above-mentioned ones, nearly the rest of the students at this school are a bunch of annoying one-dimensional dipshits. I’m pretty sure they won’t change much either, because then we’d lose the amazing jokes that come along with them.

This aspect of Komi hit me in the face in episode 3, which starts with a nice plot about a classmate of theirs, Himiko Agari, who has social anxiety similar to Komi’s, only Agari can’t stand when people look at her. Tadano thinks the two might bond over their shared socialization problems, and after some expected communication problems they end up friends, which is perfectly nice.

Then Agari turns immediately into this:

Anyone who’s read this site for any amount of time will know I’m absolutely not prudish at all. I’m all about letting your freak flag fly and all that stuff. That said, I don’t get how making Agari into a masochist who wants to literally lick Komi’s shoes makes any god damn sense in the context of everything else that happened in her episode. It feels thrown in at the end, as if to say “by the way, this is Agari’s thing and it’s going to be hilarious every time she acts like a dog in front of Komi and weirds her and everyone else out.”

Then there was episode 4, featuring Ren Yamai, the school’s resident yandere who’s naturally also obsessed with Komi and who apparently gets to kidnap and plan the murder of a fellow student (Tadano for being too friendly with her god-queen Komi, because right, Tadano’s the creepy one in this story) without so much as a referral to the school counselor.

Whatever

I get that Komi is a comedy and it’s not meant to be realistic, but I feel like mixing this sort of almost surreal, bizarre style with the attempt at a heartfelt, emotional story doesn’t work so well. But still, if I don’t drop Komi, I’ll write a more complete review of it. To be fair, the latest episodes I’ve seen were easier to take than the third and fourth, and there are still some aspects of the show I like — they’re just in danger of being outweighed by the things I don’t, and those things are still present in the series. Anyway, humor is pretty subjective, isn’t it? A lot of people find Komi funny, and if I don’t, maybe that’s just my problem.

In any case, even at its worst, Komi is still ten billion times better than fucking Big Mouth, which is still on the front page of Netflix every time I log in. So if you have to choose between the two for some weird reason, please watch Komi instead.

Also, I’m still watching Aquatope, takt.op Destiny, and Jahy-sama, but I’ll save my thoughts on those for the end of the season. I’ve already written more than enough by now to bore the hell out of everyone around. I hope you found something interesting above, at least. The next post will likely be that end-of-month one, so until then — happy Thanksgiving if you’re also in the US, and happy Black Friday, and I hope you didn’t get mauled too badly out there. Though if you’re the sort of person who reads my site, you’re probably holed up inside too.

A review of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book (PS4)

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.

She still has plenty to learn however

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.

Also, Oskar can communicate with plants. At first it comes off as a joke, but he’s dead serious, and his unique skill actually is helpful later in the game.

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.

In fact, you can just spend time away from the plot fulfilling item synthesis and monster-killing requests for money and vouchers at the local pub so you can buy the ticket that lets you go on a date with your bunny girl waitress friend Tess. And you’re sure as fuck right that I did just that, much to the despair of her many male admirers who missed out. Sorry guys. Maybe you should have spent less time drinking coffee and leering at her and more time busting your asses too.

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.)

The item synthesis system is also totally different from previous systems and takes some getting used to, but as usual it’s not hard to get down once you’re practiced at it. Still easier than the relatively opaque and weird trait transfer system in Ayesha, though some might disagree.

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.

The water of life is booze, isn’t it? Well, Sophie is still under Kirchen Bell’s drinking age as the café/tavern owner Horst reminds her, so I guess it’s non-alcoholic in this game.

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.)

Logy is exactly the same personality-wise as he was in Dusk, even working again as a blacksmith, although not an alchemist this time. But Pamela is pretty different — she’s far more mature and also not at all flirty with any of the guys around town like she was in Atelier Meruru. In fact, she’s a nun in this game, so just the opposite.

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.

This dragon was piss easy when I finally got around to fighting it, mainly because of the high-level weapons and armor I’d crafted.

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.

Some really nice CGs in Sophie, also a series tradition.

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.

I actually prefer Sophie’s grandmother’s dress design to the others, seen here. See also pimp hat ghost

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:

Of course I go with the catgirl outfit. You’re not surprised, are you. And in my defense, this isn’t even close to the skimpiest one.

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.

God damn it Logy, stop pretending you don’t know what alchemy is. You did so much of it with Escha in your own game. Help me out here.

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.

Not as uncomfortable as going to university lectures hung over, but still maybe a bit uncomfortable. Those memories will stick with me forever.

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.

Demo mode: Blue Reflection: Second Light (PS4)

I have some actual time off for once, and not a moment too soon as I was feeling a bit run down. I hope this long weekend will help me recuperate mentally somewhat, since I have to dive right back into it on Monday.

That’s all the vacation I get. Enjoy your summers while you still can if you’re still in school.

Thankfully, I also have some interesting games to keep me occupied, including a demo for a very soon-to-be-released one. I mentioned Blue Reflection: Second Light just a couple of posts ago as a game I had preordered, but at the time of posting I didn’t realize that a free demo was also about to be put out. I don’t usually pay much attention to demos, since I’m generally pretty sure I’ll like the games I buy these days, but I was curious to know what Second Light might have to offer, assuming the demo wasn’t just a trailer with a few bits of gameplay slapped on.

And it’s really not. This is a legitimately good demo, with enough substance that I’m able to write in a meaningful way about what it presented. In fact, this piece will probably work well enough as a first impression post, unless the finished game is somehow very different from the impression its demo gave me.

The Second Light demo is divided into two parts: Prologue, consisting of an opening chapter lasting an hour or two and featuring the basic story setup and a series of battle tutorials, and Story Demo, which takes place in a short section around the middle of the game and shows off more of its character interaction mechanics.

Starting in the natural place with the prologue, we meet our protagonist, Ao Hoshizaki, waking up from her nap in what looks like a high school club room. Ao is indeed in a high school, together with three other students, Rena, Kokoro, and Yuki, none of whom she had ever met before mysteriously finding herself transported here a few days earlier. Because this isn’t her high school — in fact, as we can tell from their different uniforms, all four girls are from different schools, and they all found themselves also mysteriously transported to this strange school, which is fully furnished with all the stuff a school should have but is otherwise abandoned.

Stranger still, they seem to be completely cut off from the outside world. Their new school exists in its own small isolated dimension surrounded by water with the exception of a gateway leading to another world, a wilderness the girls have named “the Faraway”. This Faraway is full of useful materials that fortunately include food, but it’s also full of demons that attack Ao and friends if they’re detected. Luckily, Ao, Kokoro, and Rena all possess the power of Reflectors, giving them magical abilities that they can use in combat to defeat these demons.

While Ao and company are getting along all right, they’ve also committed to exploring the Faraway to try to discover some way back to their own world. Mysteriously, only Ao has retained all her memories of the life she left — her new friends are all more or less amnesiacs, so hopefully the Faraway and their Reflector powers can help them unlock their memories as well.

These guys will be familiar if you’ve played the first game. Combat in Second Light is turn-based, but again with some extra elements that set it apart. See also the crusty graphics with Ao out of focus in the foreground; not sure what that’s about, but everything looks great otherwise.

The prologue chapter runs up to a point just before what looks like a boss fight, where we get a “To Be Continued…” screen and a trailer for the game proper. As for the Story Demo, there’s not much to say — it’s a nice chance for the player to explore the school grounds and talk to various new characters who have apparently joined the crew (and one old character in Blue Reflection protagonist Hinako Shirai, though her presence here is still a mystery) and to get a feel for the slice-of-life aspect of the game.

It’s nice to see Hinako again. Hoping she’s here in a kind of “I’ve been through this kind of shit, I’ll help you out” mentor role.

My impression based on the demo is entirely positive. It does throw a lot of information at you, and it might help if you’ve played the first game and already know about Reflectors and how they’re given their power, how it works and all that, but it doesn’t seem necessary at all. Second Light looks like it’s carrying on the theme of power being attached to emotion, both positive and negative, and with a special emphasis on building relationships between the protagonist and her new friends. Reflectors aren’t really any different from magical girls aside from the fancy title, and if you can accept the weird premise of the game it’s pretty easy to get what’s going on (at least so far; hopefully it doesn’t get too convoluted in the game proper.)

Messing around in the Story Demo section that focuses on all that relationship stuff. Apparently there’s also a new school improvement mechanic that lets you build new structures and forms of amusement, but you can’t actually do anything with it at this point.

I especially like the isolated world featured in Second Light. I wrote in my review of Blue Reflection that I thought its world felt sparse and isolated despite the whole story taking place in a seemingly pretty normal town, with our characters doing their best to live their everyday school lives. Yet the game didn’t contain a single parent or teacher or any other figure onscreen aside from the school’s students and the otherworldly monsters Hinako, Lime, and Yuzu had to fight.

I wasn’t entirely sure whether that strangely sparse feeling was intentional in the first game, but it certainly is intentional this time around. And all the better, because I love games and series that throw its characters into these kinds of isolated, mysterious settings that they have to find their way out of (see the Infinity series of visual novels and Zero Escape for other examples.) Works for me — if you’re going to create a magical dream world full of demons anyway, why not create another magical pocket dimension with a fully furnished high school for our characters to camp out in?

I don’t know about this, though. A hamburger from a vending machine? Sounds like something Ashens would review on his channel.

The combat is again turn-based but feels a bit more challenging than in the first game if only because your health isn’t regenerated after each fight this time around. The system itself also seems more complex, though the demo only gets into the basics of battle with some grunt-level demons and one slightly stronger enemy who’s still pretty easily defeated.

Finally, there’s the art and music, which so far are at least equal to the high standards set by Blue Reflection. No surprise, considering both Mel Kishida and Hayato Asano worked on this sequel. As I wrote before, even if it’s lacking in other aspects, I’ll enjoy Second Light well enough if it maintains that quality in these areas — though it also looks like the sequel might improve on some or most of the other aspects of the first game based on this demo.

Mel Kishida is always a great character designer, but have you ever seen anyone in real life actually able to make that 3 mouth Yuki has here? I don’t think it’s possible.

Saying more than that would be speculating way too much, so I’ll leave it there. Credit to the publisher for putting out a free demo that actually has some substance, again, though I suspect I’ll be taking a lot of that credit away when they inevitably gouge players on DLC (at least if Atelier Ryza was any indication, and that was also put out by Koei Tecmo, so there might be reason to worry.) But DLC is just DLC in the end, and in any case the demo is free, so be sure to check it out if any of the above grabs you.

Update, part 1 (10/23/2021)

First, sorry for the mess. I’d hoped to put up another game review today, but my mind hasn’t been in a good place for the last several days (or years really, if we’re stretching it out to the long term.) Between the increasingly apocalyptic mood here in the US and my own personal issues that I can’t seem to sort out, I’ve more or less given up on the future being anything other than a flaming fucking wreck, both for myself and for society as a whole. You might have guessed as much already if you’ve seen my griping on Twitter. As you can see above, I was too unmotivated to even give this post a proper title.

That’s nothing new for me, though. Outside of my writing here, I haven’t had any expectation of personal fulfillment for a long time now. I’m really just happy to finally have professional fulfillment, with a job I like well enough that I can cope with the amount of work I get piled onto me. And as for the rest of the world, since I have no control over it, I’m resisting all efforts on the part of the media to get me to worry about it (you know those articles you see all over the place — “Why you should be worried about x” where x is an actual problem but one individual people can’t do a god damned thing about — like we don’t have enough worries already. Is the point just to give me an ulcer? And then these are next to articles about self-care. Fuck off.)

There’s a reason I always use SZS screenshots in these posts: I identify with Mr. Despair more than any other character ever. I’m also completely open to the likelihood that my personal issues and negative mindset distort my view of the future.

There’s one aspect of the future I’ll never give up on, though, and that’s the salvation provided by art and entertainment. Since making it through the massive epics of Atelier Ryza and Yakuza 0, I’ve been taking it a little easier, but I still have games to complete that I need to get back to including NieR Replicant and a couple of visual novels I’ve had pending for a long time now. And anime series I need to catch up on like The Aquatope on White Sand, which I regret I’ve fallen behind on — but I will catch up. Hopefully this weekend.

However, there are also several new games and anime series I have already picked up or will be picking up in the near future when they come out, so I thought I’d also provide an update on those. For today let’s start with the games, and with the two I’m currently playing:

Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book

It’s confirmed now that Atelier has taken over my life. This is the fifth game in the series this year I’ve taken up (and the sixth Gust-developed game adding in Blue Reflection, and there will be more to come; read on for that.) I’m about ten hours into the PS4 remaster of Atelier Sophie already, so this entry will be a kind of very short first impressions post.

And my first impression of Sophie is that I like it. The game feels like a return to some of the simplicity of the Arland series, with a very slice-of-life style, only without that damned time limit that you had to mess around with in the Arland games. So in that sense, Sophie is even more relaxed than those — I’d say it’s the most relaxed and comfortable Atelier game I’ve played so far.

Well, mostly. Fuck this irritating cauldron puzzle alchemy system.

Luckily, comfortable and relaxed is just what I needed at the moment. The plot so far is very light, just about our cute alchemy girl protagonist (as usual) Sophie Neuenmuller doing alchemy and spending time with her friends around her idyllic old European-looking hometown of Kirchen Bell. One of these friends just happens to be a talking book containing the soul of another girl named Plachta, who knows a lot about alchemy and forms an informal mentor-student relationship with Sophie.

The character interaction so far is nice and enjoyable, especially between Sophie and Plachta. There are even a couple of very familiar faces in the game like Pamela (who was also in the Arland games, but she’s been around since Atelier Judie all the way back in 2002) and Logy (from Atelier Escha & Logy, of course, but this is apparently a totally different Logy who just looks and acts exactly the same as his alternate universe self in the Dusk series. I wonder if Escha will show up as well?)

I’m also a fan of the art and character designs — Atelier always does well in that regard.

Remember all those stupid 90s/00s high school movies where the nerdy girl takes her glasses off and suddenly she’s “attractive”? Fuck all of them, every single one, without exception. Glasses are hot. But to be fair, I think society has finally acknowledged that somewhat at least.

The only real criticism I can make so far is that I’m not much of a fan of the puzzle box alchemy mechanic Sophie uses, though that’s really more of a personal issue. I’ll just have to get used to it.

Yakuza Kiwami

I think I already mentioned that I’ve started Kiwami in my Yakuza 0 review. I’m still only in Chapter 1, partly because I’ve spent more time lately playing through the post-game Premium Adventure phase of 0 as part of my relaxation regimen.

But I can already tell that Kiwami is going to be interesting. The setting so far is familiar, the same Kamurocho I spent so much time in during 0 with more or less the same map, though many of the storefronts have changed with the passage of time, which makes sense. It’s also nice to see that protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is still just as stoic and unmovable as he was before. It’s impressive just how much shit this guy is willing to put up with for the sake of his ideals. I can see why people like him so much (well, I could already in 0.)

Not much more to say about Kiwami at the moment, since I’m not far enough in to even give proper first impressions beyond what I’ve already written. But I will be playing through it, if only because I need to know how Kiryu’s story continues. Also to see whatever wacky shit he gets pulled into on the side, because those were some of my favorite parts of 0.

I will, and same to you, Majima-chan!

Aside from those games already mentioned, there are a few I have preordered, two of which are coming out next month, so you can probably look forward to something about those in the near or not-so-near future depending. Starting with:

Blue Reflection: Second Light

Yes, the Blue Reflection sequel is finally almost here, coming out in NA on November 9. While I felt the original game had some flaws, I liked it and looked forward to whatever might come next. And shortly after I posted that review, Second Light (or Tie in Japan) was announced.

Second Light seems to be a continuation of the story told in Blue Reflection with a new central cast of characters, though the first game’s protagonist Hinako is back in some capacity. The all girls’ high school setting is back as well, of course, along with the social sim element from the original.

Best of all, both Mel Kishida (artist/character designer) and Hayato Asano (composer) are back, and their contributions were the best parts of Blue Reflection — for whatever flaws that game had, the art and music largely made up for them. I do hope there are some improvements to Second Light, but even if it’s similar in quality to the first game, I won’t be too put out if it looks and sounds just as beautiful.

Shin Megami Tensei V

Yeah, this one was expected, wasn’t it? SMT V is released next month, and I have it preordered as well, though unfortunately I won’t be able to play it right away because I don’t yet own a Switch.

Now you might ask — why the hell would you buy a game for a console you don’t own? Firstly, because SMT V is a Switch exclusive, and there’s no hint that it will be ported to any other console or to PC anytime soon, and secondly, because I was waiting for this god damn game for several years and I’m sure as hell buying it on release. I do plan to get a Switch sometime soon as well. Even if it’s a cheap secondhand one with half the buttons missing — I’m not particular as long as I can play SMT V.

In any case, there’s no way I can’t be excited for this game. It really looks excellent, with everything you’d expect from a mainline SMT title. Again, not much more to say at the moment, but I’m looking forward to getting into the game once I get my hands on a Switch (and by the way, if anyone knows any good deals, please drop me a tweet or leave a comment if you like. But not an email, because my MSN account is clogged to hell with garbage. Incidentally, my apologies if I’ve missed anything you might have sent there — please let me know if so.)

Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream

Yeah, why not. I figured since I’ve liked Atelier Sophie 1 so far, I may as well preorder the recently announced sequel. It’s set to come out in February 2022, probably among the last of the PS4 releases. Though it’s also coming out on the Switch as you can see to the left, and also on the PC.

I figure that at the rate I’m playing Atelier games, I might very well be finished with the Mysterious trilogy by the time I get Sophie 2 in four months, so it’s pretty good timing all things considered. There’s also a deluxe form of Sophie 2 out for preorder with a giant cloth poster, bonus soundtrack, and some other nice-looking stuff included, though that’s a bit too expensive for me — I’m sticking with the standard edition. I’m not quite enough of a rabid fan to buy those special editions. Remember when bonus mini-soundtracks came free with these games as a matter of course? I still have the five or six-track CD I got with the original Persona 3 release. Maybe this one is a full soundtrack instead, I don’t know.

Oh well, enough complaints from me. I might make an anime version of this post in a few days, following the pattern I set a couple of months ago. I hope I’m not being too lazy with these, but I feel like I’ve earned some laziness since writing two proper game reviews in a month, something I haven’t done for years now probably (or ever?) Until next time.

A review of Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout (PS4)

It’s yet another Atelier game review, yeah. I’ve already brought this one up a few times, but I’m finally ready to pass judgment on it, for whatever my judgment is worth anyway.

Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout was released in 2019 on the PS4 and PC. I remember it getting a lot of talk at the time, more than you’d expect for an Atelier title, which up until then tended to only get much notice around the expected niche JRPG cirles. I was immediately interested myself, but it took me two years to actually buy a copy because of how many other games in the series I’d planned on playing. Including the earlier PS4 Atelier Mysterious sub-series, which I completely skipped over between the Dusk trilogy and Ryza.

The fact that I skipped over Mysterious may or may not be important to understanding why Ryza felt like such a different experience from the other Atelier titles I’ve played. Not that I wasn’t expecting that — all I knew going into Ryza was that it had dropped the old, traditional purely turn-based battle system for a real-time one. And that the protagonist’s character model was probably a draw for American audiences, but more on that later. First I’ll get into the substance of the game.

You can hook people in with thighs, but if your game isn’t quality at its core you won’t be able to keep them — see NieR:Automata for an example of how that works. And see also Atelier Ryza? Maybe. I won’t give that away yet.

Reisalin Stout is a resident of Kurken Island, from the isolated town of Rasenboden. The only child of a farming family, Reisalin (or Ryza as she’s almost always called, continuing the tradition from Arland of the protagonist never being addressed by her full/formal name) is bored out of her mind. She doesn’t care about farming and takes every chance she can to escape from her parents’ demands that she help out around the farm and the house — completely reasonable demands, to be fair.

But there’s no helping it: Ryza is young and full of curiosity about the world outside their island. So she gets together with her childhood friends, the aspiring warrior Lent Marslink and aspiring scholar Tao Mongarten, and leads them in an expedition to explore the mainland.

It’s technically not theft if you plan to return it

Turns out Kurken Island really is isolated, because the nearby mainland is totally uninhabited — or not inhabited by humans anyway. Ryza, Tao, and Lent have run-ins with a few monsters and end up rescuing a traveling girl who was separated from her caravan. As it happens, this girl, Klaudia Valentz, is the daughter of a wealthy merchant on his way from the faraway capital to Rasenboden to establish a trade route.

The group starts to make its way back to the safety of the beach, but not before running into still another monster, this one far too powerful for them to defeat. Fortunately, Ryza and friends are themselves rescued by another pair of far stronger travelers: the alchemist Emper Vollmer and his bodyguard/companion Lila Decyrus. All six return to the dock where they meet Klaudia’s father, as well as an officer from Rasenboden who chews out Ryza for causing trouble yet again by running off with a commandeered boat.

I really wanted to get Agatha into my party, but she never joined. A real shame.

However, aside from getting yelled at by Agatha and later also by her mom, Ryza gains a lot from this first adventure. Klaudia’s father is grateful to her and her friends for saving his daughter, and Klaudia quickly befriends and becomes attached to Ryza’s crew. And Ryza discovers a new personal interest: alchemy. (Naturally; she’s the protagonist of an Atelier game, so we all knew that was coming.) She asks Empel, who’s set up shop temporarily in Rasenboden together with Lila, to teach her this discipline. While he’s not capable of becoming her full-time teacher, Empel does get Ryza started on the basics once he sees that she has the innate ability necessary to becoming an alchemist.

Ryza decides to pursue this new path and sets up a makeshift atelier in her parents’ house. Perhaps understandably, Ryza’s mom is not that happy about her daughter dragging an old iron pot up to her room and setting up a lab full of volatile materials and other things that likely smell pretty bad, so it’s understood that this is a temporary setup — and what better place to establish a proper atelier but on the mainland, where there’s a lot of free land going unused?

Some nice CGs in Ryza by the artist Toridamono, continuing the pattern of a new artist and a new look for each sub-series.

All this is extremely fateful, not just for Ryza but for her hometown and everyone in it. Empel and Lila tell their new hosts that they’re working on sealing an ancient evil in the area that’s starting to reawaken. The population of Rasenboden doesn’t know about any of this, but as Ryza and her friends expand their explorations around the mainland, they come across evidence of this threat, including the re-emergence of dragons. These and other dangerous beasts seem to be connected to the Klint Kingdom, an ancient civilization with advanced technology that was forgotten and lost after it was wiped out by some calamity.

Do the ruins of the Klint Kingdom hold the secrets to defeating this ancient evil? Will Ryza and her crew be able to use their skills to fight said evil if it does reawaken? And will Ryza finally get her parents to stop asking her to help harvest the wheat or whatever else it is you do on a farm?

I’m old enough to sympathize with them now.

As I wrote up at the top, Atelier Ryza felt different from any other game in the series I’ve played. This partly had to do with the new art design and chief artist. Each sub-series gets its own artist and its own look, a nice way of setting up each one as its own separate thing within the larger series. I’m not as much a fan of Toridamono’s character designs as I was of Mel Kishida’s in the Arland series or Hidari’s in Dusk, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it at all or that it isn’t good — it’s just a matter of personal preference. And if the plan actually was to make Ryza’s character model into a meme in the West, it completely worked, though it’s probably just as or more likely that it was an accident. Damn, what I wouldn’t give to be in that team meeting so I could know for sure.

But despite all the understandable jokes about “Atelier Thighza”, you shouldn’t get the wrong idea — Ryza isn’t a fanservice game or anything of the sort. Aside from a few possibly questionable camera shots during cutscenes, maybe, and then they focus just as much if not more on Lila than on Ryza. From what I remember, anyway.

Really if you’re going to be “thirsty” for a character or whatever dumb shit it is the kids say these days, Lila is the best choice as far as I’m concerned. Well, maybe I’m just showing my M tendencies here. (Also to be fair, 90s/2000s slang was dumb as fuck too.)

Maybe it’s silly to bring this aspect of the game up first, but it’s worth bringing up if only to emphasize that Atelier Ryza isn’t just constant ass all over the place, not even close. Sure, there are the standard swimsuit costumes available, but those have been in every Atelier game I’ve played so far, so again, nothing special or out of the ordinary. If you want that kind of game, I’d direct you to my Senran Kagura review.

It’s also important to note right away because for as much as it was meme’d on in social media (to almost completely positive effect, because it sure as hell got the game attention that others in the series haven’t over here) Ryza came off to me just as much an Atelier game as the rest I’ve played, even though it does feel different in some ways. Certain aspects of the game are streamlined, but you’ll still spend hours in the field gathering ingredients and more hours in the workshop crafting items, weapons, and armor with those ingredients.

The alchemy system in Ryza looks intimidating at first, but it’s just as intuitive to get down as most of the others. But why are we seeing the inside of the cauldron in these synthesis scenes? It’s like we’re actually inside the pot here.

As Ryza learns from Empel, item synthesis is based on the Material Loop system, seen above. To create an item, weapon, piece of armor or whatever else it is you’re crafting, you have to add the necessary ingredients, which have one or more properties of various strengths connected to the elements fire, ice, wind, and lightning as usual. Throw the right type of item with the required elemental strength into the pot, and you’ll unlock one or more new Material Loops, which require still other ingredients usually with different elemental affinities, and so it continues until you have enough to make whatever thing it is you’re trying to make. Unlocking new Material Loops improves the quality of your item, adding various effects to it that can help you in the field.

An example of a synthesized piece of armor. The lock icons on the traits indicate that they’re not available yet — they have to be unlocked by going back into the Material Loop system and adding more ingredients.

My explanation of this system might be shitty and confusing, but the system itself isn’t. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily more intuitive than other Atelier alchemy systems as I’ve heard some people say, at least not the ones used in Arland or Dusk, but it’s not hard to get down. The game is also pretty generous in allowing the player to throw multiple weaker items into one Material Loop to achieve the desired effect. And if you don’t get the quality of item you were going for initially, no problem: Ryza has another alchemy mechanic that lets you add more ingredients to an already created item to unlock more effects and even new recipes (this is the main way you’ll unlock new recipes to create new items, in fact — Ryza can earn books through completed quests or buy them, but if you don’t really get deep into the Material Loop system you’ll miss out on a lot of great recipes.)

Of course, to get those high-level, high-quality items you’re going for, you’ll need to spend some time in the field as usual. Atelier Ryza puts a heavy emphasis on exploration, true to its plot. Each of the characters has their own reasons for wanting to head out into the wilderness of the mainland, and their strengths complement each other in battle (including Klaudia’s — she plays her flute in battle to both heal and buff the party and attack enemies. I love that classic JRPG logic.)

So as usual, the field is where you’ll both gain experience and collect all your ingredients. Thankfully, since there’s no time limit or calendar in Ryza, you don’t have to worry about efficiency if you don’t care to — you can spend all the time you like beating up monsters, collecting loot and ingredients, and going back and forth between the atelier and various fields.

A standard battle. Tao might look like a nerd — he quite literally gets his books dumped once in the game — but he can really fuck up enemies with his magic attacks. Lent still ended up being my chief attacker though.

Now for the much talked-about battle system. Rightfully, because this is a big change for the series, which up until then used old-fashioned turn-based battle systems (again, as far as I’ve played, but it’s true of the Mysterious series as well from what I’ve read.) The combat in Ryza is still kind of turn-based, but it’s more of a hybrid system — the key difference here is that, with one important exception, the action in battle doesn’t stop and wait for you to make your decision. As a consequence, you’re only able to control one character at a time; the other two in your party act on their own, though you do have some control over whether they hold back to conserve their power or go all out.

Fortunately, this isn’t a Persona 3 situation where you’re stuck watching your allies make stupid decisions — first, because there aren’t any useless skills in the game for them to waste their time on, and second, because you can freely switch between characters to control in the middle of battle. It’s also possible to guide your allies by switching between passive and aggressive combat modes and by performing certain actions that they’ll follow up on without using energy, though this takes some extra coordination and attention.

At certain points in battle, you’ll also have the opportunity to take extra actions by using your energy denoted by the AP gauge. This is the only time the action will stop and let you leisurely take your time to make your decision. A bit weird when you never have that chance otherwise, but I’m not going to complain too much about it — battle can feel hectic in Ryza, and I appreciated these breaks.

You can even take lunch if you want while Ryza contemplates her next move. Also yes, I bought the swimsuits, I admit it

I found the battles in Ryza to be quick and brutal, almost always with two outcomes — either I was utterly crushed, or I utterly crushed the enemy. The key to combat as far as I can tell is to have good armor and weapons and to beat the living fuck out of your opponents with debuff and attack items, especially ones that have slowing and stunning traits so they don’t even get to their turn before they’re dead.

True to the Atelier series, your alchemist level matters far more than your separate adventurer level does; even if you’re technically “underleveled” for a fight, you can wipe the floor with your enemy if you have great equipment and make use of items with good stats and traits, and conversely you can easily get wiped out no matter how high your adventurer level is if you haven’t properly prepared in the atelier before venturing out. In fact, this is generally how my game went:

  1. Play through the plot and have a pretty easy time until I get to a boss; get destroyed by the timed and scripted massive fuck-off attack it drops on me.
  2. Go back to the atelier, do a ton of alchemy to improve my equipment/item setup.
  3. Go back to the boss and batter it with upgraded bombs to stun it so it can’t even get to that massive fuck-off attack; continue until I win without so much as a scratch.

I still prefer some of the turn-based battle systems of the older games, especially those in Escha & Logy and Shallie, but changing the combat up can help keep things fresh. It doesn’t just feel like change for the hell of it, either: the battle system works pretty well in the context of the rest of the game and its mechanics. Or else Gust and/or Koei Tecmo really did think people were tired of pure turn-based combat. I’m not, just for the record.

That leaves the plot and characters, which I thought were fine. They worked well enough, but I didn’t get much more than that from them. The overarching plot was just okay, and none of the twists in the story came as a huge surprise. Maybe if you’ve played too many JRPGs you can just see these story beats coming.

More critically, though, the game’s characters mostly didn’t have much impact on me. Not that they were bad at all — again, they just didn’t quite measure up to the excellent casts in the Arland and Dusk series for me, so it’s more a case of “decent/good vs. great.” The fact that the playable cast was so small — only six, the main four of Ryza and her friends and Empel and Lila, who join up later — might have added to this, since those other games have much larger pools of characters to choose from, and the characters outside these six don’t get a whole lot of attention with one significant exception.

Unlike many other Atelier games, Ryza has a typical JRPG “the world might be destroyed by an ancient evil” plot, but it also contains a lot of more mundane sidequests in keeping with wider series tradition.

As with older Atelier games, there are also several prominent non-player side characters around town and plenty of sidequests to carry out for them. It’s not much work to complete these jobs, and you’ll get some good rewards out of them. Longtime fans of the series will also get a special treat if they complete every sidequest, one that I think is pretty well worth the trouble.

But once again, I’m left a little wanting, since I found the non-player characters in Arland and Dusk to be more interesting than the townspeople around Rasenboden. It is a nice town; I have to give them credit for that. And it really does feel like a lived-in place instead of just a setting for Ryza to run around in. Gust didn’t really have to put that much work into the town, but they did, so credit for that. I’d still prefer more interesting side characters, though.

All that said, I did like Ryza as a protagonist, with her adventurous spirit and boisterous personality and all that. It helps that she has some common sense to temper her hotheadedness — she usually knows when to step on the brakes, though it’s probably also good that she has Tao around to warn her when she might be thinking of doing some dumb shit. She’s a great addition to the set of Atelier protagonists. And her thighs honestly don’t even factor in for me. Not that much, anyway. As stated above, I’m more of a Lila guy anyway.

So Atelier Ryza is a pretty good game. It didn’t amaze me or anything, but to be fair, it’s only the first in still another Atelier sub-series, and I haven’t played the direct sequel that came out just last year. My hope is that it builds on the fairly solid base the first game established.

I also hope this goat shows up again. Best side character in the game.

I wish I could leave it there, but unfortunately I can’t, because there’s one shitty thing about Ryza I think I have to address, and that’s the DLC, or some of it at least. The game offers the standard extra costume DLC, which I don’t have any problem with — it’s all purely cosmetic anyway (and I did buy a few of those, so how could I possibly complain about them.) However, several extra stories are also available for sale in addition to the main plot, each of which has to be paid for separately. I didn’t buy any of these, so I haven’t exactly gotten the full Ryza experience, but I really hate the idea of paying for more story, even if it’s considered “extra.”

I don’t know, maybe this is just a personal problem. Or maybe I’m old-fashioned or whatever. But fuck that shit, honestly. If you’ve bought any of these extra stories and have thoughts about them, please feel free to let me know about them in the comments if you like, because I won’t play them. Or tell me if you think I’m being unreasonable or arbitrary in how I feel and try to convince me otherwise if you really care to.

But I don’t want to dump on the game itself for that. Ryza does tell a complete, self-contained story in itself, and the DLC story thing seems like a publisher decision rather than a developer one, so I’ll assume this is Koei Tecmo’s fault rather than Gust’s. And maybe I’ve already played into their hands anyway.

Uh… ask your mom.

In any case, Atelier Ryza 2 will have to wait a while, because I’m continuing my Atelier journey with Mysterious, the very same sub-series I skipped over to play this game. I’ve already started Atelier Sophie DX as of this writing, in fact. I probably won’t barrel through it at the same speed I did Dusk, since I have other games I’m playing through at the same time, but I can’t say that won’t happen either.

It won’t be the next game I finish, though. Probably not, anyway. I’ve had more than enough alchemy this year. Before I return, I’ll be getting over to a game very different in tone from this one. Look forward to it. Until next post!

Currently playing (Yakuza 0 / Atelier Ryza / NieR Replicant)

This isn’t going to become a regular feature. It’s more of a situational thing. I just happen to be stuck in the middle of some very long games right now, and so I thought I’d cover where I currently am in them along with my thoughts so far. All on the PS4, because yes I’m a console peasant with a shit PC that can only run VNs and then just barely.

These also aren’t the only games I’m playing — I have two or three shorter ones lined up that I’ll very likely get through first, but I’ll save those for their own reviews. For now, let’s start with:

Yakuza 0

I really like this game so far. But I’m still only on chapter 5, and here I’m going to talk about why.

First: the bizarre and fun side stories you can find in it. At this point, I’ve helped get a kid his video game back, broken up a cult, and taught a dominatrix how to do her job properly. Serious credit to the writers — Yakuza 0 mixes these weird, ridiculous stories with the main dramatic plot, breaking it up in a way that lightens the mood without spoiling it.

And then there are the side characters you run into around town who don’t necessarily connect to that main plot at all. The lady-crazy Mr. Libido up there is just one of the more out-there characters you can meet around the streets of Tokyo and Osaka. The two main characters Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima have their own particular ways of approaching these people, and they’re both entertaining — there’s a lot of “why the hell am I going along with this…” sort of talk from them, especially from the serious Kiryu, but in the end they are actually helpful guys despite being dangerous (ex) Yakuza types.

Finally, the minigames. I spent a lot of time in the Tokyo and Osaka mahjong parlors losing my money to these assholes. Of course, it’s not such a big deal to lose when you can step outside, get called out by a group of thugs, and then beat a few hundred thousand yen out of them to immediately recoup your losses. It’s still frustrating to get beaten at the mahjong table in the last round when you’re in the lead, though. One day I’ll get a daisangen and then quit playing this shit.

For now, though, I need to make progress in the main plot. I’ve just shifted back to Kiryu’s perspective, and he has plenty of work to do in his new position as an agent for a shady real estate developer while he continues his hunt for clues about the murder he was framed for. I’m sure some beatings will be in order soon enough.

Atelier Ryza: Ever Darkness and the Secret Hideout

Continuing my trek into the long ass Atelier series, I’m now in the middle of Atelier Ryza. And I’m really liking it so far. This is the newest iteration of the series, which has gone through a lot of changes over the last 12 years since it moved into its “modern era” (at least as far as I can tell, this is how fans talk about the series) with Atelier Rorona.

Hanging around the farmland near Ryza’s sleepy hometown of Rasenboden. Ryza wants to go out adventuring, but all I want to do is retire and feed the goats. I really am getting old.

Ryza features a completely new lineup of characters in a new universe distinct from all the previous ones and is quite a bit more slice-of-life and relaxed than the Atelier Dusk trilogy I reviewed earlier this year. It does have a plot about saving your hometown from a long-dormant evil lurking around, but it’s all more or less driven by the protagonist Reisalin Stout, or simply Ryza, wanting to get the hell away from her parents’ farm and her island hometown to explore new lands. She brings/drags along her friends, the warrior Lent and the nerdy mage Tao, and along the way she runs into more future friends including an alchemist who reveals the secrets of his craft to her, after which Ryza commits to learning alchemy herself.

But that’s not the only difference from the Dusk series. The old traditional turn-based combat system has also been replaced with one that combines elements of turn-based and real-time battle. As a consequence, battles in Ryza are a lot faster than in previous games, and with a stronger emphasis on identifying and exploiting enemy weaknesses. If you haven’t synthesized the right attack item for a particular boss, you’ll likely get wiped out in under a minute, but you can just as easily tip the scales in your direction by spending time in the atelier.

I don’t even know what this does.

Speaking of synthesis, Ryza would not be a proper Atelier game without a heavy emphasis on crafting items, weapons, and armor with alchemy using ingredients you can find in the field. The new alchemy system is again very different from the previous ones, but it’s pretty intuitive. I’ll go into far greater, and probably very boring, detail when I actually review this game.

And hopefully that review isn’t too far off, because I’m making good progress in Ryza. Not sure how far I am in the story, but my adventurer level is in the high 30s and my alchemist level is in the high 40s, so I’m at least pretty far along with the character development in that sense. That said, I’m currently having my ass beat by a dragon boss so I’ll have to go back to the drawing board until I can figure that fight out.

NieR Replicant ver.1.22474487139…

From now on simply NieR Replicant, though that long version number does set this game apart from the original PS3 Replicant. Then again, we never got the original Replicant here in the States — instead we got NieR Gestalt, simply titled NieR (or Nier as it was written on the NA cover — still not sure about the deal with that capital R but I guess Yoko Taro has his reasons for it.)

Look, if Devola asks me this question, the answer is yes.

Anyway, I’m a bit into the second part of Replicant, and it lives up to its strong reputation so far. The soundtrack is amazing of course (I do prefer the original “Gods Bound by Rules”, but the new one is good as well) and the gameplay is fun, with plenty of special moves to learn and weapons to pick up. In terms of the mechanics, it’s not very different from its semi-sequel NieR:Automata, so at least the style didn’t take much getting used to.

One aspect of NieR Replicant I especially like is the character interaction. Automata had some great moments in this sense, especially in the friendly but tense relationship between 2B and 9S, but Replicant does even better. The setup of the story is pretty basic: you’re a young man (canonically named Nier, but you can pick any name for yourself) determined to save your deathly ill little sister Yonah. But Yonah isn’t just “sick little sister” — she has a lot more character to her and is determined to help out Nier despite his insistence that she simply rest and try to feel better.

Kainé giving Weiss a piece of her mind.

The banter between Nier and the powerful magical talking book Grimoire Weiss, who quickly becomes your ally, is also great. This ancient tome is tired of all the bullshit and just wants people to give him the respect he’s owed. He doesn’t get all that much, though, and especially not from Kainé, now one of my favorite supporting game characters.

Finally, that injury I got a while back has finally healed, so I can actually play these action games again without awkwardly not using my left thumb to manipulate the controller. Took long enough. Apparently I don’t heal nearly as quickly as I used to; probably yet another effect of getting older. What a fucking life this is.

I’ll finally kill this stupid thing.

But I’m not quite done with these preview posts yet. Next up in just a few days will be a similar one covering two currently airing anime series I’m watching. They’ll be running for quite a while, all the way through the fall season, so there’s still plenty of time to get on board and get current with them if they appeal to you. Until then.

A review of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea (PS4)

This is a road I didn’t plan on taking over the last few months, but sometimes things just happen without your planning for it. And so I’m here reviewing my third Atelier game in a row, the DX PS4 edition of Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, and the final game in the Atelier Dusk trilogy. While Shallie bears some resemblance to the first two entries Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Escha & Logy, it also represents a major shift in the series through its removal of a standard gameplay element established by those games and by the previous Arland trilogy. My feelings about this game are also a little mixed, though still favorable on balance — I haven’t played a bad or even middling Atelier game yet, but I think the situation with Shallie is a little more complicated than with any of the others I’ve played so far.

Starting a few years after the end of Escha & Logy, Shallie moves us to still another part of the world, this time one that’s pretty well and truly fucked. The vast Dusk Sea is a massive desert with a few settlements clinging to its edges around the few remaining sources of clean water. The people of Lugion, one of these villages, are anxious about their now dangerously low supply of water. And so Shallistera, also known as Shallie, an alchemist in training and the daughter and planned successor of the chief of Lugion, sets out with two trusted men of the village on a ship (yeah, the ships in this world can sail on sand; I don’t think it’s explained really but no big deal) to the one place that might have a solution to their problem: the oasis city of Stellard.

Shallie might technically be a princess, but much like Meruru she doesn’t have an ego about it.

And Stellard is where we meet our other protagonist: Shallotte Elminus, also coincidentally an alchemist in training nicknamed Shallie. Shallotte is a native of Stellard, doing her best to help her mother manage things by synthesizing goods and taking any jobs she can at the city’s Cooperative Union. These jobs mainly consist of picking trash up off of the streets so far, since she doesn’t yet have the recognition she wants from the Union or its president Raoul, but Shallotte is still ambitious and wants to make a name for herself as an adventuring alchemist. Or something like that.

Your endless optimism is killing me, Shallie, please stop.

Of course, fate brings these two girls together soon enough. On her way to Stellard, Shallistera’s ship is chased by a massive dragon, and while sailing full speed to escape it loses control and rams into Stellard’s harbor, causing serious damage. Thankfully, the local authorities and populace don’t really blame Shallistera and her party for this since they know about the dragons lurking around the sea, but it’s still an awkward introduction to Stellard considering they’ve come seeking aid.

So in order to gain the trust of the city, Shallistera agrees to help with their problems. It turns out that despite its reputation as a city of water, even Stellard is drying up, and threats like the dragon lurking around the Dusk Sea in their area aren’t helping matters. And in the course of her work using alchemy to help Stellard, Shallistera meets fellow young alchemist Shallotte. The pair quickly bond over the unlikely coincidence of their shared nickname and profession and agree to join forces to bring water back to the land and help everyone, both in Stellard and back in Lugion.

It’s here that the story really gets going. In this final game of the Dusk trilogy, your object is quite literally to try to save the world, since without any water sources everyone will obviously die sooner or later. All our characters are aware of the urgency of the situation, and while there still seems to be plenty of water flowing in Stellard at the moment (enough that there’s a “Water Festival” event with all the girls in swimsuits late in the game supposedly meant to honor the Lord of Water or something, which hell, you won’t hear me complaining about that even so) things are absolutely dire at this point, even more so than in Escha & Logy, which dealt directly with the world’s declining environment.

Despite that urgency, Atelier Shallie is the first game out of the modern set of Atelier titles, starting with the original Rorona in 2009, that eliminates the series’ time management element. It’s no longer necessary to keep track of any calendars or clocks while in the field or the atelier — you can now do whatever the hell you want without worrying about running out of time and getting a bad end. While I got more or less used to the time management in these games, especially in its more lenient form in Escha & Logy, it was nice to be free from the calendar for once.

As far as I’m aware, Shallie also marked the end of time management in Atelier as a whole, aside from one deadline in the later PS4 entry Atelier Firis that I hear is so easy to meet it’s barely worth mentioning. I don’t know how long-time series fans feel about all this, but though I can appreciate some things about it as I wrote in my Ayesha review, I ultimately don’t mind seeing this aspect of the games go. Even if Shallie has a plot that would have made a time limit very easy to justify.

I wonder if there are any parallels we can draw between this world and our own? No, probably not.

Unlike the other games in the trilogy, then, Shallie is broken not into months and years but chapters, ten in total. After choosing which Shallie you want to play as, the first chapter begins, starting with some plot advancement through character events and dialogue during which you’ll be given tasks to complete. Once the Shallie you’ve chosen as your protagonist (I’ll mostly refer to them as Stera and Lotte from now on, a convention that the game itself starts following around the story’s halfway mark) has completed the major story-related tasks she’s been given, the chapter moves into a sort of free mode in which she’s able to practice her alchemy and explore the world gathering ingredients and beating up monsters for money and experience. You have the option of moving on to the next chapter once you’ve fulfilled enough “life tasks”, which you can check on the menu screen, but you can also stick around in free time after meeting those requirements if you don’t feel like progressing right away.

And you might not want to move on immediately, because the Cooperative Union offers a lot of lucrative jobs in the form of combat and synthesis requests. This time you get real money instead of just candy for your troubles, which is useful since you’re not getting a government stipend this time around. Stera and Lotte also don’t have to submit reports to the bureaucrat Solle (who is still around; he’s moved to Stellard to help with the Dusk problem and has set up shop in the Union, but he’s a little more mellowed out now, which is nice. He even joins your active party this time.)

As usual, your party grows pretty quickly. In addition to the two Shallies, who can both use items in battle, you’re joined by new characters like the treasure hunter Jurie and her dour alchemist younger sister Miruca, Stera’s protector Kortes, and the katana-wielding homunculus Homura, along with returning characters like Escha and Wilbell. A few of these characters also offer their services in ingredient gathering and item creation. Solle delivers reports about the changing environment around Stellard that can affect enemy and ingredient density in certain field areas. And then there’s Miruca, who fills the role of the modern-style alchemist that Logy took last game — she’s the one you’ll be going to for your advanced weapons and armor. (Logy does show up eventually if you’re playing Plus or one of the DX versions to help Escha out a chapter or two after she arrives in Stellard, but he doesn’t have a workshop this time around. Thankfully, he’s a great asset in battle, so he does have more to do than filling out Solle’s endless paperwork. Lucky for him.)

That old-style alchemy Miruca made reference to above comes in yet another form in Atelier Shallie. This time, ingredients have from 0 to 4 slots that can be filled with attributes that hopefully improve the resulting item. While it’s still partly based on the Ayesha alchemy system, it’s much easier to use, easier even than the elemental point system in Escha & Logy, and I have no complaints at all about that. And since Stera and Lotte are both traditional alchemists, they use the same synthesis styles, so no complications there either.

A lot of things about Shallie seem streamlined for the player’s convenience: the removal of the time limit and calendar, the new alchemy mechanics, and even the combat system, which takes the Escha & Logy three member front line/three member back line and removes the positioning element, putting everyone in your party in a single line in front of the enemy. The only gameplay element that’s been complicated a bit is the search equipment setup, which now takes the form of a big grid that you have to fit your items into like a bunch of Tetris blocks. Why does the Globe attack item take the shape of a [ ? No idea, but you have to deal with that shit or else use an item attribute that reduces the space it takes up, which I did a lot.

On top of all that, Shallie looks pretty nice. This game was originally released on the PS3 in 2014, near the very end of that console’s life, and I imagine it gave that PS3 a real workout with some of the elaborate special attack animations in battle. I understand the original Shallie suffered from slowdown problems for that very reason. These issues are apparently even worse in Shallie Plus on the Vita — out of all the Plus versions, I’ve heard that Shallie is the closest to being unplayable only because the Vita couldn’t handle it, at least in the way it was ported over. I don’t know the first thing about the technical aspects of these issues, but I do know that the DX edition on the PS4 doesn’t have any such problems.

Making weapons at Miruca’s workshop.

As expected, the art and music are excellent as usual for the series. Hidari’s characters and CGs look great (I’m especially a fan of Miruca — I like those dour indoor types in general, and her “gothic lolita blacksmith” look is certainly unique, though how the hell she keeps that hair so curled all the time is a mystery.) And the settings this time are especially nice. Stellard really looks like it would be an appealing place to live, with a relaxed port city kind of vibe that makes me wish I were there hanging around in an outside bar in the warm breezy air.* Though maybe it would be more appealing if it were surrounded by an ocean of water than of sand, but then, even some of the wastes in and around the Dusk Sea you explore to fight enemies and gather ingredients look nice in their way.

Considering all the polish on it and the streamlining and quality of life improvements made to the gameplay, you might think Shallie DX would be a good place to start for an Atelier beginner, even despite the fact that it’s at the end of a trilogy. After all, the Atelier games I’ve played so far are usually pretty self-contained stories even when they’re parts of larger narratives, and in a very general sense, Shallie is the same way.

However, I’d advise strongly against playing Shallie if you haven’t at least played Escha & Logy first because of just how much it focuses on characters from the first two games in the trilogy and their stories in the course of its narrative. Stera and Lotte have their own stories, of course, and these largely involve new characters like Jurie, Miruca, and Kortes. However, the returning characters take up a lot of screen time, and while much of that time is spent talking with and working alongside Stera and Lotte, a lot of it also involves references to past events in Ayesha and especially in Escha & Logy that entirely new players would have no idea about.

Of course, the Shallies have no idea about any of this either, and very often in cutscenes they’re listening in on their seniors’ conversations, taking a more passive role in that sense. That’s not unusual, since around the middle of the game they’re surrounded by more accomplished alchemists who they look up to, most notably the protagonists of the first two games in the trilogy. However, it might put the player in a weird position if they have no idea about the importance of the seed Escha brought over from Colseit, for instance, or about the unusual relationship between Keithgriff and Ayesha — and they wouldn’t if they haven’t played through the rest of Dusk.

The reunion scenes between Escha and Logy also mean a lot more if you’ve played their game and know about the stuff they went through together, and especially if they were into each other in your own playthrough like they were in mine. There’s some of that energy here in Shallie too.

For that reason, I think that if you start with Atelier Shallie you might feel a bit lost in its story. This is even more the case because Shallie provides a true conclusion to the Dusk series and to its larger “dying world” narrative. Even Atelier Meruru, which relied heavily on returning characters in the Arland trilogy, didn’t feel like an ending to the story in the same way, since Arland was quite a bit lighter in tone and took a more slice-of-life approach than Dusk (which might be why it’s the one that got a fourth installment in Atelier Lulua much later on — it’s probably easier to add another sequel to a series like that.)

Of course, if you want to start near the end of that story, you’re free to do so, and you can probably get a lot out of Shallie on its own. I just think it’s more satisfying if you play through it understanding what the hell Escha, Logy, Solle, Wilbell, Ayesha, and the rest of the returning characters are talking about when they get into past events in conversation, which happens quite a lot. And unlike in Escha & Logy, some of these past events have immediate importance to the plot. I’d say you can even get away with playing Escha & Logy first, though Ayesha is a good game too, so why not just start at the beginning?

Katla, originally from Escha & Logy, trying to convince the Shallies to join her morally questionable water-hoarding scheme.

None of this is a fault against Atelier Shallie, really. It was clearly designed to be the finale to this story about a world on the brink of death, and I think it pulls that off well enough. However, the relationship between Stera and Lotte did seem weirdly loose and rushed in places. Shortly after they meet, for example, Stera is already thinking about her approach to the drought situation in terms of what Lotte would do, treating her more like a very old friend than someone she’d just met a few days or a week ago. The same is true for Lotte in a few parts of her story. The two clearly contrast in some ways — Stera being more methodical and careful and Lotte being freer and more impulsive — and while the dynamic between Escha and Logy in their own game worked really well partly for that reason, in Shallie that relationship feels a little flatter.

To be fair, the game never really depicts the two as joined at the hip, though they clearly see each other as friends. They do have a major argument partway through their stories that gets resolved fairly quickly, but other than that, their relationship doesn’t change all that much other than their dropping the use of “Shallie” to refer to each other and picking up the nicknames Stera and Lotte instead, seemingly in a mutual acknowledgement that they’re very different kinds of people. I liked that one subtle change in their relationship, but in general, where they end up doesn’t seem very different from where they started out.

I have to say this is a really cute CG and scene, though it feels unusually intimate for these two considering what comes before and after it.

The removal of the time limit also changes the pace of the story in some weird ways. Though I’m not exactly lamenting the passing of that old Atelier time management tradition here, the way Shallie deals with pacing is a little awkward. Once you’re done with your main story tasks and enter the second “free time” half of a chapter, you have to fulfill a certain number of tasks Stera or Lotte have on their list before proceeding. This is really easy to do; you can pretty much synthesize and fight monsters and fulfill requests for money freely and you’ll naturally hit that target after a while.

However, if you’re taking too long messing around, your protagonist’s “happiness meter” will fall. This didn’t seem like a big deal at first, but then I noticed Shallie (Stera in my case in the first playthrough) started literally slowing down — her walking and running speed slowed dramatically. This is how the game encourages you to stay on track without the old time limit. Once you’ve hit your life task goal and are ready to move on to the next chapter, the game prompts you to do so, but it doesn’t force you — you can stick around in your current chapter if you feel like it, but in some cases you’ll be stuck on this slow mode until you move on.

This is a novel way to try to keep players on track without the calendar and time limit mechanic, but it also feels kind of artificial and frustrating. It also happens sometimes even if you’re doing your best to stay on track, especially around the middle of the game when there’s a lot to get done, though by the end of the game at least your happiness meter stays at maximum so you can finish up whatever you were planning to do before moving on to the final fight.

Like killing this giant thing. It just showed up out of nowhere, actually scared me for a second. Powerful enemies like this will start spawning in previously cleared areas after a while.

But Shallie still has plenty of positive points about it. The choice of protagonist this time around matters a little more than last time, since unlike Escha and Logy who basically are joined at the hip (even in this version of Shallie) Stera and Lotte largely take their own paths, especially in the early chapters of the game. Even after their stories converge around chapters 4 and 5, the two practice alchemy in different settings, Stera on her ship and Lotte in her mother’s house. And generally speaking, they know they have their own paths to follow, though their friendship is always maintained as a central aspect of the game. For that reason, I’d say you get a bit more out of a second playthrough of Shallie in terms of variety than in Escha & Logy.

The game also does sum up some of the returning characters’ stories nicely, especially Ayesha, Odelia, and Keithgriff’s that started all the way back in Atelier Ayesha. The same is even true for a couple of non-returning characters, one of whom is even tied in to a major plot point that explains some of the side events in Escha & Logy. So if you have played the trilogy straight through, Shallie provides some satisfying wrap-ups in that sense.

And though there are some things I didn’t love about the game’s execution, I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like the game as a whole, because I did. Atelier Shallie is well-made and adds some more colorful and interesting characters to the Dusk story. The alchemy is still satisfying, especially if you’re an obsessive like me. And I really did like Stera and Lotte as the protagonists, setting aside the aspects of their relationship that felt weirdly out of place or rushed.

But to fully appreciate this game, I think again that you need to play Shallie after you’ve gotten through at least some and preferably all of the rest of the Dusk trilogy. This might seem like a stupidly obvious statement, since Shallie is the last game in the series, but since Atelier games are so often touted for working well as standalone games, I think this needs to be mentioned. It would be a shame to play a game like this without being able to fully appreciate it, anyway.

Lotte is still a bit much to take sometimes though. That doesn’t change.

And that’s it for Atelier Shallie and for the Dusk series as a whole. I bought the Dusk Trilogy DX package last year, and I’m happy that I’ve finally played through the whole thing. It’s a unique, interesting, and enjoyable trilogy of games, and as a whole it’s well worth playing through as long as you’re not allergic to turn-based JRPGs or bored shitless by gathering ingredients and crafting items. If you are, you’d better just avoid Atelier entirely, at least up to the Ryza games, which have adopted a kind of hybrid turn-based/action system of combat.

Speaking of that, the first Atelier Ryza is the next Atelier game I’m playing. Yes, I’m skipping over the Mysterious series for the moment, though I do intend to get the recently released DX package at some point. However, I think I need a break from Atelier for a while now. I have a few other games to get around to.

But rest assured: I’m not even close to done with this series yet, and at the rate Gust puts these games out (about one a year) I may never be done with it. And that’s fine with me. You can’t have too much of a good thing, at least not in this case. 𒀭

 

* Is it pretty obvious that I need a fucking vacation? I guess it is now.

A review of Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky (PS4)

I’m really plowing through Atelier now. Only one month after writing about Atelier Ayesha, I didn’t think I’d be done with the next game in the series so soon. But Escha & Logy is just that kind of game — the kind that pulls you in and refuses to let you go. Or at least that’s what it was for me.

Atelier Escha & Logy: Alchemists of the Dusk Sky is the middle game in the Dusk trilogy of the much larger Atelier series. While it continues along in the same world and features some returning characters, it’s a more or less self-contained story like almost every Atelier game seems to be, so you don’t have to start from Ayesha to understand what’s going on here. All you’ll miss out on are some references to Ayesha and her situation that aren’t critical to the central plot of Escha & Logy. So don’t worry about starting from the middle if that’s what you plan on doing, though if you’re buying the Dusk trilogy as a package as it’s commonly sold, I’d still recommend starting from the beginning with Ayesha (though of course it is possible to buy any of these games separately as well if you don’t want to take that plunge, and Escha & Logy stands well enough on its own in that regard.)

Also, just a note that as before, this is a review of the DX edition released on the PS4. I can’t comment very much on any of the other versions since I haven’t played them.

Escha and Logy near the beginning of their game in their new atelier.

Note that there are two names in this game’s title and a plural Alchemists in there: this time around, we have two protagonists instead of one. Our story begins in a small government office in the frontier town of Colseit, where two young alchemists have just been hired to join the Research and Development department. Escha Malier is a girl native to the town who grew up practicing traditional alchemy (the “stir a bunch of stuff in a giant cauldron” type we’re familiar with from past games) and she’s joined by a new arrival from Central City, Logix Ficsario aka Logy, who uses more modern, specialized forms of alchemy and is totally unfamiliar with Escha’s practices.

But they’ll have to work together. Marion Quinn, their direct superior (and the first of several familiar faces if you’ve played Ayesha) has the duty of restoring both the reputation and the budget of Colseit’s branch R&D office by showing its value to Central City, and Escha and Logy’s alchemy and exploration skills will be vital to these efforts.

Escha, Logy, and their supervisor Marion

Bureaucracy, budgeting, and resource management: now this is a god damn game

Escha and Logy couldn’t be more different in some respects. Aside from their different methods of alchemy, from day one it’s obvious that they have divergent personalities and outlooks on life in general. Escha approaches her work with a lot of excitement and with a sense of wonder. By contrast, while Logy is certainly serious about his work, he also comes off as a lot more grounded, trying to pull Escha back when he thinks her ideas are a bit out there.

This gap between Escha and Logy becomes more obvious when talk comes up about the Unexplored Ruins, a massive ruin built by a lost past civilization that somehow floats in the air. Nobody knows how it’s floating or how or why it was built, but Escha’s cousin, the airship engineer Awin, dreams about exploring it and tells Escha and Logy that he’d like to build an airship capable of somehow making it through the dangerous debris surrounding the ruin. Escha encourages Awin and says she’d love to explore the ruins too, but Logy is skeptical about the whole thing. While he’s naturally interested in whatever mysteries the ruin has to offer, if it’s basically impossible to make it there, what’s the point of thinking about it in the first place?

Escha and Logy having a conversation.

This hot and cold sort of odd couple dynamic between Escha and Logy works really well. It’s not played up to a ridiculous point where their differences are exaggerated — as before, our protagonists and their friends feel like pretty believable and sometimes relatable sorts of characters — but their differences are still stark enough to make their relationship more interesting. And probably partly because of that, when the game gets around to a little bit of drama between the two later on, it feels believable as well.

Escha and Logy’s differences complement each other nicely in the story, but these are also worked into the gameplay, especially when you’re working in the atelier. When you start Escha & Logy, you have the choice of playing as either protagonist, but the choice doesn’t matter all that much aside from getting some story details particular to one or the other in each playthrough. You’ll be working together for the entire game anyway; there are certain things that only Escha knows how to do, and certain other things that only Logy can do, so they have to rely on each other. Since Escha is versed in traditional alchemy, she performs all the item synthesis, while Logy uses his modern techniques to create new weapons and disassemble relics found in the field and dungeon areas to break them down to their component ingredients. And since they’re both alchemists, they can both use items in battle, which is a massive benefit once your alchemy level starts rising.

Atelier Escha & Logy synthesis screen

Who would have thought making an apple tart could be so complicated? I can’t bake at all, so for all I know, this is what it’s like in real life too.

Escha and Logy don’t have the freedom to do whatever they like, because there’s still more time management in this game. However, unlike Ayesha, which sticks you with a single goal and a three-year time limit to achieve it, Escha & Logy is broken down into several four-month terms. At the beginning of each term, you have a staff meeting with Marion, who reviews your work in the previous term and gives you your new assignments. These are broken into a 5 by 5 bingo card-looking grid, with one mandatory assignment to complete in the center and optional secondary assignments surrounding it.

Failing to complete the mandatory assignment results in a game over, so that’s where your efforts should always be directed first, but it’s always worth trying to fill out the entire grid for the alchemy and combat bonuses they give you (and also to get praised by Marion, which is a plus in itself. Or maybe I just like hearing more of her ara ara onee-san style voice. Am I showing my hand too much here?)

Escha, Logy, and the pain in the ass bureaucrat Solle

Since they’re government employees, Escha and Logy also have to receive approval for their expenses from the government based in Central City, and to do that, they have to go through resident bureaucrat Solle Grumman. This guy might seem like a real jerk at first, but he’s actually on your side — more or less, anyway. In addition to Marion’s assignments, Solle offers item synthesis and monster-killing requests for you to fulfill that he’ll pay you for in sweets that you can give to the resident homunculus (the small furry animal-looking guys) who use their magic to replicate items. This is an incredibly useful function that you’ll want to use to save time and energy, especially later on in the game when you’ll be trying to create items and gear with special and rare properties.

The upside to being government employees is that you’ll get a monthly stipend, the size of which depends on how much productive activity you’ve engaged in that month fulfilling Solle’s requests, fighting monsters out in the field, or creating items in the atelier. This was a nice break from my playthrough of Ayesha, where Ayesha had a nearly empty purse most of the time. Despite all the griping about how arrogant and shitty the central government is to its branch offices, they don’t skimp on those stipends.

A meeting between Marion and her employees Escha and Logy in Atelier Escha & Logy

I know this screenshot makes Escha & Logy look like some kind of anime Bureaucracy Simulator game, but bureaucracy has its benefits too.

And as always, you’ll have outside help from friends both old and new while running around in the field and dungeon areas. Escha & Logy again features a map with a lot of areas to discover and explore, monsters to fight, and ingredients to gather, and the pair is joined in the field by returning characters like Linca, Wilbell, and Nio (the very same Nio you were tasked with rescuing in Atelier Ayesha) and new characters like Awin, badass fighter/historian Threia, and child merchant Katla, whose irresponsible as hell parents left her all alone to manage their store while they’re out traveling the world. But she does try to rip you off a whole lot, so it’s hard to feel too bad for her.

Escha and Logy talking to the shopkeeper Katla in Atelier Escha & Logy

Katla is a damn brat, but despite how she looks and acts, she’s an asset in a fight.

Each game I’ve played in the Atelier series so far has managed to create its own special character and feel distinct from the others. Escha & Logy, despite having a similar look to Ayesha with the same character designer and artists and taking place in the same world, plays very differently. While Ayesha was focused more on exploration, Escha & Logy puts a big emphasis on item and gear synthesis and creation. Its base alchemy system is taken partly from Ayesha, but it feels a little more intuitive. Which is good, because you’ll probably be doing a hell of a lot of alchemy to fulfill requests and especially to maximize the value of your time out in the field.

Atelier Escha & Logy inventory screen

Organizing Escha and Logy’s gear before going out to the field. Items this time around are automatically replenished when you return to base. However, you have limited space to carry them, and other party members aside from the protagonists can’t carry anything, so resource management is once again a must.

The old turn-based combat system has also been improved, with a new three-member front line and three-member reserve setup in which your back line characters can offer supporting attacks and swap into the front line if needed. This new system is a lot more engaging than the more basic combat featured in Ayesha, so people who get bored with more standard forms of turn-based combat might find something to like here. Having two alchemists in the party also comes with great benefits: Escha and Logy can learn new joint techniques later on in the game that really help when trying to take down massively powerful bosses. Working out how to use Double Draw effectively is necessary to deal with the most challenging fights.

Battle in Atelier Escha & Logy. Escha fighting a dragon in a wedding dress

This dragon looks difficult, but it’s nowhere near the most frustrating fight in the game. Also see Escha here, perfectly suited for combat in a wedding dress bonus costume. I don’t even remember why I put this on her, but it looks pretty funny seeing her and Logy fight in wedding gear.

Speaking of wedding gear, there’s the Escha-Logy relationship, which as far as I know is unique in the series. This isn’t the only game that features a choice of protagonist,1 but it is the only one I know of that seriously suggests a romance between them, or between any characters who aren’t already together for that matter. It’s still a very light element of the game and not central to the plot at all, so light in fact that it wasn’t even featured in the PS3 original. But from Escha & Logy Plus on the Vita on to the DX editions, the player has had the choice in some conversations between two dialogue options, one friendly and the other romantic, each choice helpfully indicated by a smile and a heart. So it’s up to the player: if you want to imagine Escha and Logy as just good friends, you can keep things strictly platonic, but if you want something more between them, you can go the romance route, and you’ll get some extra bits of dialogue that show they have feelings for each other and that other characters recognize they might be getting especially close.

Escha flirting with Logy in Atelier Escha & Logy

Usually these games don’t touch on romance very much at all aside from some extremely coy “these two girls might be into each other” yuri stuff (probably more prominent in the Arland series — see Rorona and Cordelia, Totori and Mimi, and Meruru and Keina.) It’s more explicit here, though, and I don’t mind that.2 And really, Escha and Logy seem like they’d make a good couple anyway. Opposites attracting and all that stuff. I know that’s a bit of a cliché, but these two have great chemistry, and they’re the sorts of opposites who could actually complement each other well, so the option doesn’t feel forced at all.

All that said, I still wonder what drew me in specifically about Atelier Escha & Logy so quickly. I’ve basically enjoyed every game in the series I’ve played so far, but none of the others captured me in the way this one did. The entertaining dynamic between the two main characters is definitely part of it — it was pretty fun seeing how Escha and Logy reacted to new situations and played off of each other.

Escha likes cake. A CG from Atelier Escha & Logy

The CGs featured in a lot of these situations were also a draw; the art in Escha & Logy is just as good as ever. And yeah, Escha’s tail is explained in the game. I was wondering about it too.

I think it has to do with the structure of the game as well. I found that breaking the action into smaller four-month pieces rather than having one massive three-year task to complete made the game more approachable than Ayesha and Meruru. I don’t know if this was Gust’s intention, but it felt like a throwback to Atelier Rorona, which featured similar three-month goals to complete. The time pressure in Rorona still felt greater, too, at least from what I remember. Escha & Logy certainly wants to keep you on track, but it gives you all the resources you need to complete everything well within its time constraints. In just about every term, I was able to finish all my tasks so early that I had plenty of free time to develop my alchemy skills and explore as I wished.

I also like the way the story of the game is rooted in its setting. The World of Dusk we first explored in Atelier Ayesha was clearly in serious decline, with vegetation dying off and land drying up in parts, but things didn’t look quite so bad in Ayesha’s part of the world, and the game didn’t focus on that aspect so much anyway. Escha & Logy, by contrast, is directly concerned with the declining environment and its effects on human life — many of Escha and Logy’s tasks have to do with exploring the causes of these changes, examining drying water sources and using alchemy to try to improve harvest yields. Colseit is a kind of oasis in this part of the world with its apple orchards, but it’s not immune from the effects of these catastrophic changes either. And as in Ayesha, it’s implied that the misuse of alchemy by the fallen past civilization caused many of these problems.3

Escha talks to Nio in Atelier Escha & Logy in a lava stage

The team exploring a volcano/lava flow. Nio’s sister Ayesha is an important part of this “responsible use of alchemy” theme. Given how much she’s brought up on the side here, maybe we’ll meet her again in the next game. I’d like to see what’s happening with her too.

There’s also the usual praise I have to give to the art and music. As far as the character design goes, I think Hidari fully measures up to Mel Kishida at this point. And I really like the jazz and prog flavor in the soundtrack. The connection isn’t a big surprise, because I’m pretty sure someone at Gust is a big fan of Yes — there are battle tracks in this game titled “Close to the Edge Part 2” and “Don’t Kill the Dragon”, and I can absolutely see the prog influence in a few tracks (like The Tiger of Dorothea, sounds ELP-ish? Maybe with a mix of fusion with that guitar. I like it.) Also, the opening theme Milk-Colored Pass is excellent.

Since I’ve been nothing but positive about Atelier Escha & Logy up until now, I may as well drop a few potential negatives about the game, starting with its increased emphasis on learning and using alchemy to create better items. The space restrictions you have to deal with throughout aren’t too unreasonable, but they do require you to do some work to fit as much power as you can into Escha and Logy’s setups. And near the end of the game, you’re thrown into a very long one-year-plus final term with a special assignment in which you’re encouraged to do some extremely precise alchemy to get very particular high-level attributes on items and gear so you can take on difficult bosses (and to carry over to the second playthrough if you’re going for the true ending, which you can’t even get on the first since it requires you to complete both Escha and Logy’s stories anyway.)

Escha and Logy survey a desert landscape in Atelier Escha & Logy

Which means you have to run through all these field and dungeon areas twice if you want that true ending, but the second time around it will be a lot quicker as long as you have your new game plus overpowered weapons, armor, and accessories equipped.

None of this is actually a negative point for me, since I liked this aspect of it, but it may be for some players who prefer the exploration and combat aspects of JRPGs like these. And it might not even be true for you depending on how you play the game. This is just how I felt the game pushed me to play, given the challenges it threw at me and the tools I had to deal with them. Like the others, it doesn’t absolutely force you to play in any particular way, but if you don’t use those tools it provides effectively, you might have a harder time.

Another possible issue is the game’s tendency to throw you into boss fights without much warning. This happens a few times in Escha & Logy, and I can see it being a pain for some players who might prefer a hint as to what’s coming so they can be properly prepared. On the other hand, the game might be using this as a way to hammer home the old Boy Scouts’ motto “always be prepared.” I was never a Boy Scout, so I was caught off guard when this happened and just managed to scrape by. On the plus side, I appreciated the challenge the game provided in these fights — though I was thrown into them, I could also deal with them by using proper tactics in battle and by having a mix of powerful attack and healing items.

Escha uses a Knowledge book in Atelier Escha & Logy, battle animation

Protip: Make Knowledge Books

Finally, there’s the problem with certain item and effect names and descriptions in this game. I’d say the above two points aren’t flaws at all but rather purposeful design aspects of Escha & Logy that some players might not enjoy. However, this one is undoubtedly a flaw, and not an insignificant one. For one example, item effects in Atelier Ayesha followed the very familiar “S -> M -> L” small, medium and large naming convention also followed by t-shirt manufacturers and fast food places, but Escha & Logy inexplicably flips this order, with L denoting the weakest and S the strongest effect. So now instead of small to medium to large, the scale now presumably runs from light to moderate to strong or something like it.

If that had been the convention the trilogy and the series as a whole had been following until now, it would have been fine, but it wasn’t, and changing it like this is bizarre and confusing. And hell if it doesn’t go right back to the old small, medium, and large system in the following game Atelier Shallie, meaning you have to unlearn this dumb shit and mentally readjust anyway if you’re playing straight through the whole Dusk trilogy as I am.

An encyclopedia entry in Atelier Escha & Logy

One entry in the game’s large library. This one makes it sound like Escha and Logy can access the Midnight Hour, but unfortunately the Time Watch doesn’t actually work that way.

This issue extends to some of the expanded descriptions in the library. Take the attribute Fixed Healing+ for an example. I had to look up what the flying fuck the game meant by Healing item is fairly enhanced by a set amount. The weaker the base power, the higher the effect. It vaguely makes sense, but what does it mean in real terms? That this effect is proportionally less powerful the more powerful the item is? I guess, but I’m still not sure how that works out in comparison with other healing-related attributes I could be using in synthesis instead. And if it’s a “set amount”, why does the second sentence imply that the amount can change based on the power of the item? Then it’s not actually a set amount, is it?

This might all be a stupid nitpick. However, Atelier games contain reams of information about monsters, weapons, accessories, and items and their associated effects in battle, and while some of this info is clearly just there for flavor and background, a lot of it’s actually useful to know when you’re synthesizing items. And when there are so many items, ingredients, and attributes available to play with when doing alchemy, clarity and consistency of language are necessary. I’m not sure how much of the weirdness in the descriptions in Escha & Logy came from the original Japanese release and how much was a result of a poor localization job, either. The S/M/L thing might have been an issue with the original, but the item descriptions feel like more of a bad translation issue. But I can’t say any of this for sure since I haven’t played the JP version of the game.

A staff meeting in Atelier Escha & Logy

Whoever was responsible for this maybe should have taken a cue from the game and held a staff meeting to hammer it out, because it seems like an extremely avoidable problem. (Also I love Linca’s expression on the right. She’d rather be out killing dragons than dealing with paperwork. Sorry, Linca.)

Despite that pretty large annoyance, I’d say Escha & Logy is the best Atelier game I’ve played so far. If nothing else, it’s a credit to just how much this game drew me in that despite these issues, I finished Escha & Logy within one month of finishing Ayesha, and also given how much work I’ve had to do at the same time that wasn’t playing JRPGs. (If I could make a career out of that… but I’m not a cute anime girl with a streaming setup on YouTube or Twitch, so I have no chance.)

And now it’s on to the final game in the Dusk trilogy, Atelier Shallie. I’m already a few chapters into Shallie at the time of writing, so it shouldn’t be too long until I’m through with that as well. But before moving on, I should note that Escha & Logy got a 12-episode anime adaptation that I haven’t seen, as far as I know the only Atelier game to have this distinction. From what I hear, it’s not that great and I’m not missing anything by skipping it. My anime backlog is already way too long to add a show telling a story I already know, and then probably not as well as the source material did. If you saw it, though, feel free to let me know your thoughts about it in the comments. 𒀭

***

1 Atelier Shallie also has two protagonists, and I think Atelier Lydie & Suelle probably does as well based on the title alone. I went with Escha on my first run, but you have to play through the game as both Escha and Logy to get the true ending anyway, and thankfully the new game plus bonuses make that second run a lot easier.

2 I honestly wouldn’t mind slightly more explicit yuri stuff in these games either — not explicit in the 18+ sense of course, but more something like what Escha & Logy gives us. Then again, maybe all the hinting without actually coming out and saying it is what yuri fans really want. I can’t say for sure.

3 Even the names of the protagonists fit into this theme: Escha, with the ch pronounced as a hard “k” sound, Logy with a soft “g”, and the & pronounced to in Japanese, all jammed together, make the word eschatology, or the study of the end of the world. Wordplay based on an English word that only works if you use Japanese to get there, that’s pretty damn impressive.