Gust's flagship series is back with the adventures of a brand new alchemist. Does Sophie have what it takes to fill the shoes of legendary atelier owners like Rorona and Ayesha? Let's turn on the cauldron and see how it boils down.
Believe it or not, this is the 17th game in the Atelier series. After three adventures set in Salburg, a couple in Gramnad, the Iris trilogy, two Mana Khemia titles, and the Arland and Dusk trilogies; Atelier Sophie is the first of the "Mysterious" subseries. Considering there have been so many Atelier games, you'd hope that they're improving with every title. Thankfully, this latest adventure is quite possibly the best yet.
You may be wondering how it enhances the classic gameplay of running an alchemy shop, gathering materials, and completing quests for the locals. First, everything is much more streamlined. Fumbling around in menus is a thing of the past seeing as everything is presented in such an intuitive way. For example, if you ever stumble upon any interesting page within the expansive menu system then you can simply bookmark it for later. However, the biggest improvement is that there are no longer any time limits. Sure, certain quests expire if you don't complete them in time but that only happened to me twice and I'm pretty sure they came back later for me to have a second chance. Having such intuitive gameplay and seemingly limitless freedom to enjoy it within makes this one addictive journey. Honestly, I found it hard to put down even after playing for ten or so hours in a row.
As fans have come to expect, Atelier Sophie is set in a colourful world that's inhabited by a diverse cast of endearing characters. Right off the bat, you're introduced to Sophie's pals Oskar (a tubby horticulture enthusiast) and Monika (a sophisticated fencer). Soon into the story, one of Sophie's books starts talking to her but the book's memory is failing. Sophie then takes it upon herself to restore the book's memories by learning alchemy and writing all of her findings inside of it. Along the way, many surprises await yet the lighthearted atmosphere always persists. In fact, I even found myself laughing out loud at a lot of moments which I rarely do while gaming.
A lively presentation helps bring Atelier Sophie's world to life. The music is fantastic with upbeat Celtic rhythms and orchestral pieces while the voice cast does a phenomenal job of providing personality to every character. A good example of this is when an otherwise gloomy chum slowly begins appreciating his life and simultaneously sounds increasingly determined in the process. The visuals are decent with lovely character models and environments but, it saddens me to say, the animation is quite stiff. You'd think that Sophie is hovering everywhere she walks because her feet don't seem to connect to the ground. In an age where characters push their way through crowds and tilt their heads toward points of interest, watching Sophie robotically explore her world is rather disappointing.
There is a ton of interconnecting systems in Atelier Sophie that work together beautifully. You'll find yourself gathering materials only to uncover an item that gives Sophie an idea for a new concoction. After creating it, she may give it to a friend who then allows her to upgrade weapons further. It's nothing short of seamless. The ever-growing list of optional quests, cast of chatty locals, innovative alchemy system, and treasure trove of secrets waiting to be discovered will keep you hooked for days.
The battle system in Atelier Sophie is very basic but in the best way. As usual, you just input commands to attack, defend, use items, and unleash different skills. As you battle a variety of fresh and familiar enemies (like the infamous Punis), you'll develop strategies that will help you overcome even the toughest foes. Building up your Chain Link meter to have your allies automatically beat on monsters one after the other just feels awesome! You'll definitely need to give it your all when you face the super-tough optional bosses.
Although there are many systems at play and the battle system is enjoyable, I reached a point where things started to get tiresome. One issue that contributed to this is that the characters have maximum levels so once you reach them and equip some good gear, you're basically unstoppable and don't have much growing to do. It was around this point that I found the tasks to get unintuitive. Up until then, I knew exactly what I was doing but, all of a sudden, I was lost. There were so many places to explore and people to interact with that it took me forever to figure out how to advance. Luckily, this was quite far along so I'm not too annoyed.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book marks the beginning of a new chapter in the series. Fans will love the unrestricted gameplay set in a familiar cheerful world while newcomers can easily enjoy everything it has to offer without any prior knowledge. I must say, Sophie surpassed my expectations by far and I'll be sure to visit her alchemy shop whenever I'm in town.
- + Streamlined yet unrestrained gameplay
- + Vibrant world full of charming characters, great music, and funny moments
- + Many intricate systems amalgamate perfectly
- - Stiff animations could be more natural
- - There's a point when tasks start to become tedious and unintuitive