In a lot of games, there’s generally one specific trope that people constantly complain about; the fetch quest. Whether it’s a JRPG, an MMORPG, or any kind of video game in which items are involved, having a character tell you to bring them 10 of a specific item is met with eye rolls and groans. I had known about the Atelier games for a long time, but was always hesitant to buy a game that proudly boasted being almost entirely about collecting, synthesizing and delivering items. After losing entire days to Atelier Sophie, though, I can happily say that I was proved so, so wrong.
Atelier Sophie is the latest installment in the long running Atelier series. There’s been a new mainline entry every year for the past 15 years, on top of numerous spin-offs and re-releases, so it can be an intimidating series to jump into. The first PS3 release started a new universe for the franchise as a way of creating a good jumping-on point for first time players, and as the first PS4 entry in the series, Atelier Sophie looks to do the same, taking place in the same universe but starting an entirely new overarching storyline that doesn’t require knowledge of previous events.
Atelier Sophie oozes with JRPG aesthetic, but at its core it’s unlike any other JRPG out there. In a genre that has laughably consistent tropes like prophetic chosen heroes and world ending demon-villains, Atelier Sophie embraces a much simpler, smaller story that’s more about character relationships and relaxing adventures than almighty heroes and stopping the end of the world.
You play as Sophie Neuenmuller, an orphan who inherited her home and love of alchemy from her grandmother, who was a well known alchemist in their town of Kirhen Bell. Everyone came to her for help and medicine, and helping so many people and seeing their gratitude is what makes Sophie want to take up the alchemist mantle and become as talented and helpful as her grandmother was. She’s pushed to achieve this dream by her childhood friends in Kirhen Bell, as well as the countless other friends and acquaintances she makes along her journey.
It’s a game that thrives on the idea of “slice-of-life”. You’re not adventuring across the world and saving the day, you’re walking around town, visiting your friends and helping them with their alchemy-related troubles. The main story, as a result, isn’t jaw dropping, nor is it a unique achievement in storytelling for the medium. But that’s perfectly okay. The most fun comes from the unique character relationships and arcs you experience with everyone in town, meeting new people, helping them with their troubles, and seeing everyone grow as a result. The game perfectly embodies that comfy, slice-of-life feel, and it’s easy to fall into Sophie’s daily routine and find yourself lost in her world, spending hours gathering materials, checking up on friends, and fulfilling requests from the townsfolk.
Like any other JRPG, there is combat in this game, and despite the series being primarily focused on the gathering and alchemy bits, the combat is almost as unique and polished as the rest of the game. You have a party consisting of four members, one in the front and back and two in the middle, and assign them commands in regular turn based fashion, using skills, attacks, and items to defeat your opponent. On top of the basic elements, though, there’s a unique “stance” system.
Each character can go into either a defensive or offensive stance during their turn, and when a certain gauge is filled by delivering or receiving enough attacks, characters can perform support actions depending on their stance to help an ally. You also get warned when an enemy is about to perform an especially strong attack, giving you time to either beef up your defences or use your strongest stuff to finish them off quickly. It all adds up to a combat system that’s more than just serviceable, and it makes the added challenge of secret bosses even more tantalizing.
You don’t perform alchemy by shooting terrorists in the face or grinding for hours in the forest. To make stuff, you need stuff, and to get stuff, you journey out into the world, selecting various locations to travel to from the world map and gathering materials from grass and herbs to ore and gems, finding anything and everything to take it back with you and get to crafting. This is where the heart of the series is, and Atelier Sophie has changed up how it works compared to previous titles. Previously, you would buy recipe books to discover new alchemy techniques, but in this game, Sophie thinks up new recipe ideas on the fly by doing various activities, from defeating certain enemies to investigating unique parts of the town or finding new materials.
It’s a system that naturally connects narrative and gameplay, and keeps you engaged with all the different aspects of the game by giving you a reason to go explore something you wouldn’t have otherwise. I needed to figure out how to create cloth, and in my recipe book, the only hint I had was that it was discoverable by investigating the item “animal fur”. So I thought of which enemy might be most likely to drop animal fur, since that didn’t seem like an item I could find growing under trees, and set out to fight it. Sure enough, after defeating a couple, I managed to get some animal fur, and Sophie figured out the recipe for cloth.
The system for actually alchemizing items is a bit different this time around, too. Like previous games, you select a recipe, and then choose from various ingredients that fit the necessary broad requirements; a recipe requiring “water” can use any kind of liquids, oils or monster slimes you’ve come across. Each kind of item has different attributes and effects that apply to the finished alchemy creation, and it’s up to you to find the correct materials with the right attributes based on what you need to create.
New to Atelier Sophie, though, is a puzzle-like gameplay aspect similar to the suitcase puzzles in Professor Layton or trying to get your equipment in Resident Evil 4 to fit into your inventory. Each material is represented on a grid of squares by Tetris-like shapes, and you need to fit all of them onto the grid in different alignments to receive various stat bonuses based on the empty spaces between them.
It’s tough to wrap your head around at first, but once you get the hang of it, it adds an engaging layer to the alchemy system that makes it more than just navigating menus. Finished alchemy items can be used for a number of things. Some are made to be delivered to clients, others can be used in-battle to inflict or heal damage, and certain materials can be used to craft new weapons and equipment for battle.
As I said in the beginning, this game oozes JRPG style. All of the elements mentioned above come together in a beautiful audio-visual package. Character art and CGs are richly detailed, and the in-game 3D models perfectly capture the style of the 2D designs. Environments are serviceable but less impressive, their graphical fidelity is un-flawed but they feel barren and underpopulated. Monster designs are cute, but basic, with only the largest of bosses showing any major unique flair.
Music in the game is varied and beautiful, equal parts anime-esque orchestral scoring and intense RPG guitar shreds. The game also lets you assign additional music to various parts of the game, from enemy battles to specific areas of the town, and music from previous Atelier games can even be selected. It’s fun to head into battle against a basic starter enemy only for intense final-boss music to start playing. The game features dual-audio, and while the English dub is fine enough, a couple of mismatched voices really left me scratching my head.
Atelier Sophie is a wonderful change of pace from every other JRPG I’ve played. The simple, homegrown story is a breath of fresh air, and the unique focus on alchemy and item gathering over combat and grinding helps it stand out even more. Most surprising of all, though, is that a game all about picking up items, navigating menus and walking around the same town for hours and hours kept me more engaged than almost any other JRPG I’ve played. Atelier Sophie is a wonderful game, and if you’re a new player like me, it’s a great way to get yourself hooked on the rest of the franchise.