For the longest time, the Atelier series has followed a formulaic release pattern. An entry will come out that marks the start of a new thematic trilogy, but while the next two releases in the series will fall within that trilogy, they’ll focus on new protagonists and stories that are only loosely tied to the rest of the trilogy through character cameos. There’s the Arland trilogy, the Dusk trilogy, and the Mystery trilogy – which is where I first came into playing the series thanks to Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book.
In the last few years, Koei Tecmo has started to buck this formulaic approach and release a variety of unexpected entries into the series – such as the current best-selling Atelier Ryza games that both focus on a singular protagonist or even the unexpected and unprecedented Arland sequel, Atelier Lulua. Now, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series, a direct sequel to my first and favourite game in the franchise is being delivered in the form of Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream.
A big part of why I loved the first Atelier Sophie was that it had such a chill, lackadaisical vibe. It was a very Kiki’s Delivery Service kind of story – no big bad demon to defeat or world to save, just an aspiring alchemist hanging out with her friends, exploring the forest, and becoming besties with a talking book. Sophie and her book-turned-android-friend Plachta go on to appear in the rest of the Mysterious trilogy as older and stronger alchemists, but the new sequel doesn’t pick up after those events. Instead, it drops us somewhere inbetween Atelier Sophie 1 and the Mysterious trilogy follow-up, Atelier Firis – Sophie is setting out to explore the world and become a licensed alchemist, and this is one of the many adventures she ends up on.
If the first Atelier Sophie is akin to Kiki’s Delivery Service, then Atelier Sophie 2 is more in line with Spirited Away – minus the trauma and body horror. Sophie and Plachta find themselves falling into a mysterious portal in the forest, and while Sophie wakes up on the other side, Plachta is nowhere to be seen. Sophie meets a few helpful individuals who explain that she’s in the dream land of Erde Wiege – a land where people from across space & time are brought to in order to achieve their life’s dream.
Mysteries quickly pile up as Sophie meets a young alchemist who is also named Plachta, and learns about the presence of a master alchemist named Ramizel – the same name of the late grandmother who inspired Sophie to become an alchemist in the first place. The initial story setup is…a lot, but once you get past the inter-dimensional dreamland stuff it all boils down to another comfy coming-of-age adventure for Sophie, and it’s a delight.
Of course, the gameplay is a big part of the experience here – the Atelier series is known for being more focused on gathering materials and crafting items than grinding battles and fighting huge bosses. You can do the latter, of course, but the former is the meat of the experience, and that meat is prepared to perfection in Atelier Sophie 2. Each game in the series adds a few new wrinkles to the basic gameplay loop of entering an area, gathering resources, then bringing them home to alchemize into usable items. Atelier Sophie 2 drops one of my favourite wrinkles back in with the recipe-inspiration system – doing a variety of tasks in the game world like defeating 3 slimes or soaking in the sunset at a specific village will inspire new craftable recipes – and with the bonus of Plachta also being able to alchemize, you’ve got two characters to discover unique sets of recipes for.
Some brand new systems add much-needed spice to the act of gathering and exploration, too – using unique tools like sickles to gather certain items will trigger minigames that give you a chance to earn bonus items or upgrade the quality of your gathered materials. Mysterious stones scattered around the dream realm also allow you to manipulate the weather – freezing over lakes, bringing heavy downpour, and altering the kinds of items and monsters and pathways that are available to you in each zone. In some cases, the weather manipulation adds an element of puzzle-solving that helps keep you on your toes – giving you a few more things to think about so that the act of resource gathering isn’t so mindless or repetitive as it might usually be.
Atelier Sophie 2 also marks a return to my favourite iteration of the alchemy system that the series has had – the puzzle grid! For as much as I love Atelier Ryza, the complicated recipe-tree mechanics for alchemy in that game left me spamming the “Auto-alchemize” button more often than I’d like to admit. In Atelier Sophie 2, alchemy presents you with an empty grid, and each item you need to put into a recipe has its own distinctly shaped set of grid-orbs. Like managing your briefcase in Resident Evil 4 or your chip upgrades in Mega Man Battle Network, you’ll need to slot all of these items into the grid as efficiently as possible. Connecting elemental items with empty element spaces or putting similar elements next to each other will trigger bonuses. You’ll even unlock character-specific crafting bonuses that you can trigger by perfectly matching item orbs together, letting you min-max a recipe and turn a basic bomb into an end-game must-have. Crafting is addictive and simple to approach, yet tricky and ultra-satisfying to master.
Again, battles aren’t the biggest part of Atelier Sophie 2, but they’re certainly fun as heck. I still find myself preferring the fast-paced real-time battles of Atelier Ryza, but Atelier Sophie adopts an interesting 6-person-party system that rewards and entices multi-character actions over solo-heroism. You’ve got special meters and resources to build up during battle that allow you to trigger two-person Twin Actions or emergency Support Guards, but you can also trigger devastating Dual Trigger attacks that play a different flashy animation depending on which characters are involved. You can seek out challenging boss battles and high-level enemies if that’s your gambit, but if you just intend to breeze through battles in order to focus on the alchemy and the story, they’re still made flashy and engaging thanks to how rewarding these combo-abilities are.
Atelier Sophie 2 might lose some of that small-town charm from the first game thanks to its overwhelming dream-dimension time-travel narrative, but it’s still plenty charming. Plus, a return to the satisfying puzzle-grid crafting gameplay and new engaging ways to interact with the world makes this so much more than just a retreading of previous ground. A newcomer to the series might feel a little lost and overwhelmed, but as a longtime Atelier fan and a diehard lover of the first Sophie vehicle, it was a constant delight to see her in action again.