With Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, we closed out an arc… finishing the Dusk trilogy on an extremely high note and leaving Gust the opportunity to take the series in a different direction…
Enter Sophie, a struggling novice alchemist trying to follow in her late grandmother’s footsteps. Frequently blowing up her poor house, people don’t trust her skills much so she is surprised when even Monika, one of her childhood friends, asks Sophie to make medicine. Sophie scrounges to remember how to make this ointment which she’d seen her grandmother make before.
Upon its successful creation, she writes the recipe in a strange, nearly empty recipe book she’d found during her search and then goes off to deliver the ointment to its intended recipient. After handing it off, she returns home to find that this book is not a mere book… Not only can it fly, but it also has a name – Plachta – and can talk with her. And that is where our strange story begins…
Reinventing the Wheel
Anyone who knows anything about Atelier games knows that crafting is the heart and soul of this series. In my reviews of the previous two entries I’ve called it essentially perfect. Well, I guess the team behind this entry disagreed, as they made some vast, sweeping changes to the system. Now, the keys to a good crafting system, in my eyes, are clarity, creativity, variance, and control. Essentially, when I craft, I want to feel like I am in control, like I can create a variety of amazing things, and that everything I’m doing makes sense – that the result is what, if I put some time in to think about it, I would expect.
Atelier Sophie’s crafting system certainly has the creativity and the variance down. They’ve provided an incredibly wide array of medicine, bombs, and mystical items to create and customize to your heart’s content with, as always, a vast assortment of affixes – if you were smart enough to get the affixes you wanted onto the item you wanted to create with them. They also provided intuitive sorting/searching methods to find the items and affixes you were looking for.
The problem comes in the other two aspects. Due to what one of my viewers dubbed the ‘Tetris Crafting’ system, the system’s clarity was non-existent and it never quite felt like you were in control of it. Basically, the system in Sophie has you putting items – which each have a different size and shape – on a grid to try to maximize these little sparks that boost the items impact. At the end, the colour of item with the highest percentage of the grid occupied gets a boost to its value based off of the percentage of the grid that it occupies. It’s overly complicated and the complexities offer little benefit as you never really feel like you can reliably be confident in the outcome until its finished.
That isn’t to say that the crafting system is bad though… the satisfaction of making the item you want is still there, and the crafting is still a lot of fun, especially as you really dig deep into it. It just isn’t as good as I expected.
Atelier Sophie’s story is subtle, charming, and sweet… but ultimately misleading. While the majority of the time is spent on the noble goal of recovering Plachta’s memories, that is not the true aim. And a few hours, at most, away from the end of this 30-40 hour story, you’ll come to realize that you’ve been given literally no information about the game’s true story, your final objective, or what the game’s ending will entail… and then suddenly they explain everything. While I’m not saying the writing is bad, it felt a little bit like the writers were struggling to finish the story, so they threw in this curveball arc at the end to wrap things up.
That being said, the characters in Atelier Sophie are – aside from two exceptions – among the best in the series. Each character has their own distinct story, their own aims and goals, and their own development. While the stories are all fairly simple, watching the characters grow through these simple stories is charming, sweet, and very engaging. The two exceptions are Oskar, who is just plain obnoxious, and Logy, who is named and visually modeled after the protagonist of the previous game… but is not at all related in any tangible way. It was extremely frustrating to constantly interact with this clone of Logy, and the fact that he’s the only way you can get new weapons was beyond annoying. If I could have, I would have cut ties with him completely but viewing his story is really the only way to get better gear, so I really had no choice but to keep coming back and asking the question ‘Where’s Escha?!?’ to this imposter.
The Status Quo
Fortunately, the combat in Sophie is just as engaging as previous. They toned down a few of the more complex systems of the previous games, which I did miss… but they made up for it by adding a few extra ‘toggles’ to play with, as it were. The only other thing I did notice is that there weren’t very many aftereffects in this game. They existed, just enough to tease you, but they weren’t prominent. Aside from that though, the combat was a ton of fun… and it was just as satisfying as you could ask of a turn based combat system.
The visuals in the Atelier games are always very pretty with a lot of pastels and bright colours… and this one is no exception. While the graphics are not going to push the genre, the visuals have an almost hand-crafted beauty to them that makes them seem almost timeless. And the animations are a little more smooth and less exaggerated than many games with this type of art-style.
The last thing to mention here is the game’s soundtrack. Atelier games always impress when it comes to sound design without fail. And this game’s soundtrack is every bit as much of a masterpiece as the previous entries. Every track fits where it is played and, despite the game letting you completely customize which songs play where, I never felt inclined to change anything. There are even a few tracks that I would like to track down, forgive the pun, for my playlists.
Atelier Sophie may be a step backwards from previous entries in the series, but it is still a very enjoyable game and one that certainly deserves a look if you’re interested in a crafting-themed JRPG. It is still fun, engaging, and charming… the crafting just isn’t quite up to the same par and the story feels a little lacking in direction and focus.