It’s always nice to see a series break free from the region of its birth and make it out into the wide world. The Atelier series has been going on for a long time, since the PlayStation One days in fact, so you might wonder why you haven’t heard of it much before the last few years. The simple answer is that other than the last game, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, all of the games have been kept as Japan exclusives.
So now that the series is finally making its way into international waters, has it been worth the wait? Well, yes and no.
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey concerns the story of a young girl named Firis, who is trapped in her boring hometown, dreaming of a life outside the confines of the same four walls. No, that plot couldn’t be more clichéd even if it tried.
Despite the lack of originality in the plot, it does actually tell a slightly original story, straying away from global threats or grand quests and instead focusing on the journey of a young girl and her companions as she finally gets to explore the world that she has spent so long dreaming about.
One of the most glaring faults that is to be found with the game is the main character. She is one of the most annoying and twee characters in the history of video games, and the voice actor does her best job to reinforce this with ear-bleedy death.
Luckily, the character becomes less annoying as time goes by. As the game-world is populated by other characters, they manage to draw some of the focus from Firis and give you less annoying voices to listen too as well.
The characters from the last game make an appearance at different points, some quite early on, others a lot further into the game. If you started but never finished the last game, you might notice that there are some appearance differences, which can be a little confusing at first. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to have played the last game at all to enjoy this one.
The gameplay is split up into two major sections, much like the previous game. On the one hand, you have the alchemy, a mechanic where you combine various different materials in certain patterns to create useful items or equipment. On the other hand, you have the classic JRPG adventuring gameplay, where you fight your way through the monster infested world map slaughtering all in your path for experience points and new materials.
Unlike the previous game the two portions of the gameplay are more closely linked. Obviously, the adventuring portion is supposed to furnish you with most of the items that you’ll need to create things in the alchemy side. This time around, however, you no longer have to constantly return to your atelier between adventuring trips, because you constantly carry a pop-up atelier with you.
This simple change to the game has made a huge difference to how good the game feels to play. Instead of being forced back to town and having to wait through a long animation of your character scurrying across the map, you just find a nearby camp site and pop up shop where you are. It means that you don’t end up having to cover the same ground day in and day out just to explore a new area.
On top of that the fast travel system is more useful than it was before. While you’re in an area, you can freely and instantly travel to any camp site or landmark that you’ve already encountered, and I do mean instantly. There is no loading screen and practically no time between pressing the button and arriving at your destination, keeping the pace a little more active. There is also the addition of the run feature, something that was sorely lacking in the previous title.
The reason for the increase in movement speed and the new fast travel mechanics is that all of the maps are a lot more open than in the previous game. Other than major cities, each area tends to contain a small settlement of some kind than a wide-open space to harvest materials or fight monsters. As well as that, there is a natural need to explore as there are no, or at least very few, restrictions placed on where the player can go.
While out exploring the world, you have a constantly depleting LP number. This number goes down while you walk, when you fight things and even when harvesting materials in the overworld. When it hits 0 the first time, your character has a little rest, but if it happens again, you pass out and restart back at your atelier. You can restore this number by going to sleep in your atelier, which also restores your health. So, it’s important to stop often.
After a while you’re given the option of changing your outfit in the game. Far from being a simple cosmetic change, you also get different bonuses, like more attack damage or slower LP degeneration. Changing your outfits is done in your atelier at your desk, which is also where you can change the music that plays during different situations, which is a nice feature.
The combat system is something else that has seen a fair few improvements as well. The entire screen is simplified compared to the last game, doing away with the clusterf**k of information. Now when you select an action, be it an item, a skill or a basic attack, you perform it instantly instead of selecting everyone’s abilities first then letting them all go. This change in battle pace gives you more down-to-the-minute control over everything that’s happening. Instead of having to know that someone’s going to need healing before they take damage, you can respond to a killer attack by healing them as soon as the next character’s turn pops up.
The link system also makes a reappearance from the previous title, but this too has had a few changes made to it. Now, as well as allowing characters to act together, it increases the damage done every time someone else attacks while the link mode is activated. This mode activates when the link gauge fills up, but you can use the gauge for other actions as well. Because Firis is a magic user and is therefore quite weak, you can choose to have another character take her damage at the cost of some of the link gauge.
After a certain point in the story, you also unlock the ability to perform a special, unique attack with a character. This is done by performing a link attack as normal but also by making sure that you have at least 3 people in the chain. When you do this, you’ll notice that the last person to act does a special, very damaging attack that can completely devastate the enemy. These attacks are unique for each character that uses them, so it makes seeking out all of the characters well worth the effort.
On that note, the character/companion system can be a bit confusing at times. While exploring the world, you’ll come across different characters going about their business. These characters can be convinced to join you on your journey, sometimes just by talking to them, sometimes by performing a certain task and sometimes by paying them the right amount of money.
The primary issue to be found with this system is that some of the characters you come across do not join you immediately. Instead, you are given a pop-up that tells you that you can now speak to them and ask them to join your party. However, it can be basically impossible to find these people once they leave the area in which you discovered them. Most of the time they seem to instantly teleport away never to be seen again. Fortunately, one of the first characters you come across joins your party immediately, meaning you’re not likely to get locked out of the special attack system by a lack of party members.
The game’s day and night cycle passes really quickly, which can be both a blessing and a curse. When you’re trying to get to an NPC or a shop before nightfall, it can be annoying to see that clock tick by so fast. On the other hand, if it’s already nighttime, it’s nice to know that you don’t have too much real-world time to waste while you wait for morning to show its yellow shiny face.
The alchemy in the game is basically unchanged from the previous game. You choose various materials and place them on differently sized grids to create items. Each of these grids has different lines that you have to try and fill out to get bonuses to the effectiveness of each item. As well as bearing that in mind, you also have to take into account the ‘‘quality’ rating of each material, as well as the traits that each material can have. These different traits can be transferred to an item once you’ve made it enough times, meaning that you can get a bonus to attack damage on a weapon or buffs on a healing item.
Although the alchemy can be a little dull if you do too much of it, it’s certainly a lot better than the alchemy in the previous game. Here instead of having to synthesize different items to continue the story, you can just use alchemy as and when you need it and continue the story by completing missions. This is a lot more natural than the last game and allows you to do as much or as little alchemy as you’d like, with a few exceptions.
The previous game also broke with the series’ tradition by dropping the time limit, something that had until that point been in every game in the series. The timer returns with a vengeance in this game, albeit very briefly. As you start the game, you are given a task to perform before the timer runs down, but once this first major quest is complete, you are left free to explore the world at your own pace. The time limit is also pretty lenient, giving you hundreds of days to make your way across the map to your end goal.
There is one petty gripe against this game, and that is that it doesn’t track how long you’ve been playing it for, something which is pretty common in most games these days. It’s not exactly a huge issue, but it would have been useful to gauge exactly how long the game is going to last on an average playthrough.
Visually and musically, the game isn’t very different from the previous game at all, in fact the same music is included as an option in the BGM menu. Having said that, there isn’t visually much difference in the location design, though it is quite stunning. The world is now populated by wide open locations and feels much more like a living, breathing world than the compartmentalized universe presented in the series’ last outing.
Developer: Gust Co. Ltd
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platforms: PS4, PSVita, PC
Release Date: 7th March 2017