After the numerous complaints voiced against Atelier Shallie and the monstruous flop of the 3DS port of Atelier Rorona (11’000 units sold, 7 times less than Atelier Shallie which was already widely seen as a failure), Gust’s series had people worried. It turned out to be fine, since the developer was calmly preparing Atelier Sophie.
“I’m done saving the world”, such is Atelier Sophie’s motto. The game wants to put some distance with the Dusk trilogy and go back to a more innocent narrative like in the Arland trilogy. Indeed, you don’t feel any great ambitions when starting Atelier Sophie, which has next to no story focus for most part. Sophie is a young alchemist, and a bit awkward one, who’s gonna progress with the help of a mysterious book gifted with a consciousness. Sophie’s goal, so the player’s too, will be to recover the book’s memories by writing alchemy recipes in it. You progress from a recipe to another, while completing requests from other characters to whom you’ll get increasingly closer.
The side characters will all have their own storyline, in average more developed than in Atelier Shallie (which was very poor in that department) but of disparate importance : Monica has a feeble background, like Oskar and Leon (who is a girl, despite her name). On the contrary, Harol, Cornelia, Fritz and Julio benefit from a consistent narrative, including some really fun or even moving sequences. Harol’s was particularly remarkable : young watchmaker too fond of revolvers to get to his work seriously, he progressively becomes obsessed with his past and the necessity to surpass his father. So better than the previous one in that field, even though the game sometimes gives to impression no to show or tell enough : Cornelia’s story for example, should have continued and lead to discover new lands.
Last but not least of your characters, your book Plachta (pronounce “Plafta”) will take human form via the Doll Make system. Plachta’s soul is transferred in a life-size doll, that can be modified anytime. It simply consists of adding alchemy components to the doll’s limbs, the rarest ones giving higher boost in stats. When those stats reach a certain threshold, Platcha’s costume will change and she’ll be able to access a new class (wizard, valkyrie, etc.). But this option bears relatively low importance as the gain in stats represent only a small margin compared to the one provided by your equipement. It remains that Platcha’s arrival in your party radically changes the story’s direction because, ironically, you will go and save the world eventually.
The alchemy workshop is more than ever the place to be, because not only will the game ask you to synthesize alchemy objects, but also to come up with the recipes! Indeed and contrary to previous episodes, there are no alchemy books in stores. Time to time, Shopie will have a genius stroke and note down a recipe. The player will have to trigger that by achieving some varied objectives, like inspecting the furniture, talking to a particular NPC, slay a particular beast or, far more complicated, creating an object with a given trait.
Let’s put the head in the cauldron. There are several ones available, each represented by a checkerboard with some colored stars in it. Ingredients, which are represented by Tetris-like forms, are to be inserted in a way that the color stars can multiply and grow. The more and the bigger the stars are, better the bonus multiplier will become for the dominant color. With a multiplier important enough, the quality of the object rises and it can gain better traits. It is quite complicated in theory, but easier to learn empirically. Note that there are various sizes of cauldrons, and that some double your multiplier, sometimes asking you to synthesize in limited time! In short, a clever system but a bit less precise than Atelier Shallie’s.
Alchemical creation is a bit more accessible than in the past, because powerful properties allowing considerable rise of stats are rife in Sophie’s world. Finding ingredients to have them attached isn’t hard at all. Up to you to combine them via intermediary objects like the gold string (formidable catalyst since it’s used to create itself, I call that the Gold String Loop) to give birth to even better traits like 全能の力 which raise all stats by 25 points! Once your weapons, armor and accessories possess such traits, your team is well-prepared for battle. As for interface, the touch pad of the PS4 allows you to quickly switch between menus and the encyclopedia (which has a very clear recap of all items, properties and their composition), so it’s extremely user-friendly.
But all those ingredients, you’ll have to go outside and pick them. The wild nature of Atelier Sophie consist of numerous areas to explore, full of plants, ore and the likes. Atelier Sophie is the first episode to have a day/night cycle : monsters, items, present characters, weather are going to change periodically. Times goes by, but isn’t limited. This newest Atelier takes the same principle as its predecessor : the player can take its time to clear the game and the various challenges. But the various places are quite tiny and level design extremely poor. Thus no occasion to be impressed : you battle, you pick the goods, you come back to town. Nothing more.
Now we’re talking about it, battles. These have been rather simplified, and even made more or less automatic. Each start of turn has choose a stance for each character : attack or defense. Regardless of that choice, all characters can use regular action such as attack, skills, object, run away or defend. The stance only governs bonus actions : a character I defense can cover an ally, while characters in attack stance can perform powerful link attacks. The more characters you have in the same stance, better the effect will be. This also depending on your chain gauge : higher the figure, more daring the actions become. When the gauge hits 300% and all the four characters are in attack stance, it triggers the ultimate attack of one of them. It’s roughly Final Fantasy XIII’s role system, ultra-simplified version and in which the player actually doesn’t decide much. I really miss Atelier Escha&Logy’s battle system…
Pretty much nerfed in the main story, the difficulty will rise at breakneck pace at the very end and after. You can still tweak the difficulty level anytime, from easy to despair (added by a later update), to have it match your playstyle. Veterans won’t break a sweat in hard or even despair during most of the story though, but optional bosses are another story : they are excessively powerful and can play 4 times in a row! While a can crush most of the bosses in despair with just the attack command (see above, it’s taken in despair but being only the 2nd dragon, it’s not much a of challenge), the two last enemies wipe my party out in 1.5 turn even in easy mode… in short, it’s fucking broken. That said, another growth menu that appear after the characters have reached maximum level allows you to add even more statistic points, vastly advantageous capabilities, upgrade your attack skills. But the progression curb being rather slow, you must play a lot after the main story to keep up. A disappointing postgame so, far form the replay value of the previous episodes.
As for aesthetics, we can’t help but notice the economic troubles of the series : the technical downgrade is brutal. Graphics are less detailed than Atelier Shallie’s, which runs on the PREVIOUS generation! The town and the dungeons are a pity… Even design issues are to be reported : monsters look blatantly the same and there are few (almost none in fact) unique and charismatic opponents, those who make great JRPG fights. Here again, even the disappointing Atelier Shallie had them. In battle, the game remains a lot prettier than the rest, so it’s not like it’s a complete disaster either. The music also seems a bit on the wane : outside Fritz’s theme, a ballad that fits perfectly with the medieval setting, and senka no ichigeki, which continues the great lineage of boss battle themes. Whatever, you ears will be able to feast with a music DLC, packed with dozens of Gust’s past tracks, which was free in Japan. You can thus instantly create yourself dream-like playlists.
Yes, you could object that the project is for the first time multi-platform from the start : the PSVita version is available alongside the home console version, no need to purchase the “Plus” version anymore. Unfortunately, the technical efforts are insufficient for both. With a modeling close the the one of the PS4 version, the portable Atelier Sophie is impressive at first sight, the rendering of the characters is excellent. On the other hand, framerate suffers horribly… The Vita has a hard time displaying the battle animations, which is true have their lot of special effects, especially in joint assaults. True, it’s less serious than the abysmally terrible portable version of Nights of Azure, but it’s not the technical prowess of the “Plus” version either. Unless you absolutely need it to play on the go, it’s preferable to play it at home with a seamless experience.
Changing the approach alone is not enough, and Atelier Sophie is proof of that. The game system is still solid and allows you to achieve great things, but in a terrible technical environment. Ideas and humor certainly are there, but not in full force. We can sense the pleasure of battle, but only from time to time. A serviceable episode, but Gust needs to re-enhance the experience by investing time and money. For Atelier Sophie, the developer probably had neither of them.