Yearly series are not seen very well those days. The annual cycle is said to hinder innovation, making experiences generic. Still, many developers like Gust refuse to rethink their calendar. Then, is the Assassin’s Creed-like “pause” necessary ? With Atelier Firis, Nagano’s developer proves that wrong.
Firis is a young girl working at the mine. Nothing illegal, the girl simply has a gift to discover the best ore. Living in Etorna, underground town 100% focused on mining, Firis accomplishes zealous work. Still she comes to feel a growing need for adventure, and soon asks to go outside. Reluctant to see his best employee leaving, the elder throws an insane challenge : she has to become a certified alchemist within one year. But there Sophie suddenly barges in the town and teaches the basics to Firis. The latter now has knowledge to start her long journey. From this point, the player is as amazed as Firis herself at discovering the outside world, for Atelier Firis is now big large open world game.
Atelier Firis is subtitled “The Mysterious Journey” and this is for a reason. Like I said, it’s a full-fledged open world in which you can wander as you wish, with very limited indications and a really rough world map in hand. Before she can apply for the national alchemy exam, Firis must receive 3 recommendation letters from other certified alchemists. Those ones have their atelier in towns, which are sometimes lost very deep in the game areas. Better still, there are more than 3 of them : depending on their choices when exploring, two different players are likely to do very different walkthroughs! Each time you meet one of those alchemists, they’ll ask you to create more or less complex alchemical objects from the material available in the nature around you.
When you first come to a new area, the map is blank and you have to discover the local geography as you go. You don’t know where the villages are, where the exits are and you do find sidequests at every corner! Most of the playable characters don’t even join your party automatically : you have to find them by exploring the whole world and meet certain conditions to have them join you. Caves have no map at all and you need to remember the path you’ve taken when going back. It is pure, intended and great exploring that drives the player to search, think and… choose. Should I head towards that big city to the East, go South to explore the forest and find more quests, or turn back a bit to avoid missing things? It’s a permanent dilemma you feel in how you should proceed and how you should organize your time.
Time. This is the big thing that will shape your experience in Atelier Firis : adventure in limited time is back. You’ve got 360 days to get the letters and show up at the exam center. Hours go by as you walk or every time you perform an action such as collecting resources, destroying a rock, fishing or create stuff in your atelier. Now try to answer the question of the previous paragraph : clock is ticking, the pressure is already there… After 2 years trying to open the series to newcomers, Atelier is back to its fundamentals, to the hardcore item/time management that brings that unique pleasure.
An additional parameter to take into account is your LP, the moving points. LP diminish as you walk (and dive if you run away from fights). Watching this indicator is important in order to rest when needed, for low a LP figure make you collect less resources. LP at zero means Firis faints and you lose an important amount of time until she recovers. In the same way, if your party loses in combat, most of the collected material is lost. Then you regularly need to improve your gear, which will have you spend entire days in the atelier since those recipes are quite demanding. Stock management changes dramatically in this episode since some ingredients are found only in certain parts of certain areas.
That makes it even more crucial to think and rationalize every trip because useless moves are a danger in limited time. You must bear in mind (or note down) where you can find the key items because the encyclopedia (fairly well-made for that matters) won’t tell you the specifics. To ease the player’s burden, the devs did implement checkpoints where you can teleport yourself instantly : this way, you can go through the areas quickly when visiting a 2nd time and beyond. The day/night cycle, as well as changing weather, is implemented and will impact the sidequests : some NPCs will only be present between 10 am and 6 pm for example. Similarly, some quests only happen during snowstorms, etc.
There you’ll ask me : where is the bloody atelier? Pretty much everywhere, in fact. Firis owns a portable atelier that she sets up like a tent next to campfires. In alchemy itself, once again numerous parameters are to be taken into account, which should please brainstorming fans. In the Atelier series, the value and power of an alchemy object is determined by its quality (figure and letter on the top) and the traits on it. There are two types of traits : inner traits and inherited traits. Inner traits becomes better as you choose ingredients with the right color code and the best coefficient for that color (which is called 成分 in Japanese).
Inherited properties comes from the base items you use, with a maximum of 3. But there’s a snag here in Atelier Firis : you can’t get the three at the beginning. Every alchemical object has some sort of charge level you must gradually improve to get 3 free slots to put traits. That means you have to remake every weapon, every armor, every bomb, every potion countless times to get the best of them. A very questionable choice that slows the player down considerably.
Luckily enough, catalysts will ease the pain. Catalysts are substances that add positives effects when mixing your ingredients : save a few hours, improve the coefficient of a certain color, make an extra item, and free 1, 3 or 3 slots for traits. When mixing, ingredients take Tetris-like forms and all you have to do is to cover the lines on the grid. You can run out of good catalysts pretty quickly so there’s still a lot of tedious work remaining (good luck to make a good bow, for example).
The recipe system is kinda annoying too. Despite the (partial) return of alchemy books, Firis will still have to seek enlightenment in order to get the know-how. Like in the previous one, they unlock once you’ve completed a set of actions like using an particular object, producing another, beating some type of monster, etc. The issue here is that the learning come be really long in some cases, with few hints to guide you. As a consequence, you can lack necessary items at some point of the adventure. Armors are incredibly difficult to develop, not to mention the reviving Chalice which you virtually can’t get in the first 30 hours!
On the more positive side, Atelier Firis introduces super-alchemy : complex recipes that take a lot of time and not 4 or 5 ingredients, but a hundred of them! The thing also has a target quality so you have to proceed while calculating an average quality. Collecting the right amount of resources here takes quite some time and organization.
Once you’ve come to the last city with the 3 letters in your pocket, you can head to the exam center. That was a fairly amazing sequence, very unique and surprisingly detailed. There are three types of tests and a surprise challenge that will remind people of Arland. In short, you must show your knowledge of alchemy, of the world around you and your understanding of quality and power mechanics. That was not easy at all and definitely makes a good innovating that should please old-timers.
After the degree, the game is cleared but not over. It enters a new phase in which time isn’t limited any more. Gust finally finds the right balance between old and new : no need to choose between limited and unlimited time, let’s have both! Without a time limit, the player can freely focus on doing its best to complete current side stories, dig new quests, fine tune his gear and deepen the bonds with other characters. There are a few challenges that leads to various characters endings, a dozen of them to be precise.
Here again, Atelier Firis is impressive by the volume it features. There’s as many things left to to after the story as before, maybe actually more. Dozens of hours after dozens of hours, the game looks infinite as new challenges keep popping one after another. Final proof that Gust has perfectly grasped what an open world should provide to the player. The number of quests nears a whopping 400! True, most quests are divided into tiny sub-quests (which inflates the number), but what you should keep in mind is that you’ll be real busy in Atelier Firis for at least 80 hours. Many of those quests feature advanced alchemy challenges and drive the player to explore even more, to the edge of world. Distant and sometimes very well hidden areas have a few bosses of formidable strength, and seriously more impressive than in Atelier Sophie. Of progressive difficulty, the challenge here is way more compelling than in the last game, the fights far more awesome, and even reminded me of the Arland trilogy. One of the bosses is called The One form the Deep Waters, obvious reference to the dragon in Atelier Meruru.
Yet fighting isn’t the focus in Atelier Firis since there is no boss in the main story. All the bosses previously mentioned are optional and left there as a trial for completionists. Gust therefore chose to lay a base of gameplay centered on management and exploring. But battles of course occur time to time, and the system used is back to very simple actions : attack, skills and objects. The Chain gauge actually borrows Atelier Shallie’s system, as assists are triggered when it reaches a certain percentage. At 130%, you get a first special blow from the last character that has played, and at 150% the character you choose unleashes its ultimate attack. Worryingly, the drawbacks of Atelier Shallie are imported as well, that is to say that the percentage will decrease every time you receive damage, which often leads to missed opportunities and less exciting combat.
The best is yet again to rely on high statistics and high end gear, and Atelier Firis brings good stuff for alchemy fans here. Let’s remember that the principle in Atelier games is that the player creates himself everything he needs to attack and defend (bombs, potions, weapons & armors, etc.), while optimizing the quality of the equipment to extremes. Like in Atelier Sophie, you can find powerful passive skills on material early enough in the game, like “saving skill” which increase the skill power while reducing its cost. But in Atelier Firis, extra rare properties of bombastic naming are within reach too. For example, 溢れる力 (HP+35), not to mention 生命の力 (HP+50), are collectable in the last areas right at the start. The increased chances to get overpowered traits re-balances the game, as well as the fact that each character can now equip 2 weapons at the same time, and gives the player room for improvement in order to tackle the last opponents.
Alas, Gust didn’t go as far as revolutionizing the graphics : the game looks barely better than Atelier Sophie, worse in some aspects. We’re still quite not at Atelier Escha&Logy level for example, which was looking fairly good on the PS3. The outside nature is somewhat prettier, journeying being the whole point, but some characters are still poorly made. It’s even worse for NPCs, who look like the same over and over. Animations aren’t as great as before either and for some reason, frame-rate has a real hard time in forests (!?). In pure technical aspects, it’s definitely under average and expectations. We’ll have to wait for Nights of Azure 2 and Blue Reflection to see Gust embracing modern engines. There’s one big red cart to draw : in 1.07, the Japanese version still suffers from critical bugs, like Firis not moving and disappearing quests… Let’s hope that KoeiTecmo Europe has that covered. Music makes a great come-back : the OST is great, lots of field tracks make exploring even more enjoyable with low tempo and then orchestral elan like we’ve always had and loved in the series.
With a massive amount of quests, surprises, bosses, hidden challenges in its brand new open world, Atelier Firis marks the biggest revolution in the series in years. In today’s gaming world overrun by linearity, the freedom and purity of the exploring in Atelier Firis are a real treasure. You can lament the old engine, the drawbacks of combat, the bugs, but Atelier’s golden age is back with Firis and nothing can be more delighting.