The story of Atelier Sophie begins in customer fashion for the series: Sophie, an up-and-coming alchemist, lives on the edge of a small community where she grew up. Aspirations of greatness are rooted in the relationship she had with her now-deceased grandmother, a former renowned alchemist of the atelier, where Sophie now lives and works. Within the opening moments, Sophie unearths a most impressive book from her grandmother’s collection. This book is special, and not just because it can fly and talk; known as Plachta, this book has lost memories of working with Sophie’s grandmother and has also lost sophisticated alchemical formulae as well, and Sophie must unlock its memories by exploring the world around her and attempting new and different mixtures of ingredients. Along the way, visitors come and go, asking for help in hopes that Sophie’s grandmother is still there, which often spurs young Sophie even further into her pursuit of excellence.
Atelier titles have maintained a visual standard along the way that’s consistent; and while that’s impressive for titles released for the PlayStation Vita, much like this one, having such a baser standard leaves a lot of unused real estate with the PS3—more so with the PS4. Let it be known that character models and monsters alike have a cel-like anime shading that’s not overbearing as like in game such as Dragon Ball Xenoverse but more like Night of Azure, where light reflects off hair and colors pop more realistically between defined yet soft contour lines. It’s a whale of a time to look at, but it’s far from overwhelming or inspired. The score matches the way the game is presented as well, portraying a light-hearted endeavor as Sophie learns her craft. Songs meld into each other well enough, and while a soundtrack is meant to accentuate the core concept, this one in particular doesn’t drive much along.
If the Atelier series is unfamiliar territory, then alchemy, which is the basis of the game itself, must be explained. Sophie navigates the world in search of ingredients in hopes of discovering new and better recipes through her attempted mixtures. What makes this aspect of the game so appealing is how many different kinds of ingredients there are to mix and match. They come from enemies, from plants, and from vendors alike and they can contribute to so many different concoctions as more of the alchemy book is completed. Developing alchemy isn’t a complete game of Blind Man’s Bluff either, because exploring maps, finding new ingredients, and fighting monsters all gradually guild up to the next major memory unlock for the book, each of which also progresses the story along, as well as generates a new recipe from the book’s forgotten memory.
To make crafting even more interesting, each crafting attempt is associated with its own crafting grid, which allows the player to alter item stats and potencies in something like a harmless roulette. The grids vary in size and each item has its own Tetris-like representation, and the main goal is to match up elements of each ingredient to the associating colors on the grid without overlapping, with the only consequence for overlapping the ingredients being lost of whichever one was covered up. The ideal situation is to place every ingredient on its associating element color on the same grid, but the challenge of it comes from the size of the ingredient pieces and the size of the grid itself. This makes for an ever-present mini-game, of sorts, that breaks up the grind well enough. The risks are nominal, especially early on while learning is the name of the game, but the benefits later on become far too significant to ignore.
As is customary with the franchise, combat is turned-based, a consistent callback to the olden days of RPGs with planned attacks and an active feed for attack order. There’s still an element of spontaneity involved here, because a Combat Counter gauge builds as the battle progresses, granting Support Attacks. Early on, Support Attacks make for very welcome supplementary damage, because using skills requires a great deal of mana, and everyone has small pools of it; but as more gear becomes available, more options become applicable.
What Atelier games do well is deliver a sense of development across all fronts that’s very hard to channel and equally as challenging to find in other franchises. The glaring issue with this, however, is the fact that development is dependent solely on the player’s desire to move forward—while that sounds a bit redundant, bear with me a moment. Generally, a narrative is what moves a story forward, but it’s the reverse with Atelier. Sophie must go out and find things to learn and enemies to fight in order to discern a new book memory, and only when she returns to the atelier does the story move forward. Sometimes, narrative movement in these instances jumps while at other time the movement is lateral; and having put so much time and effort into opening up a memory just to find out that a supporting character wants to do something like open up a store or have Sophie play the piano in a local bar, it can become disappointing the more these miniscule events occur. These small time events can happen in succession, though they are generally spread out, but the result is the same: Knowing that genuine progress is coming cannot be assumed. While the development style is unique, there could be more that transpires to make each unlocked memory actually feel earned, because, after all, progress in the game is depended on the player’s willingness to continue.
The characters themselves are given very little room for development. More often than not, the sporadic pieces of narrative growth are wasted on little interactions in town with little tidbits that only accentuate that the characters are strange rather than justifying their behavior. They all serve a function if conversed with enough, as each one, as it were, offers his or her service to Sophie along the way in many different forms and methods; and while this is quite handy as the game progresses, the path to the end is not paved with strong character development or significant narrative motivation from any of the supporting characters.
While Atelier games have a certain air about them, the franchise hasn’t done everything it could to be more accessible to new players. A target audience is in mind for these titles, and Atelier Sophie is no different. While these games are not inherently bad or broken, motivation to play can easily be lost in the constant rinse and repeat of unlocking memories, searching for ingredients, and completing quests with very little to support this repetition. The combat and alchemy within the game are saving graces, but it still doesn’t remedy the looming monotony of the overall concept.