After how beloved the Dusk subseries of Atelier has become over the years, how could Gust possibly follow that up?
By doing what they’ve always done, of course: completely reinventing the series and kicking off a whole new set of games. Doing so doesn’t stop the Dusk series from existing, after all — and it also prevents the series from stagnating. Not that it was ever at any risk of doing that anyway, given how much we’ve seen it varies between individual installments!
In this part of the Atelier MegaFeature, we’ll be taking a high-level look at the first game in the Mysterious trilogy, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book. Where did this game come from, what was the thinking behind certain aspects of its design — and what do we have to look forward to?
It first became clear that Atelier Sophie was on the way in 2015, when Koei Tecmo filed trademarks for “ソフィーのアトリエ” (Sofii no Atorie — Atelier Sophie) and “不思議な本の錬金術士” (Fushigina hon no renkinjutsu-shi — Mysterious Book Alchemist). A month later, in June of 2015, both Weekly Famitsu and Dengeki PlayStation revealed the game, including the fact that it was directed by Yoshito Okamura.
Okamura is a Gust veteran, having been with the company since the PlayStation 2 days. He was a scenario writer on Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana back in 2004, a production designer on Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia in 2006, and director of Atelier Rorona, Atelier Meruru, Atelier Ayesha and Atelier Shallie. In other words, it appeared that the series was very much in safe hands.
That didn’t mean Okamura wanted to play it safe, however; on the contrary, he wanted to try an interesting experiment. Rather than adopting a single main artist to give the Mysterious series a distinctive look and feel — as the company had done with both the Arland and Dusk trilogies by recruiting Mel Kishida and Hidari respectively — Okamura decided that it might be fun to have two main artists.
To that end, he recruited Yuugen, an illustrator who has previously worked on a number of light novels and anime including Outbreak Company and Grimoire Contractor; and NOCO, an artist whose past work includes contributions to the Kantai Collection and Date A Live Fragments manga series.
Speaking with Famitsu (as translated by Siliconera), the pair noted that they were initially uneasy about working with one another, but this soon passed; Okamura’s intention in hiring two artists was not for them to fight, after all — it was simply to provide a broader range of designs and emphasise the “Mysterious” feeling of this trilogy’s new world.
“At first, it was made so that I couldn’t look at NOCO-san’s pictures,” Yuugen explained. “When you look at another person’s designs, you can’t help but be influenced by them. Gust also decided that we shouldn’t be influenced by each other as well.”
“We both felt uneasy, so I first thought ‘let’s get along!’ and decided that we should start by doing away with honorifics,” Yuugen added. “From there, after talking I felt that my thoughts and flow of feelings were really similar to NOCO’s. I believe that we both had something ‘very nice’ to offer.”
Yuugen’s art is described by some as “polished” and “glassy”, and features a strong degree of detail, particularly in characters’ shining eyes and the folds of their clothing. NOCO’s art, meanwhile, has a little more of a “pencil sketch” feel to it with its soft edges and more flat colouring; NOCO’s art tends to feature relatively minimal shading beyond strong contrasts in light and shadow, and an occasional blush in characters’ cheeks to enhance their moe aspects.
The pair were quite taken with both the similarities and differences between their respective art styles. NOCO noted that she found Yuugen’s art to have a “very delicate touch” to it that contrasted with some “energy”, believing “its mix of delicacy and power makes it very charming.” Yuugen, meanwhile, was rather taken with NOCO’s “ways of detailing some parts, and leaving other parts without as much detail”.
The latter is a solid means of quietly and subtly drawing attention to specific parts of an image, though there are a number of ways it can be interpreted. NOCO tends to keep character faces relatively simple, for example, but this is not because she wishes to distract attention away from them; on the contrary, her relatively straightforward designs and simple use of colour means that her characters are quite easy to “read” in many cases — you can get a good feel of what sort of person they are from the way they look at you and each other.
By contrast, both NOCO and Yuugen tend to put a lot of detail into clothing. The reason for this is not necessarily to make the audience stare at the clothing to the exclusion of the character’s face, but rather to help provide some additional character context and establish a complete picture of who they are. Clothing is, along with hairstyle, a significant part of what helps give a character an immediately identifiable silhouette — and if you look at the ensemble cast of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, you’ll note that no two characters are quite alike in this regard.
As you might expect, designing a new Atelier protagonist presented a significant challenge. Both Yuugen and NOCO had admired the Atelier series for years by the time the Mysterious trilogy first showed up — so when they were given the opportunity to design the characters for a new installment, they were both delighted and uneasy at the prospect.
“Getting the likeness of the Atelier series we’ve come to know with a design that’s different from the Arland series took a while to capture,” NOCO noted. “Sophie’s design was especially difficult, and I thought about different directions for her while advancing on the designs of the other characters.”
She wasn’t joking on that note; apparently Sophie’s design took fifteen different drafts before Yuugen and NOCO settled on her distinctive look — and it was her distinctive coat and “unrefined” look, according to NOCO, that brought us to where we are today.
An unrefined Atelier protagonist? Perhaps with tomboyish tendencies and a penchant for clumsiness? Say it ain’t so.
That said, don’t mistake Sophie for a cookie-cutter protagonist; she quickly establishes herself as a solid and interesting character in her own right. And, like most Atelier protagonists, she has her own clear motivation for her own pursuit of knowledge: the ever-present desire for helping people plus, in this case, an attempt to understand what really made her alchemist grandmother tick.
Oh, that and she found an amnesiac flying talking book among her grandmother’s personal effects. A mysterious book, you might say. And, naturally, the only way to help said book recover her (yes, it’s a female book, this is an Atelier game, after all) memories is to write things down in her.
We’ll look at the overall game structure of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book as a whole in a subsequent part of this feature, but suffice to say for now that things are once again quite distinct from previous installments.
As with Atelier Shallie: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book lacks a time limit — though unlike Atelier Shallie, Atelier Sophie does feature a more obvious, explicit time system. Certain individual (usually optional) quests must be completed within a set number of in-game days, for example, and the game features not only a day-night cycle, but also a weekly schedule, with non-player characters tending to get up to different things at different times of day and on different days of the week.
The result is a game with a bit more of a “freeform” feel than many other more tightly structured Atelier games; even Atelier Shallie had an obvious, hard divide between “story time” and “free time”, but in Atelier Sophie things feel like they unfold much more organically as one continuous process.
In some respects, Atelier Sophie can be argued to have a certain amount in common with titles like Story of Seasons and its ilk in terms of how you interact with the world and its inhabitants; the focus of the gameplay is different, however. There’s no farm-building here — all the stuff you create is in the service of either completing quests or allowing Sophie and her friends to adventure more effectively and efficiently.
The intention behind this organic feel is clear, though; while Sophie is the main character of the game’s story, the team wanted the player to feel like they were part of a living world that continued to go about its business regardless of what Sophie was up to. This is something the series has dabbled with quite often over time, with particular highlights from previous installments including Atelier Totori and Atelier Ayesha.
Both of those titles feature events that you just sort of stumble across as you get on with your own activities, and Atelier Sophie follows suit in this regard; if you need a break from slaving over a hot cauldron, just head out the door and into the pretty little town of Kirchen Bell to see what everyone else is up to. Chances are someone will have at the very least a kind word to share with you — and perhaps an opportunity to get to know everyone a little better will present itself.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! In the next few parts of this feature, we’ll look at the overall game structure of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, along with its specific mechanics including combat and alchemy. Because as is usually the case with each new Atelier installment — particularly those which kick off a new subseries — there are plenty of interesting new mechanics to explore!
Until then, I’ve got a basket that needs filling with bombs, so if you’ll excuse me, it’s back to the aforementioned hot cauldron…
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