What, exactly, is an “RPG” anyway? The term covers such a broad spectrum of different game types these days that it’s fast becoming less useful than it once was — and yet it’s still understood by many people to mean a few things.
Growth in power over the duration of the story; strength, competence and other things that can grow (and shrink!) represented as numerical values; abstract mechanics that represent things which would be difficult to simulate “realistically”. All of these are pretty constant, regardless of what type of RPG you’re playing.
But the approach to story — and indeed the main “point” of the experience — varies wildly from game to game. And with Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, we see a game with a noticeably different feel to many of the titles that have come before in the Atelier series.
The stereotypical approach for a “JRPG” (as woefully inadequate a term as that is) in most people’s eyes is that it is a game which provides one or more characters who are fixed in their abilities and progression, and a linear narrative to progress through. Indeed, back when western gaming enthusiasts — particularly those primarily accustomed to PC games rather than Japanese console titles — were starting to get a bit more familiar with this type of game, some described classic titles such as Final Fantasy VII as a “linear storybook with battles” rather than an “RPG”; “RPG”, to those people, meant something different.
To them, “RPG” meant a game where you could, as the unabbreviated genre name suggests, role-play your character. The game mechanics and statistics were provided as a framework and set of rules that would let you live your life in a virtual world as a character of your own creation; on top of that, the game structure would be arranged in such a way that while there was often (though not always) an end goal to reach, exactly how you went about achieving that goal was up to you.
Over the course of the series as a whole, we’ve seen Atelier dabble with both sides of this equation to a certain degree, though it usually ends up favouring the former approach. And while I wouldn’t necessarily say that Atelier Sophie is different in that regard — there is still a linear central story to follow and you do play a fixed lead character rather than one of your own design — there’s a sense that a bit more weight has been added to the latter side of things, making for a game that has a distinct feel, particularly when compared to its direct predecessors.
To understand what I mean by this, let’s look at how Atelier Sophie’s early hours are structured.
When Atelier Sophie begins, we’re introduced to Sophie and the titular Mysterious Book, who is known as Plachta. Aside from that, however, we’re not really given any sense that we have a “goal”; the only vaguely pressing thing on Sophie’s mind is that she wants to help Plachta regain her memories. But helping a book remember things long forgotten doesn’t seem like the stuff of great legends at the outset of the game — even if a floating, talking book is a rather unusual sight.
This somewhat “directionless” sense continues for quite some time in the early hours of Atelier Sophie. Sophie wakes up in the morning, goes into town, chats with her friends, gets scolded by her best buddy Monika for not praying often enough, gets sent on a wild goose chase to find the grocery store owner’s son who is inevitably slacking off talking to plants somewhere, harangues the local clock shop owner for never having customers and perhaps, if she feels like it, even does a bit of alchemy.
Nothing feels “important” in these early hours, but that sense that Sophie is just going about the mildly extraordinary daily life of a fledgling alchemist helps to establish a sense of tone and atmosphere for the game. It’s a marked contrast from the dying, melancholy world of the Dusk trilogy, for example; there, everything had a lot more urgency, because people doing their thing could quite feasibly be a matter of life and death under certain circumstances.
So what do you do? Well, kind of whatever you want within the framework of the game mechanics, actually: go out into the wider world and gather ingredients; fight monsters to gain strength and items; build up your friendship with the people who have agreed to accompany you on your adventures; craft some items back in the workshop and perhaps take on a few requests that have been posted in the local pub-café hybrid.
The game could have quite easily unfolded as a near-endless “life sim” sort of game with what we’ve just described — particularly given the fact it lacks an overall time limit — but there is a sense of progression provided through two important systems: learning new recipes for Sophie, and regaining Plachta’s memories. The two are closely connected.
The way Sophie learns new recipes is quite similar to a system found in Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm in that she has to have an “idea” before she can attempt to create an item. A helpful flowchart of potential ideas gives you a few clues as to how you might be able to inspire Sophie to come up with some new creations, though in a few cases there are prerequisites of key items or recipe books before you can proceed further.
On top of that, the way the flowchart is constructed means that there’s a natural “progression” of recipes for Sophie to uncover rather than everything potentially being available from the outset. Not only do some recipes on the chart naturally “connect” to others and reveal their conditions, but some are also locked behind you progressing through the main narrative of restoring Plachta’s memories.
The conditions for Sophie learning a new recipe vary quite a bit; in some respects, they are a little akin to the Life Tasks mechanic in Atelier Shallie. One item might require you simply to make one of its ingredients using alchemy; another might require you to look at a specific bit of scenery in a particular area; another still might require you to attach a specific trait to a particular item (which is inevitably a more complicated process than you might hope); and at least one is dependent on Sophie and her friends being completely wiped out in battle.
When Sophie has thought of an idea for a recipe, you’ll see it silhouetted in the flow chart and be informed of the ingredients you need to make it. And when you make it, the silhouette is replaced with a colour image so you can easily keep track of what you’ve already made at least once. It’s straightforward, easy to understand and provides a sense that you’re making near-constant progress with alchemy as you proceed through the game.
The way you unlock Plachta’s memories is actually very similar to how you help Sophie come up with ideas; the difference is that rather than fulfilling a condition once, there are usually two possible conditions, each of which add a certain number of points to a meter. When the meter is full, you’ll get a cutscene back in the atelier where Plachta remembers something — and tells Sophie about some new gathering fields on the world map in the process — and also be able to make a new item. Once you’ve made that new item, you’ll then generally unlock a whole lot more potential ideas to pursue — and so the game proceeds.
Although there’s definitely a linear path through how you uncover Plachta’s memories in this system, the fact that you’re not constantly pushed into pursuing this if you don’t feel like it gives Atelier Sophie a strong sense of freedom to do as you see fit. And there are plenty of things to do, too.
A fair amount of your time will be spent completing requests. These come in four main forms: gathering, crafting, suppression and multi-part missions. The first three are the same as they’ve always been in Atelier games that had the option to complete quests — find or make a certain number of particular item, then deliver it, or beat up sufficient monsters of a specific type — but the latter is an interesting new addition.
When given a multi-part mission, there are usually three sub-quests built into it. You can complete the mission any time by clearing just one of these sub-quests, but you get significantly more rewards if you clear all three at once, so it’s worth taking your time a bit. In some cases, one or more of the missions you’re presented with might task you with retrieving an item or defeating a monster you haven’t seen yet; when this happens, you’ll have to keep the request in your notebook and return to it later. There’s no penalty for doing this — some requests are time limited, though, so you’ll need to prioritise.
The café also allows you to pay up and hear some of the owner’s rumours about the local area. Some of these are purely for flavour and explain a bit about characters’ backgrounds, but others operate in a manner similar to the field events in Atelier Escha & Logy and Atelier Shallie. Some might trigger the appearance of a powerful monster; others might make it significantly more likely you’ll acquire a particular item from gathering; others still might trigger special events to occur in particular places. If you’re trying to hunt down a particular item for a request, knowing how to use rumours wisely can really help.
Aside from taking on requests and hearing rumours at the café, the town of Kirchen Bell offers a number of other things to do. There are several shops to visit, initially including the church, vegetable store and a bookshop, but as you progress a clock shop, blacksmith (staffed by a very familiar-looking young man), clothing store and dollmakers will be added to this list in short order. There’s also a store that specialises in wholesale duplication of items in the same way we’ve seen since Atelier Rorona (and in slightly different form in Mana Khemia 2), and, a little later, automatically replenishing expended consumables on your return from the field as seen in several other series installments we’ve seen already.
Besides shopping, you can also chat with people. An overview map of the town shows you which of the major characters are hanging out where at that particular moment, and seeing a character “out of place” is often an indication that they have an event you can go and see.
Unlike in previous Atelier games, where events were clearly marked on the quick-travel screen, in Atelier Sophie you tend to stumble across them as you wander around town — usually by seeing the character whose event it is in the middle of a conversation with someone else.
This way of doing things may seem a little frustrating and offputting to series veterans who have previously made a point of clearing every event possible on each playthrough, but in practice it makes a certain amount of sense. There are no character-specific endings in Atelier Sophie, thereby taking the pressure off “needing” to see all of a character’s events in a single playthrough, and the lack of time limit to the overall experience means you can always track down “missing” events later anyway.
In fact, the upshot of the way Atelier Sophie handles character events is that it feels very natural and organic rather than artificial; it’s rare you’ll find yourself thinking “right, it’s a new chapter, so I should go and see if all the characters have new events” — instead, you’ll tend to feel something along the lines of “oh, Monika’s chatting with Julio; they don’t normally hang out together, so I wonder what’s up?” In turn, once you get a feel for this way of doing things, you’ll find yourself much more inclined to actually wander around town rather than fast-travelling everywhere; it helps to make Kirchen Bell feel more like an actual “place” rather than a menu screen.
And that is one of the key ways that Atelier Sophie distinguishes itself as an RPG. The rather “freeform” feel of the overall game structure gives it a markedly different feel to some of the more rigidly defined entries in the series. It contrasts most strongly with tightly structured, assignment-based games like Atelier Rorona and Atelier Escha & Logy, but the lack of time pressure also means that it provides a noticeably different experience to the installments that are most similar in design: Atelier Totori and Atelier Ayesha in particular.
Both Atelier Totori and Atelier Ayesha had quite a similar “freeform” feel to them in that you could approach their overall challenge however you saw fit, but they had two differences to Atelier Sophie: firstly, both of them had a clearly defined end goal right from the outset, and secondly, both of them had a clear timeframe in which you needed to achieve that end goal. Atelier Sophie has neither of those things.
This isn’t to say either approach is better or worse; simply that Atelier Sophie is different. And in a series that has an admirable habit of reinventing itself with every new installment, you’ve got to give Gust a lot of respect, really; after all, this is the seventeenth game in the mainline Atelier series and they still haven’t really repeated themselves in terms of mechanics and structure.
In the next few parts of this feature, we’ll dive more deeply into specific mechanical aspects of the Atelier Sophie experience: exploration and gathering, combat and, of course, alchemy. Until then, there’s a Bagel Sandwich with my name on it just waiting for me in that cauldron…
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