In this part of the Atelier MegaFeature, we’re going to take a look at what Sophie gets up to when she leaves the safety of her hometown Kirchen Bell and heads out into the big, wide world. As we’ve seen elsewhere in the Atelier series, exploring and gathering ingredients is an important part of an alchemist’s lifestyle — and Sophie’s life as depicted in Atelier Sophie is certainly no exception in that regard.
So empty that Basket and throw on those gathering gloves — it’s time to hit the road!
Under most circumstances, Sophie is able to leave town at any time via one of three means: a handy exit that is right next to her workshop; the town’s main gate; or the “fast travel” map which unlocks a short distance into the game’s main narrative.
Upon leaving town, if your party lineup has changed you’ll get a scene where any new party members are introduced to Sophie’s initial companions Oskar and Monika. This is a nice touch that helps keep the sense of camaraderie strong throughout the game, as well as giving us the opportunity to see how different characters feel about each other.
Given the feeling of close-knit community most Atelier games tend to go for — and how this is particularly so in Atelier Sophie, which only has one central hub town — this is an important part of continuing to maintain the overall atmosphere of the experience.
Once out on the road, you’ll be presented with a familiar style of world map if you’ve played most of the Atelier titles since Totori. It’s node-based, with pathways radiating out from Kirchen Bell in all directions, and varying amounts of time required to get from one node to another. Generally speaking, the longer the path appears on the map, the longer it will take to travel.
There are a couple of key differences from previous installments here, however. Firstly is the fact that since Atelier Sophie features a time of day system as well as a calendar, travel time is calculated in hours rather than days. In execution, it might not initially appear all that different from previous games — until you notice that the timings of your journeys sometimes means that you arrive at your destination when night has fallen rather than in the middle of the day.
Arriving at an area at night-time isn’t necessarily dangerous as it is in earlier Atelier games such as Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis, but it is worth keeping an eye on the clock nonetheless, since both gatherable items and enemies in an area vary according to the time of day. If you’ve been given a request to go hunt something down and it’s not appearing where you think it’s supposed to be appearing, chances are you just need to advance the clock a bit and try again.
Another noteworthy difference between Atelier Sophie’s world map and prior games is how “random” events are implemented. In games from the series dating back to Atelier Totori, there was a chance of things occurring on the world map while you were travelling between locations. These events could either be positive or negative in nature, with the former often rewarding you with ingredients, money and healing and the latter either damaging you outright through traps or hazards, or throwing you into combat.
This still happens in Atelier Sophie, but the difference is that you can see the “random” events on the map; they’re marked as red spots on the pathways. That way, you can avoid them if your party is exhausted after a lengthy expedition and you don’t want to risk getting thrown into combat — or you can simply prepare yourself for something to happen as you make your way to a destination, on the understanding that it might actually be a positive outcome.
Atelier Sophie’s world map also brings back the “LP” system from Atelier Totori and Atelier Meruru, whereby characters gradually get more tired the longer they spend time in the field. At low levels of LP, their combat effectiveness is hampered considerably, meaning that it’s important to stay on top of this resource as you explore — sometimes random events can restore it, but at other times you’ll need to be aware of when will be a good time to head back to Kirchen Bell for a nice rest.
The return of the LP system is likely due to Atelier Sophie’s overall lack of time limit — it discourages you from spending all your time out in the field grinding combat experience in the hope of being able to overpower monsters. It’s also likely built on a similar philosophy to Atelier Shallie’s “Motivation” meter — while both games do offer you a lot more freedom than the time-limited Atelier games, that doesn’t mean you should just spend time treading water. Not only is that a sure-fire way to get bored and never finish the game, it also doesn’t really benefit you as much as you might think!
Once you actually reach a destination, you can explore it in the way we’ve come to expect from modern Atelier games. Atelier Sophie once again opts for an over-the-shoulder third-person camera view rather than the fixed camera angles of earlier titles, so there’s a strong sense of actually getting stuck into these environments and investigating thoroughly. And while the minimap in the corner of the screen does show enemy and gathering point locations, it pays to keep an eye on the actual environment to know which enemies are nearby, and which gathering points offer the best potential for quality items.
Gathering points generally yield multiple items at once, with those that appear as crystalline sparkles rather than clouds of sparkling mist offering more valuable rewards. And, in contrast to previous installments, it’s not just a case of hoovering everything up one at a time and then moving on — there are two systems that encourage you to look around and prioritise gathering the most valuable items rather than simply grabbing everything you can.
Firstly is the aforementioned time system. In some regions, the time of day affects which gathering points are available — thematically speaking, this represents things like flowers that bloom at night and suchlike. When you’re in an area that changes like this, the valuable gathering points you haven’t touched can easily disappear as time advances, so make sure you grab them first — time advances every time you gather!
Secondly is the “gathering level” mechanic, which acts as a different take on the “Field Events” system found in both Atelier Escha & Logy and Atelier Shallie. In both of those games, building up a meter by performing actions allowed you to “change” the fields to emphasise rare items, higher quality items or gathering yield, with improvements to any of these being represented as a temporary increase in the area’s “level”.
In Atelier Sophie, it’s a little simpler: gather things and fight monsters in an area, and gradually up to five lights on the edge of the minimap will start glowing. The more lights that are glowing, the higher the area’s level is — meaning better booty for you, either in the form of higher quality items or sometimes outright different items. However, just to make things interesting, the higher the area’s level is, the stronger the monsters are, too — so if you’re planning to spend a protracted amount of time in a single field, be ready to either fight or run for your life at a moment’s notice!
And yes, in Atelier Sophie you actually can spend quite a while in one field if you want to; as you continue to gather, fight and raise the area’s level, both gathering points and monsters will continually respawn, meaning it’s quite rare that you’ll ever clean an area out entirely. This helps keep you on your toes, and is a reminder that Sophie is never completely safe while she’s out on the road — so she absolutely needs to be careful.
That said, there’s not a strong punishment for being defeated out in the field: running out of HP means that Sophie and her crew are sent back to Kirchen Bell and lose some of their gathered items, but otherwise being knocked out is more of an inconvenience than anything else. It only really becomes an issue if you’ve taken on some of the requests that come with a time limit attached — and even then, most of those time limits tend to be pretty generous, anyway, so you can just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and head back out again. Or maybe sort yourself out some better equipment first.
Atelier Sophie’s exploration mechanics are firmly in keeping with what appears to be the philosophy of the game as a whole: freedom. You’re free to explore as much as you want — within reason, bearing your party’s fatigue as represented by the LP system in mind — and you can spend as long in each area as you like if you’re hoping to stock up on large quantities of a single item.
The game never feels like it’s actively trying to get in the way of you accomplishing something, nor does it feel like it’s punishing you for taking a bit of time to do something other than the main story. Like Sophie herself, it seems to take joy in simply existing — and wants nothing more than to share that joy with you.
Still to come: a look at Atelier Sophie’s methods of progression, including combat equipment, consumable items and gathering equipment, plus how combat flows in this particular installment. And a look at the narrative, of course — there are, as always, plenty of intriguing things to talk about in that regard!
In the meantime, though, it’s time to hit the road again; I have this sudden urge to fill my Basket with a random selection of shiny rocks…
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