Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book – Stirring the Pot

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As is tradition for the series at this point, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book shakes things up considerably when it comes to its core alchemy mechanics.

And again in keeping with past installments, the reinvention isn’t so radical that it feels incongruous with the rest of the series, but it’s distinctive enough to make Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book stand out nicely amid its many, many peers.

So today let’s take a closer look at that alchemy system — along with how the people around the town of Kirchen Bell can help out with your studies!

The reason that all the Atelier games feel so consistent with one another despite their varying mechanics from installment to installment is because they’re all based on the same solid foundation. Indeed, the early games in the series used this foundation as pretty much their only mechanic; as time went on, however, Gust has continually experimented with structural elements to layer atop that foundation and create something unique to each individual game.

That foundation is simple: collect recipe, follow recipe, get item. In the early days of the series “follow recipe” involved using an exact specific item at every step of the process, but over time the series has done a couple of other things: the Atelier Iris and Mana Khemia games, for example, allow you to swap out the first ingredient in a recipe for something else in order to discover new recipes, while the titles from Atelier Rorona onwards — including Atelier Sophie — often call for a simple category of item as well as demanding specific ingredients.

Where the real variation between individual Atelier games comes is in what you do after those items go in the pot. In some cases, putting them in the pot is all you need to do, while in others, there are more in-depth mechanics to engage with. And Atelier Sophie definitely falls into that latter category.

Let’s take things a step at a time. When assembling a recipe from its component ingredients in Atelier Sophie, you can see several “effect” bar charts, similar to those we’ve seen in one form or another since Atelier Rorona — and in a slightly different form in Mana Khemia’s E-Level system. These effect bars show you how much “category value” you need to add to the recipe in order to make the final item have various effects.

It’s important to note that higher isn’t always better; making recipes multiple times allows you to discover the optimal values you’ll need to get the best effects. For example, in some cases increasing the effect value of a food item might make it more delicious and filling, but this in turn means that it carries a higher delay value if used in combat. That’s not necessarily desirable. On top of that, in-game quests often ask for items with specific effects on them, so you’ll need to experiment somewhat.

The exact implementation of the effect value system has, as you might expect, varied from installment to installment. In the original Atelier Arland trilogy, each item has a single effect bar that is an average of all the ingredients that were added to the mix. The Atelier Dusk trilogy adds elemental affinities, allowing for multiple effects on a single item, with each effect being associated with a different element. Atelier Luluathe later follow-up to the Arland trilogy, used an elemental system with an oppositional element; adding the “opposite” element to another could cancel an effect out or even produce a different effect altogether.

In Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, the effect values are tied to the specific ingredients, not elements. Let’s say a recipe calls for two plants, two oils and two waters; within each category, you could add multiple, different items, and the effect value would be the sum of all of them.

Individual items carry not only their own effect value but also an elemental value, and you can freely mix elemental types in a single category if you so desire. The reason the elements are important becomes apparent later in the process.

Once you’ve selected your ingredients and established the mixture’s initial effect values for each category, it’s time to pick a cauldron to put your ingredients into. Sophie initially only has a single cauldron, but as the game progresses you’ll unlock — and be able to craft — multiple others, with each having their own benefits. Some will increase your alchemy experience more quickly, some prevent failures, some challenge you to complete the recipe against a time limit in order to produce a much higher quality item.

Each cauldron presents you with a grid in which you can arrange your ingredients. The form of the grid varies according to the recipe; simpler items present you with a complete grid, while more complex items might have “holes” in the arrangement, making it difficult to fit in larger or more high-quality items.

Each ingredient you pick has a “size”, you see, and this is reflected by two things: the number of squares it takes up on the grid when you plonk it in the pot, and the shape of the tiles that make up that item. With those aforementioned more complex items, you might have the absolute perfect item to throw in the pot in terms of quality and effect value — but if it’s the wrong size and shape to fit in the grid arrangement, it’s not going to do you much good!

Placing an ingredient into the grid has a couple of effects. Firstly, any tiles surrounding the ingredient you place generate a coloured spark according to the colour of the grid squares. If there’s already a spark in a square, it upgrades to a second or third stage of brightness.

Secondly — and this is one of the most important things to get your head around — laying an ingredient over one or more of these sparks increases that ingredient’s effect value, with the increase being greater if 1) the spark is the same colour as the ingredient’s element and 2) the spark is larger.

Thirdly, the more squares in the grid you cover, the higher the final quality of the item will be. But sometimes you can’t fit all the ingredients in the grid without overlapping them; if you do place one atop another one, the one that was on the “bottom” will be erased, though it will keep any increases to the effect value it attained through the sparks.

Finally, the proportion of each coloured element in the pot contributes to a percentage-based bonus meter that is applied at the end of the process. Successfully place — and keep — majority red items, for example, and you’ll get a percentage increase to all red effect values before the recipe is finalised. If two colours have the exact same proportions, both will get a bonus; if only one is a clear leader, only that leading colour will get a bonus.

As with most previous Atelier games, it might sound a bit complex — and indeed, much like past Atelier games, particularly in the Dusk series, it can seem completely indecipherable when you start experimenting.

But this is entirely deliberate; as you work your way through the game, your own understanding of the mechanics is supposed to mirror Sophie’s own growing knowledge of alchemy, and in this way as Sophie grows in confidence, so too will you. With how easy ingredients are to come by in Atelier Sophie, there’s not a lot to lose, so it really pays to experiment, pay attention to the various indicators on the screen and figure out exactly what effect each of the mechanics mentioned above has on your final products.

Just to make things a little more interesting, Atelier Sophie also incorporates a variation on the “traits” system we’ve been seeing in one form or another since Atelier Rorona. In this instance, ingredients often carry traits, and up to three of these can be attached to the final item according to Sophie’s alchemy level — one each at level 10, 20 and 30.

Traits are super-important as they make items that have no inherent effect by themselves — like metal ingots or pieces of cloth, say — have their own distinctive value. And this becomes important when you work with various vendors around the town of Kirchen Bell to equip your characters with new armour, weapons and, much later, doll parts.

Speaking to blacksmith Logy or clothier Leon will allow you to craft weapons and armour respectively. In each instance, this gives you a vastly simplified version of the alchemy system in which all you have to do is pick the appropriate ingredients to use — no worrying about effect values or the grid-based minigame.

What is important, however, are the traits on the ingredients you use; you can make a serviceable weapon with just a basic metal ingot, for example, but doesn’t a weapon that enhances all your character’s stats by 10%, reduces their magic point consumption by 7% and increases their overall damage by 7% sound much better? Of course it does; so when putting that weapon together, make sure you have a suitable combination of traits that will allow you to make that happen.

To add further depth, both weapons and armour can be upgraded with additional metal ingots, pieces of cloth or old weapons you no longer need. Higher-tier — harder to make — ingots and cloth result in bigger increases to the weapon or armour’s base stats, but traits are also relevant here, too. In fact, you’ll even find that there are some traits that can only be attached to either a weapon or armour through the upgrade system rather than crafting a new item.

To make life a little easier in this regard, early in the game you meet the character Corneria, who allows you to register items with her and have them duplicated over a course of in-game days — quality, traits and all. This way, when you make the absolute perfect ingot or piece of cloth, you can register it with Corneria and just buy copies of it to use for crafting or upgrading new items.

Of course, you need money to do this, and the best way to get money is by taking on requests from the local café, as we talked about a little while ago — and this, in turn, will need you to craft items and defeat monsters. And of course, requests to defeat tougher monsters will demand that you get better equipment for your team… you see how this all works together?

The Atelier series as a whole has always done a great job at integrating all its various systems together in order to produce something great that feels coherent and consistent. And Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is a particularly strong example of this; when coupled with the game’s rather free-feeling structure, there is a real sense that this is a game that wants you to have fun with its mechanics, to explore everything it has to offer — and perhaps even to keep playing after you’ve “finished” it.

If I weren’t on a continuing journey to get through the rest of this series, I can see myself spending a lot of time in Sophie’s company, let’s put it that way!

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