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One of the recurring things that has come up time and time again as we’ve been looking at Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is how this game very consciously does things differently from what has come before.
It’s evident in the overall structure of the game and the way its story is told; it’s evident in the alchemy mechanics; it’s even evident in the art style, though this generally varies from subseries to subseries anyway.
And, of course, it’s evident in the combat system. This is a particularly interesting aspect of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book to analyse in detail, because superficially its combat mechanics might resemble the last six games in the series to one degree or another — but in fact, things unfold quite differently. Let’s explore!
Perhaps the most radical change to Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book’s combat compared to pretty much all of its predecessors is the very way that combat is organised.
In all the previous games we’ve looked at, there was an “initiative” system of some sort in place that determined when a character’s turn was — and when it was that character’s turn, you told them what to do and they did it. Fairly standard stuff for role-playing games.
There were variations on this formula, of course — with probably the most notable being Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny’s excellent quasi-real time system that saw certain moves having “charge times”, while others were specifically designed to knock opponents back in the turn order or even stun them. But even then, that core rule was true: when a character’s turn marker reached the “it’s your turn” part of the gauge, they would take their turn.
Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book adopts an approach more commonly seen in some older role-playing games from both Eastern and Western traditions, in that it divides combat into discrete “rounds”.
What this means is that when combat starts, you immediately issue orders to all of your party members and your opponents do the same. After everyone has issued their commands and both sides have confirmed they are ready the round begins, with the orders executing in order of the characters’ initiative values and the speed of the actions they’re trying to perform.
Once everyone has taken a turn, a new round begins and the process repeats. Combat continues to unfold in this way until one side or the other is defeated.
What’s interesting about this system is that it allows for a lot more in the way of strategic forward planning than a more “immediate” structure to combat might afford you.
Generally speaking, enemies will immediately decide what they are going to do, so right away while you are planning, you can see where their actions will occur in the upcoming turn order. By bearing this in mind, you can experiment with the various actions available to each of your characters and see what these do to that character’s position in the initiative order. You can then use that information to plan accordingly.
For example, you might see that one of your foes is about to unleash a powerful attack, indicated by a “Warning” mark on the turn order gauge. They’ve taken some damage in previous rounds thanks to area-effect attacks, but you’ve mostly been focusing on another target.
Seeing this “Warning” cue means it’s worth changing your strategy for this turn in order to focus all your damage on that opponent, hopefully defeating them before they can get their attack off. And if that doesn’t look like being an option, now might be a good time to start getting defensive.
This brings up another interesting aspect of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book’s combat — the fact that in each combat round, characters can be switched between an offensive or defensive stance. These have the basic effects you might expect: the former increases attack power at the expense of defence, while the other does the opposite.
There’s more to it, though. Certain abilities can only be used in one stance or the other, for one thing. But the main reason you’ll want to pay attention to these stances is due to this game’s take on assist attacks and defensive moves.
In the last few Atelier games we’ve looked at, assist attacks and defensive moves have been something you’ve actively had to engage in some way, typically by expending a meter of some description and pressing a button with appropriate timing. This works fine with the more “active” approach to turn-based that these games have taken, but that doesn’t really gel with the “wind ’em up and let ’em go” approach to Atelier Sophie’s round-based combat.
So Atelier Sophie doesn’t use that system at all. Instead, assist attacks are dependent on multiple characters being in the same stance as one another for a round. If they are, then they’ll be able to chain various abilities off one another — initially, characters who are in their offensive stance will be able to deliver follow-up attacks, while characters in defensive stance can shield their allies from incoming enemy assaults.
As the game progresses and your characters grow in power, additional options become available. The game introduces a “Chain Link” meter that gradually builds up from zero to a maximum of 300% with every attack landed and bit of damage taken, and the value of this meter determines how much more elaborate these follow-up attacks and defensive postures can be.
By the end of the game, bringing the Chain Link meter over 200% will allow two characters to work together and perform a powerful follow-up attack, or work together to defend another character — usually with some sort of added effect such as a buff or healing. And bringing it to 300% allows one character to team up with the other three in the active party to either deliver an absolutely devastating assault on their enemies, or weather even the most dreadful incoming storms of attacks.
Turn order actually becomes rather important in the latter case, since it’s usually the character that is last in the turn order who gets assisted by the other three — so if you’re trying to make use of a particular ability (which is required to unlock one of the optional recipes later in Sophie’s recipe book) then you’ll have to plan your rounds carefully to make sure things happen as you want them to. And, indeed, to ensure that you don’t obliterate all your enemies before you’ve had the chance to do the thing you were trying to do!
During your early hours with Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, the prospect of killing enemies too quickly might seem like a far-off dream, because all of your characters feel very weak — not only in attack power, but in terms of fragility. It’s an effort to take down even a simple Puni at the beginning of the game, necessitating careful use of the game’s battle system to ensure you stay safe.
And the game doesn’t make a big deal of this, but you’ll notice it before long: progression in terms of combat level is very slow in comparison to previous entries in the series. While in all the installments from Atelier Rorona onwards, you generally keep your alchemy level and your adventurer level relatively consistent according to your progress through the game as a whole, in Atelier Sophie it’s not at all uncommon to find Sophie’s alchemy level being double her combat level — or even higher.
There’s a very good reason for this: Atelier Sophie has a very low level cap for a console-style RPG. All of your characters will hit that cap at level 20, and this will be fairly late in the game’s overall story due to the relatively slow rate of experience gain.
This isn’t the end of their progression, however; not by a long shot. Instead, there are two important systems you’ll need to engage with in order to ensure maximum combat effectiveness as you work your way through the game: the ability points system, which unlocks when a character hits their level cap, and the equipment system.
The ability points system is similar to the one we saw in Atelier Shallie, where each character was able to beef up their basic stats or some of their unique abilities in exchange for points earned at each level up beyond a certain point. In Atelier Sophie, a lot of these abilities provide plenty of opportunity to make each character both specialised and unique through things like resistances and upgrades to their skills — and the immediate shot of 10 full points you get on hitting level 20 allows you to unlock a few of these right away. After that, however, you need to fill the character’s experience bar again to get just one more point.
The equipment system, meanwhile, is something you should be engaging with as early as possible in the game, because it really will allow you to put yourself at a great advantage if you use it correctly — or indeed abuse it gratuitously. This has always been the case in Atelier games throughout the ages, of course, but Atelier Sophie takes things a step further than most with its “modification” system for both weapons and armour. We touched on this a little when we looked at the alchemy systems of Atelier Sophie.
There are two main steps to making equipment in Atelier Sophie: making a weapon or piece of armour in the first place, and then upgrading it. In the former case, it’s the same as it’s been for the past few installments in the series: gather together the appropriate ingredients, pick some instances of those ingredients with advantageous traits that can be carried over to the final item, then profit.
In the latter, however, a considerable amount of possibilities open up, because most of the restrictions that are in place on you when creating the item in the first place are no longer relevant.
For example, when creating a weapon, you are quite limited as to which stat-boosting traits you can apply to the final product — as you might expect, emphasis is placed on boosting attack power and damage dealt. When you upgrade a weapon, however, these restrictions are lifted: now you can add an enhancement to that weapon that, say, boosts all the character’s stats by 10%. And, given that you can upgrade both weapons and armour multiple times, these bonuses can stack up very effectively very quickly… so long as you have the money to pay for it all.
All of these things we’re talking about here go back to something we talked about right at the start of our exploration of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book — the fact that in many ways, despite this being one of the more modern Atelier games, a significant part of its mechanics and structure feels inspired more by classic late ’80s to early ’90s computer role-playing games than anything else.
We’ve got the initially unclear final goal of the early Ultima games, with a world to explore and revel in while you uncover what it is you’re actually supposed to be doing. We’ve got the round-based combat of early dungeon crawlers such as the Wizardry series. We’ve got the low level cap and “endgame” progression of Dungeons & Dragons.
But the whole thing is dressed up in such a cute and colourful anime-style exterior and presented by such a memorable, likeable cast of characters that none of this is immediately obvious to the casual observer. None of these elements are anything that Atelier Sophie needs to be ashamed of, of course — all of the specific titles named are classics with good reason — but if you told a modern console-style RPG fan that they were about to jump into something that, structurally and mechanically, takes heavy cues from games that came out more than 30 years ago, it might give them a certain amount of pause.
This is silly, of course, because despite all that we’ve just talked about, Atelier Sophie doesn’t feel dated. It doesn’t feel “old” — it’s only when you stop to analyse what it’s doing that you’ll realise quite how many cues it takes from the old faithfuls of the genre — whether consciously or unconsciously.
Really, there’s no better way to honour all-time classics than to pay homage to them in your own unique way. Whether or not this was Gust’s explicit intention with Atelier Sophie is almost besides the point; the fact is, the way Atelier Sophie is designed and how all its mechanics come together is an excellent lesson in how some approaches to game design are truly timeless — all you really need to do is polish up the rough edges and add some pretty girls and you’ve got something that both modern gamers and those who have been around since the early days can enjoy on equal terms.
This post is one chapter of a MegaFeature!
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