The Atelier series, as we’ve seen numerous times over the course of its complete length, is not one to sit still for long — even within the scope of a single subseries.
Despite this, Atelier games have always managed to establish a sense of coherence between different installments — even when they might appear, at first glance, to be radically different from one another.
Such is the case with the second of the Mysterious trilogy — Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey may initially appear markedly different from its immediate predecessor Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, but the more you spend time with it, the more you’ll realise there are some interesting elements in common amid all that seeming change.
The biggest change, as the game’s subtitle might suggest, is that the scope is considerably different. While Atelier Sophie unfolded over a relatively small geographic area immediately surrounding our heroine’s hometown of Kirchen Bell, Atelier Firis is all about a journey.
This isn’t the first time a single Atelier subseries has played with the idea of scope; if you think back to the Arland subseries, Atelier Totori: The Adventurer of Arland was deliberately designed to unfold across a much wider scope than its predecessor Atelier Rorona: The Alchemist of Arland, and looking even further back, the three Atelier Iris games all have wildly varying geographic scopes.
It’s an effective means of creating a sense of contrast between related titles, and is a good approach to take in a sequel — providing the opportunity for players to further (or more deeply) explore a world that they have already developed an interest in is a sure-fire way to get their attention.
The interesting thing about Atelier Firis is that it goes about this change of scope with a fairly radical change to the way the game is put together. Rather than unfolding in relatively small, self-contained and sometimes interconnected areas, Atelier Firis instead opts for a more open-world approach.
It’s not a “true” open world in that there are still transitions between “zones”, but said zones are several orders of magnitude larger than your typical Atelier locations that we’ve seen up until this point — particularly in the series’ “modern age” from Atelier Rorona onwards.
The nice thing about this quasi open-world approach is that it allows to build on something that Atelier Sophie already did rather well: to provide a relatively freeform sense of adventure, exploration and discovery. Only this time around, you’re doing so by actually physically making your way around a more coherent environment, rather than moving from node to node on a map.
Although there have been a fair few open world games from developers out East over the years, the concept of “open world” games is one that is typically quite associated with Western developers — largely because companies like Bethesda, Rockstar and their ilk are regarded to have mastered the format. As such, it’s perhaps no surprise that Atelier Firis’ early hours very much feel like they take some heavy cues from some of the big Western hitters in this regard — most notably Bethesda’s titles.
Bethesda’s most memorable games kick off with a deliberately linear, confined environment in which you can get to grips with how the game does things without getting hopelessly lost in a sprawling world. These interactive introductions establish a sense of context for the game world and the character you will be playing in that world, and allow you to get used to the various mechanics you will be engaging with over the course of the game as a whole.
When you prove you’re good and ready, you’re let out of the door into the big, wide world, and it always feels like a significant moment; for many players, Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion still provides the quintessential example of this transition from linearity to complete freedom. After having followed the initial questline through — and created your character in the process — you open the last door in the Imperial sewers, and suddenly you are blinded by sunlight.
The grey, monotone walls of the subterranean structure you’ve been confined to up until this point give way to lush, green countryside and rippling water; you can practically feel the breeze on your face. It’s still a magical moment, some 15 years after we saw it for the first time.
Atelier Firis’ approach to this classic open world beginning is to introduce our heroine Firis as a young girl who has been living in a sealed underground mining community named Ertona. From an early age, she has seemingly had a talent for hearing the “voices” of minerals and ore, and as such has been a popular and welcome member of the community, as her talent helps the miners of Ertona get straight to the most bountiful deposits.
But Firis isn’t satisfied. She resents being locked in Ertona behind the heavy stone doors that block the community off from the outside — and is even more dissatisfied about this given that her older sister Liane is allowed to leave Ertona in order to hunt, gather and trade with outside settlements. She seems stuck with her lot, however, since her parents are insistent that she should stay inside Ertona where it is safe; since most of Ertona’s inhabitants have lived their whole life “inside”, many of them have developed an intense distrust of “the outside”.
Firis’ life changes the day that Sophie and Plachta stumble across Ertona. Confused by the huge stone door blocking access to the community, Sophie does the only thing a good alchemist can do in such a situation — she blows it up with a bomb, but almost immediately demonstrates how far she’s come since we left her behind in the previous game. She uses alchemy on the spot to put it right back how it was after she realises she’d made a bit of a boo-boo.
Rather taken with how easily Sophie’s powers both destroyed and recreated the door, Firis naturally takes an interest in her, and Sophie agrees to take her on as an apprentice. From here, Firis detects an opportunity to finally be allowed outside — if she can prove that she has a talent for alchemy, and that alchemy will be able to support her on her travels outside Ertona, surely she will be permitted to see the blue skies that she has always craved?
What follows is a sequence that introduces the main game flow of Atelier Firis, which we’ll talk more about in a subsequent part of this feature.
Still within Ertona, Firis is challenged by the village elder to demonstrate both her capabilities at alchemy — which, of course, she has a natural talent for — and that she is able to use her own initiative to solve problems. She is tasked with tracking down people within Ertona who are having some sort of issue, and solving that issue with alchemy.
In order to accomplish this task, Firis needs to find the people in question, establish what their problem is and then figure out a solution for it. Unsurprisingly, said solution is almost always “make a particular item and deliver it to them” — but sometimes determining exactly what the correct item is requires talking to a number of different people to figure out what the different ingredients required might be.
By the end of this sequence, you’ve had a bit of experience with all the game’s main systems: exploring the open world (since Ertona and its surrounding cave system is actually quite large in its own right), combat (albeit against very weak foes), interacting with characters, questing, alchemy and developing recipes.
The latter aspect is a major component of Atelier Firis, as we’ll explore further anon. Suffice to say for now that a significant part of the game builds on the “recipe ideas” systems that have been seen a few times over the course of the Atelier series as a whole, with Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm and Atelier Sophie being probably the most noteworthy examples.
Interestingly, Atelier Firis also reintroduces the idea of a time limit to the Atelier series — though not for the entire game. Instead, Firis’ initial “test” in the village must be completed within an in-game month — very easy to accomplish — and after that, she is given a year to take an alchemist license exam in the city of Reisenberg before she will be allowed to stay “outside” indefinitely. After this latter task is completed, the time limit is removed entirely, and the rest of the game unfolds with the same sort of freeform structure seen in Atelier Shallie and Atelier Sophie.
This might seem like a peculiar inclusion, since the removal of the time limit for Atelier Shallie and Atelier Sophie was positively received by many players — but given the scope of Atelier Firis, it makes sense to put a few limits in place for the early game. It encourages the player to focus on the tasks that are meaningful right now rather than getting sidetracked — very easy to do in an open-world game — before providing them with complete freedom once they’ve “earned” it.
It makes a certain amount of sense in the context of the narrative, too. Both Firis’ parents and the Ertona elder still have difficulty trusting Firis to remain safe while on the outside, so by placing some hard deadlines in front of her, they’re forcing her to prove that she’s serious and focused — and if she isn’t, no-one can really argue that they’ve been unreasonable, since both time limits are pretty generous.
Firis has a long and challenging journey ahead of her — and lots to learn along the way. But it’s pretty obvious from the outset of the game that she is one of the most enthusiastic and knowledge-hungry protagonists that the series has ever seen — so there’s little doubt that she’ll achieve her goals… so long as you keep an eye on that all-important clock in the early hours, that is!
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