There’s a recurring theme throughout Atelier games: the idea that alchemy isn’t inherently “good” or “evil”, but that its value to society is determined by how its practitioners make use of it.
This is most commonly explored through the means of Atelier protagonists deciding that they want to make use of their talents and skills to help people around them — and Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey is no exception to that rule.
The big difference in Atelier Firis, of course, is that rather than being centred on a single location as in many other Atelier games, our heroine is instead on the move, hoping to eventually reach a final destination in order to prove herself. So let’s take a closer look at what that means for the overall game structure.
As we looked at briefly last time, Atelier Firis is a game that is heavily quest-based. Rather than being provided with set, time-limited assignments as in titles such as Atelier Rorona and Atelier Escha & Logy, our heroine will instead stumble across various tasks that she has the ability to complete. Some of these are essential to overall progression through the game; others are best thought of as optional side activities.
In order to understand the difference, let’s remind ourselves of the core concept of Atelier Firis.
Firis grew up in the sealed underground mining town of Ertona, where she was widely loved and appreciated for her ability to hear the “voices” of ores and minerals — a characteristic that Atelier Sophie told us was a sign of someone who had a natural aptitude for alchemy.
Firis is dissatisfied with her life sealed in this perpetually dark cavern settlement, and longs to see “the outside” — particularly as her sister Liane regularly leaves to hunt and trade with other settlements. She finds an opportunity to realise her dream when Sophie comes to town and teaches her the basics of alchemy — but before she’s allowed complete freedom to roam as she sees fit, she needs to prove herself in a couple of ways.
Initially, she needs to prove herself within the settlement of Ertona by showing how she will be able to use alchemy to help people; subsequently, she needs to take an official alchemy license test and pass it within a year.
Both of these tasks are completed in a similar way, albeit on somewhat different scales, so let’s take a look at both in turn.
Initially, Firis is presented with relatively little guidance as to how she might be able to help the people of Ertona, so she has to use her initiative to a certain degree. Firstly, she needs to track down people who are having some form of trouble; secondly, she needs to determine how she might be able to solve their problems; thirdly, she needs to figure out exactly how she can implement that solution; and fourthly, she needs to actually apply what she’s learned to provide the solution once and for all.
The first step in this process is a simple matter of finding people who need help. While Atelier Firis lacks explicit “quest markers” floating conveniently over the heads of people who might have something for her to do, you can usually tell someone needs help by the fact that they’re showing a speech bubble as you’re walking around — this is similar to the way in which Atelier Sophie indicated that there was a character event available for you to witness.
Upon talking to one of these characters, they’ll inevitably have something to complain about or request, at which point Firis will make a note of said task in her notebook. From there, you’ll usually need to seek additional information — particularly in the early game, where Firis’ repertoire of alchemical recipes is understandably limited.
For example, to help out a man complaining of back pain, Firis will need to consult with others who have suffered a similar complaint and find out what they used to relieve their troubles. From there, she may well find herself needing to do other people a favour before they’ll hand over something helpful, or find out that she needs a specific ingredient in order to produce the item she needs to solve the problem.
Tying in with all this is Atelier Firis’ “recipe idea” system, whereby Firis unlocks new recipes through being struck by inspiration under various circumstances. This is a system we’ve seen a number of times throughout the Atelier series — in terms of the Western-released titles, it dates right back to Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm — but here it’s a crucial part of completing these ongoing quests.
Sometimes all Firis needs to think of a new recipe is to hear a piece of information from someone; at other times, she might need to repeatedly use a particular item or perform a particular action before she determines a better way of accomplishing the same goal. Generally speaking, the “story-essential” items can be unlocked relatively easily through gathering information, whereas consumable items might require you to put a bit of specific effort in over the long term.
Successfully accomplishing a quest rewards Firis with Idea Points, which can be used to unlock certain recipes without having to “grind” their conditions beforehand — but more importantly, in the case of story-essential quests, it allows her to prove herself.
In the case of the initial sequence in Ertona, Firis proves herself simply by resolving the problems of a few characters around the town. Once she’s out in the open world and on her journey to pass the alchemy license exam, things get a little more complicated.
In order to even be entered for the exam, Firis requires letters of recommendation from other licensed alchemists around the land. And, inevitably, these alchemists aren’t just going to give these up for any old cute chubby-faced girl who walks through their door — so once again, she’ll need to be ready to prove herself worthy of these letters of recommendation.
Interestingly, Atelier Firis actually subverts expectations somewhat with the first of these alchemists you encounter; rather than being a wise, capable alchemist as you might assume, Firis discovers that a licensed alchemist can be just as fallible and prone to failure as “normal” people. And as such, she ends up helping them out not necessarily just to get the letter of recommendation — but because it’s simply a nice thing to do.
We’ll talk more about this when we explore the narrative in detail, but this particular sequence is a nice means of exploring the idea of Firis “coming of age” and, as part of this process, coming to the realisation that adults aren’t necessarily the infallible figures of authority she might have assumed they are up until this point.
Okay, the initial sequence in Ertona demonstrates that Firis does have a certain rebellious streak about her, particularly when it comes to dealing with her parents. But she still respects people like Ertona’s elder and the things they tell her — even when, as part of the initial questline, he reveals himself to be just as much of a selfish, silly human being as anyone else.
Learning from your mistakes is an important part of growing up, and Firis gets the opportunity to see this in action first-hand. In fact, she tends to get the opportunity to learn from other people’s mistakes as much as from her own; as someone who lived a very sheltered, safe existence prior to leaving Ertona for the first time, there are a lot of things she’s never done before — and seeing how not to do them from the people she encounters helps her to figure out how she should live her life!
One interesting aspect of gameplay in this regard is that certain quests can be resolved in several ways — or so it might seem in several cases. For example, upon stumbling across a small wooded area in the first region she explored, Firis conjectures that the plants and trees could be in a better state than they are. She figures that there are a couple of possible things she might be able to do: she could clear out some of the monsters, who might be eating the plants and damaging the land, or she could synthesise some plant nutrients to help the plants grow stronger.
Choose to defeat the monsters — the more immediate, straightforward-seeming approach — certainly deals with the problem on a temporary basis, but upon returning to the area a few days later it’s clear that the plants are still suffering a bit — so Firis ends up needing to make the nutrients anyway. On the flip side, it’s entirely possible that if you make the nutrients first, the monsters will still end up causing damage — so these decisions aren’t necessarily straightforward.
There are lots of other opportunities to make choices like this in both the “main” and “side” quests that Firis encounters on her journey.
When coming across a man who has previously received medicine from Sophie, Firis has the opportunity to provide him with some inferior quality medicine in the hopes that he might not notice the difference — or put a bit of additional work in to ensure that she matches Sophie’s items.
When attempting to recover a farmer’s missing cow, Firis can either go scouring the landscape in the hope that she might stumble across the cow randomly — or she can make use of the information she knows that the cow likes hay, and will more than likely come wandering back as soon as it’s hungry if there is some good quality hay on offer. Naturally, though, she needs to have learned the recipe for hay before this is an option.
Sometimes the “correct” immediate response to a quest is to wait, which is interesting; more often than not in open-world games with a strong emphasis on quests, you’ll be given tasks with the implication that you should probably complete them right now, but this is very much not the case in Atelier Firis.
In the aforementioned case of the wooded area, Firis knows that she needs to produce some plant nutrients, but likely does not know how to do this at the time; in the case of the man who wants medicine, Firis is likely incapable of matching Sophie’s medicine when she first receives the quest; in the case of the missing cow, the “hay” solution is dependent on her having stumbled across someone in a completely different part of the map who offers her a recipe for hay in exchange for doing them a favour.
Most quests do not have a time limit on them, so more often than not it pays for Firis to focus on the main, essential tasks that she needs to accomplish rather than trying to do too much with her limited skills at the outset of the game. A year to take the alchemy exam might seem like a long time, but that time can quickly get burned through if you’re not careful — better to simply take note of the things you can come back to later with more experience than to waste lots of time on failed attempts. Learn from your mistakes and all that!
As Firis continues her journey, she’ll learn more and more things both as a direct and indirect result of the things she’s been getting up to. And as such, by the time she’s passed that exam she’ll be well-equipped to head back and resolve all those little niggling problems she’d left behind to deal with later.
It’s kind of a nice metaphor for life, really; sometimes there are things you just can’t deal with right now, so it’s worth focusing on the little things you can take care of. And eventually, before you know it, everything will fall into place properly — so long as you continue to put the effort in to being a good person and bettering yourself.
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