Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey isn’t the first time that the Atelier series has attempted to focus on a protagonist going on a long journey. Far from it, in fact.
While the “modern” Atelier games are typically associated with the structure of being based around a “hub” location and then radiating out from there, this style of play only makes up some of the series. Atelier Totori and Atelier Ayesha are both explicitly about going on a journey, while Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny, Atelier Meruru and Atelier Shallie all have a significant “journey” component to their narratives, even if they also feature a “hub” location to call home.
But Atelier Firis manages to be a bit different by virtue of the way that it is constructed. Its “open world” nature gives a very different feel to the protagonist’s journey — and makes it stand out amid its peers in a very interesting and positive way. So let’s take a closer look at this idea.
Probably the biggest change that Atelier Firis makes to the classic formula is that it features neither an old-school “scale model” world map as seen in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, nor the node-based map seen in many installments from Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny onwards, nor even the menu-based navigation seen in titles like Mana Khemia and Atelier Rorona.
Instead, what the game offers is just… a world. Initially, as we’ve already seen, Firis’ world is very small, but still relatively “open”, regardless. And once she accomplishes her initial goal of proving to the village elder and her parents that she is able to support herself out in the open, it really is a brand new experience, both for her and for Atelier in general.
Well, maybe not brand new; despite Atelier Iris 2: The Azoth of Destiny featuring a node-based world map and Atelier Iris 3: Grand Phantasm featuring a central hub location, both of those games have a much stronger exploration element than many other titles in the series. Atelier Firis mainly distinguishes itself from these games by its relatively “seamless” nature; while it does have transitions between zones that can be likened to the nodes on previous games’ maps, the difference here is that you need to run from one side of a zone to another in order to reach those new areas.
There are a few “fast travel” concessions provided — within a zone, you can warp to any of the landmarks you’ve discovered to more easily get around — but for the most part, you’ll get the most out of Atelier Firis if you actually control our heroine as she works her way through the various environments she encounters on her travels. Not only will you get a better idea of how to navigate each of the areas by sight rather than map, but you’ll also get a good idea of what each area offers in terms of materials and monsters.
This latter aspect is actually rather interesting, because it marks a shift in how you might play compared to previous installments. In many other Atelier games, if you find that you need, say, wood for a recipe, you’ll look in the encyclopaedia for the areas that offer harvest points for wood, pop out there as fast as you can, grab some wood and then head straight back. There’s no real feel of going on an “excursion” when you do that; it’s just a simple action you take.
In Atelier Firis, meanwhile, you’ll find yourself thinking in a much more realistic manner — and this, in turn, can lead to interesting discoveries.
“I need wood,” you’ll think, “and I’m currently in the middle of a town. I could buy some from one of the local merchants, but I also need to save my money for a stay at the inn later. Wait a moment, I came through a forest on the way here — surely that would be an ideal place to find some wood!” And so off you pop, out of the town gates and into the forest.
While the forest is, of course, made of wood, Firis isn’t a lumberjack and as such isn’t able to just chop any old tree down — not only is she ill-equipped to do so, the forests aren’t really hers to destroy according to her whims. So instead, she needs to seek out logs and branches that have already fallen and gather those instead, perhaps breaking them up with her staff or other tools if necessary.
The search for wood takes you and Firis deeper into the forest, until you come to a zone transition. “White Fog Forest”, it says. “Hmm,” you think,” that sounds like an even better place to find some wood!” So you head in there, continuing your meandering route from log to log, filling up Firis’ basket with as many bits of wood as you can find, because you know you need a lot of it for the ship you’re trying to build.
“Hmm, what’s that over there?” you think, seeing what appears to be the outline of some houses in the mist ahead. You wander over. It is indeed a village, buried deep within the forest — what an unexpected find! A villager greets you and says that you should probably pay your respects to the elder before you do anything else. You do so, and Firis gets chewed out for not bringing her a suitable gift.
She cries, you feel bad, you set about trying to discover what a suitable gift might be. And before you know it you’re engrossed in a completely different questline that it feels like you’ve stumbled across totally by accident.
Of course, as it transpires, you haven’t found this place by accident at all, because the actions you take here are critical to the main storyline of Firis attempting to pass her alchemy exam — but the crucial thing is that it feels like you came to this village by a natural, organic process rather than being presented with a big honking great objective arrow or a trail of flashing breadcrumbs to follow.
Atelier Firis is full of moments like this. While you’re very much on the clock for the first part of the game, there are plenty of opportunities to wander off the beaten path either for the sake of exploration or, as noted above, with a particular objective in mind. The game consistently rewards discovery and curiosity in a variety of ways — sometimes with treasures to uncover, sometimes with caves to explore (which, in turn, usually contain treasures), sometimes with new monsters to fight, sometimes with new materials to gather and, of course, sometimes with new people to meet and quests to take on.
While at various points you’ll inevitably find yourself coming back to particular locations in order to progress various questlines — the lengthy sequence in the town of Flussheim where Firis ends up having to make the aforementioned ship is a good example — for the most part the game is about the joy of simply being on a journey. It’s about the wonder of a wide open world that you’ve never seen before, and all the possibilities it offers.
And best of all, exploring that open world absolutely is not all about systematically hoovering icons up off a map. It’s a world to explore, not a theme park full of activities — and that makes the whole experience of living Firis’ new life alongside her all the more immersive.
Here’s hoping this style of play is something Gust continues to explore further in the future.
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