One thing that a lot of 21st century gaming enthusiasts aren’t a big fan of is the idea of the “20 hour tutorial” — the feeling that, for a significant chunk of a game, you’re being held back from being let loose on all the game’s mechanics until you prove you have a good understanding of them.
Of course, in some cases, a lengthy learning period is essential — and not always provided. I am still completely incapable of playing large-scale “grand strategy” games like the Crusader Kings series because I have absolutely no idea what to do, for example; in instances like that, I would have very much appreciated the software walking me through a complete game so I could get some practical experience!
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey adopts an interesting approach in that the first 15-20 hours of the game are very much a case of “proving your worth” — but at the same time, you’re afforded plenty of freedom to approach this task as you see fit. Let’s take a closer look at how that all works — and what it means for the game as a whole.
As we’ve previously mentioned a couple of times, the driving force behind Atelier Firis’ narrative — once the initial introductory sequence is out of the way, anyway — is the eponymous heroine’s desire to stay in the outside world rather than remaining locked away in the sealed mountain town of Ertona.
She has the opportunity to do this after meeting Sophie, star of the previous Atelier game, and discovering that she has a latent talent for alchemy.
So she makes a deal with the village elder and her parents: if she can pass the alchemy license exam and obtain an official qualification in the space of a year, she’ll be allowed to stay outside indefinitely. But if she fails to pass the exam — either by attending and failing or simply missing it altogether — then she’ll come home and live her life locked away in Ertona until her dying day.
Obviously keen for the former situation to come to pass, Firis agrees to these conditions, though as an outside observer we might notice something a little worrying. While Firis’ teacher Sophie is, without a doubt, an experienced alchemist — as seen in both her own game and the opening hours of Atelier Firis — she hasn’t yet obtained her own alchemy license yet, either.
This naturally raises a few questions as to how easy it actually is to become an officially licensed alchemist in the world of Atelier Firis. If someone as skilled and experienced as Sophie — someone who managed to successfully take down a powerful Ablation Alchemy specialist, turn a book into a person and bend time and space inside a tent, let’s not forget — isn’t licensed yet, what hope does she have?
Firis is undeterred by this particular issue, however — and in fact as her journey progresses it becomes clear that becoming “officially licensed” might not actually be as much of a big deal as one might think, given some of the people who have successfully passed the exam previously.
So far as Sophie is concerned, her lack of official qualifications stems entirely from the fact that all her activities in her own game were in the geographical area immediately surrounding her home town of Kirchen Bell, while Atelier Firis unfolds in a completely different part of the world. No mention was made of “alchemy licenses” in Atelier Sophie, so it’s safe to assume that they either weren’t a thing during the time that Atelier Sophie unfolded or, more likely, that they aren’t a thing in the part of the world where she hails from.
The cynical, of course, might argue that Gust made up the concept of the alchemy license simply as a means of providing the first part of Firis’ quest with a bit of structure rather than there being any sort of deeper narrative meaning or worldbuilding behind it. But let’s be charitable about this.
As Firis proceeds on her journey through the varied lands that stand between her and the exam location of Reisenberg, she encounters a number of different settlements — some of which she’ll stumble across as part of the “critical path” to Reisenberg, and others of which she’ll discover when exploring further afield.
Most of these settlements have their own resident licensed alchemist — and indeed a significant part of Firis’ quest during the first part of the game involves proving herself to at least three of these individuals in order to obtain letters of recommendation. Without these, she won’t be able to take the exam, so pursuing this objective is probably the most important thing to do early in the game.
Thing is, there’s no set criteria that says how, why and when a licensed alchemist should issue a letter of recommendation for an up-and-coming alchemist to take the exam. As a result, each licensed alchemist that Firis comes into contact with as her journey progresses has their own means of judging what she’s capable of and whether she’s worthy of taking the exam — and their approaches vary quite significantly.
For example, in Mechen, the first village that Firis will encounter on her travels, the local alchemist named Dion is rather lacking in confidence and assertiveness. He has made a few mistakes in the past, and he judges himself harshly for them, even though it’s obvious that the villagers don’t actually mind.
Everyone makes mistakes, after all, and so long as you learn from them everything’s good. Plus one might argue that a village that has an accident-prone alchemist is still in a better position to be self-sufficient than a village with no alchemist whatsoever — so long as said alchemist isn’t constantly blowing things up, of course. And Dion may have made a few slip-ups in the past, but we’re talking slightly misaligned windmill cogs, not accidental thermonuclear explosions from failed attempts to produce berry pies.
With this in mind, Dion is more than happy to write a recommendation for Firis after she just helps him out a bit. He’s clearly someone who gets easily overwhelmed when he has several projects on the go at once, so when Firis shows up and agrees to take several of these tasks off his hands, he’s extremely grateful.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have someone like Aurelie, the village elder of Dona Village in the White Fog Forest. She is one of several licensed alchemists in the game you’ll have to actually go out of your way to find rather than stumbling across her as part of the main narrative — and indeed, despite a few visual clues (such as a table full of flasks and test tubes outside her cottage), she’s not even introduced as a licensed alchemist at all.
In fact, she’s simply introduced as a grumpy, difficult to please old woman who has seemingly become a little too comfortable and spoiled in her role as village elder.
One wouldn’t blame Firis from turning around, walking away and never coming back after an initial encounter that leaves her in tears — and, indeed, this is actually a possible course of action, given the structure of Atelier Firis. But if you choose to play Firis as someone who is willing to help anyone that appears to be in need, regardless of how rude they are — in other words, a typical Atelier protagonist — then things start to roll along a whole lot more smoothly from there.
The thing is, every one of these licensed alchemists Firis encounters has something to teach her — though the lesson in question might not be what it appears at first.
As we’ve seen, Dion provides a good example of someone who appreciates help, even if he might have difficulty asking for it sometimes. Aurelie, meanwhile, provides a practical lesson in how proving you’re serious about “helping everyone in need” means that sometimes you have to deal with people who have an attitude problem.
Elsewhere in the game, there are further lessons to be learned about not taking people for granted, not judging people by first impressions and even not giving up on a challenge, even if it might appear to be completely insurmountable at first glance.
It’s actually quite desirable to seek out all of the five licensed alchemists it’s possible for Firis to encounter prior to her exam day, because they each have their own interesting little story to tell — and an important lesson for Firis to learn. By working with all of them, Firis learns a great deal about the way the mysterious “outside world” works — and the many different types of people she’ll come into contact with in her life as an alchemist.
Throughout all this first part of the game, you’ll likely be very conscious of the ever-present time limit — it’s constantly visible on the field screen, after all, and everything you do in the game seems to take a surprising amount of time. The rate at which the in-game days pass is surprisingly fast — just getting from one side of a large town like Flussheim to another can take the best part of a “day” — though you’ll quickly discover that there are ways to mitigate this somewhat.
Notably, time only passes while you’re doing something; stand still and time won’t pass at all. However, while you’re moving around, talking to people, gathering items, getting into fights and crafting things in the atelier, time continues to pass — with alchemy typically consuming significant numbers of hours in one go.
With this in mind, planning out what you’re going to do before you do it is an excellent idea; you can make use of the game’s solid map function to refer to where particular quests have their main objectives and even “tag” individual quests so that they show up on the minimap, for example.
As the game progresses, you’ll also encounter some other helpful mechanics. Notably, changing Firis’ costume often has some sort of useful passive effect on her, and the DX releases of the game come with a selection of helpful outfits by default — one of which is a dress which causes time to pass more slowly while moving around the world.
After a certain point, you’ll even be able to craft vehicles for Firis to use, which allow her to travel greater distances in shorter amounts of time — though you will have to keep said vehicles fuelled up with “bomb” items you create through alchemy, so there’s still a certain amount of forward planning required.
Ultimately, though, the time limit is not too much of an issue; if you focus entirely on the game’s “main” quests, you can get to Reisenberg with well over half a year still on the clock, and even with a bit of wandering off the critical path to explore things, you’ll still doubtless have a fair chunk of time available once you arrive.
It’s worth noting at this point that nothing “expires” in Atelier Firis, so if you find yourself picking up quests in the early game that are seemingly impossible to complete, just leave them in your quest log and come back to them later — perhaps after passing the exam.
One such example comes in the very first zone, where a character requests a medicinal item “as good as Sophie made”, which requires you to create it with a particular effect attached. With the ingredients in that first zone, this is pretty much impossible to achieve — come back later with a bulging Container full of all the crap you’ve gathered from every region between Ertona and Reisenberg, however, and you’ll have a much easier time of things — to say nothing of the additional alchemy experience Firis will have built up by that point.
You may well find yourself wondering when Firis is truly “ready” for the exam, though, and this is something that the game deliberately doesn’t make all that clear — it’s a judgement call you need to make yourself. And just to highlight the importance of this decision, once Firis signs up for the exam in Reisenberg, she is confined to the city — even if there’s still a long time until the exam actually happens. With this in mind, you’ll likely want to make as best use of the time available to you as possible, and preferably head to Reisenberg to sign up at the last minute.
Crucially, you don’t have to do this, however. If you just feel like you’d be spinning your wheels and grinding mindlessly up until exam day, you can actually skip forward in time right to the exam once you’ve signed up — and from there you can determine whether or not you’ve proven your worth in this first section of the game.
The exam itself unfolds in several main components. First is a “written” test, which bombards you with multiple-choice questions about the game’s alchemy mechanics and, just to add a bit of pressure to the mix, requires you to answer each against a tight time limit.
The second is an alchemy test, where again you are given a time limit to create absolutely any item from your repertoire, with your grade for this part being based on the final quality of the item and its overall complexity to create.
Finally, there’s a simple “battle” test, where you have to face the world’s strongest Puni and deal as much damage as possible in a single turn using whatever means you see fit.
After all these tests, you’ll be given a numerical grade; the questions award two points per correct answer, the alchemy test gives you points roughly equal to half the quality level of your final item, and the battle test provides more points the more damage you did in that single turn.
Your task is to get just 50 points, which is easily achievable with mediocre performance in all three categories; remember, just like a real qualification, it’s not about proving that you’re “the best”, it’s about proving you can meet an established standard.
Upon completing all these tasks, you may also get an extra opportunity to battle against either Firis’ alchemist friend Ilmeria or Sophie, depending on your performance; both of these fights are extremely difficult and clearly intended for New Game+ players with powerful equipment and consumable items, but in theory with proper preparation and good use of that initial time period one could buff themselves up into a position to beat them.
Again, though, you don’t have to; once again, remember that Firis’ goal is not to be the “best” or the most powerful alchemist in the world. She simply wants to prove her abilities both to herself and to the people waiting for her back in Ertona. And if that means coming in third place behind Ilmeria and Sophie but still passing the exam, so be it. A pass is a pass, after all!
But what’s next? Well, like anyone graduating from a significant period of study, Firis has some important questions to answer… and we’ll explore those in a subsequent part of this feature!
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