I have issues with Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, the most recent installment in Gust’s Atelier series. Simply put, I don’t feel it’s a very good game. Which is probably why it’s taken me so long to find means of following up on it. It’s during these deliberations that I finally figured out the source of my frustrations. Atelier Sophie isn’t a game for advanced players like me; this is a game for all the people Gust wants to welcome into the world of alchemy. More specifically, I believe it’s designed to welcome little girls into the series.
Atelier Sophie is the easiest and most forgiving entry in the series. There are no time limits. Gathering is easy. It even makes a game of creating recipes, which people learn at their own pace. Battles don’t challenge you. Sometimes, it feels like there’s a greater focus on getting new and prettier dresses for Plachta, the book-slash-doll-slash-teacher than becoming a proper alchemist. This all sounds like a disaster if you frame it as a game attempting to carry on a long and storied tradition. Switch it to an introductory experience, perhaps for younger or less experienced players who are unfamiliar with JRPGs, and things fall into place. Atelier Sophie is all about ease of entry.
Taking away the time limits is a big deal. Every Atelier entry has had them, even more relaxed installments like Atelier Escha & Logy and Atelier Shallie. Atelier Sophie‘s complete abandonment of any sort of structure only makes sense if you consider this Gust’s means of appealing to a less disciplined generation. Taking away the schedule that formerly kept us on track and challenged us to become better players is an inclusive action. While such a move leaves those of us who craved that sort of consistency lost, it introduces a can-do attitude for children and the young at heart. What may take away motivation for one could be an invitation to another.
The gamification of alchemy is a similar action. Item creation was quite a dry affair in previous games. You had to pay attention to placards, be more aware of exact ingredients, and enjoy getting involved in the minutiae. Going through every material, checking its properties and the prep work wasn’t the most attractive or engaging element. I enjoyed it, but it wouldn’t appeal to a child or less attentive player the way a grid with colorful orbs that have to be properly arranged just so would. The new alchemy system is shiny and pretty. It gets the player involved, so they aren’t making decisions, then sitting back to watch things happen. Do you know who else you need to constantly keep involved and amused through every step of a process? Kids. Again, Atelier Sophie is switching things up to draw more attention to what would be an otherwise dry process.
This explains Atelier Sophie‘s cruise control. This is quite possibly the only JRPG I’ve ever played where I could legitimately leave the autobattle function on and trust it to get me through the entire game. While some difficulty spikes can arise, depending on how quickly you do or don’t come across recipes, it’s generally a very comfortable and effortless experience. It’s easy to coast through fights, with the rather simplified battle system that easily allows you to attack, defend, use skills, or bring in items, which is exactly what a child or new player would want and need. When thinking of this as an usher into great, better and more complicated things, even the rudimentary battle systems and mindless enemy intelligence is understandable.
And let’s go back to Plachta, the character who can often steal Atelier Sophie‘s show. She’s certainly there for fanservice, with her intricate attire. But, you can’t deny the usefulness of each costume when applied. They have varying specialties. In all honestly, it reminds me of playing dress-up with dolls as a child. The game is incentivizing outfits. People will learn appearances aren’t everything, and perhaps come to value a more modest Lady Saber outfit for its practicality, since it greatly boosts Plachta’s attack. It’s leading by example. When the Lady Saber outfit came up for me, I imagined Gust was saying, “Sure, Plachta looks cute in swimsuits, but see how much braver and better she’ll be when wearing an outfit befitting an adventurer?”
This even explains the lack of replay value. Previous Atelier games encourage you to keep coming back. They often lock away the best, true endings behind new game plus files, since there’s no human means of accomplishing the feats of alchemy and other goals associated with optimal runs. Atelier Sophie, on the other hand, lets you do everything on the first try. It doesn’t force you to come back to earn everything. You can do it all. This eliminates the frustration someone new to the series would otherwise feel when facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Giving people all the tools and experiences they need to clear the game in one shot is downright considerate, when you change the target audience to newcomers and children, rather than existing fans.
Atelier Sophie may be part of the Atelier line, but it isn’t for the hardcore. Not really. This is the installment that will shepherd people who were previously put off by schedules, deadlines and often intimidating foes. In a word, it’s casually cute. While that may leave those of us who were craving a richer and fuller experience unfulfilled, perhaps we can take solace in knowing that this could be the entry that opens up the series to a wider audience and maybe, in a few years, we’ll get a game as difficult as Atelier Rorona or Atelier Totori again.