The Atelier series comprises an impressive seventeen games that spawn almost twenty years and four console generations. The latest game from developer Gust is Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book for the PlayStation 4 and Vita. This simple title tells the story of Sophie, a young alchemist, who takes up the craft following her grandmother's death. Near the beginning of the game, she happens upon a magical book named Plachte with a mysterious past the Sophie must unravel as the game's plot progresses.
From these basic plot elements, Sophie plays much like every other title in the modern Atelier series. You will gather materials from various fields, mix those items together to make new items, weapons, and armor for yourself and repeat until one of the game's many usable party members barges into your front door wanting to partake in conversation or go off on some minor adventure.
While this is all fine and good,as the game's characters, who range from a knight of the church to a spear wielding fashion designer, are likable by the ten or so hour mark of playing Atelier Sophie the feeling begins to set in that rather than being able to do as you wish and move through the game's glacially paced plot, you instead must waste hours doing mundane chores. While these chores can range from picking up items in the field and simply running around town and taking part in inane events, such as playing hide or seek with local kids or fetching milk for a local shopkeep, these events serve to do little besides stretch a fifteen to twenty hour game into a thirty to forty hour one by tedium alone.
This is mostly accomplished by a sort of gating system in which the plot is advanced by helping Plachte regain her memories by doing certain tasks. These jobs can range from killing monsters to completing quests, to giving gifts to your fellow party members, but not matter what activity you must take part in must be done over and over until you will curse the name of that magical book for all eternity. Parts of Atelier Sophie feels like they were inspired by mobile game mechanics, and lean towards the silly daily missions or challenges rather than developing actual game mechanic. This makes one wonder what the developers were thinking, especially when earlier Atelier titles, such as Atelier Totori and Atelier Ayshea, were gated by events and character relationships, rather than mostly stifling mechanical details and quests.
This isn't to say that Atelier Sophie is all bad, far from it. The game's art is gorgeous as ever, with detailed character models that are expressive and memorable, though paired with PS3 era backgrounds and environments as they are. While the music is nothing to write home about and consists of some generic town music, pastoral themes, and upbeat battle music that you'd expect from a game like this. Though with an inclination against these melodies have some respite however in that each piece of music can be swapped with another from a past Atelier series in Sophie's bedroom, and more music seems to be on its way when DLC for the game hits the PSN any day now. So yes, the characters, music, and art mix to create a memorable world in which Sophie lives, but this same world is also an empty one as the town around you is often devoid of life and populated mostly by NPCs that babble on about non-important matters all day every day. This contributes to a feeling of living a small and closed world where nothing happens except around Sophie and her companions, which can be stifling and make for bad writing now and again.
Speaking of more of the same, Sophie's battle system is lifted directly from previous PS3 and PS4 titles and makes minor alterations, including a new four-person party, and an option to take an offensive or defensive stance during each turn. These battles are fun, but too few apart, as they are often used more as an obstacle to your gathering materials for alchemy instead of being treated as part of the game proper. This is a shame, because the few battles that do matter, including bosses later in the game, and quest targets earlier on, are strategic, interesting, and keeps the player on their toes right until the victory screen is reached. Older games in the series, including Mana Khemia and the like, allowed their battle system to flourish, while here, which well executed, is put aside in favor of talking and making items.
Sophie is a fun game that is ultimately marred by a tedious advancement system, vague mission objectives, and the choice to downplay its battle system in favor of character interactions and dialogue. If it were to balance these elements better, Sophie would easily have been a much better game worthy, but as things stand we can only hope that the next game in the trilogy will bring more balance to Gust's trademark series.