The newest title in the Atelier franchise and the next game in the Mysterious series is coming to PS4, Switch, and PC (Steam) in the form of Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream. This preview is based on my time playing a pre-release build of the PC version.
This 25th-anniversary installment takes place between Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book (the previous title in the series) and 2016’s Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey. Even if you haven't played the previous game, you should be able to get an understanding of it thanks to a synopsis available to you before you begin. Of course, those who have played it will get another chance to enjoy the relationship and secrets shared between the protagonist Sophie and the doll Plachta.
An adventure in another world with new friends
I was excited to find out what kind of adventure Sophie and Plachta would be going on this time around, only to find that Sophie's doll friend vanishes at the beginning of the game. Fortunately, when Sophie wanders into a new world, the people she meets in the village are all kind to her. Her first goal becomes finding her partner, teacher, and truly beloved family member Plachta with the help of her new friends. One new character after the next then begins to appear, such as an alchemist also named Plachta, or Ramizel, a woman who shares the name of Sophie's grandmother, giving the game a lively feel from the very start.
The story takes place in the dream land of Erde Wiege. This mysterious new world created by the goddess Elvira contains the town Roytale, a place inhabited by people who have gathered from throughout time, both past and future. This makes it very natural to come up with ideas about the identity of characters like Plachta, the alchemist who seems familiar in some ways despite looking different from the doll Plachta, or Ramizel, given her own shared name. It's exciting to imagine these theories being true and speculating about how all these characters would interact on a daily basis if they all lived alongside one another. The characters in the game are conscious of this as well, with the story progressing as the characters interact in never-too-clear and coy ways.
A new world depicted in a warm, hand-drawn style
The main town of Roytale contains a variety of buildings. While no metropolis, it's certainly a large town. Its towering water clock is a unique piece of design that reminds you that you're in an otherworldly land. Though by no means extravagant, the carefully crafted, hand-drawn style graphics do bring even more warmth to the game's fantasy setting.
Facilities available in town include Pirka's Emporium, where you can buy and duplicate items, stalls run by friends that sell unusual items, as well as other stores with items Sophie and her party will find useful on their adventures. Crystal Sparkle Pavilion is also present, a food hall where you can take on requests from residents. These quests are an important source of funds, so you'll have a much easier time getting through the early part of the game if you make a habit of always working through them as you progress through the story. Some requests are accompanied by simple stories, but many are there for you to primarily earn money or high-quality materials. It's easy to remember to take care of them as you work your way through the story, as request targets are marked on your map and lists.
Speaking of convenience, even though Roytale is a big town with a lot of area to cover, most of the facilities you'll use are concentrated in one spot. It's built in a way that emphasizes efficiency over exploration. Events also occur along main streets, giving the impression that the creators have made efforts to cut pointless work whenever possible, including within the game's systems.
Upon first glance, the game's dream world doesn't look too different from the regular one, including the town of Roytale. Once you begin doing things like controlling the weather using alchemical tools or teleporting to locations using cracks in space, though, the world starts to feel more mysterious.
Dramatically change the environment through fieldwork
Weather in the game can be dramatically changed using special Dreamscape Stones created with alchemy. For example, changing the weather from clear to rainy will not only cause rivers and lakes to appear, lakes that already existed will also rise much higher. These kinds of changes are not only spectacular to see, they also work as mechanics required to proceed. For example, you might need to first raise the water level of a lake before freezing it with snow to make it traversable by foot. I was excited to see what kind of changes would occur every time I got to control the weather on a new map for the first time.
Changes in the weather also affect what kinds of monsters appear and what materials you can collect. Monsters also provide a variety of materials, meaning that weather manipulation should have a major influence on material collection. You check the kinds of monsters and materials that will appear on each stage from the world map too, so take a look at it if you find yourself requiring materials to progress through the story. If you've gathered the material before, locations where it can be found will be marked. Of course, this also means that your destination won't be highlighted if you haven't gathered the material before, which did result in a little bit of time wandering around looking for them when playing the story. That said, I only needed to find locations on the world map with incomplete collection information and explore likely spots to come up with what I needed.
A new mechanic has also been added to material hunting, something called "Major Gathering". These brightly shining gathering locations will trigger minigames such as a roulette, and doing a good job with them will allow you to apply optional attributes to materials, or to earn money, and so on. You'll want to make smart use of this system in order to synthesize the best items.
An exciting battle system that emphasizes both offense and defense
The Atelier series is known for its battle music with a surprisingly hard edge when compared to the overall atmosphere of the games. The new Twin Action system that allows for combination moves gives a sense of speed to battles that made for a fun and exciting time when spiced up by the nimble sounds of guitars and drums. Battles are triggered through a symbol encounter system. Coming into contact with monsters wandering around a stage will seamlessly lead into a battle, with no need for the screen to fade to black and transition.
Fights take place in the form of command battles where the quickest characters act first. They generally involve using skills such as attacks and buffs, or using some of the various items you can create with alchemy. The strength of the items you create will have a major effect on your power in battle, so much like the preceding games in the series, I spent more time carefully creating items than grinding out levels.
Your party consists of three front-line fighters and three back-line support members. You can use 1 TP, gained through actions like attacking, for a Twin Action where a front-line and back-line character take turns acting, a kind of support move that back-line characters have. Choosing to have both a front-line and back-line character attack will result in the two swapping back and forth and dealing extra damage. TP can also be used for the Support Guard action, where a back-line character will block an attack meant for a front-line character, minimizing the damage you'd receive from an enemy.
You'll have trouble chaining together Twin Actions and Support Guards unless you've saved up a decent amount of TP. Proper defense becomes necessary when fighting tough enemies, so it's important to adapt your tactics to the situation and figure out whether to go on the offensive or to look for an opening while defending. One element that will help you make this decision is the enemy's aura, or barrier. When an enemy is surrounded by an aura, it becomes harder to deal direct damage, forcing you to whittle down its durability with attacks that take advantage of its vulnerabilities. Destroying an enemy's aura will put it in a stunned state for one turn with dramatically lowered defense. Party members are able to take additional actions during this time, making it an opportunity to deal massive damage, such as with Twin Action attacks. Using Twin Actions on enemies with auras will also allow the second attacking character to ignore their aura and deal direct damage, so you may also find yourself in situations where you can power through to defeat an enemy.
For when you really need a big attack, two of your party members can join forces and unleash a Dual Trigger attack. Performing Twin Actions will raise your Dual Gauge, and Dual Triggers become available once it hits 100%. Not only are these powerful, they'll allow you to enjoy a variety of different animations. They were all a joy to watch, whether they involved a fun interaction between the two characters or seeing them perform perfectly synchronized combination maneuvers.
Create powerful items through puzzling panel synthesis
Synthesis (alchemy) in this game takes place in panel form, so while picking out materials can take time, it's easy to create items through this puzzle-like system. Synthesis isn't limited to Sophie either, as Plachta has access to it too. Materials consist of alchemical elements with attributes like fire (red) and wind (green) that take different shapes, much like puzzle pieces. The basics of synthesis involve placing these elements so that they fill a panel without overlapping. The attributes of the placed elements will influence the effectiveness of those attributes held by the item you create, and reaching a high enough effectiveness level will increase the effect of your finished product by a rank.
Catalysts and Reverse Panels will help you achieve these improved synthesis levels. While they're a bit too complicated to explain in detail here, using catalysts will make it easier to increase an effect's level or raise a maximum effect level. Enhancing catalysts makes it simpler to create powerful items by enlarging panels or causing alchemical elements to be easier to place. Reverse Panels start off with a missing section, making synthesis more difficult. In return, though, they uncap the maximum effect level to the point that they can result in effects that could never appear on regular panels. As these raise the difficulty of normal-sized panels too much, I suggest approaching them after enhancing catalysts and increasing a panel's size.
There's a lot to learn in this game, whether that's combat, synthesis, or gathering, and much of it is difficult to master. Still, there is a level of forgiveness in its design so that you won't feel stressed out even if you don't fully apply yourself, to the point that you can feel like you've mastered the game even when you still have room to improve. It may be extreme to say that the game is like a polished version of the titles that have come before it, but it does seem like the highly refined culmination of over 25 years of improvements.
As for the story, it's quite apparent that Sophie, Ramizel, and the two Plachtas are key characters. If you're a fan of the previous game in the series, the dream-like interactions between these four characters who have been miraculously brought together in this alternate world will be enough to hold your attention on its own. In particular, this new Plachta is sure to see Sophie as her aspiration as an alchemist. A highlight of this game will likely be watching her grow as an alchemist as she follows in Sophie's footsteps.
Hiroaki Mabuchi is a freelance writer for IGN Japan. This article was translated by Ko Ransom. .