Alchemy is the art of taking materials and synthesizing them into something else. This is the story of Sophie, a fledgling alchemist who is continuing in her late grandmother’s footsteps providing alchemical services to the city of Kirchen Bell. Beginning the tale, Sophie is fairly unskilled in her art, but inspired by her admiration of her gran is determined to improve herself so that she may be helpful to the people of the city. The game begins with Sophie discovering a mysterious book (fancy that) in her atelier. Shockingly the book is able to talk, but is also suffering from a horrible case of book-amnesia. Sophie discovers that when she writes alchemy recipes into the book, it begins to recover some of it’s lost memories. We discover that the book’s name is Plachta, and Sophie decides to push forward and expand her alchemy skills so she can help Plachta regain her memories.Exploring the city as well, we encounter some important characters who can help Sophie gather materials for her alchemy or help provide services back in town. There’s plant obsessed Oskar, son of the city’s vegetable seller, the high-class and well studied fencer Monika, along with a bunch of others Sophie meets in her travels. Helping out her fellow townsfolk by using her alchemy skills is an important goal for Sophie, and motivates her as much as her desire to help Plachta regain her memories. Sophie’s story is not of massive scale magical world ending events and life-or-death twists. In contrast to most Japanese RPGs, Sophie’s story sticks close to home. It’s about getting to know the people around you, and helping them out for nothing but the sake of being helpful.Much like with the story, Sophie eschews grand scale in favour of intricate detail on characters and their individual plights. Each new character that is introduced is beautifully presented. Their clothing, their manner, and their overall designs all combine to define characters and give them their own personality and depth. Most major cutscenes (and even some seemingly minor ones too) are fully voiced which helps further define people as characters more-so than just text on a screen.Areas outside of the city are more basic in their presentation, generally consisting of some randomly distributed gathering points and monsters, but you will find more deliberately constructed areas where their layout is integral to the plot. Even the more basic areas are still pleasant to look at though. Exploring a forest or a quiet beach can be quite relaxing purely thanks to the peaceful visual and aural ambience. It makes for a wonderfully refreshing presentation in contrast to the all-action high-stakes norm in the genre.Atelier Sophie is a relaxing game to play. You are generally pretty free to go about your business in whichever way you want to. You can choose to go out and gather materials for your alchemy, or wander around the city talking to friends and townsfolk. When exploring out of town, you select a location on a world map which takes you to a small, self-contained area with monsters to avoid or fight while you collect materials. Battles are fairly straight-forward turn-based affairs. Basic attacks and special character specific skills can do damage to opponents and help turn the direction of battle in your favour with status effects. Characters can take an offensive or defensive stance and in longer fights when a chain link meter fills up, allowing characters will to do extra attacks or perform guards after they have acted in their turn. In longer fights you can activate Special Guards or Attacks which involve multiple members of the party acting with great strength and this can be ridiculously helpful to defend against heavy attacks or take down strong creatures. Monsters appear on the map and only engage when they catch you. They can usually be avoided if you’re keeping your wits about you. You will of course need to fight occasionally for the sake of developing your party’s skills and abilities but if you just want to go and find a specific kind of leaf and have no desire for fighting that day, that is entirely possible.
Walking around and talking to people in the city will pull you into their personal stories, and give Sophie ways to use her alchemy to help them. You can take requests from the owner of the Café which could involve gathering materials, slaying specific monsters or synthesising specific items. Characters will ask Sophie to synthesise items for them as well which can progress their individual plotlines and often unlock services that these people can provide in return for Sophie’s help.Alchemy is the core of Atelier Sophie. At your atelier, you can combine different categories of materials in your alchemy cauldron, according to fairly lenient recipes. You only need to use a specific category of item in most cases, rather than needing a strict list of ingredients. The game introduces alchemy and it’s complexity very gradually, beginning with the basic combination of ingredients. You later discover that you can imbue the final product with traits derived from its ingredients. Things like stat boosts, higher selling prices and passive skills can be instilled in items which allow dedicated alchemists to fully personalise their equipment to how they want each party member to act in battle. Understanding alchemy is important to success in battle, as well as in progressing the plotlines of each character and the overall story.
The progress of gameplay and story can feel a little directionless at times if you’re used to games pushing you to meet specific quests to push forward a narrative. Atelier Sophie doesn’t tell you what to do, but instead encourages you to just go about collecting, synthesising and talking to people, allowing the story to just happen as you go about your business. You get some general advice on how to trigger the next story event, but often it is vague enough to be of little use. I found this jarring at first, but once settled in to the idea of just going about things at my own pace I realised that events just progressed along. It’s nice not feeling under pressure, letting you discover and progress without the stress of objective arrows and progress bars.