Femininity isn’t something mainstream games tend to embrace. Masculine, ‘tough girl’ tropes? Sure, Tomb Raider is kind of a thing. Sexualized femininity? Hoo boy, do videogames have that covered. But it’s almost never that we have a game celebrating femininity for its own sake – as a virtue or as a strength. However, one game series that has done a consistently excellent job bucking this trend is Gust’s Atelier games. Atelier Sophie: Alchemist of the Mysterious Book marks the 17th entry in the long running series, and is the series’ first venture on to the Playstation 4 console. But after so many installations in this JRPG franchise, has Atelier Sophie still got the magic touch?
Atelier Sophie puts players in the shoes (and frock) of the young alchemist Sophie, who is continuing to run her grandmothers workshop in the small town of Kirchen Bell. Following her grandmothers passing, Sophie has been feeling lonely and struggling to meet the needs of the town with her amateur alchemy skills. But despite her struggles and clumsiness, Sophie is a determined alchemist who aspires to greatness for the sake of her community. Just as she’s beginning to lose faith, she writes an alchemy recipe in one of her grandmothers old books and is surprised when the book begins talking to her.
It seems as though the book contains the soul of a formerly highly-skilled alchemist called Plachta. Unfortunately, Plachta’s memories have been eroded over time, but as Sophie writes more recipes in her pages she begins to remember more about her past. One of the first things Plachta remembers is the existence of the powerful alchemy instrument ‘the Cauldron of Knowledge’, which grants users ultimate access to the mysteries of alchemy – regardless of skill. With the prospect of exceptional alchemy skills, Sophie promises to help restore Plachta’s memory.
From here, players begin to venture out into the world beyond Kirchen Bell to gather alchemy ingredients and clear out the monsters that have settled into the land. Along the way, Sophie crosses paths with adventurers, knights, nuns, and other local artisans and becomes heavily involved in the pursuits and problems they’re involved with – many of which will join Sophie and Plachta on their journey.
The character roster is a big part of what makes Atelier Sophie such a delightful and engaging game. Whereas other JRPGs often focus on expansive worlds and pushing forward to other exotic locations, Atelier Sophie established Kirchen Bell as a community and a home where Sophie regularly returns to shop, socialize, accept quests, and – most of all – put her alchemy skills to the test. Because of this, players will quickly become intimately familiar with the local happenings of this lively and growing town. Many of these characters I became quite fond of, like Oskar the overweight grocer’s son who claims he can converse with plants. Then there’s Leon, the travelling garment-maker who knows how to match an outfit with a personality. The game features a wide array of female characters, each with their own passions and skills. Something I appreciate is that not only are they all quite feminine characters, but they are also presented with depth and competence. They’re femininity is never a weakness, never something to overcome, and never shamed or made the butt of jokes.
Speaking of garments, the costume design in this game is gorgeous. Life in Kirchen Bell is lived in wonderful frocks, corsets, Lolita ball gowns, armor, and capes – all in beautiful, vibrant colours. It’s a world filled with cheer and sunny optimism, and this is reflected just as much in the way characters dress as the way they behave.
Gameplay-wise the game is split primarily between exploring and gathering resources for alchemy and engaging monsters in combat. The combat is a fairly straightforward turn-based system, with special attacks that trigger as battles run longer. It’s a good system that prevents any single battle from dragging on through a stalemate.
Once resources are gathered they can be taken back to Sophie’s workshop where they can be used to prepare alchemy products. As you meet certain conditions in the game you unlock new recipes, which can be used to create medicines, bombs, equippable accessories and other materials for weapon/armour upgrades. As you get more competent you can create items at a higher quality and you can carry over unique traits for items – meaning that no two items are ever exactly the same.
Atelier Sophie may not be a landmark title. None of the major gaming publications will be naming it game of the year. It doesn’t challenge the form or push any boundaries. But rather what it does is indulge in some of the most comforting and charming elements that can be offered in any contemporary game. It is big slice of cake that looks as pretty as it tastes delicious. It may take a few hours to settle in and a few more to get hooked, but once you’re in you will find yourself enchanted by the characters and drawn into the simple, yet deep alchemy systems. Atelier Sophie manages to keep the formula of the series fresh without compromising what makes the games fun. These are games that have always been utter joys to play and still stand as some of the finest, yet most underrated, JRPGs of all time. There are many hours of joy to be had creating items in this world. But at the end of the day, the real alchemy is the friends you make along the way.