Atelier Sophie might be the first game in the long-running series to launch on the PS4, but that is the bulk of what it does differently. Look past the new platform and you’ll find an adventure that’s anything but new, especially if you’ve played other titles in the series.
Through and through, Atelier Sophie is a classic JRPG featuring a distinct visual style and a bright, colorful cast and setting. Titular heroine Sophie is nothing more than a fledgeling alchemist when she discovers a talking, flying book. In an attempt to become a commendable alchemist and solve the mysteries surrounding the book, which of course has some sort of amnesia, Sophie sets off to quest, battle and synthesize her way to the truth.
The game follows closely in the steps of its predecessors in nearly all aspects. The charming visual style is back and offers a distinct appeal to the game. Fans of anime and manga art will love the pretty character models, lively style and portraits. The game doesn’t shy away from color, incorporating a variety of environments like lush flower fields and rocky caverns, in addition to several interesting enemy designs and attack animations. The character designs are nothing especially stunning, but are pleasant nonetheless.
Rounding out Sophie’s band of companions are various tropes like the waifu bait Monika Ellmenreich, or the mysterious swordsman with the giant sword Julio, though there are some more unique inclusions.
Gameplay too feels quite familiar. You explore areas and do battle with monsters while collecting materials you can use to make all manner of consumable items as well as accessories and equipment. Battle is still turn-based and very straightforward, but there is a little something new.
Characters can enter into offensive or defensive stances before they act during a turn. The stances will bolster the strength of corresponding actions; so your attacks and attack skills or items will deal more damage while you’re in offensive stance, for example. Choosing the appropriate stances can be critical in some situations. You can also trigger different abilities by having all party members in certain stances. The break system, which fills a meter as your team takes and receives damage, is back. At certain intervals the meter will be cashed in for useful support actions or bigger team attacks.
The game handles party wipes, which may occur due to some strangely powerful enemies peppered throughout the beginning stages, rather gently by sending the party back to town without any items that may have been gathered during the adventure: a pleasant alternative to the game over screen. Items return as the pivotal ingredient in combat, which ties back to Sophie and her alchemy. The synthesis system has received a fresh coat of polish, although it is fundamentally the same as it has been.
Using items gathered in the field or dropped by defeated enemies, Sophie can create everything from attack items to healing ointments and equipment. A new grid system allows you to add bonus effects to the item based on how you arrange circles on a small grid. This at first seems to mainly provide a cosmetic change compared to past entries, but it becomes crucial when the placement can mean a considerable difference in item quality.
There are new kinds of bonuses you can give to items and Inheritance, which lets you pass down properties from materials to the items they’re used in, is back. All told, this part of the game is also something fans are likely already familiar with. The English voice acting didn’t seem bad, but the dual audio out of the box was definitely appreciated.
I feel that Atelier Sophie falls short in a significant way where it concerns progressing the game — a similar complaint I registered with Atelier Ayesha Plus. The game too infrequently makes it plain which actions are required from the player to move the game forward. I appreciate the feeling of freedom this lends to the campaign, and how you don’t feel pressured or pressed to do anything in a hurry while playing. However, it still feels like it lacks direction to me, and almost like progression in the game is still some strange-moving target that you can’t directly influence. You still get random dialogue scenes cropping up between seemingly inconsequential actions like going to the store or crossing certain spots on the world map.
If I’m taking issue with a gameplay component that fans are wanting and expecting, then maybe it’s just me. However, I feel like the game would be much better if you didn’t have to do so much guesswork to figure out how to simply move the game and story forward.
Even so, Atelier Sophie gets right the same things as many of its predecessors. It’s a charming, relaxing adventure with a new cast, strategic depth of combat, lovely visuals and a uniquely bright setting and atmosphere. It does almost nothing new, but it doesn’t have to because the fans don’t want it to. If you’ve played any of the recent series entries, you already know if you want this. If you’re a series fan, you probably already have it.