Let’s Talk – Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist And The Mysterious Book – A Novel Experience

So as my adventures through the Atelier series continue, and while I wait for the many games that are coming out this September that I’m going to play (Help me), I turn my thoughts towards the game before Firis’ mysterious adventures in the great unknowns, and that is the story of how Sophie Neuenmuller got to be the alchemist that she is.

Though if you’re not familiar with her from either game, I should probably discuss Sophie first…Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170730115318

She is a lovable and adorable goof that makes me smile in almost every scene she’s in. Considering that she’s the protagonist of our little show, and thus is in every scene, that’s quite a lot of time spent enoying the various antics and dialogue. She’s also voiced by Christine Marie Cabanos, who does the English voice work for Nepgear from the Neptunia games, another series that I love to pieces. The performance doesn’t tonally change between the two characters, but it also fits both of them quite well considering their… quirks.

Positive attitude and bravado only get a girl so far though. When the game starts off, she’s barely able to make simple medicines to help her friends out. It is only by complete happenstance that she wrote down the recipe into a blank reference index, animating it into the titular “Mysterious Book”. After the initial shock of holding a conversation with a book, it introduces itself as Plachta, and agrees to instruct Sophie on how to become a better alchemist, provided that Sophie fills out the index to help restore Plachta’s memories.

Before I get into that though, I just want to talk about Kirchen Bell for a little bit. Most Atelier games typically give you one town that works as a sort of base of operations. Sophie’s hometown of Kirchen Bell fills that role for this game… and it’s such a quaint little city in the middle of nowhere (far as I can tell). There’s a lot of little dialogue events that come up throughout the game as you talk to everyone in town. Not just your party members, but even the shopkeepers, the barkeep, and the resident church nun all have a bunch of little things that come up that make me want to know “What happens next?” And I think that’s the real driving force behind why I play this particular game. Not so much for the lost alchemical secrets or fighting dangerous enemies. I just want to know these townspeople better. And for a series that typically has about as much focus on inter-character relationships as a Persona game, this is a pretty big deal. Incindental flirting notwithstanding.Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170730121858

Alchemy in this game is like others in the series: Take a bunch of things, mix them around a bit, and out comes something different. If you think that’s a oversimplification of the process, you’re right.

This game sets the groundwork for the Mysterious series’ alchemy, which makes it more of a puzzle than anything. Your selected materials take up spaces in the grid, which you aline (or overwrite) them to try to get the best effect results. Sophie has two advantages over Firis in this respect though.

One: As you place materials, surrounding panels light up. These will add bonus points to the effect of the material placed in them. Panels can light up a maximum of three times for the greatest power, and figuring out how to best place your materials to get the most of these bonuses adds a level of challenge that isn’t really in Firis’ system.

Two: Sophie will find various cauldrons aside from the one she starts with throughout the game. These cauldrons have various effects on the synthesis process, such as changing the colors of bonus panels to giving you a time limit while increasing your quality gains. You can even re-synthesize these cauldrons to increase your maximum grid space, increasing the starting number of bonus panels, or add in flip and rotate effects. Messing around with the various cauldrons to find what works best for you adds just a little more to the alchemy in this game.

In short, I have a bit more fun with this game’s system over Firis’. Even if the latter is a little more streamlined and easier to work with.Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170822111326

(My personal favorite is the Tuning Cauldron.)

One thing I can definitely say that drags down the whole experience a bit is the Recipe Book. Not that I have a problem with the concept, in that respect, it’s very Atelier-ish. However, only certain recipes are given hints at a time, and once you figure those out, surrounding recipes get hints. It starts off easy to figure out at first, but as you get into the higher tiers, you’ll have to take random guesses at figuring out a location that you’re supposed to observe, or find a particular enemy to use a particular skill and witness. One of these is basically going until your LP hits 0, but by the time you unlock that tier, running out of LP is something you have to force. Some recipes are locked behind events as well, and while those are harder to miss, it can still leave spaces in the book for a little bit. There’s no way to force inspiration on any of these either, so for the most part, you’re hoping that you strike proverbial gold on some of the harder ones.

“Alchemy” and “Danger” are pretty synonymous in this series. Gathering materials out in the fields you go to raises a meter on your minimap that goes up to five lights. The more lights that are lit up, the better quality of materials you can find, but the monsters also become stronger and harder to deal with. That’s where the battle system comes into play… and it’s a little weird to deal with at first.

Unlike 90% of other RPGs where you decide actions on a character-by-character basis, you’re deciding actions on a turn-by-turn basis, where you place your commands all at once, and the battle flow dictates when they’ll go off. It gave me Eternal Punishment vibes at first.

Everyone has an Attack, Defend, Skill, Item and Run command. Everyone in this game can equip up to five alchemy items, everyone except Sophie has a limit on what items they can equip, in terms of type and cost (An item’s cost is equal to it’s Alchemy level). Not necessarily my favorite means of handling the alchemy items, but it’s better than, say, only the alchemist can ever use these items and therefore makes them the most important person in the party ever.Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170816233556

On top of the basic stuff, there’s also two stances you can select for your party members, Offensive and Defensive. These tie into the Support system, which lets the characters follow-up on attacks or cover others for reduced damage. Taking actions builds up the Chain Link gauge, which determines when and how you can Support, and as you go through the game, Supports get expanded onto enable Chain Supports and even unleashing ultimate skills as you take actions in a particular stance for multiple characters in a row. Once you get that far, it’s a really powerful system on par with the actual alchemy items you can toss out, which is pretty crazy to me, but hey, it’s nice to have options.

Another oddity about this game is it has one of the lowest level caps I’ve seen since the NES/SNES days; 20. You cap out at 20.

That sounds low, but the game gives you some advantages to work with this.

First off being the Advancement system, returning from Shallie, that comes into play once you hit 20. Afterward, battles reward you Advancement Experience which will give you a point everytime you reach a threshold. Said points can be redeemed for stat upgrades, all new passives, and even skill improvements that add new effects. These can really help out in toughening up your characters at a base level for handling some of the bigger threats you can encounter throughout the game.Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170816220705

The second and arguably most important is Forging and especially Enhancing equipment. As you talk with the local blacksmith and tailor, they will eventually offer to both create new weapons and armor for you, and enhance existing ones on you. Forging is a pretty simple process: You bring materials, they’ll make things for you. Better stuff becomes available as you discover better materials for Forging. Forging also serves as a way to decide what traits a weapon or armor has. So if you ever wanted to half your skills’ MP costs while also increasing their power by 50% at the same time, you can do that.

What’s really going to make or break your battle experience is proper Enhancement of your already made weapons and armor. Enhancement lets you take a material (metal ingots for weapons, rolls of cloth for armor) and use it to reinforce equipment. What you get out of it is dependent on what traits are on the material. And there’s nothing quite like using a Parameter +13% and/or higher traits to just power boost all of your stats. Enhancement does suffer diminishing returns, especially if you try to use low grade stuff on already enhanced equipment, and it gets really expensive at later levels, but it will make you so much more powerful than you could ever hope for by just leveling up.Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170816221214

Now for the music, which by this point in time, as I’m going back and playing more of the Atelier series to date, is starting to become one of the things I look forward to the most in experiencing them. For this game, Spring Breeze Polska is probably my favorite workshop theme in the series next to Dream Weaving House (from Ayesha). It’s an incredibly bright and cheery theme that I really appreciate listening to as I attempt to figure out how exactly I went wrong in maxing out an item’s effects for the tenth time in a row. This also extends to Scenery Of The Town, which is what plays as you walk around Kirchen Bell, and the basic battle theme, Spring Wind Skylark.

The other 70% of the music is from the gathering fields, and honestly, you’re probably not really taking it as much as the town and workshop themes since you’re a little busy picking stuff off the ground and fighting off those dreaded Puni. But I recommend giving Whispers Of Trees, Sinking Into Blue, Glistening Lake and Pure Wind a couple listens. These are all calming tracks that can actually help you unwind a bit if you’ve had a stressful day.

At the end of day though, I ultimately have to compare the current two Mysterious games together, and I’d have to say that Sophie is an easier game to get into than Firis’ more open structure. A lot of things are more straight-forward to grasp, it’s a more confined game in how it works (that sounds like a downside, but it actually isn’t in this case), a really likable protagonist and cast of party members and side characters, with only a couple negatives I could really mention off the top of my head. The production value might look a little low in a few places, but this definitely made something great out of what it had, and I’d gladly chalk up as one my favorite Atelier games, possibly even PS4 games in general. If you haven’t checked this out yet, you’re really missing out. Luckily, there is a convenient digital version on Steam if you don’t have a PS4 to play it – Mysterious Deals

As a closing note, I’m looking forward to how Atelier Lidy And Soeur (The Alchemists Of The Mysterious Painting as I’ve taken to calling it.) will turn out. It’s definitely going on my list of games to buy when it comes out.

With that said, I’ll see you in the next post. In the meantime, though…Atelier Sophie ~The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book~_20170817003409

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A Look At Master of None and the Season Finale

Warning: Spoilers abound. Read at own discretion.

A few months ago, near the start of the year, I binged both seasons of Master of None, up until a certain point. The penultimate episode left me broken and terrified of what the final episode would look like. I laid down on my bed and had a soft cry, then did nothing for hours until I had to go to work, which I only did begrudgingly. After that, I didn’t glance at the show for months.

That episode resonated with me, and continues to do so, thanks to the similarities between my life and Dev’s. Specifically, the unrequited romance with a friend that you aren’t sure how to approach, but spending time with them still just makes you happy, even as it hurts to leave their company. I’ve found myself in a similar situation for the entirety of this year, and so seeing that reenacted so realistically and beautifully on my screen strikes a chord that stings my soul. And so, I removed myself for fear of the final episode just completely trashing me.

Yesterday, I renewed my Netflix subscription after not having it for months, and the first thing I did was finish Master of None. It did trash me, as I expected, but not in the way I expected. Honestly, the finale left me confused as to what emotions I should be holding. Joy? Sadness? Hope? I’m not sure. And a lot of this confusion comes down to the very last scenes of the episode.

Most of the finale plays out exactly how I predicted. In the wake of Dev admitting his feelings to Francesca (who has a fiancee, creating the conflict) in the previous episode, she understandably tells him it can’t work between them. At the same time, however, she toys with the idea, sharing a romantic evening and even a passionate kiss with Dev, before turning him down. Dev feels used, she’s offended by him accusing her of using him, and they leave on bad terms, with Dev trying to figure out how to cope with the fallout.

And then the final scenes. Dev is alone in his apartment, moping over the “loss” of Francesca. Francesca is preparing to go back to Italy, but once she’s finished, watches a video on her phone she and Dev had taken a few days prior, wherein they tell their future selves that they hope they’re happy, wherever they are. Her fiancee walks into the room right after it ends and asks her if she’s packed and ready to go. Francesca replies, “I hope so.” Cut to the next morning with Francesca and Dev in bed together, starting to wake up, and the episode ends.

This is what I’m not sure about. Being in a similar situation, this fills me with hope, reassuring me that maybe, someday, I can be with the woman I love. But beyond that, removing my personal experiences from the equation, the ending seems very fantasist. It feels like a happy ending inserted because they couldn’t end the season on the downer note of Dev’s personal and professional lives in the gutter, rather than one he earned. Because in real life, people don’t leave their fiancees and move to a city across the world for someone they haven’t even started a romantic relationship with yet. That’s just not realistic, and conflicts with the tone of the show.

And then my mind drew a comparison to The Graduate. At the end of The Graduate, Ben crashes Elaine’s wedding, and she elopes with him, after already having said her vows. They catch a bus and sit at the very back, where they look joyful and happy. But the camera lingers. As you see them sitting there, their joyful expressions turn to ones of doubt and concern, a feeling made even more palpable by the lack of dialogue, as they cannot even express these feelings with each other. They made a decision based on their feelings, and are now realizing that the consequences of that decision will be long-lasting and perhaps very negative.

The ending to Master of None’s 2nd season is very similar to this, except it leaves out the last part. It doesn’t show us how Dev and Francesca are feeling. Neither of them are awake in the final scene, allowing us no insight into their minds. The show explains the decision, but not the thoughts afterwards. It leaves me wanting. It leaves me confused.

Horizon and a Short Look at DLC

With the last console generation, there were certain practices in the game industry that were introduced which never could have been conceived in a prior generation. The most prevalent of these, however, was the introduction of DLC as a way of expanding the game experience.

When it was first introduced, DLC was mostly a way to add a little more story content to a game or add in a larger variety of locales in multiplayer games, but it would eventually spiral into the mess we have today, where you have to buy costumes in a Tales game or- and this is a real thing- see through girl’s clothing in Gal Gun. Eventually, this would escalate into microtransactions, a concept from Free-To-Play games that has been blighting the AAA industry for about two years now, always in disgusting, slimy fashion.

However, there is yet hope! Certain games have taken DLC in an entirely different direction. Rather than forcing you to purchase things which should have been in the game from the beginning, or pervy gross wank-mechanics, Games like The Witcher 3 have, in the past, shown that DLC could be utilized more in the fashion of an MMO’s expansion pack, wherein you add in entirely new storylines that build on an existing, complete experience. And the latest to do so is Guerrilla Games’ Horizon: Zero Dawn.

When Horizon came out earlier this year, I was enthralled with it. The combat is tense, often chaotic fun, the story was gripping and well-told, with numerous interesting characters to meet and intriguing cultures to interact with, and the world was visually stunning. Unlike most other open-world games, Horizon didn’t feel the need to fill the world with pointless collectables, instead creating a limited number that they used to create unique gaming experiences, build further on their world, and even gave them a practical use if you know where to look. It wasn’t excessively long, clocking in at 55 hours for my first completion, and after I was done, I still wanted to keep playing.

Well, come November 7th, I might have reason to. Horizon: Zero Dawn will be getting an expansion, and this makes me so excited, not just for Horizon, but for games as a whole. The expansion is meant to include an entire new area, a host of new enemies to fight, a whole culture we have yet to interact with for any significant amount of time (the Banuk, which had one small settlement you could visit in the base game, but nothing beyond that), as well as continuing the story that ended so phenomenally, but still left room for more. Guerrila Games basically took what could have been the premise for a whole sequel, and are adding it to the existing game for a third of the price.

This excites me. This is what I have wanted DLC to be for so long, the only way I could ever truly be made to embrace the concept, even. One of the most scummy businessmen in the industry, EA’s John Riccitiello, once said this: “A few years ago, the game you bought is the game you got.” He portrayed this in a negative light, but for many, myself included, we look back on the pre-PS3 era as a time when we bought a game and played the game without the game ever trying to sell us costumes or gun packs or (god-forbid) ammo packs. We bought a game and it was complete.

I bought Horizon: Zero Dawn and it was complete. I do not have to wait 3 years and pay $60 for a sequel to this game. This is the marrying of two things which should have gotten together ages ago, but the sheer bliss I feel in seeing them now is still incomparable. This is how DLC should be done. This is how it needs to be going forward. Games industry, look to Horizon‘s example and learn from it.

Tales of Berseria: The Greatest Tales Ever Told

When Tales of Zestiria came out, I absolutely fell in love with the story and characters, even if the gameplay itself was obtuse, unnecessarily difficult, and downright frustrating. Regardless, I immediately claimed it as my favorite Tales game, even if so many others are technically superior in all aspects. Zestiria garnered a special place in my heart that cannot be taken by any other. One came close, however: it’s immediate successor, Tales of Berseria.

Being a prequel to Zestiria, the games are similar in many ways, some good and others… not so much. As a result, this review will actually feature both in about equal measure. But while on the surface level, Berseria might share many similarities with Zestiria, once you graze beneath the surface, you start to see just how much improved in Berseria.

For one, the story is immensely better. Zestiria was a classic Good Vs. Evil story, “Like a bad play where the heroes are right, and nobody thinks or expects too much.” Blues Traveler’s words are very fitting for Zestiria, and it is a damning statement. Even if I personally found the world and story of Zestiria gripping, it’s easy to spot the numerous cliches. Sorey and friends are set on a journey to “save the world” from the ruin you don’t often actually see outside of cutscenes. The beautiful world sat in stark contrast to the terrified way people spoke of it. Not so in Berseria, where many areas of the world are clearly in states of decay. The world of Berseria is teetering on a ledge between doom and salvation, and even salvation would be doom. Where in Zestiria, the villain was a stock standard Stoic Evil Behemoth of a Man who had barely any presence in the story itself and a backstory that the game literally told you in a thirty second cutscene with no dialogue (it’s built on for about 5 minutes at the VERY end of the game), in Berseria, the bad guy is a Villain With Good Publicity such as Tales is known for, who genuinely wants the best for the world but was broken by his own experiences into utilizing methods that would make his goal ultimately meaningless. He is constantly in the background of the story, even if not directly involved in whatever current situation the party is dealing with.

One of Berseria’s big selling points was the first female protagonist in franchise history (not including Milla Maxwell of Xilia, who shared the position with Jude Mathis). Velvet Crowe is arguably one of the strongest characters in the Tales series, with writing that develops her well over the course of the story and a performance by Cristina Valenzuela that sells every moment. The prologue begins with her as a happy, cheerful girl who’s friends with the whole village and cares for her family deeply. After three hours, she is a broken, vengeance-fueled demon (quite literally) with the blood of the entire village wet on her hands. She is beholden to no such lofty goals like “saving the world” or “helping my friends” when she begins her journey. She wants only to kill the man who destroyed her world. At one point, one character refers to the party as a “troupe of villains,” and this indeed holds true to the very end of the game, as even though they ultimately “saved the world,” Velvet’s legacy is as the first “Lord of Calamity,” a term players of Zestiria will recognize immediately.

All the characters in the game are actually very well-written, especially on the party’s side. Rokurou Rangetsu is a demon who joins the party early on, claiming a debt to Velvet that beholdens him to her cause. He lives for the thirst for battle and aims to kill his brother for reasons he’s not immediately willing to share. Eizen (a returning character from Zestiria) is a pirate who joins the party searching for the captain of his crew. He is cold and ruthless (or so he likes to think). Laphicet is a malakim with, initially, no personality of his own, who joins the party due to an attachment he feels for Velvet. He’s also a Zestiria returner, though you might be surprised by who he is. Magilou is a witch who doesn’t care about the party at all and only travels with them because she finds it fun. She is an entirely mysterious character you learn little about, but is an absolute delight to have on your screen. Finally, Eleanor is a praetor for the villainous Abbey, who finds herself attached to the party after they’re forced to work together to survive. Aside from Velvet, Eleanor is probably the character who grows the most over the course of the story, and I found myself just as invested in her arc as I was in Velvet’s.

The most palpable improvements to Berseria were made to the combat system, however. Gone is Zestiria’s awkward Fire Emblem-esque weapon triangle, replaced instead by… nothing. Because it was unnecessary. The equipment system is far less obtuse, as well. Instead of a confusing mess where you had to combine items with abilities in specific slots in order to transfer them or mix two abilities to create an entirely new one (seriously, 60% of my frustration in Zestiria came from that), it has a more Graces-esque style of just using items to level the gear and unlock set abilities on the gear. It’s far more stream-lined and easy to grasp and I love it.

When it came to level and monster design, however, I have to call Berseria out for it’s laziness. Several locales are just retooled Zestiria locations (one particular early meadowy area I immediately recognized as a swamp from Zestiria, for example), and many trees, buildings, and such look exactly the same. Monsters were even worse about it, with probably about 50% of the bestiary being ripped from the game’s predecessor. And yes, the dreaded Marmot made a return (incidentally, being the spark that made me realize what was happening). Although, given that the game had a production cycle of about a year, I am willing to forgive this, while still acknowledging it happened.

However, character design is extraordinarily hit and miss, as well. Characters like Eizen and Laphicet have very memorable and sensible designs that clearly define who they are, others like Velvet and Magilou are far from sensible. Magilous’ “book skirt,” in p[articular, has become an endless fount of comedy for detractors of the characters, and I have to say… the book skirt is awful. I bought some of the DLC costumes just to get rid of it. Meanwhile, Rokurou wins the award for Least Visually Interesting Design In A Tales Game Since Genis From Symphonia. He’s a samurai. He wears purple samurai clothes. How cool.

Speaking of the DLC, however, this has become a major point of contention for me when playing recent Tales games. Zestiria made a handful of costumes DLC, which worried me then, but Berseria has taken the idea and ran with it. Gone are the days of cool sidequests where you might be rewarded with a nifty bartender outfit for Guy or even an epic black and red palette swap for Sorey. If you don’t unlock a costume via the story in Berseria, it’s DLC. Period. And there is SO MUCH DLC. They clearly had a lot of interesting ideas for cool outfits for all the different characters, but having to pay for them just feels gross. It’s a business practice in games that I’m becoming more and more disgusted with, where you take things that would have otherwise been in the base game, and force people to pay for it.

Ultimately, Berseria is a great game and you can’t go wrong picking this one up. It’s easily a contender for the best game in the series, and I personally would place it at the top. However, I cannot move past the hostage-taking of costumes, and I would like if, for the next entry, they made entirely new assets. Zestiria and Berseria taking place in the same world a mere few hundred years apart allows it some leeway, but going forward I would like to see both of these practices disappear.

Developer: Bandai Namco

Console: Playstation 4

Genre: Japanese RPG

Final Score: 8