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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Final Fantasy XV: Not-So-Final, and May Many More Be Made

I spend a lot of time thinking about Final Fantasy XV. Even when I’m not playing it, even as I’m playing other games, I find my thoughts turning towards the experiences I had with this game, and comparing and contrasting. It is by no means a perfect game, but it is a great, and interesting, one.

Final Fantasy has been a part of my life for as long as I’ve been playing games. One of the reasons I wanted a Playstation 2 as a child was because of the fun I had playing X with my friend in middle school, and even before that, my favorite GameBoy Color game had the Final Fantasy name attached (despite the fact it was actually an entirely different series). I’ve gone far out of my way to experience as many games in the franchise as I could since then, and as great as many of them are, XV simply blows them out of the water. And in order to fully understand why, I feel like you have to understand the series as a whole.

To begin with, XV is a much different experience than any previous entry in the series. Whereas the early entries were “open-world” in the sense that you could, theoretically, head in any direction you wanted, what that really translated to was being murdered by a pack of level 60 wolves as soon as you accidentally crossed an invisible level-barrier. Later entries gradually moved in a linear direction, culminating in X which was essentially a series of twisting hallways. XII tried to return to the “open-world” feeling of old, although it essentially just expanded the hallways into rooms and put nothing but monsters in them. This is the first game to attempt openness and truly achieve it, creating a vibrant world with beautiful landmarks, memorable and impossible to get lost in. It’s filled with dungeons to explore, mountains to climb, dangerous creatures to fight, and sweet, succulent fish to catch.

I can genuinely immerse myself in the world of Eos, and feel the plight of both my party and the general citizenry as they constantly face the threat of the Empire (because there’s always an Empire) and daemons. I struggle as they struggle, though occasionally that’s more with the mechanics of the game than anything else.

There is a single, pervasive flaw in the game’s mechanics, and that is Square’s attempts to apply realism to a universe that also includes magically-appearing weapons and colossi the size of a continent. Noctis can only sprint for a short while, after which he gets winded and can only jog for a period of time. There is no actual stamina meter (edit: apparently there is, but it’s off by default), so you won’t know if Noctis is about to stop to breathe until he’s actually doing so. Weapon animations cannot be cancelled in order to dodge or warp out of the way, meaning you have to wait for your giant greatsword to hit the ground before you can run away from the incoming giant spider. Magic, while powerful, will affect the environment and your party members, leading to tough decisions between quickly decimating your enemies with an Electron spell and risking severely injuring Ignis, or trying to survive in a much longer life-or-death struggle. These mechanics can lead to intense and exhilarating battles, but often they come across as cheap ways for the game to score a few hits.

Beyond that, however, the combat is amazing. Noctis’s Warp ability allows for fluid and fast action, quickly closing in on enemy’s to score a couple of blows, and then retreating to a safe place to restore life. His Royal Arms come with unique capabilities and fighting styles at the expense of loss of hit points every time a hit is made, allowing for different strategies, which the game’s four weapon slots greatly accommodate. You can have a familiar weapon equipped and ready to use at all times, while also being able to play around with other weapon styles without constantly accessing a menu. Your different party members are active in battle (though some last longer than others once the going gets tough), and they each have strong techniques you can command them to use in battle. Of particular note is Prompto’s Gravisphere, which draws in smaller enemies and does constant damage to everything in it’s radius, and Ignis’s Overwhelm, which causes the whole party to unleash a series of devastating, simultaneous attacks on a single target.

Boss fights are the highlight of the game’s combat, though. Most of them take a page right out of Kingdom Hearts and turn what might have been a traditional, arena-like boss into an enormous, unforgettable spectacle. The first time you fight Titan, your jaw will drop so far you’ll have to have it surgically replaced. The story bosses can come across as very scripted (especially in regards to Leviathan, who is more of a story setpiece than an actual boss fight), but the optional bosses available later in the game blend spectacle and gameplay very well (take the Zu hunt at the Rock of Ravatogh. Just trust me on this one.)

The sidequests are plentiful and lead to some of the best gameplay you’ll find in XV, but the characters who give them are often very dull and uninteresting and the objectives are very MMO-esque in their execution. It will almost always be “go to this place and find this thing” or “go to this place and fight this thing” or, in the case of my least favorite series of sidequests in the game, “fight this monster until it drops this item for me”. The Catoblepas hunt was one of the most exciting fights I had in the game… the first time I fought it. But then it didn’t drop what I needed, and I had to fight it again. Five more times, in fact. It ceased to be fun and became more of a chore. Those don’t crop up too often, but it will almost always be the same character who gives them to you, and you’ll get sick of them fast.

The dungeons and the hunts are where the sidequests really shine through. They eschew any pretense of characterization or urgent dilemmas, and instead set you on a course to an interesting boss fight or difficult gang of monsters, with no flavor text added. When you enter a dungeon, you open a sidequest, and the sole objective of said quest is to “defeat the monster in the dungeon’s inner sanctum”. When you take a hunt, you get pointed to the general vicinity of the monsters you need to defeat. No unnecessary reasons for why you’re doing this are given, the game simply sets you on the course to more of the thing you’re playing the game for.

Each of your party members is also given a certain hobby that affects your gameplay. Noctis has the only truly interactive one with fishing. This guy loves to fish, as you’ll learn when he squeals with glee upon seeing the game’s first available fishing spot at Galdin Quay (or outside of Insomnia, if you turned around before the end of Chapter One). This is the best fishing minigame I’ve ever seen, as proven by the fact that my friend and I have taken to calling it “Epic Fishing Action!” You can lose hours upon hours of gameplay just to trying to catch the next big haul, and it is honestly one of my favorite parts of the game. Best of all, it directly ties in to Ignis’s own hobby of cooking. When you rest at a campsite, Ignis will cook the party up a lovely, stat-boosting meal, so long as you have the recipes and ingredients. And Ignis will learn a lot of recipes with many different effects. Too many, really. You’ll be hearing about how he’s “come up with a new recipe” very often.

Prompto’s hobby is photography, as you’ll learn five minutes in and be reminded of constantly if you drive so much as half a mile in your car. Seriously, you can’t get this guy to shut up about taking pictures. Although, once you start looking at them and picking out your favorites to save, you’ll probably be talking about them quite a bit, as well. His hobby is, however, the one that affects gameplay the least, although it is also the only one tied to the main story. Gladiolus’s skill is survival, which is the one you have the least control over. Basically, he finds items after a battle. As it levels up, he can find better items. That’s about it.

The main party, as characters, can quickly get you invested in the game. All four are instantly likeable (though some may not remain that way through the end) and you’ll pick up on the ones you like most quickly. For me, I like Noctis and Prompto the most, so I’m going to address them first. Noctis is a great main character, first of all. I’ve read that he was meant to be a kind of foil to both Cloud (from Final Fantasy VII) and Sora (from Kingdom Hearts), and he definitely accomplishes this. He goes through heavy and deep emotional trauma, from before the game even begins through to the final battle, but rather than distancing himself from his friends, he finds solace and guidance in them. He’s angsty, but also quiet, shy, and awkward, while also easily excitable by the things he loves, like fishing. He also perpetually looks forward (save for one justifiable instance in the story) and works hard to accomplish his goals. There could not have been a better viewpoint character for XV than Noctis.

Prompto is ever cheerful, a fun-loving, over-the-top ham, who masks his deep-seated insecurities to better support the friends he cherishes. He’s the most inexperienced of the group, as well as the most recent addition to the quartet, so he overcompensates a lot so he feels like he belongs.And as the story goes on, you’ll begin to see the facade loosen gradually, until he’s comfortable sharing his darkest secrets with the others.

Ignis is essentially Noct’s caretaker, as he cooks for him, chauffeurs for him, and in general is the primary voice of reason in the quartet. He’s studious and proper, and rarely ever becomes less than that, even at his most upset.

Gladiolus is, quite honestly, my least favorite main-story character. What starts off seeming like a fully fleshed-out character will later reveal himself to be incredibly flat, never truly developing, and being the source of some of the most unnecessary intra-party conflict in the game.

You might notice that beyond Noctis, there’s not really much to say about the other three, and that would be due to the other major problem with the game; the writing. The game was clearly rushed out with an unfinished story, and while Square has stated they will be adding more to it over the months, as it stands any character beyond Noctis have barely serviceable amounts of screentime. Characters are introduced as if they’ll be important for the entirety of the game, only to drop away after a couple of chapters (or, in truly offensive instances like Cor, the chapter in which they’re introduced). Villainous characters beyond the primary Big Bad have a few lines of dialogue at best (Lo’qi and Ravus are primary offenders in this regard).

The story itself suffers from this rushed writing. The first half of the game encourages you to take your time and explore the world, but as soon as you enter the second half of the game, you are put on a literal train ride until near the end of the game. Chapter 14 was honestly the biggest disappointment for me. What could have been a World of Ruin trek similar to the second half of Final Fantasy VI is made entirely linear, sending you directly to Hammerhead, and from there, straight to the final boss, with no possibility for exploration. It was a painful waste of potential.

Overall, Final Fantasy XV is an absolutely gripping game, simply marred by design choices and a (somewhat understandable) rushing to market. After Square Enix failed to impress during the Playstation 3 era, they really needed another game to truly re-solidify themselves as a prominent JRPG developer and publisher, and Final Fantasy XV is that game. The gameplay is a step above, although if you’re looking for a truly compelling story, I would suggest seeing what they’ve added in six months.

Console: Playstation 4

Developed by: Square Enix

Year Released: 2016

Genre: Action JRPG