Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mystery Journey (Playstation 4 Review)
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist of the Mystery Journey is the 33rd Atelier title, the 18th in the annual main series, and 2nd in the Mysterious series of Atelier games. Atelier is a long-running franchise that centers itself on alchemy, established back in 1997. Firis took a while to get to us in the west, but here it is! Sadly, the extra four months between the English release and the original Japanese launch wasn’t enough to produce more than a half-baked localization, but how was the game itself?
You assume the role of the titular Firis, a young girl who lives in a town located within a cave and wants nothing more than to see the outside. Her parents are against it, instead wanting her to take advantage of her gift–the ability to detect ore without a pickaxe–to benefit the town and stay safe instead. This changes when previous Atelier protagonist Sophie breaks down the door separating the outside world from the town and introduces alchemy to Firis. She is eventually permitted outside on one condition: she must succeed the alchemist exam that begins in one year or return home. After parting with her hometown and mentor, the protagonist departs with her sister to acquire the three references needed to participate in the exam.
As a long-standing franchise, Atelier has had a chance to play with its mechanics and tweak them over time. Until Atelier Sophie, the series would often employ a time-based deadline within the gameplay. Players would have a set amount of game time until they would be rewarded the appropriate ending. Atelier Firis brings this mechanic back, somewhat. Rather than applying pressure on the player to play as optimally as possible, the title provides ample time to achieve this objective. Once the player accomplishes Firis’ goal of clearing the alchemist exam, they’re rewarded with a free reign over the game to obtain whichever ending they wish. It’s a good balance between the traditional Atelier gameplay and a more accessible, less stressful approach. Rather than fearing mistakes and exploration, players will be able to focus on improving Firis’ alchemy skills and preparing for her exam; though, I hope that readers will pay close attention to the game up to that point. The exam questions can be fairly obtuse. Unfortunately, the gameplay following the exam can feel rather aimless and uncertain.
Time is progressed by participating in a variety of tasks. As an alchemist, a common activity would be the acquisition of materials. Firis will be able to collect water, plants, metal, and so on in the various locations of the game. Not only will time progress while carrying gathering, but Firis’ own CP (basically stamina) will also deplete. The lower that Firis’ CP gets, the less effective her gathering will be. To avoid depleting it completely, players will have to rest in an atelier–the home base for the cast. Ateliers are like a cross between a Tardis and a tent: they’re a small looking tent on the outside with a colourful, sprawling interior. It’s in this atelier that Firis can synthesise her goods.
Alchemy isn’t incredibly complex, but extracting the most out of the materials requires a little bit of planning. Each ingredient is to be placed on a grid, with the exact shape and size varying even between otherwise identical items. They also each have an associated colour that may vary, and a catalyst can be used to provide bonus nodes. Combining these catalysts along with higher quality ingredients can result in stronger bonuses for the resulting creation. Interestingly, it feels like the game’s tutorial overcomplicates the process a little. It’s simple enough to grasp
and feels rewarding when Firis comments positively on the outcome, much unlike obtaining new alchemy recipes. Firis can acquire additional recipes by carrying out other tasks, which may provide her with inspiration. A recipe book is available in the game’s menu with hints towards the new recipes, but they’re sometimes not entirely clear. Perhaps that’s just me.
While alchemy and gathering can progress time, the simple act of running will also push it forward. Additionally, as would be expected in a JRPG, Firis and her party can enter combat. Random enemies can be found all over the game maps, and bumping into them or attacking the will launch the player into a new battle screen. The combat itself is turn-based, allowing players to take their time and plan out their actions. Atelier Firis has the standard Attack, Skill, and Item commands. Additionally, players can build up a Chain Link which allows characters to unleash chain burst abilities, and can combine attacks with other characters that are scheduled to attack in the next turns. There’s nothing really spectacular here, and for most of the game it’s used as a means to acquire materials or have fun testing out new toys created through alchemy.
For all the extra systems, including questing, Atelier Firis is relatively simple. That’s actually a part of its charm, and the main focus is most definitely its alchemy system and light-hearted adventure story. Despite this, there are a few issues that I wouldn’t expect from a series that has had this long to perfect their formula. Atelier Firis is also launching on the Vita, and it honestly feels like that’s the main system it’s developed for–which isn’t truly an issue in of itself. The problem is that it has largely obnoxious UI elements that take up a lot of screen space, and the game seems to be upscaled from a low resolution. The performance doesn’t appear to be have been tweaked for the PlayStation 4. There’s often a lot of screen tear and occasional graphical glitches. There’s also some pretty terrible collision detection and very little physics.
The visual issues are a bit of a shame, because the graphics are fairly nice. Though anime as hell, both artists (Yuugen and NOCO) have brought a lot of life into the characters. Cutscenes can often include illustrated artwork that captures scenes with a watercolour aesthetic. The 3D models also emulate this fairly well, all things considered. It’s genuinely very pleasant. That being said, even the 3D cutscenes aren’t animated very much. The characters will often just stand in place and exchange dialogue. At least the style looks good.
Sadly, the soundtrack is often plain, with some few standouts. It doesn’t really match the standard of the visual style too well, though there are still some good tracks. As for voice acting… it’s not good. Voice actors often deliver their lines in a bizarre pitch that sounds like they’re trying to emulate the original Japanese cast, rather than breathe life into the characters with their own efforts. I’m not sure if this is due to the cast or the voice director , but it’s reminiscent of the early 2000 era of videogame voice acting. We’ve come a lot further since then. As a whole, the dialogue is fairly dry and often clumsy, suggesting a poor localization. It’s strange because the publisher, Koei Tecmo, usually supplies a stronger English version in my own experience.
I’m not sure if Atelier Firis will be the entry that introduces new players to the franchise. Its strengths are found in its charm, as well as in the adventure and concocting new items to play with. I can’t penalize a title too much for clearly not having a high budget, but there are some definite areas that need improved upon. For what it’s worth, it’s easy to lose track of your time when playing the game, but it’s just overshadowed by the many stronger titles that are launching in the same quarter.