The Atelier series is developer Gust’s signature JRPG franchise. First appearing in 1997, it remained in the Japanese market for many years, but the series has steadily been released in the West since 2005. The latest game to receive such treatment is Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream, the sequel to the original Sophie released in 2015.
Sophie 2‘s tells the story of Sophie herself and her partner Plachta. On their adventures, they come across a mysterious tree that sucks them into another world. After waking up in a strange new dream land, Sophie realizes that she has been separated from her partner. With the help of her new allies found on the way, she hopes to reconnect with Plachta and figure out how to get back to Kirchen Bell.
All are welcome
Contrary to its name, this isn’t necessarily a true sequel. Certainly, it takes place after the original game and brings back a handful of the characters, but that’s about all there is to it. Its setting and story are largely disconnected.
It appears as though Gust has made a conscious effort to avoid alienating newcomers. For one, there is a “Story so far” option on the main menu that recaps the first game’s story. This is condensed into a short, five-minute video which serves its purpose reasonably well.
In addition to the recap, each character’s introduction is done in a way that their identity is clear from the get-go. There’s never going to be a moment where someone appears and you can’t remember their name or relevance to the story. This is helped by the excellent narrative pacing that ensures players don’t get overwhelmed.
I have no doubt that newcomers who have never touched an Atelier game before can jump straight into Sophie 2 without difficulty. That’s a bigger deal than it may sound, as the JRPG genre is guilty of failing to achieve this. A good example is the Kiseki series which, while excellent, requires several hundred hours of story catch-up to fully comprehend. Most people just don’t have that kind of time to invest in a narrative.
Combat in Sophie 2 is close to how it was in the Mysterious entries, although battles now take place immediately in area you’re standing without loading to a separate battle area. It’s very typical turn-based JRPG combat where you select actions from a menu as opposed to the more active type of combat that the Ryza games used. What stands out in this iteration is the improved Alchemy feature.
Alchemy is the selling point of the Atelier franchise. Players are encouraged to create their own weapons, equipment, and items and can add custom effects to each of them to suit their needs. The process of synthesizing items has always been important, but never before has it been this well executed.
To create items players must first gather a large variety of materials. Each material is classified into different categories: ores, gemstones, fruit, etc. Different items require various material types to synthesize them. But you shouldn’t just use any random material that fits the bill. Materials come in varying quality, and higher quality materials are harder to gather but produce better items.
Furthermore, each individual material has random elements attached to it. These elements can vary between even the same material type. For example, you could have an ingot that is electric and another otherwise identical ingot with both electric and fire.
The process of gathering materials for alchemy is complex. The Atelier series generally does a good job of ensuring that gathering in itself is a form of progression rather than just being an obstacle that’s necessary before the alchemy gets underway. Atelier Sophie 2 is no exception with its particular gathering progression tree.
In the recipe ideas, menu players will find three separate technology trees for Sophie, Plachta, and any items shared between them. Each item found on this tree can only be alchemized once certain criteria are fulfilled. The criteria differ, but some common examples are gathering a specific material, synthesizing another item first, and using a certain move in battle so many times.
Working your way through this tree is a great way of preventing gathering from becoming mundane. Rather than just mindlessly collecting materials on your journey this introduces a tangible sense of progression. Working through the full tree will take a while and provides players with something to pursue beyond the main story. The only issue I have is that, even with the help of in-game guides, it can be tricky to figure out where to find undiscovered materials. At times this can get unnecessarily frustrating as a better-implemented guide would have solved the problem.
As for the gathering itself, most materials are gotten by simply walking up to them and clicking the on-screen prompt. However, there are Major Gathering Spots that require the completion of a mini-game. These mini-games change based on if you are fishing, mining, cutting, or whatever else. Equally, some materials can only be found when certain weather conditions are fulfilled. The weather can be manipulated via totems found in the overworld. Neither of these mechanics are game-changing, but they do a fair job of making it a little more interesting to gather materials.
The elements of each material are key in creating the best equipment possible. This is because Atelier Sophie 2 brings back a version of the Mysterious series’ grid-based alchemy. Instead of simply selecting materials, you have to place their individual elements into a 5×5 grid. The goal is to occupy the grid as much as possible while filling highlighted tiles with the matching element.
The correct use of elements unlocks various effects that can greatly buff the potency of whatever is synthesized. This is a fantastic system, as it rewards players for taking their time and figuring out how their allocated elements link together best.
There is an automated system that can synthesize for you, but the trade-off is that the created gear won’t be as good. Atelier Sophie 2 rewards players who are willing to put in the time to synthesize carefully. I really like this as it makes you feel as though you are a genuine alchemist. The pay-off of creating a top-tier item after gathering the correct materials and smashing the puzzle mini-game is special.
The whole process of synthesizing from start to finish feels remarkably polished. Perhaps no feature better demonstrates this than the characterful flavor text that appears below each and every recipe. These humorous conversations are usually between Chloe and someone else. It would have been easy to not include a small detail like this, but I’m glad Gust went the extra mile. For Atelier Sophie 2 to be worthwhile the alchemy had to be fun, and I’m happy to say that it does not disappoint on that front.
The technical stuff
Your expected performance will vary greatly depending on what settings and display resolution are used. On an Nvidia RTX 2060, I maintained a consistent 50 fps at 1440p, High settings, 70 fps at 1440p, Standard settings, and 90 fps at 1440p, Low settings. At 1080p, performance across all three pre-sets improved by roughly 25%. It is worth noting that performance after updating my Nvidia card drivers showed improvements between 10% and 15%. The previous drivers were only a month old, so those looking to maximize performance will want to update as soon as possible.
The performance drops at the highest settings are mostly justified as the character models look wonderful. It’s a given that the main characters look good but what is especially impressive is that even NPCs who you never directly interact with look great too. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the world. Although Atelier Sophie 2 is by no means a bad-looking game, some of its environments are dated. The ground textures in particular are rough in some areas, which can detract from the gameplay. Regardless, this isn’t a bad port, and most PC gamers should be content.
As expected of any notable JRPG, the native Japanese voice acting is excellent. The cast does a fantastic job of bringing out the best of each and every character. I found Yūka Aisaka as Sophie and Tomoaki Maeno as Olias Enders to be particular highlights. For any Genshin Impact players out there, you probably know Maeno best as the voice of Zhongli.
If you’re wondering why I’m emphasizing the Japanese voice actors, it’s because that’s all there is. Unlike the original, Atelier Sophie 2 was not dubbed into English. I personally don’t mind, but it may be a deal-breaker for some people.
It’s the small things that count
The Atelier series has gone through some impressive innovations. Ryza was better than Sophie, and Ryza 2 was better than the original. Each and every time Gust has proven that it understands how to elevate Atelier to another level. Atelier Sophie 2 is no exception, and easily stands as the new peak for the series.
The in-depth alchemy and gathering mechanics are fantastic. Add to that the gorgeous character models, compelling story, and fun characters and there’s really no reason to not play Sophie 2. Perhaps more importantly than any of that though is the small details that prove to me that Gust really cared about this game. Any game that has this level of care and time put into it is bound to be good.