Amid the indefatigable barrage of bombastic games that deliver adrenaline-soaked, white knuckle experiences, there’s Gust’s Atelier franchise. Far removed from the over-the-top action which dominates the industry, the Nagano-based developer has developed a succession of treks that expose a different side of life. Frequently centering on a character’s journey toward self-actualization, the series is known for its quint charm, amiable cast, and given the movement away from a rigid time restraint, easy-going nature. Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey, the eighteenth installment (and second in the Mysterious series), largely replicates those qualities, albeit with a few notable modifications, recalling the crafting of items that are at the very heart of the series.
Mysterious Journey’s plotline evokes comparison to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, with protagonist Firis Mistlud confined inside a tranquil mining town named Ertona, where the populace survives through the excavating of ore and other materials. While Firis’ older sister Liane is allowed to venture outside to hunt, Firis’ protective parents prohibit her from passing the giant doors that secure the main entrance. Of course, there’s little incentive to move beyond the cavernous confines. Not only is Firis adept at locating ore deposits, but many see view her as the more vulnerable sister. Between forays to observe the sky through the cave’s sole fissure and her insistence of hearing Liane’s stories of the world outside, it’s evident that Firis is destined for the world outside, and all the experiences that await.
But before she makes her grand exodus, Sophie Neuenmuller (lead of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book) and her mentor Plachta show up, blowing down Ertona’s doors, ushering in the power of alchemy into the mining community. The populace is immediately beguiled by the thrill of crafted gear, but few are as enthralled as Firis, whose divining abilities are a perfect in-road to the alchemical arts. As such, the protagonist’s passage beyond the cave, toward adulthood, as well as the mastery of her vocational aptitudes is a gratifying metaphor that most players will be able to identify with. Largely, it encapsulates a yearning for discovery, growth, and ambition, making it difficult not to see ourselves in Firis- even when she makes impetuous statements to her parents.
Echoing the fleeting years of youth, Mysterious Journey brings back the temporal restraints, with Firis having a calendar year to apply for her alchemical exam. Largely the return of a scheduled stage is an astute compromise, generating an iota of urgency to the proceedings, but with enough leniency to not stress out players. Pleasingly, Mysterious Journey’s early game still allows plenty of time for exploration and experimentation. Once the initial deadline is met, the title permits the easy-going, untimed autonomy of tasks, which feels like a fulfilling payoff.
Beyond the incorporation of day and night cycles that affect the appearance of different antagonists and collectable materials, Atelier Firis also incorporates a weather cycle into the proceedings. With this system, adverse weather conditions like rain, fog, and snow can become an impediment, varying the potencies of both enemies and items. Interestingly, you’ll want to make sure Firis is wearing environmentally-appropriate clothing. Now, costumes have tangible effects, with the short skirt length of your ‘Pura Flora” long only looking implausibly cute, but also instigating a discount with shopkeepers. And when in the snow, a winter coat and adorable hat ensure that Firis won’t lose excess energy in the icy setting.
Functioning like Harvest Moon’s stamina and fatigue systems, a new variable called LP limits the amount of actions that can be performed when out in the field. When the stat is running low, you’ll begin to see negative effects, like a diminished amount of resources at collection points. But complete deplete your pool and poor Firis fill faint, penalizing players with a deduction of time. Fortunately, recharging is straightforward, with rejuvenation possible back at your atelier, at a campsite, or even through the synthesis of certain items.
Enjoyably, Mysterious Journey doubles down on the puzzle-like aspects that made alchemy so enjoyable in Atelier Sophie. As such, figuring out the ideal placement of components in a gridded panel is engaging, especially when you’re able to overlay ingredients on top of translucent lines, earning a stat bonus. Another layer of nuance stems from the integration of catalysts, which when chosen during material selection, can do things likes change the size of the panel, or apply a color to the lines. When Firis is able to match the hue to a component color, synthesis grows in strength, turning a standard recipe into something that’s often exceedingly beneficial.
A few remarkable changes are poised to engage returning alchemists. Mass Synthesis demands a myriad of raw materials, but when these colossal recipes are completed, the results are awe-inspiriting, creating things like an artificial sun than can warm a frosty landscape. And while Mysterious Journey isn’t a true open-ended experience, the title does dispense more flexibility, with players able to set up spacious and customizable ateliers near the campfires that dot the landscape.
Beyond the removal of Sophie’s stances system in battles, sub-weapons that allow for elemental exploitation, the game’s turn-based battles are highlighted by the inclusion of Chain Burst Attacks. Now, when party members issue their standard and specials, they gradually fill a gauge on the far-left side of the screen. Once the meter is at capacity, any allies with consecutive turns join in, with damage increasing exponentially for each additional participant. Align the attacks of three or more allies and you’ll be able to dish out a Chain Strike, which punctuates the procession of assaults with a formidable finisher. Although Atelier Firis’ battle mechanics aren’t unique, they do help to convey a palpable sense of synergy between party members.
Visually, Mysterious Journey is a commendable effort. Main characters and backdrops tend to richly detailed, while draw distances sets a new watermark for the series. Save for the occasional framerate hitch (on the original PlayStation 4) and NPC animations that can be a bit stiff, the title shows a willful effort to progress the Atelier franchise. Naturally, the title’s music is near flawless, with the organic instrumentation complementing the game’s oft-laidback charms. Koei-Tecmo should be commended for their dual-language voice work, with both the Japanese and English performances bringing the cast to life.
Like the game’s synthesis system, Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey brings in a handful of improved components, elevating the quality of the final product. Unsurprisingly, Firis’ expedition isn’t a radical change, revisiting the same indulging cycle of mechanics that have been successful for the series. The handful of changes, from stat-influencing costumes, alterations to the alchemical system, and tweaks to combat are all welcome additions, making Firis an essential experience for Atelier aficionados.
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey was played
on the PlayStation 4 with review code provided by the publisher.
Platform: PlayStation 4, PS Vita, PC
Release date: March 8th, 2017
Price: $59.99 on PS4, $39.99 on Vita, $53.99 on PC
Languages: Japanese or English voice, English text