Interview by Matt S.
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Journey is going to be a very different game to the Atelier games that you’ve played in the past. At a rate of almost one game per year over the series’ 19-year history, fans have grown accustomed to what to expect from a new Atelier game, but this one is determined to throw some curveballs in there.
Related reading: Hands-on with all of Koei Tecmo's upcoming games, from TGS 2016.
Most notable of all is that the game has shifted to a much more open world-style environment. In previous Atelier games, players would move their characters around a map that looked like a board game board. On each “square” would be a small environment where the characters could fight enemies and collect resources before heading back in town to then use alchemy on the resources to make finished goods, which would then complete many of the game’s quests.
With Firis, however, you’ll have a great deal more exploring to do. The alchemy remains, but the 'board game'-like exploration is gone, replaced with large environments that Firis and her friends explore 'on foot.' The impression is more akin to a Tales or Dragon Quest game, though less linear in the path that you need to take. Were it not for the ridiculously cute girls that could only ever be from an Atelier game, distinctive (and charming) enemy designs that are unique to Atelier, and alchemy itself, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is an entirely new franchise for Gust.
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Given that Gust has only recently introduced a new franchise (Nights of Azure), and is busily working on another completely new IP in Blue Reflections, that it’s also experimenting with its marquee IP is also perhaps not surprising. That the new Atelier is so heavily influenced by western RPGs, such as Fallout, Skyrim, and Dragon Age, is not immediately obvious, but that is absolutely where the series’ new producer, Yoshito Okamura, was coming from, as a big fan of those games himself.
I first interviewed Okamura two years ago (shamesless plus; it was for a chapter on Gust’s games in my book, Game Art). At the time, he was the long-time director of the Atelier series, and at the time he was telling me that somewhere down the track he’d like to bring some of the openness and sense of exploration that is in those western RPGs that he loves to this series. Now, as the producer, he saw the opportunity to experiment and see where it would take the series.
“This is the 18th title in a series started in 1997 with Marie, and we do make changes from one game to the next,” Okamura said. “In the first game the story was more about Marie not being great at alchemy, so the goal was to have her get better, and it was more of a adventure sot of game. Then we started to follow a more RPG-like narrative structure, where alchemy still remained central, but there’s also enemies and bigger goals that needed to be achieved.
“Then we moved into the Arland series, where the focus was on very cute girls working towards their dreams. That was a big contrast with the Dusk series that came immediately after and was about the world dying. With next year being the 20th anniversary of the series we are aware that fans all have their own idea about what they want the Atelier series to be, but there’s been a lot of progression through the series, and I feel that if we keep the Atelier core strong we’ll continue to be giving fans what they want.”
That ‘core’ has always been the focus on alchemy; something other developers generally make a secondary focus at the best of times, as well as the female protagonists. For a genre so regularly criticised as being male-orientated, the Atelier franchise’s commitment to female protagonists (and well-written ones at that) has always been refreshing. None of these ‘core’ elements are being re-written in Atelier Firis, which should make the transition to open environment exploration more accessible for the series diehards.
The narrative itself was also written to suit the new gameplay structure, Okamura said. Open world environments encourage exploration, and require a lot of travel. This made the theme of ‘journey’ a natural fit, and Gust has doubled down on making Firis’ game all about her travels – right to the point of putting it in the game’s title.
“To compare to Sophie (the previous Atelier title, and a direct prequel to the events in Firis); that game was a much more simple story, where she was really just focused on making items; the rest of the story would take care of itself,” Okamura said.
“So in this case we saw the opportunity to really expand on the world and its characters. When we develop our games, the concept comes first, before the narrative. We knew we were going to do an open world-like adventure, and we knew that the key theme would be ‘journey.’ From there we were able to start piecing together what a story would look like if there was an Atelier game that was about wanting to travel the world.”
So, why has Okamura made these substantial changes in his first outing as producer? Partly, it’s because he knows the franchise inside and out, having worked on the creative direction of the games through most of his career. This has meant he has a deeper understanding than anyone on what makes the series tick, and how to keep pushing to modernise it along the way.
“Up until Sophie, where I’ve been in the role of the director, I’ve been focused purely on being able to meet the expectations of fans,” Okamura said. “Now as the producer I’ve got the added responsibilities of being a producer and guiding the development of the Atelier series as a franchise. This has allowed me to do some of the things I held back on before.
“Now was the right time to try something new.”
Looking beyond the Atelier series, it is an exciting time at Gust. The developer continues to flourish after being acquired by Koei Tecmo in 2011, and has proven to be one of the publisher’s most prolific studios. As mentioned, it has three games under development right at this moment; Atelier Firis, Nights of Azure 2, and Blue Reflection.
At Tokyo Game Show, Gust formalised the announcement of the latter (which was almost entirely unknown at the time), and characterised the work that it is doing, across the company, as the “beautiful girls trilogy/festival.” Looking beyond the games themselves, it was a nice statement for Gust to make. The company has always been about beautiful girls, and while the acquisition by Koei has helped the company with its resourcing (and now they have an in-house localisation team, which means we’re much more likely to get Gust games translated into English now), Gust itself hasn’t been “swallowed up” as sometimes happens with acquisitions.
“We’ve also now got additional resources from Koei Tecmo, and we’re able to move skills around the various developer teams, as well as bring producers from our parent company to add their own flavour to the mix,” Okamura said. Keisuke Kikuchi, the Tecmo producer that has worked on the Fatal Frame series, was responsible for Nights of Azure, for example.
“We’re keeping our overall style of cute characters, but we’re looking at the current company as an opportunity to expand, try new things, and give our fans new experiences,” Okamura added.
Related reading: On working with Gust for Nights of Azure; our interview with Keisuke Kikuchi from Tokyo Game Show 2015.
“Next year, being the 20th anniversary of Atelier, we’re planning on doing something really special for the series. Stay tuned!”
Atelier Firis releases in Japan next month. The game has been confirmed for a 2017 release in the west, though no specific data has been set yet.
- Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld