I’ve had the opportunity to get stuck into the opening chapter of Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream, and I’ve got to say upfront that this game has come as a relief to me. I wasn’t 100 per cent sure of the direction the series has been taking of later, and by that, I mean that I enjoyed Atelier Ryza and its sequel a great deal, but at the same time I was concerned that the success that those two titles enjoyed would result in Gust “locking in” to character design and gameplay that was vastly different to what got me into the series. Atelier Sophie 2 has allayed all of those fears. This game, right from the start, feels like a love letter to the series’ roots, and I love Gust for its ability to move into and out of its own traditions and straddle the line between giving existing fans what the love, and then finding ways to try new things and reach out to new players.
Gone is the active and snappy combat system of Ryza. Instead, Atelier Sophie 2’s combat is steadfastly turn-based. It’s vibrant, thanks to some amazing special effects that accompany the special attacks (plus the enemy monsters are adorably cute), but there’s no effort to make Sophie 2 appeal to the attention deficit “modern gamer.” The alchemy system, too, is a spin on the one that the series faithful seem to have enjoyed the most, and the overall presentation of the game is that of a pure and simple whimsical wholesomeness (with the occasional dash of fan service, of course). In other words, this is Gust at its least experimental, and I love that. The Atelier series has always been the comfort food of JRPGs and sometimes a simple warming, hearty tomato soup is exactly what you want to see on the menu.
In the opening scene of the game, Sophie is whisked into a dreamlike world, quite separate to her own reality. It’s all rather mysterious at first, but she soon discovers that it’s a place people stay until they have fulfilled their great personal ambition in life. They can’t leave, but they also don’t age, and the world isn’t so much a prison as a vibrant community of people that can search for their life’s purpose without pressure or inhibitions. That’s downright utopic. While this concept was almost certainly a convenience by a developer that didn’t want to be constrained by reusing a setting that was no longer fit for purpose, it’s also a pleasant, traditionally fantastic plot hook for a very traditional JRPG.
The preview section of Atelier Sophie 2 was only two hours long, and in that time I was only able to craft a couple of items, fight a few basic enemies (and one tough one) and explore one town and two field areas. A fraction of the overall experience it may be, but it was enough to get a good sense of what the rest game will offer. Without giving much away (Koei specifically asked us not to), the dynamics between the characters is well-written and playful, the banter is cheerful, and there’s an overwhelming niceness about the whole thing. I’m sure there will be eyes that roll at one particular character’s chest and the lack of clothing covering it, but the game nonetheless also straddles the lines between fun fan service and something that any JRPG fan can pick up and enjoy, too.
These qualities are why I wrote that we need more Gust in the headline. I know I’ve said this often enough in the past, but Gust really stands out as something different, in that its games – particularly the Atelier series – baulk the trend to try and make everything a deep and evocative story filled with intensity and emotion. While other JRPGs try and grapple with all sorts of philosophical questions, including but not limited to identity, religion, environmentalism, morality and war, Gust is out there making sweet little fables about girls cooking up potions to help our their community. Ryza did push things a bit further, but Sophie 2 seems to be bringing the series right back to its essence.
That’s not to say that Atelier Sophie 2 – or the broader Atelier series – is superficial or dull, of course. They’re actually quite cleverly constructed in a minimalistic and clean fashion to focus on giving players joy. It’s positively Marie Kondo about it. I’ve been complaining about the YA tone that is being pushed into a few too many releases at the moment, because the tone clashes with everything else to do with a fantasy adventure setting. Well, Atelier Sophie 2 is the perfect example of how to do this stuff right. It works as youth fiction, given that it’s about a young girl and her not-too-grim-and-nasty adventures, but there’s also consistency across the characters, their behaviour, the setting and the events that actual YA writing inevitably lacks, making the whole experience come across as more considered and authentic.
We get more than enough dark, hard and heavy JRPGs. Indeed, the entire games industry is obsessed with aggression, antagonism, conflict and violence. Gust remains one of the very few developers that consistently gets out there to fly the flag for doing things differently. Imagine that! It is indeed possible to make games without nastiness, cruelty, sleaze or angst. Gust’s games canvas similar themes to many of the other JRPGs out there, but they also have a positive energy that helps them stand out and apart from the pack. It’s wonderful that the team is so prolific so we don’t have to go too long between drinks, but more broadly speaking it would be nice if other developers could take note and realise that sometimes it’s okay to be bubbly.
Anyhow, I loved my time previewing Atelier Sophie 2. I can’t wait to play the full game.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb