Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Alchemy, dreams, monsters, material farming! That's right, it's time for another Atelier series title! This time we're looking at a direct sequel to Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book. Graduating from mysterious books, we are now graved with Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Dream.
Atelier Sophie 2 takes place directly after Atelier Sophie, and while you don't technically need to have played Atelier Sophie, it will give you some appreciation for some of the characters in the sequel, although there is a "previous game summary" available. Following in the footsteps of her grandmother, Sophie and her alchemy mentor Plachta begin travelling in order to take an alchemist certification exam. Along the way, Plachta is drawn to a large tree, where a vortex appears and draws both Plachta and Sophie in. Upon awakening, Sophie finds herself in a strange town with Plachta nowhere in sight. After talking with the residents that discovered her, Sophie is told that she is a new world, one created based on dreams. All the residents have been called by Elvira, the goddess presiding over the world, in order to fulfill their dreams. Unfortunately, the way Sophie and Plachta arrived was a little bit different from usual.
Sophie, unable to find Plachta, decides to find a way to talk to Elvira, in order to get back Plachta and to leave the world of dreams. Obviously this isn't going to be the easiest of tasks, as Elvira hasn't been seen in a while, and all of Sophie's gear and materials were lost in the vortex that brought her here. So it falls to Sophie and the new friends she makes to go collect materials in order to use her alchemy to find a way of contacting Elvira.
Since Sophie 2 is a direct sequel, I'm assuming you've at least played an atelier title before, but I'll be treating it largely as if you haven't. Atelier titles can be roughly split into two components: the alchemy and the field exploration/combat. Pretty much every Atelier title has these components, and leans either more in favour of combat or alchemy most of the time. Atelier Sophie, and Sophie 2 by extension, tend to take a more middle ground where both aspects are equally highlighted.
First thing you're going too have to learn in Sophie 2 is how to collect alchemy materials. Materials can be found pretty much everywhere: from townsfolk, in the fields, from monsters, purchased in shops, or even just lying around. If you can harvest from a spot, it will sparkle. Some gathering spots may require specific tools however, such as fishing rods or pickaxes. These can be created through alchemy as the story progresses and you unlock their recipes. There will also be major gathering areas where you can play a minigame based on gathering type in order to improve the materials you're harvesting. It should be noted that while out in a field you can only carry so many items until your basket gets full. Thankfully this limit is pretty large, but with the amount of materials you get, it's still a good idea to pay attention to how full your basket is.
Now that you've picked up some materials, it's time to do some alchemy. Once you're set up in an atelier, you can head on over to your alchemy cauldron in order to start making things. You may then select an item from a recipe you've learned (either through story progression or meeting the recipe requirements on the idea tree) and start selecting your ingredients. There are a lot of considerations when selecting a material to use, so I'll keep away from the advanced considerations and go with the basics for now. Probably your major concerns if you're a new Atelier player will be quality and your colour components. Quality is pretty self explanatory: the higher the better. For equipment this means it provides better stats. For items it will improve effectiveness.
Colour components are a little trickier, and may be a little confusing or frustrating if it's your first time seeing them. Each material has a number of little coloured blocks in a set shape that you will place on a board. Overlapping shapes will remove the full shape under it. The total number of coloured tiles will fill up "gauges" associated to a skill or effect tied to those colours. At certain benchmarks in those gauges are points where the skill or effect evolves.
Let's take a "bomb" for example. The red color tiles, or fire element tiles, will give points towards "fire damage" on the bomb. This can go from "medium" to "large" if you get enough points in fire colors, for example. After you've managed to fill in the board to your liking, you don't need to use every color component if you don't want to, you will then get a chance at a Super Success. Basically you play Bingo while laying your components, and rows and columns that are fully filled provide a boost to the Super Success chance. A Super Success will increase the final quality of your item by a decent amount.
Something interesting about Sophie 2 is that you have more than just Sophie as an alchemist. This is kind of neat, as certain recipes can only be crafted by certain characters, as well as having their own recipe tree. Additionally, Alchemists have an alchemy level which increases as you perform more synthesis. Will you use Sophie for all you alchemy since she starts at a high level, or will your other alchemist see more use in order to train up their level?
Now that we've learned about alchemy, it's time to go explore the world. What does this mean? Fighting monsters, of course! Fighting is a large component in some of the atelier titles, and Sophie 2 embraces this, although you may not really realize it at first. I'm pleased to say that combat has been constantly evolving in the Atelier titles, and Sophie 2 has a system that feels really smooth and well fleshed out. Combat is turn based, with turn order determined by a units speed stat. On your turn you can attack, use a skill, or use an item, if you have some equipped. Items have a limited number of uses though, so be careful on overusing them, although you can restore uses at the main shop back in town.
Enemies have different weaknesses to exploit, which you will want to in order to build up Twin Action Points. These points can be used either offensively or defensively. During your turn, you can expend a point in order to have to have your current character and a backup party member take action at the same time. A Twin action also reduces MP costs for skills, so can be very beneficial. On an enemy's turn, you can use an action point to have a reserve member replace the current member and block an attack. Be careful though, for enemies also build a gauge and will release a powerful attack when full. In addition to this, enemies can have an aura that blocks attacks and reduce damage. Destroying these auras will weaken and stun the enemies, providing you an opportunity to get a lot of damage in.
I'd like to take a bit of time to tell you about how exploring the field maps has evolved since the days of yore, when there were 2D characters on a 2D background but with 3D movement. Of course we have 3D movement now, but I'd like to bring specially mention to the walking animation, as it matches your pace, and also meshes well on stairs. Seriously, do you have any idea how annoying that is to animate and code? Very. Very annoying. Anyway, I digress. After a certain point in the story you will be able to change the weather at certain pedestals in the area.
This will not only affect the monsters that appear, but may also open up or cut off different routes and affect what materials you can gather. For example, making it rainy will raise water levels, which could make a path across a river if there are objects to use as stepping stones, or create new fishing spots. You may see these blue crystals hanging around, which can be used as quick and convenient fast travel points, regardless of whether you set off from town or are already out in the field. Additionally, you may be able to find landmarks throughout the world. These will get registered on your map, as well as provide ability points.
So what are ability points? Well, as with most JRPGs, you earn exp when fighting and you gain levels. At certain levels you unlock abilities and skills. Ability points are a sort of separate system where you earn points from leveling, finding landmarks, and completing character specific challenges. These ability points can then be used to increase stats or provide quality bonuses to gathered materials, among other things. After using so many points, you unlock a bonus ability for free, which usually starts as upgrading your first skill. It adds bonus incentive for exploring and completing tasks, and I was really happy to have these as sub goals. Of course, there's also the typical request board, where you can go to accept up to ten requests at a time in order to earn money from the townspeople. Perform enough requests, and you may be able to improve your ranking within the guild!
I must say, I really appreciate what Gust/Koei Tecmo has done to improve the animations and graphics. Characters have a really large array of different expressions, eye movement is actually a thing, they periodically blink, and the character animations feel a lot more "real" than they used to back in the day. Characters can even look wet! Seriously, if you're in a rainy area, your character models will actually look like they're soaked, which I found amazing. Furthermore, the sound team was on point, because if you're in a cave your characters voices will actually echo. It's these little things that really set a game apart and let you know the developers heart really went into it.
While I was a little skeptical at first about how they would pull off having Sophie start with an alchemy level of fifty and combat level of twenty, they managed it nicely by including a second alchemist and just bumping enemy levels to start at twenty, which is even justified in-universe, so props for sorting that out. My only real two annoyances comes in the form of "veteran desire" and how recipe unlocking isn't retroactive. In the original Sophie you could duplicate items, although at a cost. Not having this at the very start of the game is understandable, but annoying for someone used to it. In regards to unlocking recipes, sometimes you have the requirement of "create 'X' item". Unfortunately this isn't retroactive, so if you've already made one of the item, too bad do it again. Fortunately materials are relatively easy to come by and the required items aren't usually that tough to make.
Overall, I have to say I absolutely love how they've evolved, and continue to evolve, the Atelier series. Atelier Sophie was probably my favourite post PS2 Atelier title, and Atelier Sophie 2 doesn't disappointed. With a more refined combat and alchemy system, and interesting weather feature, and improved graphics and character animations, Atelier Sophie 2 : the Alchemist and the Mysterious Dream is a must play in the Atelier series.
Score: 9.5 / 10