Atelier Firis: Alchemist of the Mysterious Journey Review
Atelier Firis is the second entry in the Mysterious saga of developer Gust's long-running Atelier series, and the 18th game overall. This game is a mix of classic and modern Atelier, an ambitious experiment of throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the game and seeing what sticks. As a result, it has a huge amount of features and content, but doesn't feel quite as organized or coherent as it could be. Let's dig deeper into this entry.
The game's protagonist is Firis Mistlud, a girl who lives in an underground mining town. Firis has a special ability of particular use to the miners in her village - she can intuitively sense the location of minerals and ores. While she longs to see the outside world that she's only read about in books, a huge and sturdy stone door standing at the entrance to the town, along with her parents' refusal to let her go out into the dangerous outside world, keeps her trapped. That all changes one day when a mysterious alchemist bursts onto the scene - literally. Sophie Neuenmuller, protagonist of the previous game, demolishes the door with alchemical explosives and introduces Firis to the world of alchemy. Firis sees alchemy as her ticket to the outside world - if she can create medicine to heal herself and bombs to fight monsters, then maybe her parents will see that she can handle herself outside and allow it? She begs Sophie to take her on as an apprentice, and with the help of her newfound alchemy abilities, is able to convince her village to let her travel outside. The permission comes with a catch, though - the village elder tells Firis that she needs to return back and give up on the outside world if she can't pass the official alchemy exam, held in one year. It's a seemingly impossible goal for someone who just discovered alchemy to become a certified alchemist in just one year, but it's her only hope to get permanent freedom.
Coming along with Firis on her journey to the far away town where the official alchemy exam is held is her older sister, Liane. Liane is an experienced hunter, one of the select people allowed outside of her village, and fiercely protective of her little sister. Stepping into the outside world, Firis' goals are clear - collect three letters of recommendation from officially certified alchemists so that she can take and pass the exam held in a year. For those new to the Atelier series, most of them have imposed a time limit on the player: Exploring, fighting, crafting all takes up in-game time, and you usually have a goal you need to accomplish before that time runs out. Players returning from Atelier Sophie might remember the lack of time limits - while they're a long-standing staple of the Atelier series, they were scrapped entirely in the previous two games. They're back this time. In a compromise between people who like time limits and those who don't, the first half of the game is timed and the second half is unlimited. I thought this was a very nice idea - to me, it's the best of both worlds. My problem with the full time-limit games was that creating sub-optimal gear and items in your first playthrough felt like a waste of time, I always felt like I should just be preparing to do things 'properly' like get the best endings in a carried-over New Game+ run. Firis alleviates this worry by having an time-unlimited postgame, so there's no stress about ending requirements during the timed portion. A good trip to gather ingredients, a well-planned synthesis, a barely-won battle, they all feel more rewarding when you feel like you saved precious time by playing smart. At first you might panic - time is passing! Gathering, synthesizing, even just walking around passes time! I am being timed! Relax, the game is very forgiving with its time limit.
The battle system this time felt rather mediocre, which is unfortunately the norm in Atelier games in my opinion. A gauge builds up during combat, and can be expended to have party members defend Firis, or allowed to build up until a 'chain link' mode is entered, during which party members who take consecutive actions can run up the advance gauge percentage. Link enough party members together and get the advance gauge high enough, and the last person in the chain will use their super-move. In order to make good use of this system, you need to decide when to guard Firis and when to let her take the hit - if you just constantly expend your gauge to guard, you won't have many opportunities to chain link. I felt like this battle system was a step backward from Sophie and from the Dusk series - the chain links were frustrating to set up. As always, the most important thing is to make strong equipment and powerful attack items. It feels like the only time you really get to make proper use of the battle mechanics are in boss fights - that's not too unusual for Atelier, but I wish they could have allowed more of it to shine in normal enemy encounters as well.
The alchemy system in this game makes quite a few changes from the previous game. Instead of synthesizing new cauldrons, Firis uses a combination of reagents and item experience. When synthesizing an item, a grid is shown like the previous games, with bonuses available to collect if all marks of a certain type in the grid are filled. Sometimes these marks are only able to be filled by certain color ingredients, and the entire pattern of available bonuses to collect can be changed depending on the reagent used with the synthesis. Item experience is another change - you have no hope of creating an 'ideal' item on your first chance. Instead, you'll start off with 'bronze' rank experience in making an item, and as you make more of that item (or of similar items), Firis will raise in rank to silver, gold, and platinum for that particular item, allowing more attributes to be inherited at each rank and more freedom in placing items in the alchemy grid. I felt like reagents were a good idea, but they should have been more powerful - they're worth it sometimes, but often enough it feels fine to just use the default reagent-less synthesis. The individual item experience will be controversial, but I ended up liking it - I always hated how in previous games I felt like I was wasting precious resources unless I made the perfect, ideal item on my first try. Since it's impossible to make that ideal item right away this time, you can feel free to make sub-optimal items at first and save your masterpiece item plan for when Firis has gold or platinum experience with that synthesis. The way recipes are unlocked are through an 'insight' system somewhat similar to Atelier Sophie, where certain triggers (such as visiting an area, using an item, collecting something, and many more) will cause Firis to have a flash of insight and memorize a recipe. Insight points, collected by doing quests, can be used to immediately unlock a recipe if you've gotten at least one hint for it if you don't want to wait for the full requirements to be fulfilled.
Atelier Firis comes with 3 difficulties at the start, same as last game - Easy, Normal, Hard. A fourth 'Very Hard' is unlocked after beating the game once. While I recommended Hard last time for Atelier Sophie, this time I actually think Normal is the best one to play in during the timed portion, and then you can switch to whatever challenge level suits you during the unlimited part. I make this recommendation because I played the timed portion on Hard - and I regret it. The reason is that there is a huge variance of enemy difficulty, and on Hard it's an all-too-common occurrence to bump into enemies that will wipe the floor with you easily unless you're constantly keeping your gear up to date. One major flaw of the timed portion is that it heavily discourages getting into combat in the first place, it's very easy to just proceed in the main story by gathering ingredients while avoiding enemies on the huge and wide-open fields. With the time limit hanging over your head, it's easy to just decide to ignore combat altogether. There are very, very few instances where the game actually places an enemy encounter in the way of you progressing with no way around it. Playing on Normal will let you mix in some combat into your journey without as much stress or time investment. If you're feeling hardcore though, then by all means try your hand at both Hard difficulty and at not avoiding enemy encounters. It's definitely doable - the time limit is very lenient, and unless you let yourself get seriously sidetracked, I think most people will pass it with plenty of time to spare.
The destination and goal of the first half of Atelier Firis is the official alchemy exam - and you'd better have been paying attention while you were playing! I don't want to spoil all the portions of the exam, but one of them is a literal multiple choice question and answer test, where you get 10 seconds (and no ability to pause in order to cheat) to answer each question. "Can't I just memorize the questions and reload to cheat that way?" you might ask - you could try, but it's 20 randomly selected questions out of a huge pool of possible candidates. If you're not feeling confident on this part, don't worry too much, you can make up for a low score here by doing well on other parts of the examination. The exam also provides the one major timed-portion-exclusive event difference, since not only can you pass or fail, you are ranked from 1st to 3rd place even if you pass. Most people will probably get 3rd or 2nd place on their first run, 1st place is there for the very talented players, or for people playing a second time in New Game+.
Regarding the characters, this is an area even more heavily colored by individual taste and opinion than usual, but I thought they were just 'okay'. None of the characters really jumped out at me - back in the Arland and Dusk series, I had a lot of characters that I really liked (Sterk, Mimi, Wilbell, Linca). None really pop out so far in the Mysterious series. Firis herself was probably my favorite this time around, the supporting cast didn't do much for me. That's not to say they're bad, if you take the time to do their subquests, you can get some amusing scenes and surprising twists. You'll need to go out of your way to connect with them though, since only Liane, Ilmeria, Sophie and Plachta actually have significant mandatory story contributions. The others can be easy to forget if they're not in your party. I was happy to see that Sophie and Plachta continued to play a somewhat significant role in this game's main story - they were not simply relegated to cameos as sometimes happens. I was a bit surprised and put off at first by the change in art style, though! I wouldn't say it's worse, but it is particularly jarring when you see returning characters such as Sophie and Plachta and how different they look than last game.
Gust advertises that the timed portion of the game is 'only the beginning', and they're not kidding. The end of the timed portion is roughly the halfway point of the game, after which it does a 180 turn and brings back a bunch of mechanics from Atelier Sophie for the untimed portion. Item auto-refilling, fast travel (including a broomstick that Firis can craft and use to ride quickly over the huge maps - eat your heart out, Shallotte), and many other convenience mechanics return. While you had a clear goal in the timed portion - pass the alchemy exam - your 'goal' in the untimed second half is perhaps the most vague goal imaginable. It's a sharp change, and it makes Atelier Firis almost feel like two games in one package. You have unlimited time to pursue all the various endings (and there are a lot of them, about a dozen) and most things from the timed portion are available to keep making progress in during the untimed part. I need to bring up a complaint here, though, and that's about vagueness in general in Atelier Firis. It's hard to figure out what to do sometimes - items give hints on how to unlock their recipes, but sometimes the hints are vague or give you the impression that you're on the right track even when you're still a long way off. You can use your inspiration points to immediately unlock recipes, but only if you've gotten the first hint about the recipe - if you can't figure out the first hint, you're just stuck looking online to figure out what to do to unlock it. In my opinion: Sure, give a bigger penalty for using points to unlock an item recipe without hints, but allow it to be done!
While I have mixed feelings about some changes made in this game, it's worth noting the sheer amount of things they shoved into this game. 40 hours in, I was still unlocking new game mechanics, such as the 'air drop' item that allows Firis to walk on the floor underseas for a limited time, opening up some new areas to explore. Firis also has a wide variety of outfits to wear, each one with its own special effect. For example, her alchemy outfit will add more bonus tiles while synthesizing - and if she doesn't wear weather-appropriate clothing for particularly hot or cold areas, her LP (stamina) will quickly deplete and make traveling difficult. Speaking of LP, this is one mechanic I feel like they nailed in Firis - when your LP drops below 50% (from traveling, gathering, fighting), you suffer penalties until you rest or until you spend time doing alchemy. So, the most ideal combination is to gather and travel until 50% LP, and then go synthesize what you gathered until you're back up to 100%...resting in the bed is just there if you messed up or are injured, if you plan it right you can seamlessly keep your LP above 50% by making sure to always gather and synthesize a bit at a time. "Wait, don't I have to return to the Atelier to synthesize?" you might ask. In Atelier Firis, Firis carries around a portable Atelier that she can set up at any campfire (link leads to spoilers for Atelier Sophie's postgame DLC, explaining the origin of this portable Atelier), so there's no worrying about how far you are from the nearest town - a campfire you can use is almost always nearby.
The music is good, as usual for a Gust game. In particular, I adored the snowy areas' music, and wished more of the game took place in snowy terrain just for the combination of the atmosphere, music, and outfit used over there. However, there aren't any tracks that really pop out as amazing or outstanding to me this time. I feel like the vocal tracks have been lacking a bit in the past couple games. Still, there are plenty of great nonvocal tracks. I'd also like to talk about bugs - Gust delayed the release of Atelier Firis for bugfixing, and it's a good thing they did, but it still has some bugs at the time of writing this review. I suffered a total of four crashes while playing on Patch 1.01, and one crash while playing on Patch 1.02. Make sure you save often and in different slots! In addition, Atelier Firis appears to be pushing the PS4's hardware pretty roughly - there were a couple areas with heavy amounts of enemies on the map where the framerate suffered significant drops. Fortunately, they seem to be improving the stability with each patch, but this is one area that might not be completely fixed without their planned PS4 Pro patch for Atelier Firis. We can only hope that going forward, their games don't start requiring a PS4 Pro to run smoothly.
This is a very difficult game to rate. There are some significant negatives, but there are also so many amazing positives. I found myself throughout the game being in awe at just how many things (some new, some re-purposed from classic Atelier) they crammed into this title. There is so much to do - while Atelier Sophie was about 25 hours to beat, 50 to fully complete, this one is more like '30 hours to finish the timed portion, 55 to get a real ending, 70 to fully complete it'. I'm rating this a bit lower than Atelier Sophie, but it's not really a 'one step forward, two steps back' thing - they threw everything into this game and some of it stuck, some of it didn't. I hope they carry forward the stuff that worked into future titles, and rethink the things that didn't.
Overall Rating: 8.7/10 B+
Reviewer & Review Date: Mellow, November 20 2016
Version: Japanese (PS4)
Release Date: November 2, 2016 (JP)
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Version: Japanese (PS4)
Release Date: November 2, 2016 (JP)
See All Reviews
Note for NA/EU Atelier Sophie players: A free Japan-only DLC for Atelier Sophie was released that fills in the gaps between Atelier Sophie and Atelier Firis. You can read a summary of it here, it you're interested.