Review: Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream
You know, it’s really hard to call something niche when a series has been receiving regular entries for what’s now been decades. It may be hard to believe that the Atelier franchise as a whole has been a long standing presence reaching right back to the original PlayStation, but there’s something to be said about the staying power of this franchise. Longtime fans, dedicated as they are, are always happy to hop into the world of alchemy and fantasy and immerse themselves into whatever dilemma the protagonist might find themselves in, running into a colorful cast of characters along the way.
This time around, the alchemist Sophie Neuenmuller gets another chance in the spotlight after her adventures in Kirchen Bell from the previous Atelier Sophie. Given that her last proper entry kicked off the Mysterious subseries of these games and has been followed up on by the likes of Firis and Lydie & Suelle, I’m sure that the excitement surrounding Sophie’s return to the forefront is palpable to say the least.
My personal experience with the franchise aside, it’s never really a chore to sit down with one of these games and see what unfolds in the bright fantasy franchise that Gust has created over the years. The fact that this is off the heels of another sequel, namely Atelier Ryza 2, the notion of expanding the stories of popular characters past this doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to see from the franchise as a whole all of a sudden.
Given that this is considered the 25th anniversary of the franchise, let’s hope that whatever was mixed up here is a worthy journey to take. Developed by Gust and published by Koei Tecmo, Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream was released on PS4 (playable on PS5), Switch, and PC (Steam) on February 25, 2022. The Switch version was played for this review.
The Dreamscape is Cast
For those who may not have played the first game, Gust decided to throw in a quick refresher of prior events. This brisk summary of the events of Mysterious Book predictably hits all the major points in the story, and helps flesh out the opening for those coming in cold to the sequel.
I’m glad to see that more games are valuing the time of gamers who may not have the chance to both track down a copy and bring themselves up to speed with why the characters are where they are. One of the things that can turn off new players is having to catch up with prior entries to get what’s going on with the game they have bought or are considered buying, so seeing that being recognized is a good move to me.
Having decided to leave the confines of Kirchen Bell, the titular Sophie and her soul-in-a-doll’s-body companion Plachta set out with two goals in mind. One is Sophie looking to (predictably) become a licensed alchemist, and the other is to transfer Plachta’s soul into a proper human body. Both of them stumble upon what’s later known as the Dream Tree. Marveling at the sight of said tree, they are suddenly sucked into a vortex into what they think is the same environment. Though in the process of being isekai’d, the pair are separated from each other and Sophie quickly learns that she’s been whisked away to the dream world of Erde Wiege at the behest of the Dream Goddess known as Elvira. Without getting too in depth with why the both of them were brought in the way they were, Sophie is understandably concerned with trying to reunite with her companion.
While we are dealing with a bit of a rescue story mushed together with a slight fish-out-of-water scenario, much of the plot revolves around Sophie learning about the world around her while also being singularly focused on reuniting with Plachta. Along the way she does amass a cast of characters that fit right in with the types of folks you expect to see in an Atelier game, most notably a different but strangely similar Plachta. While a fair amount of them don’t do much to buck tropes typically found in fantasy-based anime, I found them compelling enough to dismiss it a little bit.
If you know your Atelier games, you’ll know that it’s not outside of the realm of possibility that these games tend to interweave the plot with a pretty heavy dollop of low-stakes slice of life moments during your playthrough. Personally, I don’t mind these sorts of asides if it helps flesh out the character in some way. Drink Links from Yakuza: Like a Dragon immediately comes to mind for me here, as those moments were beneficial for core gameplay while also giving the characters a little more depth past the way they were originally presented. These sort of asides in Sophie do achieve the goal of fleshing out the characters most of the time, but it doesn’t always land.
The overall plot is engaging and entertaining, that much is certain. But I’ve learned to expect a certain vibe from this franchise once I fire up an Atelier title. The plots in these games generally just want to tell a cozy, yet engaging story that’s not afraid to revel in the fantasy world it’s created for itself. Sophie 2 is no different, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Throwaway barrel joke and all. Sometimes you just want a little comfort food, and that’s okay. It’s nice to see that Sophie’s getting a bit more love in general, and it feels relevant to say that what’s put out here fits the bill as a satisfying follow up of a comfy fantasy adventure.
Don’t Dream It, Synthesize It
Being a JRPG at its core, it’s not surprising that jumping into Sophie 2 will feel like a talking to an old friend that decided to take up a new hobby since the last time you saw them. Combat-wise, you’re dealing with a semi-unique take on the turn based formula (a return that some may welcome) that’s been adhered to in numerous ways throughout the series. Boiled down to its basic form, you’re doing the usual attack/guard/skill loop that players have seen in prior turn based titles and JRPGs in general. That may sound a little bit bland at first glance, but it’s more of a solid foundation more than anything.
Where Sophie 2 tries to mix up the formula is generally accomplished through unique mechanics that involve assists in some way or another. Take for instance getting targeted by a foe in combat. In any other JRPG, if you could anticipate a guard you would go ahead and do so if you have the chance. Here, the game gives you the option of letting another character take the damage in the targeted character’s stead.
Another new mechanic here are dual attacks. Basically, you go ahead and trigger it if it’s available and the character up for command teams up with another. In this powered-up state, you’ll get a discount on the MP you use. Which is useful in some cases where the initial MP cost is low, as it essentially results in the free use of a skill. Regardless, being able to double up on a foe in one turn does help with maximizing your damage. It’s a welcome thing to have, especially when you might find yourself a bit outmatched in combat.
Another combat contingency to look out for are Auras. True to its name, certain foes will surround themselves with it and it often mitigates the damage you deal in battle. This isn’t something that will completely break the flow of gameplay, but having to wear down the aura before you can do any real damage could be considered irritating for some. It’s not uncommon for some mini bosses and outright bosses use these at annoying points, forcing you to wear it down and break it before you can do any real damage. Though having enemies stun once it breaks gives the player the chance to go to town before they eventually have to change strategy. That said, the combat is not bland or boring and should easily satisfy fans.
Gust also decided to throw some weather manipulation into the mix as well. Once you’ve synthesized the proper item in the atelier, you can either use them in the field to change the environment (so you can progress through an area) or use them as an ability in combat to remove an environmental buff a boss may have used. In both instances, these are implemented in a way that accentuates the gameplay rather than deter from it. For field traversal, it’s as simple as placing an item in a pedestal. In combat, it’s basically just using it as a skill to keep the edge in your favor.
Speaking of field traversal, it’s simple enough as they present it. Erde Wiege isn’t exactly a sprawling open world, but it’s certainly not a game space devoid of personality or scale. The general home base of the city of Roytale is plenty big with numerous places to get things done. Helping move things along is the implementation of a fast travel system as well. Simply through exploring the game space, you’ll stumble upon crystals that act as fast travel points. This is pretty useful, especially in cases where you’re trying to gather ingredients for synthesizing a specific item.
While the conveyance isn’t always super straightforward, the game does a pretty good job in pointing you in the right direction. The constant stops for text based tutorials are annoying, but at least they give the option to skip if you already know how to do basic JRPG things.
Though it wouldn’t be an Atelier game without alchemy as a major gameplay mechanic. New players may find the concept of gathering materials for all manners of items annoying, but I honestly don’t mind the gameplay loop you see here. The thing that trips me up each time I do jump into these games is how dense things get when it comes to obtaining the appropriate materials to synthesize. There’s a lot to grab, though Sophie tends to spring up ideas for new items to synthesize as you collect things. In this regard, it does give off a slight Dragon Quest Builders vibe with how they come up with recipes.
Synthesizing in general is not a terrible process, though there is more than one alchemist at the cauldron with their own items to stir up. Since they’re both alchemists, Sophie and Erde Wiege Plachta both have their own items to synthesize. Despite this, the way you synthesize are identical between them. After you throw in the necessary ingredients, you’ll have to arrange the items Tetris-style on a field. Naturally, how you arrange them will affect how the item ultimately turns out. Though if you’d rather not mess with that or you’re trying to do multiple items in rapid succession, you can just have the game do that for you. You do get some assist bonuses from other characters the further you get in your alchemy travels, but I do appreciate the level of hands-on/hands-off the actual alchemy system is in general.
So long as you keep up on your alchemy game, as well as keeping your characters at a reasonable level as you do in any JRPG, you’re going to find yourself having a pretty chill time. It’s not very often this franchise gives us sequels to their alchemists, so it’s good to know that Gust knows how to stay in the lane that will keep fans happy and maybe attract new ones. There were times I balked at the density of what I had to synthesize to get things done, but more often than not the game pointed me in the right direction for what I needed to do to grab the appropriate items. Atelier games are remarkably consistent in quality from a gameplay perspective, so it’s not surprising to see that pan out here.
If you’re noticing a theme of “don’t fix what isn’t broke,” then you’re not too far off. Bolstering the comfy aesthetic this franchise is known for is how visually pleasing the art direction is all around. Regardless of platform, Sophie 2 is a gorgeous game to look at. This isn’t surprising given prior titles, but it’s still worth pointing out.
Employing a soft-touch laden presentation was a good move, as it does lean into the fantasy environment quite a bit. Most areas don’t feel lifeless, they aren’t afraid to let loose with the visuals when they want to, and does enough to keep the player visually engaged. It’s pretty apparent that you’re playing a fantasy game, and that shouldn’t be surprising given the longevity of the franchise.
Peformance-wise should be fine on platforms other than the Switch, but the addition of a performance mode on the Switch version was a welcome addition. The hardware was already pretty underpowered at launch, but achieving a level of detail that also boasts a playable framerate is yet another challenge that Gust met in the process. That said, 60 frames a second on the Switch version is an absolute nonstarter even with performance mode enabled. Depending on how quickly things are handled with Steam Deck compatibility, this game could see better on-the-go performance there. With the Switch? You’re going to have to sacrifice performance for portability, though the performance here is much more tolerable in comparison to games like Dragon Quest Builders 2.
I have no real gripes with the sound presentation here. Per usual, you’re going to be dealing with an exclusively Japanese dub. The overall performance from the voice cast here is about what you’d expect from most anime that you’re going to run into these days. Obviously, that isn’t going to be something that’s a detriment. The cast understood the assignment here and get the vibe for each character, though some may balk at the density of the dialogue. There’s a lot of slice of life dialogue here, and I will admit it did kill the pace for me at some points. More often than not it focused on character traits or something to build relationships (like the friendship mechanic the game encourages you to engage in to improve your alchemy), but I’m sure there are going to be folks who would rather focus on the main gameplay. Though regardless of focus, the overall voice acting is just fine.
Thankfully, I can’t complain about the soundtrack. I quite enjoy me some string music when I encounter it, and there’s plenty of that here. Spanning slow and somber tracks to jaunty battle tunes, I found myself occasionally bopping my head to the music. It’ll get really infectious if you let it, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t regularly listen to classical music. Each arrangement properly fits the mood, and hardly feels like an afterthought. You can hear the effort, and I’m glad that they stepped up here.
A Satisfying Mix
Oftentimes, playing an Atelier game is like the otaku equivalent of checking out one of those cozy mysteries you frequently find at your local library. You know exactly what you’re getting into, but you find solace in how everything pans out. It’s familiar, it’s comfortable, and it’s largely inoffensive in comparison to similar titles on the shelf. Much like the Final Fantasy franchise, it’s not often you see a direct sequel to a game unless it really caught on with folks.
Atelier games continue to be the mark of a consistently good franchise, and Sophie 2 does little to deter me from that sentiment. It’s the kind of game that deserves to be experienced alongside your favorite creature comforts and maybe a hot beverage to boot. Sophie’s latest outing most definitely deserves to exist, and those looking for a relatively easygoing and chill experience can’t go wrong here. It’s a worthy sequel to a cherished game, and a wonderful way to celebrate the joy fans have experienced over the years.
Review copy provided by Koei Tecmo for Switch. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Featured image courtesy of Koei Tecmo.