Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX Review (Switch)
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX is the second entry in the Atelier “Mysterious” subseries, with the DX version in particular releasing alongside Sophie and Lydie & Suelle back on April 22nd. As mentioned in my Atelier Franchise – What To Expect article, this series is not afraid of changing things up between each and every release, and that certainly applies to the transition from Sophie to today’s topic, Firis.
While Sophie was pretty standard Atelier fare structure-wise, Firis has embraced a new open world approach that’s quite different from what I’ve come to expect from the series. Although interesting, and undoubtedly ambitious, other design decisions ultimately hamstring the new approach before it really has a chance to flourish. It’s still a lot of fun, though.
Set some time after the events of Atelier Sophie, Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX follows the journey of Firis, a girl with an ability to “sense” mineral deposits, a tool quite useful in the remote mining village at the heart of a mountain in which she resides. Her dream is to leave the town and freely explore the world, but this is forbidden due to the (supposed) dangers that lie in wait outside their walls. Eventually, the town is visited by Sophie and Plactha from the first game, and after Firis spends some time with the two, she realizes her affinity for nature extends beyond that of minerals: she has a natural affinity for alchemy.
Seeing this as an opportunity to leave the village, Firis strikes a deal with the elder to pass the alchemy exam in Reisenberg within one year, else she will have to return to town. With a few recipes up her sleeve, and the strong arm of her sister, Liane, at her side, the two set out in the world to acquire letters of recommendation in order to ultimately tackle the Reisenberg exam.
In order to understand the shortcomings of the narrative in Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX, you must first consider the franchise’s historical narrative strengths. These games rarely tell gripping tales, instead relying on a solid cast of characters who generally have their own associated endings that rival or exceed the main plot in terms of just being interesting. This certainly applies here – in fact, the base story here is about as weak as they come. Follow two adventurers to take an exam, and, well, that’s about it; no crazy reveals, and nothing really interesting to note when it comes to the base plot alone.
That’s not even mentioning how absurd it is that Firis must pass the exam to travel the world, when she’s clearly already out there and could technically do whatever she wants. And that “dangerous” world that her village within the mountains warns about? Firis literally meets an elderly merchant and young travelers within minutes of venturing out for the first time. Danger my foot.
Because traveling is the name of the tune and you don’t really have a stationary location (for reasons not to be spoiled here) to call “home”, the supporting cast suffers quite a bit since your mobile base only supports a few companions and most relationship events are gated behind the completion of the base story. In most other Atelier experiences, you’d be travelling to and from different locations but generally go back to the hometown where most (if not all) your companions also reside (or at least call home for the adventure). The fact that you’re constantly on the move, in addition to having limited travelling companions and the resurgence of the time limit mechanic (more on that later), makes building bonds with characters a bit more tedious and a little less natural than the norm.
The time limit becomes a nonissue in the latter half of the game, which allows for more freedom of growth between characters – but at what cost? Racing against the clock during the base game doesn’t allow for relationships to flourish with supporting characters that well, leading to the base game feeling more like “the adventure of Firis and Liane” rather than “Firis and her companions.” Then when the game finally relaxes the time limit and you just want to explore the world proper, you are bombarded by character events that detract from the open world design they’re going for – a pattern that unfortunately persists throughout multiple facets of the game. I did find both Firis and Liane to be interesting at least, and surprisingly, the return of a few familiar faces (like Oskar) was welcomed since some character development had carried over from the previous game.
At large, Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX is not so different from the standard Atelier experience: an apprentice alchemist’s rise to fame, knowledge, and power through gathering, combat, synthesis, exploration, and relationship building. The pacing and presentation of it all, however, is where the biggest differences lie. After being absent from the previous two entries, Sophie and Shallie, Firis marks the return of time limits in a hybrid system that very much goes against the grain of its unique (in an Atelier sense) open world map design.
Rather than presenting the world via a plethora of mini zones bound together by a world map, Firis boasts multiple large zones that are quite impressive in terms of sheer land mass. All of these locations are filled with a variety of objectives and sub-objectives to complete, towns and caves to explore, NPCs to befriend, and enemies to defeat. In terms of things to see and do, and how it is presented, this entry is one of the more exciting (in theory) the franchise has to offer.
The problem? The time limit and the energy system, otherwise known as LP. Firis has a year to complete the exam, and time in this world flows like a river – a rapid, cascading one, at that. Forage a few plants and it will quickly go from day to night, expending some LP and eventually docking a day from the one-year time limit. Simply walking passes time! Time and LP erodes quickly, and your bags will inevitably fill up, requiring you to rest up (thus lose more time) in order to continue exploration.
Now let me be clear: the time limit in Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX is actually quite generous compared to previous entries, but it can be deceptive. You can easily do what you need to do – acquire at least three recommendations from licensed alchemists before taking on the exam – with plenty of time to spare, but only if you don’t get lost in exploring the open world without a care (which is VERY easy to do). And so it begs the question: why? Why is there a time limit in a game clearly designed to encourage exploration? Your guess is as good as mine.
All that said, Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX does remove the time limit altogether upon completing the exam, but that is considered the postgame and may be too late for some. There are essentially three standard endings – bad (fail exam), good (pass exam), and true (do a lot of things) – and all the different character-specific endings to achieve, all of which can technically be done within a single playthrough. Truthfully though, by the postgame, you’ve likely explored every zone at a hasty pace, and it just feels odd now being able to go back over them with a fine-toothed comb. Regardless, Atelier Firis is easily one of the most ambitious entries of the entire series, especially considering it is a middle release in a subseries, but many of the changes don’t play well with other design decisions. Despite all this vitriol, the core gameplay loop is still very much a joy to consume.
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX has more or less adopted the puzzle-based synthesis system that debuted in Atelier Sophie, with only a couple key changes. The biggest difference here is the introduction of catalysts, an additional material thrown into the cauldron that can alter the bonuses on the grid, such as increased quality, transferable traits, and component color enhancement. On the positive end, the Tetris-like material grid has been further refined to make the process more fulfilling. On the other hand, Atelier Firis introduces an individual recipe level in addition to the traditional alchemy level that feels like added complexity “just because.” Still, negative additions aside, the heart of alchemy remains enjoyable.
For those new to the series, the bulk of character and story progression is done through synthesis. Events often require certain items to be made to proceed, and while Firis and company will gain levels and accrue equipment in a traditional sense, the bulk of their power will come from making wise decisions through synthesis. By combining materials gathered out in the world, the player can carry over traits and properties in order to make some exceptional items and equipment. This style of progression has, and likely always will be, key to any Atelier experience.
The turn-based combat in Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX builds upon and refines the ideas executed in Atelier Sophie. Your battle party can be up to four members strong, with the nose of the vanguard most susceptible to enemy attacks. Dealing damage to opponents will build up a chain gauge which can then be used to allow the vanguard to absorb attacks in place of Firis at the cost of some of the gauge.
Allowing the chain gauge to reach its maximum level, however, will allow for combo attacks that can chain together party members’ abilities for increased damage with each successful link. Eventually, reaching a certain combo link percentage will unleash some special abilities that can be extremely powerful. There is enough complexity between item and skill usage as well as guarding and combo attacks to keep things engaging and interesting throughout.
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX is packed with all sorts of goodies that either didn’t exist or were purchased separately in its original form, most of which can be filed under quality-of-life improvements. There are additional mounts and tools that help Firis be more efficient with her time, speedup features both in and out of combat, new content in the form of some challenging fights, a bundle of previously released DLC, and a photo mode for those that enjoy crafting the “perfect stills.”
Presentation and Performance
Out of the chute, it’s clear that Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX has attempted to capitalize on the departure of PS3 hardware in favor of the PS4. The open world lens has brought the world to life in a way that I wasn’t expecting. Visually speaking, I have very few complaints with how the game world presents its environments and inhabitants. And on one hand, the change of perspective feels like a natural form of progression, but the cruel reality is that the game is littered with performance issues. Frequent, albeit brief, instances of freezing can occur in and out of combat, and the transitions between different areas within a single zone and the change from day to night can be extremely jarring with its abrupt changes to music and ambience. I also experienced one devastating crash that set me back hours worth of progress, so be sure to save often as there are no autosaves to bail you out here.
While the various zones and towns are generally unique from one another, the NPCs peppered throughout don’t fare quite as well. Atelier games are notorious for utilizing limited NPC sprites that simply don’t work well from an immersion standpoint when multiple cities are at play. This isn’t much of an issue in the entries that focus on one main city and maybe a hamlet here and there, but that is not the case in Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX. The same could be said for enemy variety (or lack thereof), but I’ve grown to appreciate how the series loves to reuse iconic enemies from previous entries (not so different from Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest). Regardless, the exceptional design and detail of the main and supporting characters – save for a few, um, wardrobe malfunctions – help make up for the shortcomings elsewhere.
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX has me more conflicted than any other Atelier entry I’ve played to date. I adore the fact that the franchise isn’t afraid of change, and those changes often do pay off. I appreciate the size and scope of this world, but I can’t help but feel that the time limit in the base game was a huge mistake considering the new open world approach. Would you have enjoyed Oblivion or Skyrim as much if you had to complete their base campaigns within a certain time limit? My money is on a resounding “no.”
Even still, Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX is an enjoyable ride. It has a lot of issues, perhaps more than any entry I’ve played up to this point, but the core gameplay will keep you coming back regardless. And the sheer idea of a more open world Atelier adventure is exciting, even if you have to finish the base game in order to even begin to appreciate it.