JRPGs with seemingly endless entries in one series, each have their own look and feel to them. For example, it’s common that every fan of the Final Fantasy series, or Dragon Quest series, all seemingly have their own favorite entry for their own reasoning. It could be that they like the particular game for it’s story, or it’s gameplay, or it’s characters, or even for a few minor mechanics that give the game the feel they want out of it. Not every game feels the same to everyone who plays them no matter how similar each entry seems from the last one. Having just come off of the last Atelier game to come out on Vita, Atelier Shallie Plus: Alchemists of the Dusk Sea, I won’t be able to help but draw parallels from this entry and that one. Heck, the two games came out about 7 weeks apart from each other for Vita players. I mention this because I feel it gives some perspective as to why two games of the same series reviewed by the same person, can so seemingly get such different overviews. If you’re a person who doesn’t have much free time on their hands for gaming, due to the EXP grind that is “life”, then I feel it is fair that you pick your “multi-hour” RPGs correctly. I doubt you have time to play every entry in the series or even want to, so I feel it’s my duty to help inform you as much as I can so you don’t end up disappointed with which games you spend your precious time on. And if you HAVE played every entry in the series, then you most likely already made your decision on buying this. In which case, my perspective could still be interesting to you.
Firis is a young girl living in a town that is completely closed off from the outside world. A dark, dank cavernous town that she has spent her entire life in. Her gifted ability to sense where to find useful or valued ore comes to great use to her town’s mining industry. Firis longs to one day leave her confined town to explore the outside world she has read so much about, or heard about from those who are allowed to leave the town to hunt, scout, and trade. She spends her time day dreaming about the day she can finally see the outside world and discover what she has been missing. Her sister Liane is a hunter who gets to explore the outside world and often shares stories with Firis which doesn’t help subside her lust for adventure. One day Firis is at her town’s closed off door, just day dreaming a plot to somehow get the door to open, when all of a sudden, she hears voices on the other side, and then eventually the door explodes! Baffled by what has just happened she meets those responsible, an alchemists named Sophie and her cohort Plachta. They explain to her that what they used to destroy the door was a technique known as alchemy, and just like that, Sophie again uses alchemy to reconstruct the door. Amazed by such an ability, Firis wants to learn everything she can about alchemy and begs for Sophie to teach her how to use it. Firis picks up the basics pretty quickly and begins to make various items for the citizens of her town. This builds her confidence in making items to protect herself from dangers of the outside world, in hopes to convince her parents to let her leave the town, finally. This of course doesn’t convince them and causes Firis to resent them in their decision. Frustrated and fed up, she makes a deal with the mayor of the town. The deal is to solve various problems for those around town in an allotted time, and in exchange she will be allowed to go outside and travel to get her official alchemy license and wouldn’t have to live underground anymore. The catch however being that if she fails to obtain her license, she must come back to the town for good. The tone isn’t as malicious as it sounds, the main reason the mayor and her parents don’t want her to go is because they feel it is too dangerous for someone her age, plus her ability to locate ore is extremely useful to her town’s welfare. The deal is set though, and Firis heads out with her sister Liane, at her side.
Well let’s just say the game doesn’t start off with a good first impression. Don’t get me wrong, the stylized graphics are great and give the game a nice look. The open world is done well and definitely feels fairly expansive, especially since previous games had a lot of confined mini areas that were never anything to write home about. The games first impression however is bogged down by the horrendous frame rate as soon as you start playing. I figure it is because the first town has too many objects to render as it does have a lot of detail with plenty of buildings, structures, and townsfolk strung about. It is almost a slide show, but the frame rate picks up after you leave the more densely populated area of the town. Right away it sort of makes you cringe, especially since you must walk through that area quite a few times during the first few missions and it doesn’t get better. Thankfully once you leave the town, which happens sooner than you think, you are only “treated” to those frame rate dips when visiting other densely detailed towns or areas, but not so much to the extent of when you start out.
Characters are interesting and all have their own unique personalities. There is character development with main characters, and the acting was done well enough to engross you in each scene. Some characters from past games return, and from what I can tell, are true to their likenesses from previous games. These other characters returning make the series feel like it’s own living, breathing world as references are made to these character’s past experiences, tying small plot points together. Music is also quite good, just like past games, and a few songs from the soundtrack were often stuck in my head.
Gameplay and Design
The game’s expansive open world is riddled with monsters to fight and alchemy materials to collect. I found a nice variety of enemies the further I traveled so it never seemed too repetitive. There is no shortage of materials to collect either and you often find new items you haven’t logged before. I quite often found my storage container of items full, and had to throw out or use some things before I could drop off a new batch of collected items. This keeps you constantly performing alchemy and honing your skills in order to clear out some room. I miss the unlimited storage of Atelier Shallie, but I understand why this is necessary as you are a traveler with limited space to carry tons of materials.
Also scattered about the map are plenty of caves and dungeons to discover that often find you new items and new enemies to face. Often times, an area like this houses a tough enemy to fight that is a challenge, but has a worthwhile pay off if you can defeat it, if even just for the experience points. In order to perform alchemy, rest, or save your game, you have to set up camp at one of the many camp fires found throughout your journey. The game is pretty lenient with how far it spreads these camp sites away from each other. I hardly ever had a hard time finding one. A few times I was cutting it close to my character running out of stamina and having to start back at my last campsite, was only in areas of the map that weren’t filled out as I hadn’t been to those areas before. You can also fast travel to any past campsite, village, or landmark you have been to before, however it will still run the time down on your in-game clock, accordingly. Speaking of the in game clock, you are given one year to complete all the tasks required in order for you to take the Official Alchemy Exam, and pass it. The time here depletes depending on what you do, and how much you walk around. Gathering items, fighting enemies, and even just walking is all gradually depleting the clock while out and about. I often found myself gathering plenty of items I saw just near my last campsite and an entire in-game day will have passed and I hadn’t wandered very far at all. While performing alchemy, you are also told how many hours each item will take to make which you need to also take into account. This seems rather stressful at first because it will seem like weeks have passed and you have hardly done anything very productive towards your goal. However, this in-game year is plenty of time to finish everything you need to do in order to obtain your license, so don’t worry.
Atelier Firis doesn’t feel as polished as the last entry on Vita. The last game that came out for Vita seemed more organized, and all the information you needed was just a button press or two away. For example, when you are buying something from a merchant and it’s an item you haven’t seen before with traits you are most likely unfamiliar with, you have to back out and go into the pause menu’s encyclopedia to see descriptors, and even then, that is only useful if you have owned that material in your inventory at one point. Otherwise if its a new item, the entry in the encyclopedia is blank. With no readily available information right as you are looking at the item before purchasing, you are basically just taking a shot in the dark, risking your currency. Another example of that is when buying weapons or wearable gear from merchants, it doesn’t tell you before purchasing, if the item in question is stronger than what your party members have currently equipped. In Atelier Shallie, you were shown right on the menu before purchasing, if the weapon/armor piece was stronger or weaker than what everyone in your current party had equipped. This saved tons of time and was extremely user friendly. You now have to back out entirely, look at your equipment screen in the pause menu, remember the values, then talk to the merchant again and decide for yourself if it’s worth the investment.
Also, the alchemy system is changed entirely and information you need, such as a quick description of attributes and traits an item has, is not there for easy reference. Let’s say an item has two traits that come with it, and they are called “Count Bonus” and “Stable Effect”, unless you have memorized what those terms mean, you have to back out of mixing your ingredients (depending on what step you are on), back to the list of where you chose said ingredient, find it in your crowded list, press “select” to bring up the table of contents, then pick the trait from there to see a short description of what it does exactly, then pick the item again and go continue from there. In Atelier Shallie, no matter what step you were on, all you had to do was press one button and it would highlight the trait descriptions right then and there, no backing out and starting over again.
The alchemy system in this game is like, working on a messy desk where things are less organized, not completely trashed, but maybe you have empty soda cans all over it and your files are out of order with some being hard to find. Whereas, Atelier Shallie’s alchemy system was like working on a brand new organized desk where everything is labeled and put in easy to access shelves and compartments. I know this doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but when the alchemy of the game is something you use VERY frequently, it becomes frustrating. It took me far less time to become familiar with how the alchemy worked in the previous entry. I was able to judge how well made an item would be before I ever committed to permanently confirming its construction. In this game, it is sort of a gamble sometimes. I often found myself using what I thought were the best ingredients I had in my inventory, even my character praising the work they are doing as I add and sort ingredients, only to have the final result come out as a “D” grade item.
This alchemy system is also less user friendly. Each ingredient is made up of several squares on a 3×3 grid. Some being simple shapes made of two of three blocks, and others in more convoluted shapes of several more blocks. You must then, fit all these shapes on a bigger grid of varying sizes (depending on what catalyst you use) and if there is not enough room to fit a bunch of complicated shapes on, you have to rethink which ingredients to use instead sometimes forcing you to use less quality ingredients, hindering your end result. You can overlap shapes on this grid, but every time I have done that, it seems to lower the quality and/or grade of the end result. You also can’t turn or adjust these shapes either to better fit the grid, the only time you can flip some ingredients, is when you have made the item enough times and you unlock the ability to do that, but even then, it is only when making that ONE item and even still, you can’t just freely turn it whichever way you want, you may only unlock the ability to flip it horizontally/vertically until you continue to make the item over and over again.
I understand that the alchemy system is supposed to be complicated to make you think resourcefully, just like an alchemist would, and that this is part of a new subset of Atelier games where things are just different from the Dusk series, but there were several missing features that would have been greatly appreciated here. Also, on that note, Atelier Shallie also had a more passive system where your character was slowly buffed or gained little background perks for doing things like running a certain distance or jumping a number of times. This would have been PERFECT for this game as you are always on foot traveling around in the game’s open world. Especially since here you have a stamina meter that is always depleting just by you doing your normal tasks and can send you back to your last campsite if you fail to rest and regain your strength. You could have been slowly working up your stamina to stay out on your feet longer, just like in real life. A minor complaint to some, but I feel it was a missed opportunity.
Obviously this game has plenty of the makings of a quality JRPG. It’s artwork, music, style, and open world are definite pluses to this game and I can give credit where credit is due. However the “glue” of the experience is weak, especially in the the first half. The first half is where most people would decide whether to even continue playing. If you can look past what I didn’t like about it, you will find great enjoyment from the game as it is in no way a horrible game. I just feel that since there is no shortage of JRPGs on the Vita, you may find a better experience with another game, or even another game among the Atelier series itself. Games of this nature are multi-hour investments and people only have so much free time. On it’s own, it is a great game, but compared to others in the genre, it is just good. You can do a lot worse, but you can also do better. That being said, I’d say wait for a price drop.
Score: 6.5 out of 10
Atelier Firis had great potential to take everything good about the last Vita offering, and expanding on it, making it better. However, the lack of polish makes the game feel like two steps forward and one step back.