Another year, another Atelier game – this is now the 23rd entry in the series. It is a bit different though, given that it’s an actual numbered sequel to a past Atelier game and that it might just be the best in the series yet.
Okay, so a lot of people are probably going to be wondering if they need to play the first Atelier Sophie before jumping into this one – an understandable question given that that one came out seven years ago. You’re going to get a lot of diehard fans arguing that it MUST be played before this one, but as someone that literally finished the first a couple weeks ago and then played through this sequel – I wouldn’t say it’s really all that necessary.
Not that the first game is bad – it’s a great play if you like this series – but just that its story is particularly weak for an Atelier game and the fact that the entire thing can be summed up in a roughly four minute recap video tells you all you need to know about how complex the story was there. So if you do want to jump in right here, it’s completely fine and the recap video will serve you well enough – although again, the first game is still a good play if you want to get the full experience.
That said, practically everything about this sequel is miles better than in the original. The crafting, the combat, the graphics, the quality of life, even the story – Gust has truly outdone themselves this time and I was very surprised with how much fun I had here given that we just had Ryza 2 last year and that felt like a drop in quality compared to the first Ryza – even if it was still a fun time.
Let’s start with the crafting. The Tetris system makes its return and is somehow even better than it already was – which is saying a lot given that that was my favorite feature from the first game. Now, instead of having to swap cauldrons around to do things like rotate ingredients, you’re able to do that right off the bat and in its place you get some other neat features like link pieces, super successes, catalysts, and even an outright second alchemist to use that has her own unique level.
It’s somehow much easier to understand and pick up than in the first game, yet maintains that same level of complexity – if not more so. The bulk of this is likely due to the new UI, which makes it much easier to identify ingredients, elements, etc. Whatever the case, I found myself really getting into it, trying to get the perfect ingredient spread to fill up all the spaces without overlapping, rotating the pieces just right to get the maximum number of links, and really just trying to min-max my way to some stupidly powerful items – whether that be bombs, weapons, or armor (you have to actually craft equipment this time around instead of using a blacksmith – another good change).
But really, it’s just another excellent Atelier crafting system all around. There’s a bunch of items to make, a bunch of different modifiers and traits to play around with, and it’s easy to get into, yet with so much depth that you can really spend time maxing everything out. Honestly, it might be the best I’ve seen in the series yet and this is coming from someone that has played nine entries.
Another massive improvement comes in the form of the gathering, or rather, the game world in general. Taking cues from Ryza, the game world is now this big, inter-connected thing. It’s not necessarily open world – as loading screens still separate each area – but each is large enough on its own that it kinda gives that impression. It’s not one of those “empty” open worlds though. There’s hills, forests, caves, ruins, and these are all flooded with enemies, items, treasure, and other stuff to find.
Ingredients are actually visible on the map this time and the combat now takes place without any loading screens. You simply smack or run into an enemy and the combat arena opens up right then and there – no transitions, no nothing, just straight to combat. The game may have dropped some of the additional exploration tools introduced in the last Ryza game, but in its place introduced a new weather system.
You’re now able to craft specific items that allow you to change an area’s weather by placing said item on a corresponding pillar. These alter not only the items and enemies on the map, but the physical terrain too – like sunny weather draining a flooded valley or snowy weather freezing a lake so you can cross. They can be done in sequence too – like in one area where it became necessary to change to sunny weather to open a valve, change to rainy to increase the newly formed lake in size, and then to snowy to freeze that lake for crossing.
It’s pretty cool at first, but I can’t deny that I became a bit iffy on it as the game went on. Having to cycle around the different weather settings to get to where I needed to go can be a bit tedious and it doesn’t help that the weather items have a set number of uses before being depleted. The game does provide waypoints on the map that can be traveled to once activated, so it is not as annoying once you’ve explored an area, but I would say this new addition is okay at best.
On the graphics front though, the game is solid and the gathering areas are a testament to that. I mean, compared to some other genres it might not be the best, but for an Atelier game it is absolutely some good stuff and comparable to the quality we got in the past two Ryza games. Actual level geometry, buildings that aren’t just giant blocks, and the character models are noticeably more crisp. Great news, as Sophie might just be my favorite Atelier protagonist design-wise. Maybe it’s the fang, I don’t know – the design is some good stuff.
And of course, when you’re not going around gathering or doing story stuff (more on that later), you’ll be in combat. This is yet again another area of improvement and it feels really nice to finally get back to the tried and true turn-based formula of past Atelier games. I still love Ryza’s combat, but I also can’t deny that I’m a sucker for turn-based combat and this game does an excellent job with it.
For one, it’s fast-paced. Because entering combat requires no loading screens, you’re thrown right into it and can immediately start duking it out. Animations can be sped up to 2x and that was pretty much the default for me. The animations are already fast enough, but keeping it at 2x makes battles go significantly faster and you can easily get the materials you need from certain monsters within a matter of seconds.
And if you do want to take it slow – and believe me, I had to at some points – there is a good bit of depth here. Twin actions, type matchups, skills, abilities, changing the weather mid-battle, and of course, all of the different items that can be crafted and then used in battle. It doesn’t go too out there in terms of complexity, but it’s not this dead simple thing either.
I quite liked the balance there and was also a fan of how the guarding mechanic encourages you to use your entire party instead of just stacking a few select members. Guarding for an ally right before an enemy attack swaps them in and activates any talisman they may have on – like reflect damage or defense up on successful guard. It’s a seemingly small feature, but does a lot in adding additional layers to the combat.
Difficulty-wise, I found the game’s normal difficulty to be balanced enough. I didn’t have to do really any grinding, but still found bosses to be a bit challenging and that’s pretty much the combo I go for in these JRPGs anyways. Still, “hard” and “very hard” are there from the start for those that want even more of a challenge.
Ultimately though, what made this game immediately better in my eyes than the first Sophie is the game loop. In that game, it felt like I was constantly doing the same basic process over and over – unlocking a new recipe, crafting it, then having to hunt down the next recipe to craft and so on. There was little actual story content until the end and a lot of the time I was doing guesswork trying to figure out which NPC, item, area, or whatever triggered the next recipe idea to allow me to progress.
Sophie 2 pretty much does away with this system entirely. Recipe ideas are still there and get triggered as you do stuff, but I hardly ever found myself locked behind some mystery gate for hours trying to figure out what to do. Instructions are not as vague, relevant NPCs, items, and monsters are marked on the map, and the game in general doesn’t waste your time grinding out recipes – oftentimes giving you the story recipe you need immediately so you can craft it whenever you are ready.
And the story this time is actually NOT terrible. Not only is the writing better, but the plot is weaved in and out of the gameplay in a manner that doesn’t require it to all be dropped at the end to wrap up in the time remaining. From the start you are constantly getting new cutscenes, character backgrounds, story events – the entire slate. There is much more dialogue this time around, but I also found it to be more interesting.
Partly due to the new setting – a mystical fantasy world that our two main characters get sucked into right at the beginning. That and Sophie’s grandmother takes a central role in the story and it was cool to see the two interact and grow out of that awkward “I’m your grandaughter from the future” phase. It provides for some nice lighthearted comedy to match the more serious story – much more so than the first game.
I won’t sit here and tell you that it’s the best around – I mean, Atelier games generally aren’t known for their writing – but it was engaging enough that it didn’t feel like an interruption to the otherwise excellent gameplay. If anything, it is an improvement compared to not just the first Sophie, but the last Atelier game – Ryza 2 – as well.
So yeah, basically a massive improvement all around. But when it comes to the PC port, there is one issue that I had throughout the entire experience that definitely annoyed me. Running at max settings, 1440p and 144 fps on my 3080 Ti was fine and I didn’t have any stability issues there, but the UI has this weird bug (or at least, I assume it is a bug) where whenever certain menus open or close, the game dips to 30 fps for a split second, resulting in a visible slowdown.
This is best demonstrated when opening a recipe for crafting or opening your storage container to view ingredients. Doing so immediately dips the fps before climbing back up again once the menu is visible. You might think I’m nitpicking here, but it applies to one other area that easily eclipses these two in frustration – the gathering areas.
When gathering items, they are listed on the left side of the screen for a few seconds before disappearing and, unfortunately, when they do vanish from the screen, the game microstutters. So you’ll be moving around, jumping, doing whatever while picking up items and then get hit with that microstutter every time. I’m assuming this is a bug that is going to get fixed, but suffering through that for dozens of hours was a bit of a pain.
Otherwise, the PC port is fine. Runs well, no crashes, and even has a good amount of settings to change – at least for a Koei Tecmo port. The bloom and depth of field are not super aggressive like they are in Ryza 2, so I didn’t feel the need to turn those off either.
Controls on a controller are flawless, but the keyboard and mouse controls were practically unplayable for me. There is no mouse cursor for menus and when using the mouse for camera controls – it is not locked to the game window and I constantly drifted onto my other monitors and accidentally minimizing the game. That and the camera is unbelievably jittery when using mouse input, so this is definitely not a game I would recommend if you do not have a controller to play it with.
However, if you can get over these issues – and hoping the UI bug gets patched along with them – then the port is fine and I had a blast playing through the game in spite of these issues. Getting super in-depth with the crafting, taking down bosses in that classic, Atelier turn-based manner, and taking in the story too. It’s a nice, comfy experience with just a touch of drama to keep it engaging and if I am being honest, it’s actually the most fun I have had with an Atelier game to date.
Atelier Sophie 2 is the best in the series yet, combining the elements that made the first Sophie fun with the recent advancements in Ryza to deliver a familiar, yet modernized Atelier experience. In-depth crafting, fun turn-based combat, great graphics and music, a story that is actually not terrible – there’s a lot of good to say about this game even if it may have a few technical flaws (the microstuttering) and some iffy elements (the weather system). For newcomers, it still might be best to start with Ryza, but Sophie 2 is an easy next best choice and I’m already looking forward to how Gust expands on this with the next Atelier game.
Quote: Atelier Sophie 2 is the best in the series yet, combining the elements that made the first Sophie fun with the recent advancements in Ryza to deliver a familiar, yet modernized Atelier experience.
Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream retails for $60 USD on Steam and is also available on PS4 and Switch.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.