I’ve been playing through Gust’s Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey (in its DX incarnation) of late, and I’ve been struck by how well its open-world style formula works in the context of Atelier’s usual format.
For those not well-versed in the series, the “modern age” of Atelier (from Atelier Rorona up until, for our purposes today, Atelier Sophie) has typically followed a standard formula. You’ll have one or more central hub locations that you consistently return to, and a world map that is usually node-based, with each node on the map representing a relatively small area that you can look around, gather ingredients and fight monsters.
While each individual installment has provided its own twist on the formula — Ateliers Totori, Ayesha and Shallie place a strong emphasis on exploring over a large area, for example, while Ateliers Meruru, Escha & Logy and Sophie all have a much more “local” focus — you can generally rely on there being a distinct “feel” to how things unfold.
Atelier Firis chucks all that right out the window, and this is clear right from the very beginning of the game.
Atelier Firis opens with our heroine Firis working as a member of the sealed underground mining community Ertona. As someone with latent alchemical talent — though she is unaware of this as the game begins — she is able to hear the “voices” of rocks, which naturally makes her especially helpful to the miners when they’re looking for rich veins of ore.
But she’s not satisfied; her older sister regularly heads outside the settlement to hunt and trade, and Firis wishes for nothing more than to see the big blue sky and the world outside what she is finding to be the increasingly oppressive-feeling walls of Ertona.
Firis has to prove herself to her parents and the village elder first, however, and thus the game gives us our first little taste of freedom while still keeping us confined to Ertona. Rather than being several small interconnected “screens”, as in other Atelier games up until this point, Atelier Firis’ Ertona is just part of a much larger map that takes in the cave system inside the mountain where it is located. And, while attempting to figure out how she is going to use her newly learned alchemy talents to help various people around the village, Firis will have to step outside the unmarked “border” of the village and into the cave system proper.
There’s not a lot to explore, but there’s enough to feel like Firis is taking a big step out of her comfort zone the moment you start getting into the more remote, less “settled” part of the caves. It’s just a little taste of independence — though with the awareness that you have a job to do, and a limited amount of time in which to do it. And it leaves you wanting more right alongside Firis.
Long story short, Firis finds herself given permission to go outside — though on the condition that she will make her way to the major city Reisenberg, take an alchemy exam and become an officially licensed alchemist in the space of a year. Succeed, and she’ll have complete freedom to come and go as she pleases; fail, and she’ll return to her old life and speak no more of a possible life outside. Naturally, you want the former option to come true — because there’s more to do in Atelier Firis after that’s all taken care of!
While Firis emerging from Ertona for the first time perhaps isn’t quite as spectacular as emerging from the Imperial sewers for the first time was in Oblivion all those years ago, it’s still a striking moment — and quite a daunting one. While past Atelier games have had relatively rigid structures so far as exploration goes, with Atelier Firis you’re suddenly presented with a very open map and only a vague sense of which direction you’re supposed to be going.
So you just start walking to see what happens. You gather some things along the way; you fight a few Punis; you find a campsite to rest. This isn’t so bad. You run into a man who is in need of medicine — thankfully, Firis has not long learned how to make said medicine as some of her initial alchemy studies, so you provide it to him. He is grateful, and rewards you with some useful items. Firis thanks him and continues on her way.
Before long, you stumble across an out-of-place looking area of greenery in the rocky wasteland you’ve been exploring. On closer inspection you see that there’s a tree that appears to have been damaged by monsters. You beat up some of the monsters in the area to see if that helps; naturally, there’s no immediate reaction, so you decide to come back a few days later. In the meantime you discover that beyond the rocky wasteland is a much more pleasant zone filled with greenery and flowers — and what appears to be a small settlement.
You head into the settlement, hoping that it might play host to an alchemist who can write Firis a letter of recommendation so she can take the exam at her final destination, and it does — but he’s rather flustered by the responsibilities placed upon him by the rest of the village. And thus begins a series of quests where Firis agrees to help out — not forgetting to go back and check on that cute little forest after a few days of hard work, of course — and things just continue in that way from here. Such is the way of Atelier Firis.
What’s so very, very pleasant about Atelier Firis is how organic this all feels. Sure, the game makes it clear when you’ve triggered a quest with on-screen notifications and a log, but often it feels like you’re finding opportunities by accident rather than chasing markers on a minimap. And the game’s world makes sense — following through on logical conclusions will often lead you to a whole string of other things to do, again, often seemingly by accident.
My favourite example so far is during a sequence when Firis is attempting to construct a ship strong enough to blast through a waterspout that has been troubling a lake. As part of the process of making the various parts, I ran out of wood, so I set out on what I thought would be a brief journey into a nearby forest to harvest some lumber which I could process into the appropriate wooden planks needed to continue my construction.
I wandered through the area without a particular direction in mind, just looking out for fallen logs that could be chopped up to get the wood I needed — but after a time I saw something interesting in the distance. Houses? In the middle of this forest? I had to investigate.
Still gathering wood along the way (and providing a few lumps of it to people wandering the forest who had had their own difficulties), I eventually reached this mysterious little village, which appeared to be arranged around a large tree. Firis introduced herself to one of the locals, who told her that she should pay her respects to the village elder. And from there began a whole string of other quests that actually ended up being worthwhile and meaningful to Atelier Firis’ core objective of reaching Reiseberg and taking the exam — all because I went a-wanderin’ in search of wood.
I absolutely adore this. This is how open world games should work — they should feel like they reward exploration and discovery, not systematically cleaning up icons on a map. Atelier Firis absolutely nails this wonderful feeling in a way quite unlike anything I’ve played recently — which is why I’m surprised it hasn’t had more attention and love than it’s had since its original release on PlayStation 4 in 2016.
Oh well. Consider this me doing my bit.
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