Atelier Sophie 2: Another year, another amazing Atelier

Atelier Sophie 2 header

A lot of players have been complaining about annualised franchises for some time now. And it’s understandable, really; for about the last decade or so, the big-name triple-A franchises have been churning out identikit sequels that are only vaguely distinguishable from one another, leading to fatigue and burnout of franchises, developers, publishers and players. But the Atelier series has somehow always remained immune to this — with latest installment Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream being a great example of how and why.

You see, despite there having been an Atelier game almost every single year since 1997, each and every one of those Atelier games — even the ones within the same “subseries” of the franchise as a whole — has reinvented itself in some way. Sometimes a new Atelier adopts a new game structure or style of play; sometimes it shifts the narrative focus to a different perspective or style of storytelling; sometimes (all right, quite often) it radically updates its core mechanics. And, more often than not, it does some combination of all of these things.

And, as a result, despite new Atelier games theoretically being as predictable as new Assassin’s Creed titles at this point, one series has managed to remain consistently fresh and interesting for 25 full years, while the other is frequently derided as one of many poster children for the unnecessary excesses of annualised development. I think you know which way round those are.

Atelier Sophie 2

Anyway, Atelier Sophie 2 is good. Really good. So good, in fact, that I think it’s more than worthy of some properly in-depth exploration here on Rice Digital. You will have noticed of late that we’ve been doing a fair few “Rice Digs Deep” features, exploring entire series of manga and doing detailed analysis of visual novels — and Atelier Sophie 2 is more than worthy of similar treatment. Not just because it’s good, but also because it deserves better than the treatment it’s likely to get in the imminent future.

You see, Atelier Sophie 2 has the distinct misfortune of releasing on the exact same day as FromSoftware’s Elden Ring, one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the last few years — and a game which you can expect veritable miles of column inches to be devoted to across the majority of the games press worldwide. As good as Elden Ring may well be — and early accounts appear to indicate that it is very good — other solid releases that happen to be coming out the same day don’t deserve to be drowned.

And thus, you could say that we’re giving Atelier Sophie 2 the “triple-A treatment”. In today’s piece, you’ll find some initial impressions from my first few hours with the game, and in the coming days you’ll find more detailed explorations of the systems, game structure, specific mechanics, narrative and presentational aspects that the game offers. The result will be one of the most detailed “reviews” of Atelier Sophie 2 that you’ll find online — and this most certainly won’t be the last game to get this treatment.

So, without further ado, let’s get underway.

Atelier Sophie 2

Atelier Sophie 2’s grander context

Atelier Sophie 2 is the twenty-third mainline Atelier game, a direct sequel to the first Atelier Sophie (which was the seventeenth) and part of the Mysterious subseries. Chronologically, it unfolds after the first Atelier Sophie and before its original follow-up Atelier Firis, meaning there’s no need to have played the other two games in the Mysterious subseries (the aforementioned Atelier Firis, followed by Atelier Lydie & Suelle) before tackling Atelier Sophie 2.

In fact, Atelier Sophie 2 comes with a synopsis movie of the first Atelier Sophie game, so if you haven’t played that and want to jump straight into this one, you can do. For the most part, the narrative is completely separate and self-contained — though references are made to events and characters from the original Atelier Sophie, so you’ll have a deeper understanding and appreciation of Atelier Sophie 2 if you play the original one first.

For the unfamiliar, the Atelier franchise as a whole is split into separate subseries, of which Mysterious is one. Each subseries has its own setting and stands completely separate from the others, having only narrative themes and core gameplay concepts in common — and within a subseries, each individual game also tends to stand by itself in narrative terms, but taken as part of a complete set there’s a larger overarching narrative of both several generations of characters and the continuing development of the setting.

In other words, if Atelier Sophie 2 is your first Atelier — and despite the “2” in its name it’s accessible enough that it could be — you don’t need to worry about not having played twenty-two other titles previously. So that’s nice.

Atelier Sophie 2

What is Atelier Sophie 2?

In Atelier Sophie 2, you take on the role of Sophie Neuenmuller, a young alchemist who, over the course of her previous adventure, discovered a mysterious book that housed the centuries-old soul of an alchemist named Plachta. Fascinated by the tales this old soul had to tell as she gradually regained her memories, Sophie resolved to work on her alchemy skills in order to help Plachta, ultimately succeeding — with a little help from her specialist friends — in transferring Plachta’s soul into a fully autonomous doll body.

As Atelier Sophie 2 opens, we see Sophie and Plachta having hit the road after the dramatic conclusion to their original adventure. Sophie’s aims are to continue working on her alchemy, with the eventual goal of becoming an officially licensed alchemist — something she eventually achieves in Atelier Firis — and also to find a way to completely restore Plachta to full, human form. On their journey, they encounter a huge tree that Plachta supposedly had a dream about — and are understandably surprised and perturbed when a big purple swirling vortex appears, sucking both Plachta and Sophie into another dimension.

Atelier Sophie 2

What’s worse, Sophie wakes up alone, with Plachta nowhere to be seen. She’s rescued by the local cheerful oppai loli and general busybody Alette, taken to the nearby town, informed that she’s now in a world of dreams known as Erde Wiege, and introduced to another person called Plachta who may or may not be an incarnation of the real Plachta from the distant past, but not the Plachta Sophie was travelling with.

An intriguing setup, I’m sure you’ll agree — particularly since it quickly becomes apparent that Sophie’s long-dead grandmother Ramizel also appears to be in Erde Wiege in considerably younger form — and, indeed, there are plenty of mysteries to solve along the way. Why does Erde Wiege exist? Who is Elvira, the supposed “goddess of dreams” who built this world? What does it mean for Sophie that she’s seemingly encountering people from both the recent and distant past? And where the hell is Plachta?

Time for an adventure, I’d say. And, as always for the Atelier series, that adventure takes the form of a role-playing game that combines elements of exploration, turn-based combat and a detailed crafting system, with the latter tending to be crucial not only to story progression, but success in combat too.

Atelier Sophie 2

How does Atelier Sophie 2 build on its predecessor?

This bit’s for those who played the first Atelier Sophie and want to know how the sequel elaborates on what that original game did. We’ll talk in considerably more detail about all these mechanics in a subsequent part of this feature, but it is worth noting up-front that Atelier Sophie 2 immediately acknowledges that it is a sequel to a prior adventure through its mechanics as well as its narrative.

All characters start at at least level 20, which was the level cap of the original Atelier Sophie, and Sophie herself begins with an alchemy level of 50 (again, the cap from the previous game), which means she’s already capable of making a variety of useful items.

While the alchemy system resembles the grid-based, puzzle game-style mechanic from the prior Mysterious games, Sophie starts with some useful abilities that took time and effort to unlock in her original adventure — most notably the ability to rotate pieces on the grid to better fit them into place. She’s supposed to be a highly experienced, powerful alchemist by this point in the narrative, after all, and being placed in this position right from the outset is rather refreshing for an Atelier game, where you typically start as a complete novice.

Atelier Sophie 2

The game actually allows you to perform alchemy with both Sophie and the Erde Wiege incarnation of Plachta, with the latter being less experienced than Sophie at this point in her career — a nice inversion of the formula from the original game. The reason why you might want to use Plachta instead of Sophie — or vice versa, for that matter — is that each character has access to their own unique recipes and specialisms, as well as common items that either of them are able to craft.

Unlocking recipes is similar to other entries in the Mysterious series, in that there’s a “tree” of recipes, each of which has their own specific unlock requirements for Sophie (or Plachta) to come up with an idea. Sometimes these requirements are as simple as gathering a certain item, but at others you need to unravel vaguely cryptic clues and visit specific locations.

A useful addition is a new “Recommended” label which appears the moment you’re able to craft helpful field tools such as a sickle (for gathering certain plants) and a pickaxe (for mining) — and with both Sophie and Plachta both starting at respectable alchemy levels, there’s never a feeling that you need to “grind” through all the available recipes.

Atelier Sophie 2

What’s new in Atelier Sophie 2?

The first and most obvious thing is that the entire cast, aside from Sophie and (the original) Plachta, is new. And there are some brilliant cast members to get to know along the way, each with their own distinct story thread that you can follow through at your leisure.

The grindy numerical “Friendship rating” mechanic has been ditched in favour of a simple “heart” system that shows how far through each character’s story you are, and character events are clearly indicated on the map and fast travel screen, allowing you to quickly prioritise exactly what it is you want to do.

The overall structure of the game occupies a space somewhere between the original Atelier Sophie and Atelier Firis; the areas you’ll visit are interconnected and have a much more “open” feeling than the first Atelier Sophie game — plus there’s no node-based world map travelling — but they don’t feel quite as sprawling as those seen in Atelier Firis, making them less daunting to explore. They are worth exploring, however, since pretty much every area houses at least one discoverable Landmark, with rewards for discovering each and every one of them.

There’s a passive ability system similar to that seen when you reach the level cap in the first Atelier Sophie, but it appears much earlier in the game here in Atelier Sophie 2. This allows you to grow each party member as you see fit — but each party member also obtains bonus passive abilities according to how many Ability Points you spend in total.

These ability points can be acquired through both discovering the aforementioned Landmarks and completing “personal quests” for each of the party members. These are generally fairly simple objectives such as getting into a certain number of battles, but they provide plenty of incentive to engage with all the game’s different systems in a similar fashion to how Atelier Shallie implemented its “Life Task” mechanics.

Atelier Sophie 2

One of the most impressive additions over the original Atelier Sophie is how there’s now no separate battle screen; battles are still turn-based, but upon entering battle, the “background” is simply where you were standing in the current environment. On top of that, the party of enemies you encounter actually takes into account the other enemy symbols that were standing nearby when you engaged a specific one, meaning you can quickly judge how challenging an encounter is likely to be simply by seeing how many things are standing together.

It’s a good balance between a real-time open-world combat system and the classic turn-based system that the Atelier series has typically erred towards. And combat itself is snappy and interesting, with the effects it’s possible to add on to equipment and consumable items making for highly enjoyable, dramatically presented encounters. The multi-hit attacks some weapons are capable of feel particularly reminiscent of the PS2-era Atelier games, and are consistently satisfying.

Combat displays more helpful information than ever before, too. Now you can see “stacks” of buffs and debuffs rather than simply knowing that said buffs or debuffs have been applied. This makes it easier to understand whether or not it’s necessary or practical to apply a status effect multiple times, for example (it is) and helps to add some depth to combat, even against trash enemies in the field.

There’s also a weather system, and this is relevant both in combat and during exploration. During combat, certain enemies perform better in sunny, rainy or stormy conditions, and after a certain point in the narrative you gain the ability to affect the weather during combat. While exploring, meanwhile, different weather conditions can open up or block off certain paths; heavy rain causes floods, for example, but this can also cause floating platforms to rise to the surface.

Some dungeons make heavy use of the weather mechanic as a series of traversal puzzles; generally speaking, getting to the next story beat is fairly straightforward, but reaching all the treasure chests in an area requires a little more creativity.

At the time of writing, I’m only partway through the game, so doubtless there are more new features to discover, too. But I think that’s probably plenty to be getting on with for now!

Atelier Sophie 2

Is it good?

Well, you already know the answer to this, I’m sure — but yes, yes it very much is. As a personal project, I’ve been playing through all the western-released Atelier games (from Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana onwards) and it’s been a continual delight to see Gust consistently experiment with mechanics and structural elements, refine them, polish them, abandon them if they’re not working and find new, creative ways to deliver the core Atelier concept in a new and fresh-feeling way.

Atelier Sophie 2, unsurprisingly for the newest installment at the time of writing, feels like one of the most refined, polished entries in the series to date. It gets underway quickly, it allows experienced players to get right into the meaty stuff without scaring new players away, its characters are likeable and interesting and its mechanics are solid. Plus it looks lovely, sounds great and is just generally satisfying to play. It’s a game that wants you to enjoy it — and it makes a point of placing minimal barriers in the way of that enjoyment, right from the moment you fire it up for the first time.

Fantastic stuff, then — but we’ve barely scratched the surface of all the specific features of Atelier Sophie 2 even in the preceding 2,500 words. So in the coming days, expect some more detailed analysis of its various mechanical features, its narrative and its distinctive audio-visual aesthetic.

And remember: as good as Elden Ring undoubtedly is, great games like this deserve a chance to shine, too!

Atelier Sophie 2 is out on February 25 for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and PC.

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Pete Davison
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