The art of alchemy in Atelier Sophie 2

Atelier Sophie 2 header

So now we’ve established firmly that Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream is a thoroughly good time, it’s about time we started taking a more detailed look at its core systems and how they build on the series’ growth over the years. And what better place to start than with the alchemy system? It is, after all, the very heart of the Atelier series.

A brief history of Atelier alchemy

As we talked about in our initial impressions of Atelier Sophie 2, one of the most remarkable things about the Atelier series as a whole is that for almost its entire lifetime, it has been a near-annualised series, and yet no two installments are quite alike one another.

This is seen in a variety of ways, including the overall themes of the story, the style in which the story is presented, the characters who make up the core cast, the combat mechanics — and, of course, the alchemy system.

Alchemy has been part of Atelier since the very first installment, but the way in which these mechanics have worked over the years has changed considerably. What was once a simple matter of collecting the appropriate ingredients for a recipe and using them to create a new item — the most basic crafting system we find in other games, even where it’s not welcome these days — is now a mechanically deep, complex and strategic affair that is well worth mastering.

But before we get into the details, let’s look at how we got here.

Atelier Rorona, spiritual predecessor to Atelier Sophie and numerous others
Atelier Rorona

Many modern players’ first encounter with the Atelier series will have been with the Arland series, which got a “DX” rerelease on Switch, PS4 and PC a while back. And, indeed, many elements of the alchemy system found in Atelier Sophie 2 can be traced back to Atelier Rorona.

It is, however, worth also looking back a little further, since several earlier games introduced things that we take for granted in the series’ alchemy mechanics today. For example, second entry Atelier Elie introduced the ability to create “blend” and “original” syntheses, which helped lay the groundwork for similar items with different effects that we see in today’s Atelier games.

In the case of Atelier Elie and its sequel Atelier Lilie, these mechanics, which would allow you to substitute certain ingredients in recipes and sometimes come up with a brand new item, were one of the ways in which you would discover new items. Today, the focus has shifted a little; now, we tend to have recipes where you can pick multiple different ingredient items from a broader “category”, and your exact choice of ingredients will allow the final item to be distinct in its own way.

Atelier Judie
Atelier Judie

It was fourth game Atelier Judie where we started to see something resembling the “Effects” system we have today. By crafting items with various ingredients in Atelier Judie, it was possible to attach up to five different effects to them, with the ultimate aim being to make every item useful in some way, rather than some being pure “alchemy items”.

The Atelier Iris series for PlayStation 2, which were the first Atelier titles to come west, each built on Atelier Judie’s system by allowing ingredient items to produce various effects. Interestingly, in Atelier Iris, this was largely for flavour text rather than mechanical usefulness — you could do things like make items that smelled bad or were particularly attractive, for example — but as the subseries progressed, it started to incorporate more useful elements, such as the ability to attach skills to equippable items and suchlike.

The two Mana Khemia games which followed the Atelier Iris trilogy built on this further; its “E-Level” mechanic, which could be manipulated through your choice of ingredients and playing a “spinning wheel” minigame during crafting, allowed you to produce similar items with vastly different effects. And, of course, the game’s school setting often set you assignments that tasked you with taking full advantage of this by fulfilling very specific requests.

Atelier Meruru
Atelier Meruru

The Arland trilogy made the “effect level” of an item an explicitly sliding scale that different ingredients would allow you to manipulate. It also added the idea of passing “traits” down from one generation of item to another — and indeed, to produce the most effective items (particularly equipment) in the Arland games, you’d need to ensure that your base ingredients were of the very highest quality as well as your final item.

The Dusk series, consisting of Atelier Ayesha, Atelier Escha & Logy and Atelier Shallie, brought us items with different elemental levels which could be manipulated to trigger a variety of effects.

Each individual installment in the Dusk series handled this slightly differently, with Ayesha’s alchemy mechanic feeling almost like a tabletop card game, Atelier Escha & Logy making use of a pleasingly complex “skills” system that allows you to spend elemental levels in various ways to affect the final recipe, and Atelier Shallie giving us a complex but satisfying system whereby the order in which ingredients are added to the pot is as important as the ingredients themselves.

By the time we reached Atelier Sophie and the beginning of the Mysterious series, it was clear that Atelier players expected something much more than your average “collect three tree roots and two bugs to make a potion” crafting system. And, as such, with each passing installment, the Atelier series has continued to provide us with mechanically interesting alchemy systems that are as satisfying to engage with as anything else in the game.

It is, as we’ve already said, the heart of the series after all — so it stands to reason that this side of things has as much attention paid to its mechanics as, say, combat and exploration.

Atelier Sophie 2
Atelier Sophie 2

The specifics of Atelier Sophie 2’s alchemy

Atelier Sophie 2 doesn’t radically reinvent the system that has been seen in various forms over the course of the previous three Mysterious games — but unlike the other three, it does acknowledge that for once, our protagonist is starting out as a veteran rather than a complete rookie. We’ll get onto that in a moment.

The basic format of Atelier Sophie 2’s alchemy system is that you’re presented with a blank grid on which to place your ingredients. Each ingredient consists of one or more elementally-themed components, and each component takes up one or more squares on the grid in various different arrangements. There’s just one rule you have to follow: you must use at least one component from every ingredient before you can produce the final item.

Where things get interesting are all the layers of optional rules atop that. On the simpler end of things, the item’s final quality level increases according to how many squares of the grid you cover in total. You can overlap components, but if you do so, the one that was on the “bottom” will disappear, so ideally you want to try and fit components around one another like a jigsaw.

Atelier Sophie 2

Working in tandem this is Atelier Sophie 2’s new “Super Success” system, whereby if you fill complete rows or columns on the grid with components, the chance of a massive increase in quality upon final synthesis increases by a significant margin. Fill the entire grid and you’ll have a better than 50-50 chance that your final item will be of much better quality than normal — good odds to bet on.

But it’s not just about item quality. What you really need to be focusing on in order to make the most effective items is the elemental effect levels. These are represented by notched meters, with each notch representing a single square of the appropriate colour on the grid. Place down a component that is made of three green “wind” squares, for example, and you’ll fill three notches on the green “wind” elemental effect meter. Sometimes there is more than one meter of the same colour; in this case, a single component adds to both meters simultaneously.

At various points on the meters, there are larger notches that indicate specific effects. Reach that point on the meter and the effect will be added to the item, with harder to attain effects usually — though not always — being more powerful. For example, when making a bomb, increasing the fire element level with red components will gradually increase not only the base damage, but also the likelihood that the bomb will inflict the “Burns” status effect.

Atelier Sophie 2

There are a couple of ways you can manipulate these elemental levels further beyond simply picking ingredients that have large components of the colours you want. Firstly is the fact that the recipe’s grid contains special squares that represent the various elements; placing an appropriately coloured component so that one of its squares overlaps these elemental spaces will reward you with a bonus notch on the meter. For example, place a red piece so that one of its squares overlaps a “fire” icon and you’ll get an extra point on the fire elemental effect meter.

Secondly, you’ll notice that some effects further up the meters are “locked” as you begin assembling the recipe; the meters simply won’t go beyond a certain point. In order to raise this cap, you need to create elemental links by laying down components so that star-shaped cells are horizontally or vertically adjacent with one another. For each link created like this, the cap on the corresponding meter is raised by one; as such, to unlock the most complex effects from many recipes, you’ll need to arrange components so that they not only fit together on the grid without overlapping, they also have their stars arranged in an efficient way.

As you progress through Atelier Sophie 2’s story, elemental links become important for another purpose, too: each of the main cast members is associated with a particular element, and forming elemental links of the appropriate type allows them to trigger assist skills that will help you with your alchemy. Initially, this is a simple increase in quality according to how many links of the appropriate type you’ve created, but as you work through the cast member’s personal “friendship” stories, you’ll unlock other useful skills — including the ability to transmute components from one element to another.

Atelier Sophie 2

If that all sounds like a lot to take in, fret not — Atelier Sophie 2 doesn’t simply throw you in at the deep end and expect you to immediately understand all of this. It gradually introduces the main parts of the alchemy system one at a time over the course of the game’s opening hours, helping veteran players get a refresher on what they need to know while simultaneously ensuring that newcomers aren’t overwhelmed by what is, in its entirety, a rather deep and complex system.

As previously noted, though, it wouldn’t make narrative sense for Sophie to be starting completely from scratch, though, since by the end of her first game she was shown to be a talented and powerful alchemist. Rather than relying on the tired old trope of amnesia — which I imagine was probably tempting for the writers at some point — they simply acknowledge that Sophie already knows her stuff by equipping her with a variety of useful recipes right from the outset, setting her alchemy level to the original game’s cap of 50 and allowing her to make use of mechanics that required unlocking in the original game.

Probably the most noteworthy of these is the ability to rotate components when placing them on the grid. In the original Atelier Sophie, this was something you could only do if you had the right cauldron — and acquiring or crafting these cauldrons could be a bit of a pain. Not only that, but the various cauldrons were also of different sizes and shapes, making it difficult to optimise your recipes under various circumstances.

None of that in Atelier Sophie 2 — at least initially, anyway. Sophie knows how to rotate an item through 90 degrees right from the outset this time around, and it’s vital to make use of this if you want to fully take advantage of the alchemy system. Later, some more advanced additions are made to the formula, including a “restricted” grid that deliberately prevents you from placing components on certain spaces in exchange for more powerful effects, plus catalysts that can buff up your overall effect levels, but these don’t enter the picture until you have a good foundation in the basics.

All this encourages you to think carefully about how you place your components for each and every item you craft — but it never becomes tiresome thanks to how other very helpful game systems are also unlocked very early in your progression through Atelier Sophie 2.

Atelier Sophie 2

Atelier Sophie 2’s life of convenience

The most useful of these relate to the character Pirka, who runs an item shop in the game’s main town. Not long after starting the game, Pirka provides you with a “restock” facility, whereby so long as Sophie has enough money in her account, Pirka will refresh all her consumable items up to their maximum number of uses. This means that, unlike earlier Atelier games, there’s no need to continually craft items like bombs and curatives, nor do you need to be frugal with their usage — simply craft enough to outfit your party with them appropriately, then rely on Pirka to restock them when you return from an expedition.

This feature has been present in Atelier games for quite some time. The Arland series featured vendors who would gradually produce new items for you, but that took time; the Dusk series and beyond, meanwhile, made this quick and automatic restock ability standard practice — though in quite a few games you have to get a fair distance into the game before you can take advantage of it.

That’s not all Pirka can do in Atelier Sophie 2, however. A little later, she also offers the ability to produce an exact duplicate of any item — including equipment — for a fee. This is an absolute godsend, since it makes outfitting your entire party much easier than in many previous Atelier games; so long as you have the cash, everyone can always be equipped at their absolute optimal levels rather than at least one poor character being left in their starting gear and thus effectively being benched for most of the game. If you’re unfamiliar, gear is of critical importance in Atelier games!

Atelier Sophie 2

To summarise all the above, Atelier Sophie 2 does feel like it has one of the more complex, deep and strategic alchemy systems in the series as a whole — but at the same time it never feels like it’s overwhelming you with pointless busywork. Craft something for the first time and you’ll get a decent chunk of experience; craft it again and you’ll get relatively little. Everything about Atelier Sophie 2 is pushing you towards taking advantage of its more convenient features — so don’t be shy to put Pirka to work!

The result of all this, of course, is that while Atelier Sophie 2 maintains the series’ iconic blend of satisfying RPG gameplay and deep crafting, the latter aspect isn’t so dauntingly prevalent and complex that it will put off newcomers — or indeed RPG veterans who are primarily curious about the game for the adventure side of things.

That’s good game balance and exemplary game design — and testament to how despite this series cropping up on a near-annual basis since 1997, developer Gust most certainly isn’t content to crap out identikit sequels with no real thought. Rather, Atelier Sophie 2 feels like the very latest refinement of a series that has been constantly reinventing and polishing itself for the last 25 years. And it makes me curious to see what might come next!

Atelier Sophie 2 is out now for Nintendo SwitchPlayStation 4 and PC.

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Pete Davison
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