In a genre where protagonists battle against perilous demonic forces, save the world from utter destruction, or even end up slaying God, one series instead opts for a more laid-back approach. I’m of course talking about Atelier, the Japanese role-playing game series combining cute girls and alchemy since 1997. These games feature all the quintessential aspects of JRPGs: turn-based combat, item management, crafting, and exploration, but this is all done with an adorable aesthetic. Featuring over 50 games to date, it should come as no surprise that the series has gained quite a cult following over the last couple of decades. In fact, we’ve already reviewed one of the more popular entries in the series!
Atelier Ryza 2 (2021), one of the most recent games in the series, and its eponymous protagonist, Ryza.
Each Atelier game generally focuses on a new protagonist, often a female lead who pursues the ancient art of alchemy and overcomes challenges along the way with the help of her friends. This was the case for Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book released in 2016 for the PlayStation 4 and PSVita, and later for PC and Nintendo Switch. Nestled in the quaint village of Kirchen Bell, Sophie unravelled the mysteries behind a mysterious talking book, Plachta, who turned out to be a talented alchemist trapped within its pages. Following on directly from her debut, Sophie returns once again in the sequel, Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream for PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC.
So does Atelier Sophie 2 play like a dream, or would the remaining pages of Sophie’s story be better off left unfinished? Find out more in the mysterious pages ahead.
Set directly after the events of Kirchen Bell, Atelier Sophie 2 begins with our playful protagonist finally venturing out into the wide world accompanied by her companion, Plachta, who now inhabits a doll body crafted by Sophie herself. Eager to learn more alchemy along the way, the two embark on their very first journey outside the comfort of their home town. Though, as expected, this doesn’t go quite as Sophie had planned. Upon stumbling across a gargantuan tree wrapped around a colossal crystal, Sophie and Plachta are swept into a bizarre vortex and thrust into mysterious world beyond.
Atelier Sophie soon becomes separated from her beloved companion, Plachta.
Literally plummeting into the new world, Sophie awakens by herself to find herself in the midst of a sprawling city known as Erde Wiege, the “City of Dreams“. It’s not long before Sophie learns of another budding young alchemist who just so happens to share the same name as her alchemical companion, Plachta. Upon meeting with this new Plachta, it is revealed that Erde Wiege is a realm controlled by a Goddess who chooses the town’s inhabitants from across space and time. Anyone with a dream is brought into Erde Wiege until their dream is fulfilled. It just so happens that Sophie soon stumbles across some familiar faces, including one highly influential figure in her life that she has always longed to meet…
Erde Wiege, a mystical world that transcends the boundaries of both space and time.
The story of Atelier Sophie 2, while somewhat cliché, is packed full of emotion, genuine relationships, and an intriguing plot that slowly unfolds over the course of the game. Players who enjoyed the original will be immediately drawn into this new world, while those who are starting with the sequel can easily catch up via a short plot summary video included at the beginning of the game.
Like most recent entries in the Atelier series, the games have become almost formulaic considering their short development cycle. There are staples in Atelier Sophie 2 that are nearly identical to its predecessors, with familiar gameplay that might be easy to jump into, but begins to feel somewhat uninspired. There are three main aspects of the game which divide the game equally into the components of exploration, alchemy, and combat. The entire game consists of a gameplay loop where players engage in these three aspects of gameplay in order to progress. So what exactly does Sophie get up to in her dreams?
Exploration is arguably the largest chunk of Sophie’s journey, and sees the player venturing out into vast locales surrounding the hub city of Erde Wiege. Each new area is absolutely packed full of alchemical ingredients which must be gathered as part of the game’s progression. Items for alchemy can be found scattered across the overworld, or tucked away in areas that require some strategy and platforming to reach. Sprawling overworld regions can sometimes appear daunting and overwhelming with an excessive amount of ingredients, but this becomes less of an issue when delving into the game’s smaller, more detailed dungeon-like maps.
Pro-tip: pick up EVERYTHING. How big are Sophie’s pockets anyway?
While most of the exploration is quite straightforward and gathering ingredients requires little planning or thought, Atelier Sophie 2 adds in a new gameplay element of weather that quite literally transforms each environment. By progressing through the game, Sophie will obtain several items with the ability to harness the elements themselves and bend them to her will. Having trouble progressing through a flooded area? Use a sunstone to dry up the water and reveal a brand new path. Can’t make it to a high cliff where a tantalisingly rare item is taunting you? Summon a deluge and hop aboard a floating log to reach your treasure! This minor addition adds far more thought to the game’s exploration and keeps things fresh compared to earlier entries.
Alchemy is a series staple that no Atelier game would be without – in fact the entire game would be pointless if you couldn’t do something with all these gathered ingredients. Bringing your spoils back into Sophie and Plachta’s adorable abode feels like an entire game in itself! By approaching the cauldron, an entire library of crafting is at your disposal, being able to create everything from simple ingredients and consumables all the way through to impressive armour and weapons to arm your team.
Each alchemical creation is done through a grid-based minigame, whereby the player selects certain ingredients and slots them into a square layout. The key to creating the highest quality items is done through matching similar colours, creating chains of activated ingredients, and using up as much of the grid as possible. Though it might sound simple in theory, creating some of the game’s more complex items takes some serious thought, as the more efficient you are, the better skills and stats your items will have. It’s a satisfying addition to the earlier games, and feels more tactical than some previous alchemy methods in the Atelier series.
You better get used to this screen, because you’ll be seeing it a few hundred times!
Combat is unavoidable in any self-respecting JRPG, so even the cutest of characters like Sophie and her friends must sometimes go annihilate some poor slimes. Thankfully the combat here is simple to master and surprisingly satisfying, featuring many staples of turn-based combat that RPG fans will immediately recognise. Players control 6 characters at once, three in the main team who engage in combat, and three in a support team who can trigger special skills and offer support actions. The standard elements of combat are all here: attacks, blocks, items, skills, magic – so most players will easily be able to dive straight in.
The combat screen, featuring two big reasons to play Atelier Sophie.
To change things up a bit, Atelier Sophie 2 has an emphasis on “Twin Actions” – abilities that can be performed by two characters in immediate succession by using accumulated points. These devastating combos use less MP and upon defeating an enemy will reward the player with an extra turn, so exploiting them is the key to success. Most overworld battles tend to be very straightforward and require little planning, however the game’s bosses certainly pose a challenge and will require players to act as tactically as possible during these punishing battles.
Few games have ever left me so conflicted when it comes to their visuals. Often a game will look stunning and graphically impressive, or conversely it may look outdated and bland, yet somehow Atelier Sophie 2 manages to achieve a perplexing blend of both. Certain elements of the game’s visual style will leave fans of the series satisfied thanks to cute character designs and vibrant environments, while on the other hand some glaring lack of details and stiff animations make parts of the game appear lifeless and uninspired.
The lighting and vibrant colours make the world pleasant to explore. (NOTE: this gif isn’t 100% representative of the game’s visuals or colours)
The game’s lighting and colour palette do well at matching its equally vibrant characters, as the game overall has quite a light and positive aesthetic. Anime-inspired character models similar to those seen in Atelier Ryza are certainly an improvement from the earlier games, and are detailed enough to convey the game’s emotion and comedy during character interactions. Though it is disappointingly obvious at the lack of attention given to the models when it comes to animation, as while interacting characters will generally stand in an awkward almost t-pose position which appears artificial and robotic.
In emotional cutscenes, it’s hard not to be distracted by the visuals, like this fireplace that looks like it belongs in a Nintendo 64 game.
Similar criticisms can be made toward the game’s environments, some of which have excellent art design but lack the visual detail to truly impress. When viewed as a whole, each region appears pleasant and awash with colour. Poorly-detailed environmental models and re-used assets from earlier games leave Atelier Sophie feeling more like a bland nightmare than a pleasant dream. Fans of the series will come to expect the lack of graphical finesse, though it becomes even more obvious when contrasted with gorgeous open-world JRPGs like Tales of Arise or stylish games like NEO: The World Ends With You. It’s not a bad looking game, but it does little to impress.
Returning to compose the music for the sequel are Daisuke Achiwa and Kazuki Yanagawa, both of whom are veterans and in-house composers for the Atelier series. Their distinct musical style certainly shines throughout Atelier Sophie 2, with 60 tracks most of which have a light acoustic/folk vibe to them. The vast majority of the soundtrack is incredibly pleasant background music packed full of string instruments and their vibrant, uplifting melodies. Here are a couple of my favourite tracks from the game:
The alchemy theme, which you’ll be hearing a lot, which is great because it’s super catchy!
This exploration theme combines Celtic instruments and choral vocals to create a gorgeous, uplifting sound.
Conversely, battle music takes on a very different style, bringing in electric guitar and fast-paced tempos particularly for some of the more tense boss fights. This track from the game’s first boss fight should give you a good idea of what I’m talking about!
Since when did Yngwie Malmsteen start composing game music?
Aside from the music, the rest of the game you’ll be listening to character dialogue, which is available only in Japanese. While the voice acting is of a high quality and each character sounds appropriate and convincing, those who are not fond of reading subtitles may be put off by the lack of an English dub. Personally I didn’t have any concern playing with Japanese audio, but it seems to be almost the norm among JRPGs now to have dual audio that can be swapped at any time.
Outside of the game’s main story, there’s a fair bit of additional content to appeal to completionists. Naturally, being a JRPG, there are a tonne of sidequests to complete, ranging from simple fetch quests through to optional extra bosses that will score you rare alchemy loot. Completing certain side quests will help you to befriend particular characters who inhabit Erde Wiege, and increasing your friendship bond in the process. It’s an aspect that feels strangely familiar to the Persona series’ “Social Links“, in that upgrading your bond with a character will progressively unlock new abilities, items, and even skills that can aide in alchemy.
For fans who love to mess around with a game’s visuals or show off a creative side, there’s plenty of fun to be had in Atelier Sophie 2’s photo mode. While not as versatile as those found in other games like Ghost of Tsushima or Horizon: Forbidden West, the photo mode here provides simple options for arranging the game’s characters in a variety of poses and settings. Though the visuals are still somewhat rough around the edges, it’s easy to show off the more vibrant and light-hearted side of the game when taking some simple snaps.
Finally, there’s a fair few completely optional DLC costumes which are either included with the deluxe version of the game or can be purchased separately. The stock standard costumes are here: frilly dress, one piece swimsuit etc. But as a nice touch there are also costumes from fan favourite Atelier Ryza, and the recently-released Blue Reflection: Second Light. Definitely a nice touch for series fans!
Offering a solid turn-based JRPG with engaging crafting elements and a cute visual aesthetic, Atelier Sophie 2 is a follow-up that will no doubt appeal to fans of the original game. Despite some new gameplay elements which attempt to keep the series feeling varied and fresh, the cut-and-paste formula of Atelier games becomes quite obvious and tiresome, especially when comparing to other modern JRPGs. This game doesn’t push any boundaries or introduce any groundbreaking gameplay, but plays it safe and retains all the expected elements of an Atelier game to cater to fans of the earlier games. So does it play like a dream? Not quite, but Atelier fans shouldn’t sleep on this sequel.
So, why should you play it?
- You’ve played and enjoyed the original Atelier Sophie.
- Looking for a cosy and comfy JRPG.
- Love collecting and crafting? This game is for you.
- Catchy and upbeat acoustic/folk soundtrack is a delight to listen to.
But why shouldn’t you play it?
- Gameplay feels tired and uninspired despite new additions.
- Vibrant visuals fall flat with lack of detail in environments and animations.
- You’re a bit over traditional turn-based combat in JRPGs.
- Lack of an English dub may be a deal breaker for some players.
A review code for PlayStation 4 was provided for the purpose of this review. All gameplay was played and captured on a PlayStation 5 console.