The Pipeline: JRPG Exploring In A Mysterious Book | Buzz Blog
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The Pipeline: JRPG Exploring In A Mysterious Book

A lively jaunt through the latest Atelier game.


Oh, the art of the JRPG. It's like an anime series you can be a part of, if you enjoy that particular genre and gameplay. Among the many names in the genre, few have been doing it as long as the Atelier series. The series has been developed by various companies—including Guts, Bothtech, Idea Factory and Tose—and currently is published by Koei Temco, with a new game almost every year  since its inception. The stories flow as if you're watching an ongoing anime series, switching up the lead characters and stories as they go.

The series has had its ups and downs—not everything that ever came out was a winner—and hardcore fans criticize the series every couple years after they finally get used to the latest changes. But it has a dedicated audience who love these games with all their heart, and can't wait for the latest title to hit America. That brings us to the latest version that came out last week, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book.

Your hero Sophie on the left, and your book-turned-woman Plachta on the right. - KOEI TEMCO
  • Koei Temco
  • Your hero Sophie on the left, and your book-turned-woman Plachta on the right.

The story to Mysterious Book is pretty simplistic as far as RPGs go. You start off as Sophie, an alchemist whose grandmother was at the top of her game keeping the town healthy. We're left to assume the grandmother has passed on, because we start with Sophie now brewing her own medicines without granny's help. After Sophie writes the recipe down in a leftover book with blank pages, the book comes to life, calling itself Plachta and having no memory of who it is (because, you know ... books do that here).  Plachta promises to teach Sophie how to do alchemy right, while Sophie helps the book remember who she is (and eventually regain human form, sorta). Together with her friends, they venture forth into the, well...  the ether. I say that because unlike previous games, there is no major challenge or crisis that needs to be taken care of. It's simply about you building up your skills and unraveling the mystery set before you, which makes it laid back in a sense. You're not put under tons of pressure.

A book turning into a woman. Every college nerd's fantasy come to life. - KOEI TEMCO
  • Koei Temco
  • A book turning into a woman. Every college nerd's fantasy come to life.

The gameplay itself is sound and clever. If you're an anime fan, this is paradise, as you're given a setting that contains fine details where needed and lovely artwork where it isn't necessary.  Some of the textures are off as you go about town, but they feel more like an aesthetically addition than a rushed dynamic to the art. The townsfolk are generally helpful. and will help push the story along when needed.

Enemies are one of the top selling points to the game, as the variety and level ratio are well balanced. Yes, you will get unfairly beat from time to time, but it isn't like the game is throwing a Level 40 boss in your face when you're just Level 17. The challenge lies within how you battle and strategize your attacks; it's not all "hammer the X button" to get through your attacks.

Which brings us to the combat system, giving you and your characters a chance to work together for the common goal while still acting on an individual basis. Atelier Sophie is one of those RPGs where you need to coordinate your group, rather than relying on the one character that is six levels higher than everyone else as the rest play support. It challenges you to think beyond the box.

Well... this was a mistake. - KOEI TEMCO
  • Koei Temco
  • Well... this was a mistake.

And that, if anything else, is probably the biggest selling point to the game for a younger crowd. The text in Atelier Sophie  is constantly talking to you about getting creative, thinking up better ways to do things, pushing you as a player to get out of the standard RPG rut—valuable lessons for a younger generation as they're growing to a point where learning creative-thinking skills and keeping their imagination active start to serve them well, both in school and in life. What a novel concept, right? Teaching kids life lessons through a game about ridiculous magic, they may actually retain it for years to come. Just like how I learned to always save the blue turtle shell in the final lap of Mario Kart while driving on the highway and practicing safe driving ... but let's skip me for a bit.

Beware my ice bomb! And stop looking at my skirt. - KOEI TEMCO
  • Koei Temco
  • Beware my ice bomb! And stop looking at my skirt.

Some of the instant gripes I had with this game involved the menu system. (We'll skip over the dialog and acting, because those problems are obvious, and many reviewers before me have written 30-page rants on the subject.) As an RPG lover, I feel as if the Atelier series is made for gamers above the age of 12, a step up for anyone who has mastered anything from the Legend of Zelda library, but aren't quite ready for the occasionally confusing mechanics of something in the realm of Final Fantasy or Elder Scrolls. So the menu system is explained in great detail for gamers who are just starting to get the hang of complexity. But when you're a seasoned gamer, the way it's set up is tedious. I still need to learn the system like anyone else who just dives in, but I don't need a three-minute tutorial of how to work a map, especially a map that doesn't really have an open world; you're basically following lines to your next destination. Every game requires a tutorial of some kind, and it becomes really frustrating, especially when creating new items.

You just made Berg Medicine. Would you like a toutorial on how to apply the ointment? - KOEI TEMCO
  • Koei Temco
  • You just made Berg Medicine. Would you like a toutorial on how to apply the ointment?

Making potions is just as taxing, but can also turn into its own puzzle game. There are items needed to make certain brews for your alchemy pot, which you collect in areas filled with monsters, then return home and blend them together to make what you need. Combining items become a Tetris-like challenge, where you need to arrange them in the best form fashionable for the best product.  It gives the area some depth, but if you screw up, you're now out a set of items that probably took you an hour to find as you battled monsters, and now you need to go do it all over again.

  • Koei Temco

Overall, this is a good addition to the Atelier series—not the greatest but certainly not terrible. There are so many reasons to clown on the game if you're a seasoned player, but this game wasn't designed for those players in mind. It was designed to be fun and not be radically difficult. The only disadvantage to the game is how the simplest items are drawn out ad nauseum to the point where your mind starts to cry out "Uuuuuugh! With this shit again?" Once you get past that mental hurdle of dealing with a hurry-up-and-wait system, all is good to go. The story will catch anime fans who want to see it develop, while gamers will get a challenge out of the battles and puzzle-like alchemy. If you're a gaming parent, give it to the kids, they'll probably enjoy it much more and will unknowingly learn some life lessons in the process.