By Aly Hand
Atelier Firis: Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey is the newest game to join the prestigious Atelier series. The eighteenth iteration of the series, Atelier Firis is not the one I would choose for people just starting out with the series. The game begins with Firis, a young girl who is living in an isolated town, hoping to venture outside and see the world. The first stranger she encounters is Sophie, the titular character from the previous game, and Sophie agrees to teach her alchemy. Firis then uses what she's learned to convince her parents to allow her to leave town. She begins her journey with a time limit: if she doesn't become a fully licensed alchemist within a year, she will have to return home. She begins her journey, venturing out of her hometown accompanied by her older sister, Liane. In a move quite different from other RPGs, there is no "final boss" at the end of that time limit, but instead an exam designed to torture people with poor memories for trivia, or people who rush through the game without taking the time to learn recipes and practice what they've learned.
From a personal standpoint, I have to say this is not the best example of what an Atelier game can do. The game can be divided into two sections: pre- and post-exam. Unfortunately, the directions for how to proceed pre-exam are not always clear. In terms of game time, over half of the time limit was spent trying to figure out how to get out of Flussheim. Everything pre-exam is tense, with the time limit hanging over your head, pressuring you to do things faster. And while it is very possible to get through the pre-exam time without issue, it's much harder on an initial play-through unless you have a strategy guide or FAQ handy. Not all the quests are clearly explained, nor are the solutions to them intuitive, so numerous times I found myself suffering through trial and error in order to progress.
Learning recipes has changed once more. No longer do you learn them almost exclusively from recipe books and by tinkering with other recipes. Now you learn new items by what you do: through battles with specific monsters, gathering specific materials, or synthesizing specific items a certain number of times. While there are recipe books, they are rare and often prohibitively expensive. And with money being a comparatively rare thing, it takes a significant amount of time to build up the necessary funds to afford them.
The battle system is relatively simple to understand, with turn-based combat and a chain gauge that allows you to combine party member attacks into massive combos for additional effect. While the addition of the chain gauge is nice, nine times out of ten the monsters (even bosses) die before you can get it set up properly. In fact, setting up a chain combo without help is so difficult I never managed to pull it off. Without carefully reviewing the help menu and lots of trial and error, you may complete the timed portion of the game without ever managing it.
Bosses in the game are also different; rather than a staple of a finished dungeon, now they wander around specific sections of the map and are completely avoidable. In fact, it is very easy to complete the timed portion of the game without ever fighting one. Maps are large, with many quick-travel points scattered around, though the quick-travel is also somewhat limited in that you can only quick-travel on the map you're on. Though there is a world map, you can't travel between maps from it, nor can you see quick-travel points on any map other than the one you are currently on. These limitations are frustrating, particularly while the time limit of the game hangs overhead like the Sword of Damocles.
The one thing that would make it easier to progress in the game—the addition of new party members—takes an almost prohibitively long time to occur. I pushed through to the first major town, called Flussheim, and it still took over half of my time limit before I could find another party member and recruit them. And he cost money! With how little money you get from battles, hiring him would have taken me several more hours to afford. Thankfully, by wandering around several of the other maps, I managed to stumble across two more party members, before finally finding a third and fourth. Unfortunately, once you complete the exam, you will have to go fetch them again, which makes it very frustrating to try and get through maps you've already completed.
Still, there are a great number of quests to do in the game, and while they all follow the standard model (kill x of y enemy; gather x number of y material; make x number of y recipe and/or deliver to so-and-so) there's enough spread out amongst the maps that it's possible to do them all with relative ease. Unfortunately, again, reviewing active quests can be a time-consuming and often frustrating process, simply because of how they are designed. For example, if you open your quest book and page between active quests, you will have to back all the way up to the initial quest detail you opened before you can exit that portion of the menu. Kind of like having to hit the back button to get back to your home page in a web browser with no way to close it unless you do. As frustrating as that would make surfing the web, that is the frustration felt when navigating the details in the menus.
Overall the game was entertaining and a decent addition to the Atelier series. Unfortunately, between the severe lack of direction and the extreme frustration of the final exam, the initial portion of the game makes it difficult to appreciate the secondary portion. It was fun, but the previous game was much better in both design and execution.
(Review code for Atelier Firis was provided by the publisher)