Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey is a single-player JRPG developed by Gust and published by Koei Tecmo. It’s the eighteenth installment of the Atelier series, sequel to Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book.
Here you play Firis Mistlud, an enthusiastic but naïve young girl with latent talents in alchemy who lives in a sheltered village. She’s only permitted to leave if she passes her alchemy exam. If she fails, she’ll have to stay home indefinitely. I haven’t played the others in the series, so I’m coming into Atelier Firis fresh.
Atelier Firis will either completely charm you or drive you mad; I’ve experienced both reactions. It’s a grower – in the same way a CD takes a few listens for you to start liking it. The game is saccharine and very ‘kawaii.’ If you can’t get onboard with the cutesy aesthetics and vocals, this probably won’t be the game for you.
Off to a Bad Start…
For someone who likes plenty of JRPGs and anime, I initially didn’t like the game at all. The premise of a protagonist being exploited for her talent who yearns for the outside world is interesting, but it’s stymied by some stilted direction and lack of compelling drama or character development. In addition, the home settlement, Ertona, is an uninspired-looking landscape populated by forgettable NPCs.
After doing a bunch of crafting, a lot of talking, and completing tasks, you finally reach the outside world. And then, the credits roll. A trifle short for this kind of game, but hey, overall objective complete. Oh… That was the tutorial. This progression sets the tone for the rest of the game; whenever you think you’re done, there’s always more.
A Whole New World
Once outside, your new objective is reaching the far-off city of Reisenberg so Firis can take her alchemy exam. You have a year to get there, traveling, resting, and crafting in between. In fact, you have to rest frequently in the titular atelier (a pop-up abode, like a capsule house from Dragonball). Otherwise, Firis becomes tired, making combat harder and ingredients lower quality. Rushing for the exam adds urgency, but discourages exploration and leads to frustration when hopelessly lost. No, I don’t have time to find your cow, sir!
After the exam, you’re free to explore as you wish with no time limit. The quick travel function is a godsend, but only works on the local area map to begin with. You can craft a broomstick mount to speed things up, but it’s a fair way into the game before it becomes craftable. By the time you actually gain world map quick travel (in the form of an airship), you’re nearly at the end of the game.
The sprawling landscapes are bland and somewhat ugly (certainly on my PC), functioning as backdrops for killing monsters and collecting resources. It’s like running around the skeleton of an empty (and dated) MMO where you’re the only player.
Different times of day and weather produce different monsters and resources, which goes some way to making exploration more dynamic. Enemies are visible on the map and trigger a typical turn-based battle. This offers a neat opportunity to use the weapons and items that Firis has crafted through alchemy in combat.
There’s heavy focus on crafting. Appropriate, given our aim to become a licensed alchemist. Alchemy synthesis falls somewhere between a puzzle and a minigame. Unfortunately, it’s neither challenging enough as a puzzle or fun enough as a minigame.
Synthesis works by lining up colored materials into specific shapes and linking them for combos. You can find the best fit for special items, but the process is generally repetitive. In the end, I just wanted to buy or mass produce items, which would defeat the object of the game. You do have the option to ‘Mass Synthesize,’ but only for large quest items, like bridges and boats.
If you enjoy crafting, customization and min-maxing, alchemy has a lot to offer. There are many combinations of varying effects and quality that produce different items. You can also customize your atelier, such as adding a research desk that helps decrease synergy level requirements. Otherwise, ‘atelier making’ is pretty much like playing with a dollhouse.
The Neverending Story…
The game is huge, featuring many large areas to explore, monsters, ingredients, and even multiple endings. It took me about two hours to leave Ertona, and about 20 hours before I completed the alchemy exam. Firis’ new objective then becomes figuring out what she wants to do with her life – which took yet another 20 hours.
While you get a lot of bang for your buck for time invested, it’s only value for money if you’re actually enjoying those hours. For the most part, however, I did enjoy it despite all the grinding.
At its absolute best, Atelier Firis thematically resembles Studio Ghibli’s film Kiki’s Delivery Service. Like that movie, this game tells the coming-of-age story of a young girl striking out on her own to find her way in the world. But here, that girl brings her older sister in tow (although it’s kind of weird that she flirts with Firis so much). You feel genuine warmth and charm when engaging with the cheerful-but-determined protagonist.
Despite some interesting and novel ideas, the game struggles with execution. Some quest objectives are inconsistent or simply make no sense. There are minor inconveniences: only a few people can fit in the atelier, occasionally forcing you to track down characters to swap them out. Alchemy recipes, even with sorting tabs and favorites, eventually become a complete mess to sort through.
But credit where it’s due: Atelier Firis is a refreshingly different take on the characters and story templates found in most JRPGs. Firis isn’t saving the world, she’s just trying to find her place in it. The upbeat tone is an antidote to more ‘epic’ and ‘grimdark’ fantasy games. Zipping about on your broomstick collecting things is bizarrely enjoyable. Despite its many flaws, this game feels kind of special.
Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey is now available on PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Steam.
Steam review code provided by the publisher.