With 22 main series releases to its name, but the majority on prior console generations, KOEI TECMO set about re-releasing its PS3 ‘Arland’ and ‘Dusk’ stories in deluxe packages on newer consoles. The ‘Mysterious’ trilogy is its most recent with Atelier Mysterious Trilogy Deluxe Pack including improved versions of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book, Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey and Atelier Lydie & Suelle: The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings.
The JRPG series is known for its relaxed and slow-paced alchemy-led adventures where the combining of items is the main ingredient for its RPG gameplay. The first game, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book DX, set in European-esque environs, has Sophie, a young alchemist with little ability, discover a talking book that has lost its memories and requires you to gain experience as an alchemist by synthesizing items from gathered ingredients, in a static tetris-esque puzzle game, in order to help it.
Fighting enemies in turn-based battles while collecting resources for your cauldron-based creations is another element that plays a major role in the title, but despite its significance and quality is the story’s least important, showing the underlying issue with 2 of the 3 titles in the trilogy – the priority and mix of story and gameplay is wholly unbalanced.
Initially starting with Sophie’s two best friends as battle partners, your team expands as the story progresses and your bonds with the characters, built through its slice-of-life pacing, wills those who complete the game to soldier through it.
Unfortunately, Sophie’s relationships are unable to prevent the game from feeling like its narrative would have been better suited to an anime. The story’s central premise (of helping the book uncover its memories) hardly inspires excitement and the repetitive and unenjoyable gameplay loop – grind, create items, cutscene, grind again – constantly halts any momentum the relationships create. This loop is made worse by the fact that everything about it is generic and forgettable. Bland stock enemies in tiny non-descript areas accessed via a menu as well as concocting your creations soon lose their novelty and start to sour the experience.
The biggest issue Mysterious Book commits, however, is that for a game with heavy focus on story, there is almost no effort made to present an entertaining story. There’s no tension, momentum or highs or lows to speak of. The gameplay also provides little challenge and consequences for failure which removes any sense of achievement and ultimately gives you little reason to continue playing other than to see the characters interact. It seems odd to say, but the inclusion of even a single boss character seems like a poor choice here. The narrative is so relaxed and so adverse to providing any threat to our characters that by the time he is introduced as the game’s main boss, he’s not only the first boss to appear, but his background and motivations are unsurprisingly meek, and defeating the scooby doo-like for can only make you wonder why this was released in the guise of something interactive.
Funnily enough, prior to the most recent Atelier release, Mysterious Book was actually the bestselling entry of the series! Perhaps it struck a chord with the younger audience it’s aimed at, but it still doesn’t forgive the slightly confused priorities of a title that refuses to fully commit to what it wants to achieve.
The 2nd of the series, also originally released on the PS3, Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey DX, corrects everything wrong with its first entry, showing that 18 entries into the series has provided developer GUST enough experience and tools to switch out the features of their yearly releases as they see fit. Gone is the reliance on one town and an interface that overly encourages fast travel, and in comes an adventure game with numerous explorable areas, a non-linear storyline with large optional areas to explore and numerous ways to achieve the same goal. There’s also a countdown that the main goal needs to be completed by which means you can’t complete all the main and side quests within a single playthrough, making each one different.
Mysterious Journey‘s target audience takes a bit of a drop with a new younger female main protagonist, Firis, who’s clueless and irritatingly infant-like personality makes sense narratively for the growth necessary in the character but makes it no less palatable. Players hoping for a more serious, more in-depth take beyond the “I will do my best” repetitive mantra and feather pillow-covered failure might be disappointed here. This and the less time dedicated to introducing and developing new characters, now dedicated to exploring the world, are perhaps the only downsides to this vastly improved entry.
Firis is born and raised within a village built inside of a mountain and whose only chance to fulfill her dream of escaping comes in the form of Sophie who blows a hole through the mountain town’s front door and in the same breath puts Firis on her path to her destined profession. Her town’s elder proclaims that if Firis can become a certified alchemist then she can leave home.
This ridiculous intro aside, the narrative propels the story ahead perfectly with Firis needing 3 letters of recommendation from existing alchemists to become certified. The game provides 5 opportunities to obtain a letter in whichever order you like, giving you the freedom to decide your journey, providing a thrilling tangible control of the story.
With more of a Dragon Quest-esque adventure experience, you can explore a world that brings with it some interesting features. Your atelier can be set up by any campfire dotted around the map, meaning your base can shift around with you and the world’s time and weather actually has significance this time around with rainy weather fogging up your minimap and NPCs going home and lock their doors at night. Sleeping also has a purpose this time as well, healing your party’s health stats, as well as their IP meter (also a holdover from Mysterious Book) which lowers with movement and ultimately can result in you fainting on the map if you don’t set up your atelier before it reaches 0.
The battle system remains the same from the first game but synthesizing feels like a revelation in the second as its not only been improved, but the nonlinear nature of the story and the freedom afforded to you makes it feel less repetitive and enjoyable feeding back into a better-integrated gameplay loop.
While personal preference dictates this title is one decent protagonist away from being an excellent game, this RPG adventure has more urgency and purpose with varied environments, a good focused narrative with excellent adjustable elements and a well-adjusted gameplay loop making this a recommended entry to the world of alchemy and a great standalone option for a new fan.
The third title Lydie & Suelle: The Alchemists and the Mysterious Paintings DX is the third and last entry of the series and was the first to be released on the PS4. The protagonists are now two polar opposite female twin teens who run an Atelier with their comically useless father in a town that introduces an alchemist ranking system, facilitating the twins’ goal to run the most well-known and best Atelier in the world.
The slightly older main characters add a comical tone to the interactions and while it still lacks tension or any realistic threat to the relaxed atmosphere, it’s a welcome inclusion.
Regrettably though, the gameplay reverts back to Mysterious Book‘s RPG fetch and synthesize style with an overbearing fast travel option for its tiny one-town map, but more importantly, omits one key feature – immersion. While Mysterious Book lacks the exploration of Mysterious Journey it at least keeps you and the majority of the characters in one area, justifying your time spent there and, to some degree, making you feel part of the town. Mysterious paintings, on the other hand, is the textbook definition of how not to design a town with a fast travel system as there’s no hub of activity and almost no reason to explore the beautiful but lifeless town outside of the fast travel points with few initiating events and NPCs. The number of fast travel points for such a small map would seem to suggest that the developers either knew of its lack of interaction or that the 50+ hour game is simply too long in the first place.
The 4 character fighting system with its accrued team combos is now replaced with a system of 3 attackers and 3 support characters that provide combos in pairs. With roles that can be reversed and with the ability to use your gathered materials to synthesize mid-battle, as well as certain environments providing boosts to attacks, there’s a lot more strategy and options for the player during battle.
The conundrum Mysterious Paintings finds itself in is that while it might have the best graphics, the most complicated fighting and synthesize systems and even the most entertaining protagonists, it lacks the flexibility to free its potential from the apathy-inducing gameplay loop and the lack of adventure that Keio Tecmo puzzlingly saw fit to return to.
Atelier Mysterious Trilogy Deluxe Pack is an inconsistent offering with three interesting narratives, with good character interaction and anime-styled visuals, but only one well-balanced game (Mysterious Journey) that isn’t beset by issues with variety and repetition. This, in addition to the lack of any overall story arc, makes it very difficult to justify the collection to anyone other than a fan looking for the improvements (QOL adjustments, full voiceovers, the original DLC and a photo mode) the trilogy offers over the originals.