Before Ryza came onto the scene and changed up the Atelier game, many would agree that the previous darling of the series was Atelier Sophie. Evidently, Gust thought so too, as it decided to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series not with the inevitable conclusion of the Secret trilogy, but with a rather unexpected sequel starring Sophie. We’re glad it went with that choice, as Atelier Sophie 2: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Dream is a fantastic new entry blending open-ended design, charming aesthetics, and compelling crafting systems into one must-have package.
Those of you who didn’t play the first Atelier Sophie (which is available on Switch eShop in ‘DX’ form) need not worry about the story, as there’s a helpful recap you can watch if you want to get caught up on the broad strokes. Sophie 2 is set just after that game and before Atelier Firis, filling in some plot details that were previously left vague and creating more connections between those two titles.
The narrative here centres primarily on Sophie and Plachta’s efforts to locate Plachta’s original body, as she’s still stuck inside of a doll. Their search initially brings them to a huge tree Plachta saw in a dream, where a portal suddenly appears and sucks them into an alternate dimension called Erde Weige. This new, mostly pleasant world is ruled over by an enigmatic goddess of dreams, who has pulled people from various times and places into her world so they can fulfil their desires and visions. Unsure of how to escape, and separated from Plachta, Sophie thus sets out on a journey to find her friend and unravel the mystery of Erde Weige.
Considering the somewhat higher stakes this time around, it almost feels amusing that Sophie 2 is as lax and deliberately paced as it is. Sure, our heroine has just been ripped out of her universe and separated from her closest friend, but hey, at least there’s a cozy town nearby, right? And it even has an atelier! True to series form, then, Sophie 2 is just as ‘slice of life’ as you’d expect, giving you plenty of friendly characters to meet and overall having a summery and relaxed vibe that serves as a nice break from the usual angst of JRPG fare. This isn’t a narrative that’ll be winning any awards for its depth or innovation, but it’s a perfect tonal fit and makes (barely) enough sense that it doesn’t grate as the hours roll by.
Gameplay in Sophie 2 mirrors the original in many ways, with the main difference being that the world is much more expansive than before. It’s not quite open world, but each zone is sizable in its own right and packed with all kinds of monster battles, treasures, and—most importantly—resource points for harvesting.
It’s an interesting setup, as it feels in many ways like a proper follow-up to both Atelier Sophie and Atelier Ryza. No map here feels anywhere near as cramped or simplistic as many of the environments did in the original Sophie, while it’s clear that Gust has integrated many of the level design lessons they’ve learned over the handful of new entries they’ve made since that entry. We especially liked the inclusion of wild ‘boss’ enemies right from the get go—most zones will have an enemy or two casually roaming about that will atomize your team if you dare fight it straight up, incentivizing you to come back hours later after you’ve geared up properly for the battle.
We feel a special mention needs to be made too about how there are actually multiple versions of a given zone due to the new weather system. Relatively early on, Sophie gains the limited ability to control the weather, and this can completely change nearly everything that happens within a given zone. New pathways open up, new resources are available, and certain enemies will be weaker if, say, it’s raining. It’s not a terribly deep mechanic on the face of it, but just having this toggle there lends the world of Sophie 2 a nice bit of flexibility. The world itself already feels like it’s adequately sized, but adding in the extra layer of weather helps to both give it more gameplay utility and to feel slightly more like a real place.
Enemies roam about in each area right in your view, giving you the opportunity to run away from fights you don’t want or to get the drop on them with a well-placed thwack from Sophie’s staff. However you engage, the fight then seamlessly swaps to a battle screen by pulling in close on an enemy or party member (hiding a blink-and-you-miss-it loading screen) and zooming back out to make it feel like you’re still out there on the field. The ATB (active time battle)-style system of Ryza has been briefly shelved here in exchange for an updated take on the original Sophie battle system, which manages to feel surprisingly kinetic for a strictly turn-based affair.
The main reason for this is the new Twin Action system, which places emphasis on having a team you’re constantly rotating. Prior to battle, you set up your party according to who will be on the frontline and who will be on the backline—the former are the ones who take the stage when a fight starts while the latter wait in the wings. As your party gives and receives damage, you’ll build up a shared ‘TP’ meter that’ll allow you to call upon the backline for some powerful effects.
For example, a party member about to be hit by an enemy can burn some TP to call a backline ally to take the hit for them, swapping their places while also reducing how much damage the attack does to the incoming member. On offense, you can use TP to set up some awesome partner attacks and get a one-off discount on the MP cost of their special attacks. Obviously, when you’re fighting the average enemies Twin Action is a bit of overkill, but the tougher fights can turn into some wonderfully dynamic gauntlets where you’re consistently calling and retiring party members as the battle flow dictates. Twin Action injects just the right amount of strategy into an otherwise straightforward combat system, ensuring that Sophie 2’s combat doesn’t feel regressive for bringing back an ‘old’ battle system.
Whether from beating enemies or bushes, you’re sure to have a pack full of goodies in no time flat, and that’s when it’s time to rush back to the atelier to play mad scientist. The Atelier games have made their name on the involved and creative crafting systems they utilize and Sophie 2 certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Part of the fun of this crafting system is how it encourages creativity in the things you make. A recipe often won’t call for specific ingredients and will instead require certain classes of ingredients, such as Flowers or Ore. You can use whatever you want within a given class, and what you choose often has a big effect on the outcome.
Every single item you pick up will have varying levels, rarities and modifiers attached that are decided randomly (within certain ranges) when you pick it up. These variations will in turn effect things like the stats and passive abilities of the gear you make. Perhaps your armor will grant you a better passive speed buff. Perhaps that healing item will have more uses than usual. Virtually every equippable or consumable item here can be crafted and customized to your heart’s desire, allowing for a dizzying array of possibilities limited only by the effort you’re willing to put in. While it feels mildly disappointing that the enemies rarely put up enough of a fight to justify you min-maxing everything, it’s so much fun to mess around with the alchemy system that it’s hard to care.
A big part of this fun factor is found in the actual act of alchemy, which isn’t just a mere menu selection. Once you’ve selected the ingredients you’d like to use, you’re then whisked off to a mini-game screen where you need to place all the ingredients in the pot in just the right way. See, every ingredient is shaped sort of like a Tetris block, and it’s you’re job to figure out how to fit them into a 5×5 grid. Getting them all in isn’t the challenge, however, as each piece also has an elemental property, and these each correspond with tasty hidden abilities on the item. After putting in enough lightning ingredients, for example, you might unlock a new passive that boosts your damage output when holding that weapon or increases your yield when you swing that sickle.
Things are deepened even further when you factor in that certain ingredient blocks can be linked together to amplify their effects, while there are certain spots on the grid (randomly picked every time) that will bolster the benefit of a given element. In most cases, you simply can’t have all the potential benefits that an item may have, so you not only need to be picky with the kinds of ingredients you use, but you also need to be strategic in how you lay them out before initiating the synthesis. All of this can always be ignored by just using the auto pick feature if you just want the goods fast, but the depth is always there for those who want to see how much they can coax out of a given recipe. It’s a wonderfully rewarding system if you choose to engage with it, and it has the effect of making your regular trips into the wilds that much more exciting as you’re snatching up all sorts of ingredients to cook up something really nice when you make it back.
And how quickly you can make it back! One thing we’ve particularly enjoyed in Sophie 2 is that this isn’t a game that’s trying to waste your time. There’s still plenty of depth here, but it’s all presented to you in just about the most clear and concise way possible. If you need a certain ingredient or kill for a quest, you can have the game highlight exactly on the map where your targets are. Before fast traveling to a given area, you can look at a quick list that shows all the ingredients and monsters you can find there. If a character is about to take damage, the game pauses and displays the health and MP of your backline if you’d like to swap them in. If you’ve been away for a while, there’s a helpful sub-menu that’ll catch you up on the ‘important things’ of the story and your most recent quests.
It feels like Sophie 2 was actually, well… played by humans before this game went gold, and virtually every aspect of the gameplay experience that dragged or grated was retooled until it was done right. Considering how much of a drag many JRPGs can be in this department—and yes, even past Atelier entries aren’t innocent here—this focus on streamlined and thoughtful game design often feels like a refreshing change of pace.
As for its presentation, Sophie 2 manages to impress, although it’s clear that the Switch is having a rough time hosting it. The colorful, vivid landscapes that you explore are awe-inspiring and things like reflections in water puddles and subtle depth of field effects help to give the anime visuals an extra degree of photorealism. Things like the ridiculously overdesigned outfits worn by most characters are charming, while all this is backed by a friendly and upbeat soundtrack that matches the tone well.
The Switch does an admirable job of keeping this all ticking along, but there are often moments where you see it struggling to catch its breath. Pop-in on the wide shots is more common than we’d hoped, and there are often frame drops when you’re in busier parts of the world. It’s not a badly optimized game, and the thrill of playing it on the go is always a big bonus, but just be aware that your fan will sure be wheezing if you play it for long in portable. As is always seeming to be the case with new releases these days, the Switch is thus not the place to go if you’re looking for the best technical performance; it’s just ‘decent’ here.