It might be easy to assume that Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey could coast on a wave of glory due to its title being the most JRPG name in history. Its cover and art screams high-Eastern fantasy, all elaborate, colourful costumes and youthful melodrama, but whilst the former is certainly true here, Atelier Firis is a far more chilled out, altogether lighter experience than you might assume.
The game’s heroine, Firis Mistlud, has lived in the town of Ertona all of her life and has never seen the outside, which wouldn’t be quite so bad if said town wasn’t inside a mountain and had no natural light. Her parents insist that it’s too dangerous, and it’s only until two young alchemists named Sophie and Plachta blow up the town’s gate that Firis finally has a way of breaking her metaphysical shackles. She makes firm friends with the pair and instantly starts practicing alchemy, and after a few unremarkable fetch quests, Firis is allowed to leave Ertona along with the company of her handily skilled fighter of an elder sister, Lianne.
Of course, there’s a catch; Firis has to pass her alchemist exam in one year or face returning home a failure. So, with the help of her sibling, and a few handily-placed auxiliary party members, she sets out to get three letters of recommendations from registered alchemists to pass her exam and continue on her journey through the world.
Tonally, Atelier Firis is a refreshing change from big-budget seriousness and set-piece dramatics. It’s not necessarily without substance, but it keeps things light and relatively fluffy throughout, allowing the aforementioned journey and gameplay to take centre stage. Characters come and go with high frequency, but there’s nothing heavy-handed about the game’s approach, and its colourful, anime style presentation keeps the atmosphere consistently relaxing and enjoyable.
Firis and her gang are satisfyingly distinctive, which is handy given that you will be spending upwards of 30/40 hours with them, and they each have their own personal quest line. Our titular heroine is in possession of a particularly twee, high-pitched voice, which might grate on some ears, but thankfully, no one in this world is so relentlessly annoying that their words or presence become a constant bother.
Time is a huge part of Atelier Firis’ gameplay. You’re given 365 in-game days to pick up your letters, with the day-night cycle lasting for as little as several minutes whilst exploring towns or the world map. This affects your environment in different ways, so expect to see different monsters at different times of the day, whilst that NPC that you wanted a quick chat with might only appear when the sun’s out.
This creates something of a contradiction in terms of what Atelier Firis asks of you. Once you’ve waltzed out or Ertona, the clock starts ticking, but frequently you’ll find a lack of clear instructions to guide you. This is a game that is exceptional at giving you hints as to your next objective, but refuses to spell things out for you, and in another game, where you didn’t frequently feel the sting of judgement as the sands of time slowly slip away whilst you waltz lackadaisically around the world map or searching for a specific item, that would be fine. But instructions on the game’s significant tasks can sometimes be a bit too obtuse for their own good, with missing items often found in areas far away from your location that the game simply doesn’t point you towards.
In a sense, Atelier Firis’ desire to only hold your hand up to a point is refreshing, but when you’re missing a particular component for a key quest with no information to go on other than “it’s wood”, then its charming façade drops a little. Thankfully, it adds enough in the way of explanations of its other key parts to make up for it, with alchemy taking up a large part of what you’ll be doing in this world alongside walking, fighting and chatting to random NPCs.
Alchemy itself is pretty easy to grasp. Ingredients and materials are scattered around each environment liberally, meaning Firis can pick up several mushrooms and a message will flash stating that you “Came up with a new recipe.” Coincidental though that phrase clearly is with another much bigger JRPG that found its way onto shelves a few months ago, cooking up something interesting is a bit more involved here. Once you’ve fulfilled the ingredients criteria and decided which type of wood, metal or fabric that you might want to use, you’re asked to place nodes down on a board to earn synthesis bonuses to make your item stronger and increase your alchemy level. Using alchemy, especially as your recipes become much grander, will also chip away at your in-game clock, but it’s fairly straightforward to pick up, and making weapons, quest-centric items and stuff to heal your party in battle is a quick and easy process.
It also helps to build your LP back up, which introduces another quirk of Atelier Firis’ systems. You start off with 100 LP after a good rest in your Atelier (pronounced At-lear, FYI), which is a large portable tent that plays by the Tardis’ bigger-on-the-inside rules and houses your party members, bed and cauldron. LP is lost by exploring, mining and fighting, and once it decreases to low levels, that’s you plonked straight back to the nearest campsite to rest up, recharge and go again. It’s another interesting challenge to factor into how you manage your time, and adds another layer of complexity to proceedings, but the speed at which your LP can decrease can, along with the day-night cycle get a little annoying.
Given how much else Firis has on her plate, it’s of benefit that combat is kept decidedly simple. She’s kept at the back while Lianne and the rest of your party, who can be picked up along the way in the game’s various and many side quests will deal the bulk of the physical damage. Proceedings are turn-based, and allow for chained attacks after filling a specific damage-dependant meter.
Speaking of side quests, another gigantic part of your time will be spent nattering with this world’s NPCs in an attempt to further the story, or, as will frequently be the case, picking up a little work on the side. The inhabitants of this world all suffer from the same sort of RPG lethargy that we’ve come to expect over the years, so expect to do all manner of menial tasks in order to earn a bit of cash on the side.
Given that Firis is the eighteenth entry of the Atelier series, it’s made without a trace of fatigue, and clear affection. Its desire to tell a tale devoid of standard apocalyptic tropes or any big bads is a nice change of pace from its genre’s typical histrionics, especially given that the bulk of the cast is made up of teenagers. Its world feels a bit bare at times, though, with each area and town often far too big with too little to see and sparsely populated, and its reluctance to point you in any sort of direction when it comes to key quest points is regularly infuriating. But its problems aren’t outweighed by its positives, and this is still a charming, enjoyable and bright JRPG with plenty to offer.
Charming, easy-going story
Alchemy is simple, yet fun
Genuine, human cast
Occasional lack of guidance on quests
Timed approach doesn’t help
Towns often feel bare