This Week in Games - Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey

by Dustin Bailey,
I got one of those fancy new Nintendo consoles this week, and I like it a lot—with some reservations. I wrote a lot of words about it here, but the short version is that it's a solid foundation for a platform that will be great by the end of the year. My pro controller finally showed up this week, and it solves the primary issue I had with the system, which is that the Joy-Cons are totally ill-considered for sit-down TV play. I won't attempt to excuse the fact that this makes the console nearly $400 in order to actually be a complete experience, but… Well, that pro controller feels real good.

My thoughts on Breath of the Wild are still percolating, and they're going to bubble up here in the near future. It's a special game, and it's good in a lot of ways that other games either just aren't, or are afraid to be. The folks calling it a masterpiece and the greatest game ever made might be premature, but it is true that games of this quality don't come around very often. It's very, very good.

If you've gotten a Switch of your own, you're probably already playing Zelda, but let me say this just once: don't sleep on Snipperclips, especially if there's a co-op partner in your life. You'll thank me later.

Time marches on, and the unfairness of life means we can't spend all day playing Zelda. So let's talk about that new Atelier.

First Impressions - Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey

We're a weekend removed from the launch of a new Zelda game. Nier: Automata hit this week. Many folks are still in the midst of Sony's biggest PS4 exclusive in ages with Horizon. So I ask—what better time to release your niche JRPG than one of the most cross-sectionally packed Marches in recent memory? Literally any time would be better. But hey, I played some Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey, and I'm going to tell you about it!

Firis is the eighteenth entry in the Atelier series, which dates back a 1997 PS1 game and has been released more or less annually ever since. English localizations began in the late PS2 era, and the reason I'm offering all this context is that until playing this one I had no context of my own. “Lucky” for me, Atelier Firis is theoretically the worst place to start, since it begins in the midst of the Mystery storyline started in last year's game, Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book.

I say “theoretically” because there isn't a whole lot of story development going on here. You play as the titular Firis, a plucky young lady with a squeaky voice—equally grating in both the English and Japanese tracks present in the game—who uses her mysterious powers to help her underground hometown find ores and minerals. But alas, all is not well with Firis, because she wants to be like her hunter sister and journey beyond the town's sealed door and visit the mysterious place called “outside.” Suddenly Sophie (who I feel safe in assuming is the protagonist of the previous game) blows up the door, informs Firis that her magical powers are those of alchemy, and that she should totally go take the alchemist's test to become a licensed practitioner of the art.

That's the story up until the late title card, and it's pretty much stuck to the same plot point throughout my early hours in the game. Firis convinces Mom and Dad that her alchemical skills will protect her from the monsters outside, and sets off on a journey toward alchemic greatness. But, like, here's the thing: I really don't like Firis. I might chalk that up to a personal preference for slightly harder-edged stories over the moe-infused aesthetics here, but the only character I actively disliked was Firis herself. She's naive, she's cloying, often whiny, and at one point actually screams that she hates her parents and runs out of her home. And she's the protagonist. The story itself is basic, but voluminous—lengthy chunks of dialog will see you through minutes of character interaction at a time, and the point of the game I've left off in has involved an elaborate chain of quests that's been little more than item collection and character interaction.

But that's the tone that Atelier is going for, and though there's certainly combat it seems more appropriate to refer to this as a JRPG in the way that Harvest Moon is a JRPG, in that there are minimal stakes to the events you're involved in and much of the game involves interacting with mechanics that don't threaten your life. And there's a time management component, which is a series standard. But here, Firis is merely counting down the days to her entrance exam, and must collect letters of recommendation before that date comes. Afterward, it's an adventure free from time constraints.

Time passes naturally, but also progresses in predetermined chunks when you collect items and materials. You can only take a certain number of actions before what's essentially an energy meter requires you to rest. You'll restore that in bits by making use of the alchemy system—items take instantaneously passing hours to cook, after all—but you'll need to make rest to avoid passing out in the field.

The alchemy—or “synthesis”—system is of course the heart of the game. The items you grab in the field or from monsters hit a big pot in your portable Atelier base, and you cook up new gear in a robust but not overwhelming crafting system. New recipes come to you from various things, from simply talking to people to collecting set numbers of resources. You select your recipe from a list, then pick the materials you want to use. Each material has different effects, even those of the same type, so one mushroom might have a higher quality while another offers a different bonus effect.

Once you've picked your materials, you line them up in a placement field that's best described as like Resident Evil 4's inventory management. Filling up bonus lines on the field confers an extra effect on your item, and sometimes those are color-coded to make sure your alchemy Tetris game is on point. There's quite a bit more to it than that, but it all comes naturally and is easy to intuit. It's also satisfying to put that into practice, making the best items you can and figuring ways to improve them. Those might be standard healing and attack items, gear, or stuff you need to move the story forward.

That core system is all well and good, but the structure of the game doesn't really support the depth it's capable of. The combat is pretty much genre standard, aside from a meter that fills up during battle, which can either be expended mid-fight to have a part member defend Firis, or filled up to the max to offer a combo attack powering up all your party's abilities for a limited time. Beyond that? Attack, magic, items. Totally standard stuff, though there is the advantage that you can pound through battles incredibly quickly, with fast-paced animation and minimal loading times.

The best and worst thing I can say about Atelier Firis is that it's okay—which is a total cop-out bit of simultaneous praise and criticism. But that's about as much as I can manage either way. You've got a cool crafting system in service of a very standard combat bit, and a momentum-free story built on characters that alternate between charming and grating. Though there are some strong ingredients here, the overall flavor is pretty bland. Maybe it needed a higher-quality mushroom.

NEWS

THE SWITCH IS SELLING VERY WELL AT LAUNCH

A New York Times reporter had a chat with Reggie Fils-Aime following the Switch launch, and while that interview has yet to be published some interesting details were posted to Twitter. Most notably, the Switch had the best first 2 days in the Americas of any console in Nintendo history, with the next best being the Wii. Zelda is now the best selling non-bundled launch game Nintendo has ever produced, beating out Super Mario 64.

There are caveats to those numbers. Every Nintendo system has sold well at launch, generally running through their initial shipments very quickly. That was true of the Wii and even of the Wii U, so you could chalk up those sales numbers to Nintendo simply manufacturing more Switch consoles. Similarly, the Zelda sales come with the the knowledge that Mario 64 is the only directly comparable title. The biggest games for the NES, SNES, and Wii were all packed in, and there weren't any huge launch games for the GameCube or Wii U—my personal love for Luigi's Mansion aside.

But even with those details in mind, it's a strong start for the Switch. Zelda is getting massive buzz, even outside of typical Nintendo fans, and the core “portable that also goes on your TV” concept seems to be working with a big part of the audience. The question that needs to be answered in the immediate future is how widespread the hardware issues are. I can personally confirm that yeah, the left Joy-Con can't keep signal for crap, but with stuff like screen scratching and dead pixels we still don't have a good sense for how widespread those issues are.

THERE'S A MAJOR PS4 UPDATE OUT TODAY

Amid all the excitement for the Switch, let's not forget that the PS4 is still out there, and is a totally neat-o bit of video game hardware in its own right. There's a major system-level update hitting today, which folks have been playing around with in beta for awhile. There's some neat stuff like voice chat for remote play, improved notification feed, better quick menu, custom wallpaper, and a few extra VR features. There's also support being added for external hard drives, which will let you expand your system's storage without manually upgrading the internal drive.

The most interesting part of all this is the Boost Mode for PS4 Pro consoles. Until this point, games would have to be patched to take advantage of the the PS4 revision's increased hardware specs. Now everything can use the more advanced hardware, and early tests have shown this improves everything from framerates to texture loading across a wide variety of titles. Sony's careful to say not all games are guaranteed to work, but it seems this is exactly the feature folks on the fence about the Pro have wanted.

LET'S LOOK AT THE STORY OF HOW TO REVIVE A ZELDA EXPANSION THAT MAY NEVER HAVE EXISTED

While most of us are neck-deep in a big, new Zelda, there's a huge legacy to the series that goes well beyond the games that Nintendo released, extending to largely lost games like BS Zelda and titles that never came out, like CAPCOM's cancelled third entry in the Game Boy Color Oracle series. On top of that, though, there's Ura Zelda.

Intended as an Ocarina of Time expansion for the failed 64DD add-on, Ura Zelda later got released in an alternate form as Master Quest, which was released for the GameCube and as part of the 3DS remake. It's the same game with remixed dungeons, altered with more obscure and challenging puzzles. It's neat, but it's not really a “thing.” But for a select group of modders, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

The subject of a recent Eurogamer feature, those modders believed plans for Ura Zelda were far more extensive, including new dungeons that were originally cut from Ocarina. Without a guide beyond vague hints and context-free screenshots, they were part of a multi-year project to rebuild a game that might never have existed in the first place. The project failed for many of the reasons these things do—scale, ego, and bad communication—but the story's a fascinating one.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

BLASTER MASTER ZERO
Developer: Inti Creates
Publisher: Inti Creates
Platform: Switch / 3DS
Release Date: March 9
MSRP: $9.99

Hey, it's a video game for the Switch! Good to see that those will continue to exist. Blaster Master Zero is somewhere between a remake and remaster, taking the NES game and expanding it with new stages, features, and widescreen visuals while hanging onto the original gameplay. Inti has been responsible for Mega Man 9 and 10, along with the Azure Striker Gunvolt games, so they've got a solid track record with faux-retro games. (Involvement in a certain #9 excluded.) The game will get pro controller support on March 16th, so guess when I'll be waiting to play it?

ALSO AVAILABLE:
Danganronpa 1-2 Reload collects the VN/adventure game series in one convenient package on PS4 this week, making it a perfect way to catch up ahead of the third game's release later this year. Styx—a relatively obscure goblin-focused stealth game that you might have downloaded when it hit PS+ not too long ago—is also getting a sequel with Shards of Darkness.

That's it for this week, friends! Now leave me alone so I can drown myself in Zelda.


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