Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey is the 18th game in the long-running Atelier series. For over 20 years, developer Gust has been releasing Atelier games nearly annually, save for a few small gaps. With multiple teams working on multiple entries at any given time, Gust has ensured they’re able to keep production rolling on their flagship series. Yet, with so many entries in one series, how can the developers ensure they keep things fresh and exciting for fans of the franchise? The short answer: get experimental.
Atelier Firis first released in 2017 for the PS4, PS Vita, and Steam. Recently, the game was re-released as the DX version, which includes previous DLC packs alongside new features and content not seen in prior releases. While the DX entry serves as an enhanced version for the PS4 and PC, this entry marks Firis‘ first appearance on the Nintendo Switch. Until now, only the third Mysterious game, Lydie & Suelle, was available on the platform.
The game opens with the titular Firis living in the mining town of Ertona. The village is locked away from the world by a large stone door, ensuring limited access to the town. As a result, visitors are rare aside from the occasional merchants, and life for Firis is dull and never-changing. Each day, she stares at the door, wishing to see the outside world. Yet because of her young age and how dangerous the outside world can be, she is forbidden from stepping beyond the door.
As she wanders along in a defeated and depressive state, she’s caught off guard by the sudden destruction of said door. As the smoke and dust clear, Firis comes face to face with none other than the previous game‘s protagonist: Sophie. After Sophie repairs the door with a quick touch of alchemy, Firis becomes entranced by the miracles she’s witnessed, leading her to beg Sophie to teach her the wonders of alchemy. Sophie agrees, and Firis is taken under her wing as a fledgling alchemist with a dream to explore the world.
The interactions between Sophie and Firis lay the groundwork for Firis’ journey. Much of the story is centered around Firis and those close to her. Her older sister Liane serves as her guardian and escort as she heads to the capital city of Reisenberg to become a licensed alchemist. Atelier Firis‘ story is told in small, bite-sized pieces, often doled out through short conversations and scenes. Occasionally, events may pop up as you explore the world, but the majority of dialogue is brief and light. While there are some touching or sad moments between characters, there is rarely anything dramatic or terribly relevant to the plot. Like many Atelier games, the story is light-hearted and whimsical. Sometimes to a fault.
Firis’ goal is simple: go on a journey to become a licensed alchemist and see the world along the way. As the city of Reisenberg is quite far away, she and Liane will need to traverse the land by foot. As they venture through the world, they cross large open canyons, run across sprawling fields, and perilously trek along frozen lakes. The maps feel quite large, and their sense of scale is impressive. Yet, with how much is packed into these maps, I can’t help but wonder if these areas were assets for a possible Atelier MMO that never made it past the design stage. In addition, small villages and towns litter the world. Each settlement has numerous NPCs with generic models, yet talking to them may issue small side quests. Even random travelers on the road are eager to bloat up your quest log with requests.
Traversing these large maps gave me a sense of wonder as I roamed across the land, gathering materials, fighting enemies, and exploring caves. The rewards for exploration are often recipe ideas, new quests that could lead to new items, or new gathering points that might give a rare material. Whenever I crossed into a new area, I wanted to spend hours upon hours there looking around. I had the urge to explore every nook and cranny, yet with a looming deadline, there was a small bit of pressure not to dawdle for too long.
Unlike its predecessor, Atelier Firis has a time limit of one year. Players have to reach the capital of Reisenberg and pass the licensing exam within that time frame. At first, the time limit may not seem like enough time given how quickly it passes. Every step Firis takes advances the clock, which causes the time of day to notably change. Early Morning shifts into Mid Day, which shifts into Evening, which shifts into Night. When exploring around, it may feel like days fly by as the sun rises and falls.
Even as you’re toiling away in the atelier making things, the days drift away into the wind. Yet, mercifully, the time limit is more than generous. In fact, when I first reached the capital, I had well over six months left before the exam was even set to begin. Upon realizing how early I was, I found myself filled with a bit of regret that I didn’t stay in areas longer. So, I went back. There were a few enemies I wanted to get revenge on alongside a wide range of materials I wanted to acquire. Of course, I still had a lot of exploring to do as well.
With each new Atelier game comes a change in the combat system. Sometimes it’s an improvement on the previous game’s system, or sometimes it’s something new. Atelier Firis’ combat, unfortunately, feels neither new nor improved. For instance, the battle system feels like a regression or even a clunky prototype. In the previous game, the battle system felt like it constantly grew. There was a sense of aggression and evolution that felt both natural and exciting. In Firis, the battles simply feel stiff. While it eventually opens up with more options like sub-weapon skills, common skills, chains, and combination arts, the game takes too long to dole these new options out.
When not in combat, much of your time is spent exploring rather than crafting. However, the time spent synthesizing items is quite enjoyable. Atelier Firis improves upon the previous game’s alchemy system by adding a handful of quality of life changes. Rather than being at the mercy of the cauldron to determine one’s ability and bonuses, Atelier Firis rewards the player for crafting similar items of the same type. When crafting bombs, your proficiency with bombs will increase. Upon ranking up, new abilities and options appear for that recipe. This mechanic adds a sense of progression and mastery to creating items. I felt encouraged to make items I otherwise would consider one-and-done in previous games. This change and the ability to use catalysts to improve recipes ensured I was more engaged with Atelier Firis’ alchemy system on a deeper level.
Whether I was spending hours crafting items, exploring murky caves, roaming foggy forests, battling angry beasts, or simply receiving my sixty-eighth side quest from an NPC, each of these tasks was backed by Gust’s fantastic composers. While there are some incredibly good and stand-out tracks in the OST, such as “Determination to Strike,” “Pororoca,” and “Rabbit & Crow,” the rest of the OST feels solid yet somewhat forgettable at times. Atelier Firis is packed with so much music (roughly 125 tracks versus Sophie’s 94) that the music doesn’t necessarily feel like it has the time to breathe. This is further compounded by the game’s day and night cycle cutting music off as the sun sets.
Atelier Firis‘ debut on Nintendo Switch is a rough port in some areas. When traversing the world and passing time, there is a very noticeable hitch whenever the time of day changes. For example, when you pass from Morning to Mid Day, there is a brief half-second pause. Additionally, when exploring, the level of pop-in can be pretty severe at times. While elevation and geometry mask much of this, it can still be noticeable when roaming through forest areas or along paths with notable gathering points. One issue I also noticed right away was my ship disappearing once I’d taken ten or more steps away from it. These issues don’t appear to be present on the PS4 or PC DX versions, and I even went back to check base PS4 footage of the original 2017 entry. Though these issues seem exclusive to the Switch version, they weren’t a dealbreaker by any means.
While the performance issues on the Nintendo Switch are frustrating, my main grievance is with the flow of time. Certain materials and enemies come out at night in the fields, but in towns, this cycle dictates the lives of NPCs. More often than not, I would find myself crafting items and talking to NPCs to get an idea of what I needed to do for them, only to reach my final destination after the sun had already set. Due to the dark of night encroaching, most citizens lock up for the evening and will not speak to Firis until morning. This can be frustrating because it leaves you with the option of running back to the atelier to sleep until morning or running around in circles wasting time until dawn—neither feel like an effective use of time in a game with a time limit.
Atelier Firis is a highly ambitious and experimental Atelier game that tries to mix everything up. Though I consider it the weakest of the Mysterious trilogy (and one of the weaker Atelier entries in general), it’s by no means a bad game. The sandbox/open world is quite enjoyable to explore, the soundtrack is solid if a bit cramped, and the combat does eventually open up after feeling tacked on for a large portion of the game. There is a lot to like in the game, but the time limit can make you feel more anxious than you should. If this is your first time with this experimental Atelier, make sure to take your time and enjoy all it has to offer. Atelier Firis is best played as an open-world slow-life game. After all, the best part of the game is the Mysterious Journey itself.