The Atelier series is one of the longest running and most prolific Japanese role-playing game franchises, with Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey being the 18th instalment in the series' 20 year history. Atelier Firis is also, in many ways, the biggest leap forward the series has ever taken, implementing a number of changes that are radically different to previous entries. However it still manages to keep the heart and soul of its predecessors.
Atelier Firis sees you stepping into the role of Firis, a naive, bright-eyed girl who has spent her whole life inside the mountain town of Ertona, unable to leave and explore the vast world around her. Upon discovering she has a knack for alchemy she convinces her parents to let her wander outside in order to try and gain three letters of recommendation from renowned alchemists, and then pass the alchemy license exam. The catch is that she only has one year to achieve this goal, and if she fails she must return home for good. Seeing a story like this in a video game is refreshing; there's no crazy 'save the world from complete destruction' style quest. Instead it's just a journey of a girl trying to achieve a relatively down-to-earth goal.
The nature of this story means the controversial time limit mechanic of many previous Atelier games has returned after it was shelved in the series' most recent entries - and the revival of this mechanic is ultimately a double-edged sword throughout your quest. On one hand the constant ticking down of the day counter whenever a day/night cycle completes forces you to stay focused and continually progress through the main quest. On the other hand, however, it ends up rushing you and ultimately has an impact on how you play.
You're given 361 days to complete the main quest, which initially seems like a massive amount of a time. You soon discover, though, that the day/night cycle is lightning fast, and if you spend time exploring or doing side quests you'll lose a huge chunk of your days very quickly. Atelier Firis has, for the first time, introduced a sprawling open world to the series, which features a plethora of unique locales ripe for discovery, but because of the nature of the time-limit you're forced to skip over journeying to many areas. Additionally, the introduction of an LP system that drains while you complete actions in the game means that you're often heading back to your hub to sleep, which helps the time tick by even quicker. In our playthrough we had to rush at breakneck speed through most of the world's second-half as we didn't want to run out of time, which resulted in us barely experiencing many locations, and even resulted in us completely skipping over an area during the main story.
It's a shame exploration is discouraged throughout the main quest, as some of the title's best moments come from searching every corner of the map. For a first attempt at creating an open world, the release does a fantastic job, and it's enough to standout from the slew of empty-feeling open worlds in games these days. The world of Atelier Firis feels lived in, as if the world has existed for thousands of years before you came along and picked up the controller, and will continue existing once you put it down. There's nothing quite like turning a corner and finding yourself in some ancient ruins where a huge boss monster stands, almost tempting you to come and try your hand at defeating it.
As the title may suggest, alchemy is a huge part of the game. You'll spend much of your time gathering resources and heading back to your Atelier to craft tools, health items, armour, and weapons. The alchemy system is fleshed out well, and offers a good amount of deep. Thankfully, it's also easily understandable and not hard to get the hang of.
Unfortunately, though, it seems the turn-based battle system became a bit of an afterthought due to the focus on alchemy. The main quest never requires you to actually battle at all, which means you could play the entire game without engaging in combat. The only times you're ever encouraged to battle is when a side quest asks you to face a certain creature, or when you come across the boss monsters that we mentioned earlier.
This focus on alchemy also means the game's main story ends with a splutter rather than a bang. You quite literally take an exam - including a written portion - which is not only lacklustre, but also incredibly poorly implemented. Much of the exam is based purely on luck, and the written portion asks ridiculously obscure questions that only a small percentage of players would be able to answer. Even more bizarre is that if you fail the test the game simply ends, so it's highly recommended that you make multiple save files before attempting it.
Once you do pass the exam, however, the shackles are taken off and you can properly enjoy Atelier Firis' world. With the time limit abolished you can take your time exploring caves and hidden areas, as well as tackling all the side quests and fighting boss battles. Ultimately, it's a real shame that it takes a lengthy playthrough of the main quest just to arrive at the most enjoyable part of the game.
Atelier Firis makes huge strides forward with its lively open world, but it also takes several steps backwards in other areas. Reintroducing the time limit forces you to play the game at breakneck speed, which means that much of the world is ignored until over 20 hours into the game. Once you break away from the time limit, however, you'll discover a brilliantly diverse world that you can get lost in for countless hours, where you'll be free to properly enjoy what is ultimately a solid, but neglected battle system.