The premise of Gust's Atelier Sophie: Alchemist of the Mysterious Book is simple. You play as Sophie, who wants to become the best alchemist that she can following the passing of her grandmother, who was also a creator of magical bits and pieces. After discovering that her predecessor's reference book, Plachta, can speak, Sophie must unlock the memories tied within the book in order to tap into her own potential as an alchemist.
Essentially, Sophie unlocks Plachta's memories by progressing through the game. There are numerous requests that Sophie can undertake on behalf of the citizens of her town, Kirchen Bell, which spur her on towards the next memory, and occasionally out on the field, inspiration will strike Sophie and she'll come up with a recipe to make when back at the atelier. Recipe criteria can be checked via the in-game encyclopaedia, so it's apparent at all times what you need to do to unlock a certain recipe, but this means that there's not a lot of need for experimentation.
Progressing the story is a pretty monotonous task, all told. Requests are essentially one of two things, for the most part: collect a certain number of items, or slay a certain number of monsters. These begin to feel very repetitive after a short while; the world map is the place where you'll undertake both of these tasks, but there's little opportunity for exploration as each area is confined to one location, with the rare hidden cave off to the side. The longer that you spend in an area, the better the quality of the items that you find is, and the more chance you have of finding rarer items. As time elapses from day to night, and then to a new day, different items and enemies begin to spawn, meaning that there's a good reason to revisit these locations at various times.
Meanwhile, the battle system is pretty intuitive, if not a little basic. Characters can be equipped with items, both defensive and offensive, which Sophie makes in her atelier. Once in battle, you can elect to use the items, go for an attack, or use one of the skills that each character learns through levelling up. Early on in the game, it does feel like the enemy has an unfair strength advantage, but once you grow a few levels, the odds seem to even out - increasingly so when you're finally able to add a fourth party member.
When she's not gathering items in the field, Sophie has the use of her atelier back at home. This is where she synthesizes new items using her - initially limited - alchemy skills. The alchemy of the game, like the battle system, is pretty straightforward: select ingredients in a recipe to create a new item. Seemingly adding a touch of depth, each item is given a certain 'shape' which you must fit into a box as best as you can, and doing so successfully means that your new item has a greater chance of inheriting certain attributes. Sadly, the benefits aren't explained in great detail, so it's often difficult to see how paying much attention to this aspect of alchemy will aid you down the line.
Aesthetically speaking, the title's visually appealing, with its cutesy characters and colourful settings, but overall, it's largely forgettable. Each area blends into the next, with little to no traits discerning one location from another. As the map opens up and you unlock new areas to explore, you can be left with a sense of déjà vu, save for the different items that you'll be picking up and the slightly different looking enemies that you'll be fighting. The soundtrack is forgotten almost as soon as the music has begun, and there's little throughout the game that will stick in your mind.
It's a relief, then, that things are kept fresh with the introduction of new characters, though early on in the game, it does kind of feel like a revolving door at the atelier as one new face after another appears. A lot of these characters will be able to provide services to you later on, though - whether that's by joining your party in combat or opening up a blacksmith shop - and all in all, they make a very colourful and eclectic bunch.
Providing a fairly monotonous story with a splash of colour, the characters seem to be the only bright spot in this otherwise dreary role-playing game. That's not to say that the constant rigmarole of finding and slaying isn't fun – it is - but considering what the storyline offers, the grind hardly seems worth it; the narrative's simply not engaging enough to warrant the repetitiveness found throughout Atelier Sophie: Alchemist of the Mysterious Book. If you've played other titles in the series, then this entry will feel like it adds very little to the experiences that you've already had, while leaving a much blander taste.