Header art courtesy of Koei Tecmo
As if anyone needed any more on their gaming plate, among all the other options available it turns out that this year may also be the best time ever to dip a toe into the long-running Atelier series. Between the recent PC port of Atelier Sophie: The Alchemist of the Mysterious Book and the concurrent release of Atelier Firis: The Alchemist and the Mysterious Journey on both PS4 and Steam the franchise is more technically accessible than it's been in the past.
But beyond their platforms, these two entries are also both less mechanically intimidating than many of their predecessors have been, thanks to one key adjustment: Timers. Specifically in Atelier Sophie's case the lack of one, and in Atelier Firis' case the limit of its reach.
The Atelier games are JRPGs focused as much on crafting of alchemical recipes as they are on combat. Players spend a fair bit of time out in the field, but monsters are typically treated as obstacles on the way to gathering ingredients—or as ingredients themselves—and grinding is a matter of both battle experience and brewing a heck-ton of potions and salves for the locals.
It's charming as hell, frankly, but several of the games in the series have included harsh timers that force players to keep pace or risk a bad ending. These tend to fit into whatever's goal is driving the narrative (finishing apprentice alchemy assignments, saving the main character's brother) rather than being completely invisible, and often lead to bad endings and immediate game overs. The harshness of the timers varies from game to game, but after a peak around the PS3 era it feels like the developers have been relaxing this system more and more from one installment to the next.
I've personally found the timers a mechanical as well was psychological obstacle to enjoying my time with these games that I've been conceptually in love with for years. Harsh or not, that ticking clock just looms. It's the exact same anxiety I get during the Wicked Eyes and Wicked Hearts quest in Dragon Age: Inquisition. That event features a reputation meter which can be filled by behaving at the Empress' party, but which creeps back down when the player slips away from the guests to sneak around the restricted areas of the palace. I love it on paper; a straightforward distillation of trying to move in a society to which the Inquisitor didn't belong, it's great. But in actual practice it felt like being punished for savouring and exploring—two things that the game encourages to an almost absurd degree otherwise. It was suffocating.
In Atelier , everything takes time. From traveling to synthesizing alchemical products. The absence of a timer in Atelier Sophie gives players much more room to breathe and get acclimated, to experiment and explore. It relies more on dates and time of day, along with scheduled events and short-term requests with deadlines to keep player momentum. Atelier Firis on the other hand does still have a timer, but it doesn't come with the hard cut-off many previous games have had once it runs out. Instead players can keep playing, giving a mix of that classic feet-to-the-fire Atelier pressure (for those who do enjoy it) and the chance to experience the world at their own pace.
Timers can do more than just offer pure challenge. They can say something about the world, they can deter players from dragging their heels on unimportant details or inspire them to related closer to a character whose situation is more pressing. But given the choice between having an academic appreciation for an element of a game and actually, you know, enjoying myself when I play… Well, let's just say I'm looking forward to putting more time into Sophie and Firis soon.