Review: You'll never forget your first?at least until your second or possibly third.
As the resident visual novel freak here at Gaming Target, I was more than ecstatic when I heard that Ar Tonelico was being localized for the Playstation 2 here in the States. I mean, a PS2 game that combines two of my favorite genres? It was a no brainer. Did the game live up to my internal hype? Yes, in fact it exceeded it.
For those of you unfamiliar with the game, Ar Tonelico is a mixed-media work (an OVA, a drama soundtrack, a few novels, and the game itself) from Banpresto and Gust that tells the tale of Lyner Barsett, a Knight of Plantina whose hometown is attacked by a renegade group of viruses. As a soldier, he's sent to the Lower World of the Wings of Horus in order to search out a cure. Along the way he befriends several characters, including but not limited to the games main stars: the Reyvateils. Although the plot isn't entirely original, the characters in the game make it stand out from the rest of the recent RPG releases.
As a 2D role-playing game, the game doesn't attempt to do anything innovative during combat. Parties consist of four characters at a time, including the Reyvateil who are essentially the game's casters. For the most part, the battles are largely dependent on the harmonics gauge (character emotional states) and their harmony with the singers. The larger you get the bar, the stronger your attacks will be. In the game, song magic is divided into three different groups: red (attack), blue (support), and green (field). Unfortunately, the game is horribly unbalanced as a result of the strength of the magic and does not present a challenge to the gamer. More than likely you'll never run into a ?game over' sequence if you pay just an ounce of attention to the game's explanations of the battle system. Despite the difficulty issue however, I still found the battles highly entertaining.
Unlike most traditional RPGs, weapons and items are not purchased initially at stores. Instead, you'll find recipe cards and create items through the games sophisticated ?Grathmeld' system. Each item is composed of different items that you'll need for ingredients so you're going to be item hunting early and often. Thankfully, defeating enemies and getting a high harmonics gauge determines how many items you get at the end of the battle.
Battle system aside, most of the game will be devoted to taking a ?dive' with the girls. Taking a page out of the world of visual novels, players interact with the female heroines called Reyvateils in a ?private intimate' world. Players familiar with Atlus' Thousand Arms or Nintendo's Fire Emblem series may feel right at home with the way these conversations are presented in the game. Characters talk to each other against static backgrounds to loan the game a huge anime feel. Although it's only accessible when you rest at Inns or in Dive Centers, these conversations will make up for more than half your playing time and can take anywhere from half a hour to a hour to complete each ?cosmosphere' level. So if you're thinking about getting the game, you better enjoy reading, as you'll be doing lots of it.
Although the main draw of these conversations has been their sexual innuendo, the conversations do get pretty deep. You'll be taking care of the girls psychologically as you attempt to solve their emotional problems in order to make them confident and self-sustaining. Discovering why each girl acts like she does and why she can't perform a certain spell is the greatest part of the game, especially if you love games for their storytelling. As a reward, players are presented with new spells and costumes for going through each level. Part of the game's charm is putting your characters in utterly ridiculous costumes ranging from a bath robe to a huge overstuffed mascot outfit. Each of these costumes has its own stats in battle. Some will speed up the harmonics gauge while some will give you a hefty boost of MP.
Another drawback to the game is the fact that there really isn't any bonus material other than an additional boss. An extra dungeon or perhaps some sort of card game would have added wonders to the game's longevity, but as such it's awfully linear. Thankfully though, there are two different story perspectives that the player can go through (Aurica and Misha's) as well as seven different endings. Not all of the endings are achievable in one play through, so it's enough to add a bit of replay to the game; in addition to just reliving the characters and storyline.
Presentation-wise the game is a mixed bag. Although the character sprites are something that could have been easily rendered on the PSone or perhaps even a DS Lite, the character portraits and backgrounds are outstanding. While town exploration is limited, each of the towns has its own unique look to help avoid redundancy. The dungeons on the other hand leave a lot to be desired. Then again, you're exploring the same tower for most of the game so a bit of leeway is a given. More often than not, you'll feel as though you're wandering around in circles during the dungeon sequences as the entire game feels almost uniform. Thankfully though there is a bit of variation when you get the chance to explore the lush forest and ruins in the game.
Then there's the animated sequences which although few and far between, are simply awesome. For those of you who can't get enough of it, I highly recommend checking out the thirty-minute anime OVA on YouTube or Bittorrent which covers the early parts of the game. It also serves well as an introduction to the characters in case you're unsure about the game's storyline.
Audibly, the game shines which in a game centered on music. Not only does it present a unique departure from any other RPG I've played, the soundtrack blends in with the game's fantasy/sci-fi feel. From the adrenaline-pumping battle themes to the more intimate areas of the game, the composers at Gust were able to craft a masterpiece with their hands. Since the game's dialogue is only half spoken (which I have no idea why they made it like that), you'll be listening solely to music during some of the scenes. Thankfully they do a good job to help convey the thoughts and feelings of the moment. In addition, the game's hymns are sung beautifully adding just a hint of chill to the game's melodies. If you didn't get a chance to pick-up the game's pre-order bonus soundtrack, I highly recommend purchasing the Japanese OST if you're a fan of video game scores.
In terms of dubbing, the English one is so horrid that I highly recommend making at least one playthrough of the game listening to it. Even if it's just for the pure joys of watching the overly serious tone the English VAs, which came out as comedy bliss. For those of you who just absolutely refuse to listen to English tracks however, the Japanese seiyuus do an awesome job. Most of the voice actors are taken from anime classics such as Mai-Hime (Sakura Nogawa), Fate/Stay Night (Nobutoshi Canna), etc.