Review: Bringing a new definition to the term 'sloppy seconds.'
Ever since high-def games started penetrating the video game market several years ago, focusing on wowing players with sharp 1080p graphics and fast and furious multiplayer action, many people have been wondering what's going to happen to the niche Japanese RPG genre. Thankfully, for those of us interested in JRPGs, companies like NIS America and Atlus have carved a niche in the West as the premiere publishers for these games. With their wonderful dedication to translating the best games from Japan, many players have sunk countless hours into these games. Enter Ar Tonelico II, a game that integrates the traditional JRPG genre with visual novel elements.
For those unfamiliar with the series, Ar Tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica is a direct sequel to the first game, Melody of Elemia. Building upon an already solid role-playing game, Ar Tonelico II successfully manages to improve on almost every element from its predecessor. From the intimate dive worlds to its rhythm turn-based battle system, it appears developer Gust paid attention to their audience and addressed everything they could to improve the series. The result is an epic game that hankers back towards the 16-bit/early 32-bit glory days for JRPGs.
Taking on the role of Croix, an improvement over the lackluster Lyner, the game takes place on the same planet (Ar Ciel) as the game's predecessor. As a knight, it's your duty to protect the Holy Maiden while she tries to save their dying country and create Metafalica. Although the storyline might be seen as your typical ?the world is dying' storyline, there's enough twists and turns and an extremely satisfying ending to make it worthwhile. While I'm going to try my best to avoid any potential spoilers, there's one critical decision point in the game that makes the player seriously contemplate the implications about what they're going to do. Whatever decision you make it's a bittersweet decision for both you and the game's primary female protagonists, Luca and Cloche. Your decision dictates the rest of the game, and you'll definitely want to replay it again just to see what happens on the other side.
What makes the game solid though is that the pacing is absolutely fantastic. There was rarely any point in the game where I felt bored or felt like playing something else. This is a testament largely based around the game's exciting cast of characters that includes a familiar face for veterans of the previous game.
As I stated earlier, Ar Tonelico II is an improvement over the first game with most of it being attributed to the revamped battle system. In fact, it's possibly one of the best turn-based systems I've played as it keeps the player engaged. Despite the amount of battles in the game, I still found myself enjoying battle at the end; which isn't always the case in JRPGs.
During battle, your party breaks off into using two revytails and two guardians to protect them. Each turn is split into two different phases: an attack phase and defense phase. During the attack phase, the game seems to borrow elements from Square Enix's Valkyrie Profile series as you press either the Square or X button while simultaneously pressing the D-pad. As you fulfill the required amount for different attacks through the harmonics gauge, the revytails song magic improves and you're able to eventually access super moves for both the guardians and the singers. During the defense phase, the game takes a break from the traditional JRPG where you just sit there and take your damage. Instead, a rhythm based mini-game pops up where you can absorb your enemy's attacks if you time your presses right. Fail and you'll hear it from your revytail; and lose out on the opportunity to gain high grade items after battle. It also doesn't hurt that it's incredibly satisfying to block an ultimate attack from one of the game's bosses.
As players cross the field, a meter at the bottom of the screen lets you know how many battles are left in that particular area at anytime giving you a bit of incentive to actually go through and fight as many battles as you can; with the possible exception of the last dungeon where the gauge barely moves at all after successive battles; making it possibly one of the worst last dungeons in gaming history when you consider that you encounter a battle every time you move your foot.
Battle system aside, the game is most famous for its liberal take on sexual innuendo. Where a company like Square Enix might try to hide away from doing something in order to cover up embarrassment, Ar Tonelico II proudly displays promiscuous themes galore; although it never quiet reaches the height of its predecessor. Led by the dive system where players, ?dive' into the girls to improve magic and help their psyche, the game is no where short of visual novel elements. While the thought of reading static text and doing nothing else may not appeal to everyone, those with an interest in the genre will find plenty to like.
Graphically, the game doesn't do very much to differ itself from the first game. You still navigate through towns through a menu rather than running all over the place while the game uses the familiar 2d paint look on a 3d playground. Character portraits are still sharp and lovely, and look great upscaled. Almost all of the dive sequence backgrounds are recycled directly from Ar Tonelico I with very few exceptions. While many gamers may find this as the artist being lazy, I personally found it charming.
Audibly, the game is an improvement. While some fans may prefer Elemia's soundtrack, I found Ar Tonelico II's nothing short of extraordinary and some of the best video game music I've heard in a while. With a large Celtic influence in addition to the lovely hymnos concerts, I would place the soundtrack as possibly the best available in the entire PS2 library. It's that good. A variety of battle themes also ensures that you won't be hearing the same exact music over and over again while you go through the game. It also loses the annoying rap bits found in the first game going with a more traditional approach.
Although I didn't have the opportunity to subject myself to the English language track, opting to play through in Japanese, players will find it welcome to have the ability to choose. The only drawback was that some of the audio was cutback from the script in order to fit both dubs onto the DVD. People with a lack of Japanese knowledge may also find themselves a bit confused during the game's anime cut scenes as NIS didn't subtitle them.
Right now, you're probably thinking why I didn't rate the game higher. Not only does it best Ar Tonelico: the Melody of Elemia in nearly every category but it has all the makings of a top tier JRPG, including an epic compelling storyline, multiple endings, heavy visual novel elements, and an extremely entertaining turn-based system. However, the game is severely hurt by a horrible translation and debug job by NIS. In fact, it's almost unplayable once you hit endgame.
For people with the first run of the game, there's a nearly unavoidable game crashing bug close to the game's last boss causes the game to freeze when a certain character does an attack. While NIS has addressed this by e-mailing people telling them that they could bypass this by exceeding a certain amount of damage, it's still unacceptable and it doesn't end there. Grammar, spacing, and untranslated text are abundant in the game and while it's easy to figure out what they're saying it's unprofessional. Additionally, people playing the game with backward compatible PS3's heed my warning: make multiple saves on different slots, heck I'd go as far as to occasionally back up the game on a thumb drive. You will more than likely lose your saved file more than once and this could be a huge deterrent depending on how far you are. This is a classic case where if the game baked a few more minutes in the QA oven, it could have become a masterpiece.