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Long ago, it was said that [Songs] carried unusual powers. People believed that [Songs] were the hands of mother nature that enveloped the world, and they continued to sing without pause.
But now, things have changed. In this world, everyone has forgotten how to sing...
As if they were ancient words that had been lost forever.
With these words, displayed in the game's introduction sequence, we are treated to a glimpse at the premise of Ar tonelico. The game, which was developed by Gust (with help from Banpresto), has been released in the US by NIS America. The lengthy subtitle "The Girl Who Sings At The End Of The World" was replaced by the much less wordy "Melody of Elemia," and so, here we are with the domestic print of a unique Japanese RPG.
Well, it's unique to us, anyway. Ar tonelico's gameplay is an equal mix of two very common genres: one part is standard RPG fare; the other is text-heavy visual novel (particularly, dating sim or love adventure). Only in a world like Ar tonelico do we find such an interesting blend. So how does this all work out?
The world is old; how old, no one knows, but the current calendar lists at least 7000 years. The world has also undergone a lot of change, including two apocalyptic-scaled wars that have wreaked havoc on the planet and the population. As things stand now, the world exists in the form of a floating continent that supports and is supported by a giant tower (that stretches up into the planet's atmosphere); that tower's name is "Ar tonelico." The technology used within the tower is still functional, and while the people of this world use the tower, they no longer understand most of the advanced technology that created it.
The tower divides the men and women of this world. In the upper world, there is a city called Platina that works to keep the tower functioning properly and the world afloat. The lower world, known as the "Wings of Horus," houses the majority of the population. Between these two points is a city built alongside the tower called "Em Pheyna," which is ruled by the Teru Tribe. The Teru people fear the humans of the lower world and are essentially the buffer that separates the upper and lower worlds.
You play Lyner Barsett, a knight of the upper world sent on a mission to the lower world to retrieve a Hymn Crystal. Things are getting chaotic in the upper world, as threatening enemies known as Viruses are appearing in the upper tiers of the tower and attacking the city of Platina. The Hymn Crystal will apparently solve the problem, so you get on an airship and take a crash landing into the Wings of Horus to begin your adventure.
It doesn't take long for Lyner to meet the cast of characters that will join his party. There's a knight in the lower world's church named Radolf, a free-roaming mercenary named Jack, and a techie-chic lady named Krusche. These people help you fight your way through the many challenges faced on the Wings of Horus, as well as the climb back up the tower of Ar tonelico.
But, even more important than these people are two young ladies who join your team and begin to show interest in Lyner. These girls aren't just any normal girls; they're actually artificially created women, robots if you will, called "Reyvateil." They alone retain the power of singing and can use "song magic" to support others in battle and do a number of other tasks. The two Reyvateil that you meet up with in the lower world are Aurica and Misha.
Aurica's a low-ranking Reyvateil in the church; she's shy, but she means well. Misha is a little more in-your-face, and claims to know Lyner from a time when she lived with him in Platina (though Lyner does not remember her).
So, to make Aurica and Misha stronger, you're expected to "dive" into them. Well, into their subconscious domain, known as the Cosmosphere. This is the "visual novel" half of the game I mentioned earlier, and I'll talk about it in more detail later. For now, I'd like to point out that the concept of "diving," while seemingly innocent, is riddled with innuendo. For example, Lyner's first dive into Misha involves an encounter with her mind guardian, Hama. Hama says "take a look around," but Lyner confesses that he has no idea where to start, as it's his first time. Hama mocks him, unable to believe that a man his age was only diving for the first time now! Furthermore, NIS America has marketed the game with the phrase "you never forget your first." If that's not suggestive, I don't know what is.
But really, it's not so much a dating sim as it is a psychologist-sim. You play the role of therapist rather than boyfriend in your attempt to sort out the conflicting thoughts and personalities of these Reyvateil women. The promise of comedy and intrigue is definitely within this portion of the game's story.
Though Lyner and crew are essentially wrapped up in a "save the world" plot, there is certainly a lot more to it than that. The world itself has such an interesting charm with an excellent blend of historical cultures and fictional concepts that, honestly, it should be the dream of most RPG fans to play a game like this.
One complaint if I may? Typos. NIS America should have spent a little more time proofreading their English script, because there are way too many typos to even be considered acceptable. I recognize that this game had double, maybe triple the text of the Atelier Iris games, but that is no excuse, even for a small publisher.
The premise is good and the characters keep the game fresh from beginning to end. I'm giving story an even 90%.
Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: this game is not challenging. If you see the Game Over screen any time before the final battle, you have failed to pay attention to the game.
The "RPG" half involves exploration through dungeons (but not towns, as towns are navigated through a menu), turn-based battles, and a Gust classic: item synthesis! Starting with the last of those three, the synthesis system in Ar tonelico (now called "Grathmelding") is virtually identical to that of the Atelier series. The one noticeable difference is that there is only one type of item that can be swapped, and the swap only changes the item's quality (no new "surprise" items in this game!): Grathnode Crystals. These special crystals can be one of four levels, of various qualities, and can be used to fortify weapons, armor, accessories, Reyvateils (in another suggestive process called "installing"), and other things. So, while using better crystals in Grathmelding is a bit of a waste, there is one thing that can be done to change up the expected item: its name. Each item has a default name (from Lyner), but the girl with whom you Grathmeld the item (Aurica, Misha, and a special third party member at the end of the game) will also throw out a suggestion for a newly synthesized item. Choosing the name doesn't change much in terms of gameplay, but it's definitely a fun extra. Grathmelding can be done to make more complex ingredients, items to use in battle, story event items, and equipment. Items are able to be Grathmelded only after receiving a recipe card, and ingredients to satisfy those recipes can be found in shops, treasure chests, and as rewards in battle. No surprises there.
The battle system is initially overwhelming, but a bit of playing around should lead most players to the same conclusion of what the best fighting strategy is. Three fighters are placed on the field (Lyner in front, two supporting in the middle), and then in the back is your Reyvateil. Everyone except the Reyvateil takes turns based on a time/gauge system, but the Reyvateil acts independently. A tap of a button brings up a menu to choose which song the Reyvateil should sing (or if she should stop singing and regain MP). Her songs can be offensive, defensive, or supportive. Once she begins singing, bars start filling up on various parts of the screen, indicating that the strength of the song is building. Defensive and supportive song magic has ongoing effects, but offensive magic is built up and then unleashed when the player chooses. The best strategy, most gamers would agree, is to build up an insanely strong offensive spell while your fighters do some damage (also filling up some of those bars on the bottom of the screen), and then when the time is right, let 'em have it! One of the big reasons to do this is in regards to battle rewards. There's EXP, and money, and items, but then there's also "DP," Dive Points. These points are spent during the adventure mode in a Reyvateil's Cosmosphere, and the amount you earn is dependent on a few factors in battle, one of which being max damage done in a single attack. A big burst of song magic usually does the trick for earning massive DP; I myself had DP to spare at any given time in the game, never worrying about having to "level up" my Reyvateils before doing a dive.
Exploration is a little clunky. Some of my complaints will be mentioned in the "Control" portion of the review, but basically, I really wish dungeons had a detailed map. Background graphics are re-used, and each area is generally small (with a quick loading screen appearing between each area). So you run around, get lost, and hope you're going in the right direction. Most dungeons are straightforward, but a few have some complex puzzles involving button-pushing etc., and getting lost in a dungeon like that is really, really annoying. The in-game map is a basic layout of the dungeon, which is displayed by pressing R2...but it isn't as helpful as one would hope.
And, yeah, town exploration based on menu navigation? My initial reaction was to be annoyed, but for a game like Ar tonelico, it actually makes a lot of sense. Exploration using these in-game sprites was never meant to be the focus of this game, so the still art of the town is a better way to work.
So, let's talk about diving some more. Diving takes place in "dive shops," located in most towns. You spend a little money to begin the dive, and then the fun starts. Lyner spends DP visiting different places on a surreal watercolor map that has been formed by the Reyvateil's own mind, and after entering a spot, there's a lot of talking, and then moving on. Some places will require an extra DP cost mid-conversation to "say the right thing," and other places will earn Lyner and the Reyvateil a new song for battle (a couple of the songs are optional, but most are mandatory when exploring the Cosmosphere). The dive is over when a "Paradigm Shift" occurs, sending Misha or Aurica to the next level of consciousness.
On each of the nine levels (and one bonus level per Reyvateil using classic Atelier characters and locales!), Misha and Aurica wear different costumes and act completely differently. Aurica wears her hometown's traditional outfit, a slutty devil costume, a giant teddy-bear costume, and (gasp!) a bath robe. Misha, on the other hand, can be found dressed like a little school girl, a ninja, an elegant Chinese woman, and, of course, she also does the bath towel thing (that's level six, the desperate "seduction" level; don't miss it). Things stay clean, as the game's rating shows, but that doesn't stop the women from acting absolutely crazy.
There is another requirement for moving ahead in each girl's Cosmosphere, and that involves having little chats with them at night (when you choose "Rest" at an Inn or Save Point). Conversation topics are prompted mostly through continuation in the game's main plot, but a few can be obtained by finding glimmering objects on the map, synthesizing new items, or completing certain subquests. Each conversation topic is pre-set to shade in a box on this special chart showing how many conversations you've had. These conversations are ranked by level (1 through 9, and the "E" level for bonus topics). To enter the next level in the Cosmosphere, a few boxes (it varies from level to level) have to be shaded within that level. This is done to prevent you from "going all the way" early in the game, but clever players will move far ahead and even complete the Cosmospheres for Misha and Aurica before the game is even nearly over.
(There is a third Cosmosphere for another Reyvateil that plays out like a game-within-a-game, and it's really cute and fun, be sure not to miss it!).
That's gameplay for ya. If you can't handle a lot of reading, or you want something more action-oriented, stay away. However, likeminded "passive" gamers will find a lot of value in Ar tonelico, even in its gameplay aspect. That's why I'm giving Gameplay an 88%. Also, be prepared for the long haul: 40 to 50 hours is what it takes to truly "complete" Ar tonelico.
Menu navigation and user interface are straightforward, though they take a bit of time to learn. However, dungeon exploration is a bit of a problem. Basically, solid objects were programmed pretty poorly, and a lot of things that look like walls may not be walls, and a lot of places you think you can go, in actuality, you cannot go. There are things that, in the Atelier games, you'd be able to jump on, that you simply cannot jump on in Ar tonelico. You also have no idea when you're running into an area's exit (there's no indication until you get there), and the speed at which Lyner runs on the screen makes each section of the dungeon go by in literally a few seconds. It's enough to give a man a headache!
Hence, I had to knock the score down a bit and give it a 75%. It's not a big deal, especially since dungeons aren't a key part of the Ar tonelico experience, However, it's enough to make me write this paragraph in complaint.
I feel like I shouldn't even have to explain myself here; but, for the sake of some reader who hasn't read anything else on this site, let me lay it down for you. The composers at Gust (Daisuke Achiwa, Ken Nakagawa, and Akira Tsuchiya) are fantastic. The music they write has a style all its own. You won't find it in any other games out there, I promise. What's more, since the game's plot is heavily focused on music and singing (thanks to Akira Tsuchiya, who played a key role in the creation of this game), there are over a dozen Japanese vocal tracks found within the game. It's like a freaking musical, but better, because (as I said) you've probably never heard stuff like this before. It's so good, I'm just going to stop ranting now.
Voice acting, as usual (from NIS America), is bilingual. That is, you have the option to change the audio from English to Japanese and back at virtually any point in the game. Of course, I preferred the original Japanese, but others might like the English. Though NIS America did a great job with their last stint in VA (Disgaea 2: Cursed Memories), I'd say that things are only getting better for them. Some characters didn't win me over, and the effects used on voices in the Japanese version (particularly Lady Shurelia of Platina) were cut entirely from the English recording. Some of the male's performances weren't convincing, but the English versions of Misha and Aurica were more than acceptable.
I must note, however, that voice acting doesn't accompany all of the text. In fact, it doesn't even cover half of the text. There are important moments in the game where no voice acting occurs, and that confuses me. I wish there had been more voice to go along with the text.
That, of course, is a minor complaint and can hardly topple over the triumph that is the soundtrack to this awesome game. Am I biased? Yeah, probably. That might explain the 96% I just handed out.
Breaking up the graphics, it looks like this. The hand-drawn stills are phenomenal; really, they're just gorgeous. Towns use a seamless blend of CG art and hand-drawn (and hand-painted) work, and when you put a beautifully drawn character over that breathtaking background, it's glorious.
The cutscenes, which are few in number, are awesome. Again, there is a mix of CG and anime in some places (such as the game's introductory FMVs), but there are also straight anime cutscenes, including some used in the middle of battle to represent Song Magic (which was, in my opinion, an excellent idea). It's apparent that this is one of the places where Banpresto helped Gust with the game, particularly with the CG, and while some of it looks outdated, it's all very fitting for the game's setting.
Finally, there are those in-game sprites and environments. Yes yes, those pesky parts of the game where you are actually doing something (I'm being sarcastic, if you couldn't tell). The graphics here haven't improved upon Atelier Iris, and are in some ways even less refined and thus inferior to Atelier Iris. Battle animation is old-school nifty fun, but exploration is functional at best.
So the game isn't always looking its best, but when it is looking good, you'll be well inclined to take notice. For that reason, the Graphics still get a good grade, well above average, with an 87%.
Honestly, I knew I'd like this game since I first saw its Japanese preview page in 2005. It's been a long wait, but I'm glad NIS America continued their good relationship with Gust and brought the game to us English-speaking folk. Because of its hybrid nature as an RPG/visual novel, it's quite different from our previous tastes of Gust (in Atelier Iris 1 and 2). And, when you stop and think about how rare the dating-sim, visual novel, and love adventure genres are in the US (some Hirameki titles and a few other obscure releases), it's great to see a game like this represent that faction of Japanese culture, on the PS2 no less.
We have soundtrack reviews and galleries to help you make the decision, but if they haven't done the trick, I don't know if my review can do it either. But the point is this, my friends: you should buy this game. You've never played a game like this before (unless you're an importer), and a rental won't do a game of this length any justice. Its flaws, while noticeable, are few and insignificant compared to the grand scope and magnitude of this game. The premise of the floating world, the chance to dig deep into a girl's psyche, and the excellent aesthetic qualities should be enough to sell you. If they aren't, then I have no idea why you read this review. I suppose the game does have a "niche" appeal, and cannot be a hit for all people, but it "hit" me, and hard! That's why I liked the game so much and can't conceive of giving the game anything less than an "A" level grade. The order for the day is 91%. Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia is already a candidate for RPG of the year: 2007.