It’s taken me a full month to digest the wildly unique RPG that is Ar tonelico II. In general, the experience was wondrous, but it was occasionally soiled by a variety of problems, most of which are exclusive to the North American version. In this review, I will describe the nature of the game, its plot, and its aesthetics. In a separate editorial, I will take the time to recount the grievous errors made by publisher NIS America.
An Unforgettable World
In the first Ar tonelico, we were introduced to one floating continent and the tower that rose through it: the tower of Ar tonelico. In this strange world, everything was manipulated through use of waves, and those who held the key to do so were the Reyvateils. A Reyvateil is a magical, but also somewhat cybernetic, being (always female) who can sing songs so powerful that they can heal, destroy, and bring changes to the small chunk of floating land they call home. Their minds are connected to the tower, and it might even be the case that their memories are stored in the tower instead of in the brains of their own bodies. In Ar tonelico II, we are taken to a new tower and a new continent, Metafalss, which apparently exists in the same time as and is relatively near physically to the first location. The developers intentionally chose not to show the physical distance between Ar tonelico and Metafalss, but we do know that some people, through some means, are able to cross the distance. After all, two characters from the previous game (shopkeeper Spica, and another surprise character) made it from one to the other.
The stakes in Ar tonelico II are even higher than they were in the first game, where a virus caused the tower to begin killing the humans and Reyvateils that lived in and cared for it. This time around, a new kind of virus called “I.P.D.” (Infel Pira Dependency) is infecting Reyvateils. This virus takes over the Revyateil’s consciousness, heightens her emotional level (and in turn, the power of her song magic), and usually sends her on a rampant destruction spree, killing friends and family in the process. When this happens, the ruling government of this continent, the “Grand Bell,” sends in their special forces to “contain” the I.P.D.-infected Reyvateil, usually beating her to the point of near-death before sending her away to a lab from whence she’ll likely never return. In addition, they’ve decided who is at fault for I.P.D. infections. According to them, the blame lies squarely on the continent’s “Goddess” (the tower administrator). As such, the Grand Bell has concluded that deicide is the best option, and they have declared war against the Goddess. Leading the charge, at least on the surface, is a Reyvateil named Cloche, whose title is (ironically enough) “the Goddess Maiden.”
The history that leads up to the current state in Metafalss is long and complicated, and despite being a “cursed land” on the brink of extinction, Metafalss is a marvelous world. The integration of the plot arc, the nature of this fantasy world, and the pace at which both are revealed, is simply fantastic. When the Reyvateils sing in the made-up Hymmnos language (take that, Sigur Ros!), it becomes immediately apparent that a ton of work was put into developing the setting for this game.
I don’t even want to begin to give away the specifics of the story. It’s much better to experience it yourself. Among others, the full cast includes protagonist Croix Bartel (a mature but somewhat effeminate young man) and three Reyvateils with wildly different backgrounds: the princess (Cloche), the “dive therapist” (Luca), and the all-powerful chick with unclear motives (Jacqli). Croix’s adopted little sister, Cocona, is also a Reyvateil, but she’s still young and cannot sing; she can only fight (but she fights well!). To learn about the rest of the crew, you’ll have to play the game, but I will say that each one has a great back story, far from the cookie cutter anime that many RPG veterans have tired of.
The developers, particularly those at Gust, took painstaking efforts to really flesh out Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica. The leader behind the Ar tonelico project, Akira Tsuchiya, is actually a music composer by trade. Many of his years in the business have been spent writing music for Gust’s flagship “Atelier” series, but he came up with the idea for Ar tonelico, and he is given the title of “Total Control” in the game’s credits. Tsuchiya also worked hand-in-hand with the voice actors for the Reyvateils, Akiko Shikata, Haruka Shimotsuki, and Noriko Mitose, who do both the speaking and the singing. These three ladies helped to shape the world and characters in Ar tonelico II. A fourth voice actor, Yuko Ishibashi, played a role that is smaller, but is nonetheless significant.
A lot of really interesting data is revealed after completing the game. In the bonus menu, you are given access to a number of databases, including the full “Hymmnos” database, which allows you to listen to all 19 vocal performances and read about the development and purpose for each song from Tsuchiya and others’ perspectives. Every relevant NPC (there are over 100) is plugged into a database as well, with a brief bio and some “fact sheet” data (likes, dislikes, etc.). Though it is presented in a very different format, it’s clear that this series, like the .hack//G.U. series, was designed in such a way that you can become quickly immersed in the mythos, the environment, the history, of this fantasy world.
Needless to say, the music is beautiful. Though my favorite songs across the series still reside, for the most part, with the first game, a lot of creative risks were taken in composing the music for Ar tonelico II, and I applaud the team for the work they did here.
Shopkeeps, Synthesis, Spas, and Song Magic
The actual gameplay in Ar tonelico II is, for the most part, in keeping with the longstanding tradition from Gust, although it has been slightly tweaked and evolved for this newest installment. There are four shopkeepers in the game that allow you to synthesize different types of items. Each shopkeeper allows the protagonist, Croix Bartel, to synthesize with her (yes, all the shopkeepers are female) and one of your Reyvateil partners. Each Reyvateil partner puts out a different variant for each synthesis recipe introduced, and having these differing items is pretty much required to move forward with synthesis. While synthesis is technically a totally optional part of the gameplay, you will struggle with the game if you don’t have updated equipment and the occasional healing item, particularly early in the game. With the exception of one shopkeeper (Spica, at the medicinal shop), each shop is found to be unappealing to one of your Reyvateils.
The battle system gets a significant overhaul, with a new offense/defense phase system that is unlike the slot-based, “weighted” turn-based setting of the first Ar tonelico (and most Atelier games). During one period of time, you are able to perform melee attacks with your two front row people, while the “song magic” from one or two Reyvateils (that’s right, two Reyvateils in battle!) powers up. At the end of your time limit, you switch to defense phase, where you use time-based mechanics to defend the Reyvateils against the onslaught from the enemy. Good guarding helps the song magic boost faster, and a complete inability to guard an attack will decrease the song’s magic power (and take HP from your Reyvateil in the process).
During the offense phase, the D-pad is used to determine one of four “types” of attack, and each type pushes a diamond-shaped grid in different directions that determine the various attributes and abilities available to the Reyvateil for the song being sung. Later in the game, pressing up on the D-pad allows Cloche to unlock a special ability called “Replakia,” wherein I.P.D.-infected Reyvateils whom you’ve rescued (as described later in this review) bring tons of power to the song magic. Replakia can be used once per battle. Pressing down on the D-pad helps to “sync” the two Reyvateils’ wave patterns while singing, which are displayed on one of many status windows during battle. Once they’re fully in sync, they can perform a “Synchronity Chain” combo, as long as you have access to such magic in your song tree.
With all of this in mind, you can tell that the battles are extremely fast-paced, and the learning curve is steep. At first, you can get away with button-mashing and using what you perceive to be your most powerful spell, but the use of healing song magic and carefully planned building of song attributes (Harmonics, Sync, Burst Gauge) during battle become vital later in the game.
Everyone in the game levels through experience points…except for Reyvateils! For them to level, they have to jump in a sauna with each other. Throw in some magical crystals, and maybe a bath toy and scented oils for added effect. Their actual level increases by throwing in newly-acquired crystals (which are not consumed, but rather marked as “equipped” or “unequipped”). It’s a pretty interesting system, though it takes some time to master if you want to have the perfect fighting/singing machine.
The “Dive” system from the first Ar tonelico returns, and many of the mechanics (and even some of the hand-drawn artwork) are recycled. However, in Ar tonelico II, you have a tough choice to make, because you can’t reach the deepest layer of each Reyvateil’s Cosmosphere. Better choose wisely. Only the one you pick for your “romantic interest” allows you to go past level 5. The others will have a heart-to-heart with you, learn of your true feelings, and thank you for your long-lasting friendship and respect, but that’s it. In my one play through the game (which took a full 60 hours), I chose Luca, but if I ever find the time to play again, I’m going to see Jacqli’s full cosmosphere. Fans of the first game, after seeing her character art, will quickly realize why she’d be so interesting.
For the uninitiated: the Dive system works as follows: upon completing battle, alongside experience points, the Reyvateils in battle earn “Dive Points” (DP), which can be used while diving. When you “Dive,” you are entering the conscious (and subconscious) layers of the Reyvateil. They are colorful, creative worlds, and in each layer, you see a different “aspect” of the girl (complete with a wholly different costume and personality). Each dialogue sequence costs DP, and sometimes there’s a minimum requirement to pass certain scenes in the middle of one Cosmosphere event. You can be penalized in terms of DP consumption if you answer questions “incorrectly” in the Cosmosphere. The rewards of going deeper into the Cosmosphere include better song magic, new costumes for your Reyvateils (which boost their stats), and the opportunity to learn more about the girl herself. I will say, the Cosmospheres alone are equivalent to full digital novel/love adventure games in Japan, so with Ar tonelico, it’s like getting two games in one. And the girls don’t just reveal themselves in their Cosmospheres. To progress in the Cosmosphere levels, you need to get to know the girl better in person, which you can do by talking to them about unlocked “topics” each time you rest at an inn or save point.
The Dive system extends to two more game elements as well. Halfway through the game, Cloche and Luca (who do not get along) get to enter their own variation of the Cosmosphere, called the “Infelsphere,” where they are forced to learn more about each other. Right near the end of the game, a special bonus Cosmosphere becomes available that is designed similarly to Shurelia’s five-part “game” in the first Ar tonelico. In this Cosmosphere, you play a game called “Wackyhabara Panic: Fall In Love With a Betrayer.” Each major character enters this Cosmosphere as a fictional character in a pre-set story about evil syndicates in a city that serves as a bizarro equivalent to Japan’s Akihabara area.
Luca uses Dive Therapy during the game to help save the I.P.D.-infected Reyvateils so that they will help your party. There are either nearly or exactly 100 Reyvateils to save (I’m not quite sure… I got 93 in my play through the game). Dive Therapy operates as a simple mini-game where you get two choices in answering the confused Reyvateil’s questions. Each answer will either increase or decrease a “status bar” at the top, and there’s a particular range you need to hit at the end of the five questions. It’s not a matter of saying exactly what the girl wants to hear — you need to play it just right to save her.
If you get tired of dungeon crawling, leveling up characters, and the highly political plot of Ar tonelico II, you have the option to break up the pace as you see fit by Diving. It’s always a good time, except when there’s too much unnecessary innuendo. Which brings us to the latter half of my review…
Where things go horribly awry: sex, quality control, and glitches
I accept that it’s not hard to make sex jokes, but when you inundate the player, it becomes a bit too much. The original Japanese script was far more subtle, but if you’re playing the English version, you are going to wonder whether the translation was handled by a ten-year-old. The characters talk about people being “virgins” and losing their “virginity” in terms of whether or not they’ve ever done a Dive with a Reyvateil. Some innuendo returns from the first game as well: when you insert a “life-extending crystal” into Cloche, there’s a lot of talk about being gentle, and not pushing it too deep or too hard so it doesn’t hurt the girl. And since it’s Croix’s “first time,” of course it’s a big deal! But wait — things get more juvenile. If there’s something long and/or pointy, it’s time for a phallic reference, and talking about breasts is par for the course. Immature jokes about mature subject matter are made far too frequently. That’s no good.
Even if you have no problem with the sex jokes, even the most forgiving English-speakers will find plenty to be unhappy with in the language. There are full sections of the script that didn’t get combed for proper grammatical use. Chapters three and four of Wackyhabara Panic were skipped entirely, and exist only in a “rough” English. If that’s not bad enough, there are even a few instances (at least one of which pops up dozens of times throughout the game) where the text is left entirely untranslated. Were there any QA testers at all? Please note that the very poor score I have given for “Control” comes about because I am subversively counting “Quality Control” as part of the control.
Near the end of the game, one of the final bosses (named “Raki,” so you’re aware in case you run into him), has an attack that’s apparently so powerful that it freezes the game. You don’t even get to see it. The moment the bit of code runs to say “hey Raki, it’s time to use this attack on the player,” the game will just stop. It happens every time, without fail. And he’ll always use it on or before his third turn, which gives you between one and three turns to do a solid 40,000 points worth of damage.
And if you’re a completionist when it comes to bonus content, better turn back now. There are three images in the game’s image gallery that can only be unlocked by fighting Raki 15 times in a series of optional battles. He gets stronger each time, with a greater likelihood that he’ll use the game-killing ability before the third turn. Even using a second anti-glitch glitch that allows you to extend your offense time exponentially (which can be used in any battle for an unfair advantage), I couldn’t get past the seventh battle with Raki, so you may as well give up on seeing those images in the gallery.
Sadly, this game is just plain prone to freezing in general, and what really bothers me is that although some of these freezes have been witnessed in the original Japanese release, they seem to have multiplied like a virus in the American release. The mantra of “save early, save often” has never been more true than it is here, as the game sometimes randomly freezes while you’re going through a menu or transitioning from a town to the world map.
With all of this said, I have a few closing comments and insights for the reader. If you can look past all the glaring errors in localization, this is a fantastic game. Had the game gone through better localization and quality control, there’s no question it would have received the prestigious “editor’s choice” award from me. While this game’s continent feels smaller than the first game’s, the sequel itself has a grand scale that bridges itself back to the first game, and forward to what may be the final game in a trilogy. The ending is perfect. It’s not a cliffhanger in any way, but you know there’s more work to do, and there’s someone in your party who might be traveling to another tower to do that work. I very much look forward to another game in the Ar tonelico series.
The music is also excellent, and if you want a cheaper alternative to importing the soundtrack, the two disc OST is available as two separate discs from NIS America, which can be obtained through getting a limited edition version of the game, and also by checking out their Rosenqueen store. I highly recommend importing the “Hymmnos Concert” albums, however, since they aren’t present in full form with the OST discs.
Good game, great music, bad localization. That’s the shortest summary I can give.