It’s no secret that I’ve got a soft spot for the Ar tonelico series. The PlayStation 2 titles featured a quality battle system that offered something more engaging than the average RPG. Additionally, the dating sim styling of the cosmospheres made the journey all about getting to know your Reyvateil – intimately. Now the series has made the jump to the PlayStation 3, but something’s not the same. I really wanted to like Ar tonelico Qoga , but as much as we want some series to live up to the greatness they originally showcased, they eventually change – and sometimes that change isn’t always for the better.
Sex has been a part of the Ar tonelico titles since their inception. In the first game, it was always there, but it was obfuscated, subtle, with much left up to the imagination. With the second entry, the sexual overtones became more and more obvious, bubbling to the surface. Now, Gust and NIS America have released the third entry of the series, and the sex is no longer an overtone – it’s protrusive. Every suggestive part of this game is not only in your face, but also expressed in such graphic terms that it stops being funny. Honestly, Ar tonelico Qoga ‘s theme song should be T-Pain’s “I’m In Love With A Stripper;” it’s next to impossible to deny that a tremendous part of this game is about the shedding of clothing. Hell, the entire battle system is centered around “purging” clothes off your Reyvateil. What’s most frustrating about this is that there was a decent game on the surface of Ar tonelico Qoga , but it’s so clouded with cheap sexual jokes that it’s difficult to see past the innuendo into something more meaningful.
You Always Follow the Girl Who Turns Enemies into Cake
The story begins introducing the main character: a cocky steeplejack named Aoto whose life isn’t exactly high on the excitement meter. He finally finds his thrill when he rescues a strange girl named Saki, a Reyvateil, from an attack. Before getting a chance to ask many questions, Saki turns into a different persona, strips her clothes (while praying), and transforms the swarm of enemies into cake. From this day on, he vows to protect Saki, and his journey takes him on a wild ride full of unexpected plot twists, touching moments, and ceaseless innuendo. Along for the journey is also another Reyvateil named Finnel who is not only a klutz, but also banters with Aoto every chance she gets. The other two main characters rounding out the cast are Tatsumi, a V-boarder (think Back to the Future’s hoverboard), who is also a friend of Aoto’s, and Hikari Gojo, a Reyvateil Specialist; just call him “doctor.”
Ar Tonelico, like its JRPG kin, tries to wax philosophically. However, also like its fellow JRPGs, it doesn’t do it particularly well. On top of that, the tired JRPG “save the world” plotline is still present. If the series figured out a way to make it all feel new again, it could work, but here the narrative is about as compelling as a bad 80s movie. Being the third entry of the series, the game benefits from its surprising character cameos, which also connect its plot to earlier entries’ loose ends. Unfortunately, in the developers’ attempt to make the narrative accessible to newcomers, the main story doesn’t have nearly as many connections to the past two games as I would have liked. Those moments are there, and they answer questions that have been left hanging, but these moments are just not as prominent as they could have been.
For all that is broken with the narrative, I’ll give the script credit for balancing out its humor with more serious moments. On the other hand, the humor feels like it’s targeted to an adolescent boy rather than someone who wouldn’t need his parents to buy the game. For me, what makes Ar tonelico Qoga tick is its characters. They really do form a close camaraderie and the personal relationships that grow throughout the game are quite intriguing. In addition, each character’s side story is the shining point in the plot. Our heroes’ relationships may be a credit to the writing in Ar tonelico Qoga , but the characters themselves stick far too closely to JRPG stereotypes to be entirely memorable. That’s not to say they’re unlikable; the characters just aren’t very alluring because there is nothing novel about them. There is one insufferable character, though, and she must be mentioned because she ruined the entire game for me: Saki.
Saki is one of the lead female characters, she is a crux in the story, and is she by far one of the worst protagonists in an RPG. At times, it feels like the narrative is trying to convince the player to pick her over Finnel and it does an awful job at that. Saki destroys this game the same way Alfinia in Grandia III and Ryfia in Arc Rise Fantasia did for many. She looks like she’s ten, talks like a baby in third person, pretends she’s a cat, and is simply incapable of independent thought. I’ve grown more and more jaded with seeing female leads reduced to weak characters that desperately require a male’s aid to “save” them. At least Finnel stands up for herself and argues back with Aoto, even though it’s safe to say she is far from competent herself. Alongside their attitude, these Reyvateils also look far too young for the sexual acts and dialogue that accompany them. I don’t care what age you put in the instruction booklet, it feels so wrong to be seducing them, an action that’s mandatory to be successful in battle. In the end, the magnetic relationships between characters are what stands out in Ar tonelico Qoga; unfortunately, everything else in the narrative falls on the archetypal JRPG front.
The Art of “Purging”
While the two previous Ar tonelicos featured a traditional battle system, Qoga changes it up with a real time, action-oriented system. Combat definitely mimics that of the Tales and Star Ocean series, as players can only control one of three active characters at a time. Thankfully the battle system still exhibits one familiar territory for fans: protecting your Reyvateil, only this entry makes it a central part of the battle system. Players can’t just manage whichever character they control directly – they must also watch enemies and make sure they don’t find a path to their Reyvateil. This can be a little difficult with the camera angles and vastness of the battlefield; it’s sometimes tough to see which enemy is coming at the Reyvateil. It takes some getting used to, but the game also alerts you when an enemy breaks your lines and attacks the Reyvateil. The saving grace is that if players tap the “O” button, they can immediately rush in and push the enemy away from their Reyvateil, although this ability does have a cooldown time.
Reyvateils are also the real power in battles. Your standard characters’ regular attacks are rather weak, and it becomes next to impossible to win battles without using a Reyvateil, and that’s not just limited to bosses. During battle, the object is to synchronize attacks to the rhythm meter at the bottom of the screen. Hitting the attack button on beat causes the Reyvateil’s heart to grow, and once it reaches its highest form, the player has the option to “purge,” giving their Reyvateil stronger Song Magic. This is where all that stripping comes in: “purging” removes their clothing. To activate a purge, players shake the PS3 controller and hit either R1, R2, L1, or L2 to use one of the Reyvateil’s special support skills that grant bonuses to your party during battle. With the “X” button, the Reyvateil releases a powerful attack, and the might of it depends on how far her song magic has grown. The shaking of the PS3 controller (something that is necessary in almost every battle) is quite awkward at first and sometimes it’s just not as responsive as it could be. I applaud the game for trying to use some of the PS3’s SixAxis capabilities, but unfortunately, this is a time where it feels clunky and tacked on to the game just to be there.
Fanboys shouldn’t get too excited, as the game limits the amount of clothes that can be purged off a Reyvateil until you further explore her cosmosphere. This has always been Ar tonelico’s shining point and it is once again the area where the game doesn’t disappoint. In the cosmosphere, players get to know their Reyvateil by seeing the inner workings of their minds. There are some racy scenes that, in my opinion, are so out there that they’re laughable, but it’s believable because it’s the mind’s manifested desires. As anybody who has studied psychology could tell you – the subconscious is a crazy thing. There’s proof in the odd dreams people sometimes have and that’s what I’d compare these cosmosphere scenes to. The cosmospheres are more interesting than the rest of the plot and keep the game entertaining. While in the cosmosphere, the player can unlock Hyumas, which are the aforementioned skills. These Hyumas all have different pitches, beats, and songs, so it’s quite interesting to experiment with different melodies for battle. Also present is item synthesis, which is fun, but it’s never the focal point on the game. It’s functional and unobtrusive – you’re not searching desperately to find items to create new ones; the ingredients are easily found in dungeons or purchased in shops.
Cosmospheres and item synthesis aside, the gameplay is a huge letdown. Despite the game switching to an action battle system, it doesn’t benefit from it as the battles still play out rather sluggishly. This has been a complaint of the series before and it appears that there still hasn’t been a solution to combat’s slow pace. I’m fine with boss battles taking longer to complete, but random battles are absolutely awful, to the point where I dreaded every battle. Yes, the game still has a gauge that once drained, enemies won’t attack anymore, but that, too, feels sloth-like to drain. Maybe including an auto battle would have been nice for how repetitive these random battles can be. In addition, Ar tonelico Qoga reuses dungeons to the point where they lose their appeal. Trekking through a maze-like dungeon upwards of five times in a game is unforgivable. Even when new areas emerge, they don’t do much to separate themselves from the last labyrinthine area.
Another disappointment is the addition of 3D graphics that just don’t measure up to what we’ve seen on the PS3 – they’re quite ugly. If it weren’t for the game’s beautiful anime cutscenes, there would be no redeeming qualities for the graphics. I also firmly believe that while Ar tonelico Qoga ‘s musical score is superior to many other games’, this is by far the weakest entry of the series. It features some standout songs, but they are also overplayed without much variety. The voice acting is quite impressive for a game that has so much voiced dialogue, but it’s not always consistent – sometimes it’s perfect, other times the actors overplay scenes and thus hinder the most powerful emotional moments of the script.
A Passable RPG to Fill the Void But Not an Award Winner
Perhaps Ar tonelico Qoga will quench the thirst of many wanting to play a console JRPG, but the game is filled with debilitating flaws. Almost everything that Ar tonelico Qoga provides has been done before in a JRPG; the lack of original content and presence of overused content doesn’t leave much to praise. It also appears that this will be the last Ar tonelico entry and I think that’s a good thing, for I fear what kind of game we would get if they tried to top the sexual antics of this one. I’m no prude when it comes to sexual content in RPGs, but this game takes it a step too far and it’s very unappealing. The narrative is always going for the easy, dirty joke when it doesn’t need to be there – it even ruins a lot of touching scenes in the game. Additionally, the longwinded random battles are bound to turn many off. As a fan of the series, I was hoping it would go out with a bang, not a fizzle. The potential is here to be the console JRPG many were looking for, but it’s plagued with horrible design choices. Still, underneath all the filth is a touching story that’s worth experiencing if you’ve been following the series from the beginning. Who knows, maybe it’ll be easy to overlook the flaws for those who desperately want to be playing RPGs on a console. However, for me it’s straightforward – Ar tonelico Qoga is disappointing.