Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel
Publisher: Nippon Ichi
Genre: Action RPG
Release Date: 3/15/2011
Gust isn’t my favorite developer- I’ll be honest about that right up front. I tend to find the Mana Khemia and Atelier titles both easy and forgettable. Which is why I was surprised how much I loved Atelier Rorona last year. I listed it as my second favorite game of the year once 2010 was over with and it appeared that Gust was really taking things to the next level as it said farewell to the PS2 and fully embraced the PS3.
So that brings us to Ar tonelico III, a game where I constantly want to capitalize the word “tonelico” since it’s in the title and not an article. I never played AT 1 or 2, simply because neither the mechanics nor the story impressed me from what I saw of them and I left those games up to other members of the staff to review. Unfortunately for the series, the rest of the staff found the Ar tonelico titles largely forgettable. I was hesitant to do a review on Qoga, if only because I hadn’t played the first two games in the series, but I enjoyed Atelier Rorona and I had skipped the last few games in that series. Being pretty new to the game also meant I wouldn’t have preconceived notions about the huge changes to the series, such as moving from sprites to three dimensional visuals or that the game now used an action RPG engine instead of the turn based one seen in the previous two games. So on one hand I’m obviously ignorant to the continuity of the series and how this compares to the previous games in the series, but on the other hand, it also means I won’t spend the review comparing and contrasting all the changes between the two games and thus will be judging the game on its own merits. It’s up to you how relevant that makes this review for you.
Ar tonelico Qoga takes place in the land of Clustania in the world of Ar Ciel. Ar Ciel has a bit of a problem because well, there really isn’t a world to speak of. It’s mainly three very large towers suspended between a “sea of death” and a plasma “blastline. Also, the towers are surrounded by poisonous death clouds so really, life kind of sucks if you get wanderlust I suppose. The towers are insanely big though as they are able to hold thousands upon thousands of people comfortably and yet grass, atmosphere, water and the like all have a natural ecosystem. For those looking for some sort of logic to how all this works, I suggest you use that standard Satellite of Love response towards how Joel is able to eat and sleep.
Your main character is Aoto (although the font used in the game makes it look like Aota half the time). Aoto is your fairly standard JRPG protagonist. Spiky hair? Check. Oversized sword that could never be used functionally in combat? Check. Angst-ridden anti hero personality? Che…wait a second! That doesn’t describe Aoto at all. In fact, Aoto is more a good natured helpful sort with a hint of sarcasm added to him to keep him from feeling totally vanilla. He’s basically a nice guy who gets wrapped up in some crazy events. You know, like saving a young girl from Clustanians who turns out to be an incredibly powerful Reyvateli named Saki who seems to have the ability to have her wishes granted by the deity of Ar Ciel at the cost of her memories.
Reyvateli are a cross between your typical JRPG magic user and bards from second edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. They use songs to convey they magical powers, but much in the same way as Thousand Arms, the power of magic can be enhanced by an emotional or physical bond with someone. Although god knows Aoto and Meis are two VERY different blacksmiths. Also, the less clothing they wear, the more powerful the magic, so part of the game is getting Aoto to make the various Reyvateli fall for him and then convince them to wear less clothing than a hooker.
That’s not the only sexual euphemism in the game. If you know anything about the Ar Tonelico series, you know that the key gimmick of the game is “Diving” into a Reyvateli, which is basically a metaphor for sex. I guess some people find it creepy while others find it edgy to have a game based around a double entendre, but really the whole premise is like watching the old “USA UP All Night” movies from the 80s and 90s – which were just softcore porn with the softcore porn bits edited out for TV. In both cases the end result is the occasional allusion to sexual content with nothing really being there. It’s about as sexy or sexual as Phantasy Star III where you mated to get on to the next third of the game. So if you’re twelve (or just at that maturity level) and hoping to see some anime T&A&P, you can watch Speed Grapher or Netflix streaming and find something more titillating there.
The majority of the game is Aoto and his friends running around Clustania doing fetch quests and solving mysteries like “Who is Saki and why does she have amnesia?” or “Why is a member of your team secretly the most feared assassin of the Clustanian army and why does she wear an oversized novelty Jack Frost costume when she’s being bad?” Stuff like that. I’ll admit the story is pretty weak across the board. Characters are flat and motivations are sometimes nonsensical. There are occasional funny bits in the game, but ATQ can never seem to make up its mind if it is a parody of RPGs like Disgaea or a third rate fantasy based Sakura Taisen knockoff. The plot just never felt like it was going anywhere and that much of the story in the game was just piecemeal bits meant to string the game together as you got enough points for Dive sessions.
On that note, I should probably go back to diving and point out that since ALL of the women you are diving into can be read as having SEVERE mental and emotional issues, and that diving is as much a metaphor for psychology as it is sex, some people are going to find this aspect of the game exceptionally misogynistic . After all, every major female character in the game could be considered mentally unstable (multiple personalities, mental illnesses left and right, weird fantasy schizophrenia. You name it – they have it.). Is it a side effect of being Reyvateli or does the game just treat female characters horribly? I chalked it up to the former, but some will no doubt take it as the later. As well, since the female characters fall in love with Aoto the more he Dives into him, the sexual metaphor takes on an aspect of transference…which is a huge no-no in this country. Some people will even paint Aoto as a misogynist himself, even though he’s clearly clueless about the emotional or romantic side effects of doing so. Basically Aoto is more Tenchi Masaki than a hornball.
So overall, Ar tonelico Qoga is more flash than substance. Characters are rather two dimensional, the plot is a bit generic and as much as I tend to enjoy JRPGs and Nippon Ichi games in general, this just left me a bit cold. I didn’t hate the plot, but I also wasn’t impressed by the story. The whole thing was just kind of forgettable. If I want a harem anime style story, I’ll go for a Sakura Taisen game or something like My Bloody Bride.
Story Rating: Mediocre
Visuals are a mixed bag here and you can clearly see the issues Gust had with moving from sprites to fully rendered 3D characters. On an aesthetic front I really didn’t like the character designs, especially the major female characters. Saki’s main outfit makes her look belly look like she is either very pregnant or has one of those bloating parasite things you see in African children on Sally Struther commercials (Is that reference dated? I don’t watch TV). Finnel’s design is just plain awful. So on and so forth. However the characters themselves are nicely animated on the field. There are no frame rate issues or slowdown in battles or in the overworld and so everything flows smoothly.
The area where the visuals are at their best are with the all too limited cell style animation pieces. They look amazing . The area where the game falters the most at with graphics are in background. Areas are not only repetitive and bland, but you can definitely tell the Aoto’s overworld visual is super imposed on to it – and horribly so. The best example of this is when you have Aoto climb down stairs. The legs are moving as if he is climbing and the character is well animated. But look closely and you’ll notice the character is sliding up and down the stairs as if Aoto was a telekinetic. His legs are hovering in mid air and he’s sliding around. It looks really tacky. However, this is the first tonelico game in 3D so I’ll give it a pass.
So poor character designs (although that’s just my opinion) but protagonists and antagonists are well animated and without the usual issues you see when a dev team switches from two dimensions to three. Excellent, but underused animated bits and some noticeable background visuals issues.
Graphics Rating: Decent
This is another aspect of the game where I’m split. I wasn’t a fan of the English voice acting, and I usual like the job Nippon Ichi does where the English localizations that they do. It could be that I didn’t connect with any of the characters or actors having to go off a bad script, but I found most of the voices annoying or grating. The music on the other hand is very well done, but then since so much of the game is based on the concept of “music = magic,” it kind of had to be or the very premise of the game would fall flat. The soundtrack isn’t necessarily something you’d have on your ipod when you work out or go jogging, but it really enhances the overall quality of the game and helps to keep the otherwise repetitive battles and dungeon crawling from being boring. You get a full 60+ minute soundtrack when you purchase the game and it really is the highlight of the overall package.
Sound effects and battle noises are forgettable and really overshadowed by the music and voice acting in combat. Overall the entire aural package of the game is an enjoyable one, but that’s primarily because of the game’s outstanding soundtrack, which thankfully makes up for the subpar voice acting in either language.
Sound Rating: Enjoyable
4. Control and Gameplay
Look, I love action RPGs. I love Neverwinter Nights. I love Dungeon Siege , Diablo , Dark Alliance and wow have you noticed how many hack and slash’ers begin with the letter D? Suffice to say, I far prefer action RPGs to turn based RPGs if only because I have get to use my reflexes and my brain rather than just pick a choice from a menu and watch a character step forward, swing a weapon, then step back. So you would think that I’d really enjoy the combat in Ar tonelico Qoga, right? WRONG. It was one of the dullest and most boring combat experiences I’ve ever encountered in an RPG. Honestly the combat system is shallower than an 8-bit side scroller and battles are so easy and repetitive there were a few times I had to stop playing because it was THAT poorly done.
Here’s combat. Press the square button. Keeping pressing until enemies are dead. The end. Now combat can be a bit deeper than that, but not by much. The goal is to hit your enemies in time with the “beat,” but the beat is actually a little counter rather than the actual beat of the music. If you hit an attack when the beat is at its apex, you will do more damage and raise the morale of your female character. It will also raise her “burst value,” which at a certain point lets you cast a spell. You can also “purge” your female character, which is actually a reference to stripping their clothes off rather than bulimia. The female characters are more powerful the less clothing they have, and they will also give the other three members on your team elemental attack and defensive bonuses when they purge. Unfortunately 90% of the time, combat will be done before you can or even want to purge. Monsters are pretty weak, both in terms of damage and A.I. You can also exchange Hit Points to do a supermove, which much like magic, will rarely ever come into play with the massive amount of rank and file cannon fodder battles. It’s a very dull experience and it actually made a lot of turn based combat seem interesting by comparison. Seriously, I am usual fine with button mashing dungeon crawlers, but this was so poorly done and boring that I can’t even remotely defend it.
Combat nets you the usual money and experience points but it also gives you dive points which are used as a form of currency when you go diving. Diving plays out as a visual novel. You have little to no control in diving sessions and their end when you run out of dive points, or when you reach the end of a session and you finish off the stage. Occasionally you’ll get booted out by answering a question wrong but this is pretty rare. The problem is that most visual novels play out like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” novel where you have some control over what happens and there are actual choices to be made. Diving sessions really don’t give you that. You’re a passive participant and I use “participant” loosely. Much like combat the would-be titillating aspect of AT3 is a bit of a letdown and rather boring. Again, if I wanted a game that combined music, visual novel aspects, dating sim aspects and RPG combat and did it extremely well, I’d go for a Sakura Taisen game but for US gamers who have only recently had the opportunity to try one of those or Japanese gamers who want something made since 2005 (Bad Red Company!), all you have is this well…second rate option. Alas and alack.
So, combat is some of the dullest I have ever seen in an action RPG and diving is pretty passive and kind of takes you out of the whole “role playing” aspect of an RPG. I was thoroughly disappointed here as the potential for both was pretty high, but Gust just failed to live up to it. Just a few options to change how each dive stage turned out and getting consequences for your choices would have made the game jump for dull to engrossing.
Control and Gameplay Rating: Bad
Although I found Ar tonelico Qoga to be a bit dull, the game does offer a lot of replay value to longtime fans of the series or those that get something out of Qoga that I didn’t. There are multiple endings that you can achieve and for trophy fans, you’ll have to play the game for over 100 hours to get a specific bronze trophy, which should tell you how much work you have cut out for you here. There are team conversations to find and witness, specific dialogue options you can unlock for your lady of choice and several other things. Yes, the main story is exceptionally linear but how you interact with the Reyvateli can have a dramatic affect on the long term aspects of the game.
Replayability Rating: Good
Much like the gameplay, I felt the balance of Ar tonelico Qoga was horribly done. Battles were too easy, too repetitive and too mind-numbing. With no real challenge from beginning to end, the game’s battles felt tacked on. I want to say, “tacked on to add something to the Diving bits” but that’s not quite right either, as the Diving scenes themselves felt tacked on like someone was trying to add visual novel or very light dating sim elements to a game. When I think of visual novels, I think of things that at least have some diverging plot threads in each section and thus can change something. Where it’s not 100% passively watching what happens. Look at things like they When They Cry series, which is pretty much considered one of the standardbearers for visual novels. You can find hints and different paths in your “journey.” Not so with the Dive sessions. Maybe once every three levels you’ll obtain a question and then the question just boots you out of the Dive if you get it wrong. Not really a diverging path.
So when both the combat and the core gimmick of the game both feel tacked on, what else is left? The story? If that’s the case, Knell of Ar Ciel would have been better off as an anime series. And since the story is kind of forgettable itself, you have a game that doesn’t even have a sense of balance amongst the parts that make it up, much less the things you normally think of when you talk balance, like difficulty rate or the quality of the A.I. No, Ar tonelico Qoga feels like it’s half second rate RPG and half second rate dating sim/visual novel and honestly, I’d rather spend my time playing a first rate of either one.
Balance Rating: Bad
One thing that Ar Tonelico Qoga DOES have going for it is that the series truly does stand out from the pack, at least here in North America where there aren’t a lot of visual novels or dating sim-esque games. Back in Japan…yeah I’d rank this a bit lower than I will be here, but in North America, where can I find a game that mixes RPG combat with a weird sexual allusion? Sakura Wars V and Thousand Arms are tactical and turn based respectively. Princess Maker has these elements and more, but it was never officially released in the US even though the US localization was eventually released for free on PC for a while. Princess Debut? No real violence. So on and so forth. Ar tonelico is one of the few options available for fans of this genre mashup and the only option for the PS3 in North America unless you want to shoehorn in things like Heavy Rain or the Dragon Age games in here.
In addition to being one of the few games like this on the market, At3 really changed things around for the series as a while. Graphics gained a third dimension and combat is completely different from previous games. I might not like they way they did the latter at all, but is at least shows Gust is willing to take chances, mix things up a bit, and prevent the third and final game in the Ar tonelico series from feeling stale to the fans of the series. That’s a sign of a developer that cares, even if I myself didn’t care for the end product.
Originality Rating: Above Average
It’s been a long time since a game was this uninteresting to me. I feel bad, because if you look at my review archive, you can see I tend to review a lot of Nippon Ichi titles, and also tend to be fairly positive towards them. But Ar tonelico Qoga? This was just a really uninteresting game for me. I received it a whopping two months before it came out and it still took me almost to the release day to finish it off. It was just so dull and uninspired to me that it down a Herculean effort for me to want to keep playing. Even writing this review took me a week because just talking about the game drained me like I was in a room full of wights. Even with games I’ve really disliked in the past, I’ve been able to beat them. The funny thing is I didn’t HATE Ar tonelico Qoga at all. I thought it was mediocre and I could see why some gamers would be into it. However, something about the game repelled me like my reverse namesake and a dump truck full of garlic. I couldn’t get into this game at all and the whole two months with it was one of the most grueling affairs with a game I’ve ever had. It’s not something I can explain other than, be it playing or writing about At3, it gave me the worst case of ennui ever.
Addictiveness Rating: Bad
9. Appeal Factor
I can honestly see why some people would enjoy this series, especially the older turn based entries in the series. I’m a big fan of point and click adventure games for my PC, I adore certain dating sim/RPG hybrids like my Sakura Taisen series. I had visual novels imported for my Sega Game gear (Phantasy Star ones for the curious) long before most gamers Iknew had even heard of the genre. It has a niche, albeit it a very small one in the us. Qoga however feels more like a second rate Star Ocean game. Less dating sim elements, a shallower combat system and so on and so forth. Since I could never get into the Star Ocean games myself, it’s no wonder I had an even harder time with something that felt like a weaker version of the first two games in that series. I’m sure this will be a problem for several other gamers, but the core fanbase of the previous two games will not only see Knell of Ar Ciel through to the end, but find things they enjoy about it.
That being said, the Ar tonelico games are still niche titles here in the States (while they do sell nicely in Japan). I can’t see Qoga really raising any interest from those that aren’t already fans of the franchise and even those that are may be disappointed by the end result. The game is largely forgettable and it’s not something we’ll be talking about at the end of the year when award times rolls around. More than likely Ar tonelico Qoga will simply be forgotten by most gamers save for those on forums specifically dedicated to it.
Appeal Factor: Poor
At the end of the day, Ar tonelico Qoga is a game I just couldn’t connect with. The game felt like a Frankenstein’s Monster as it was a mashup of several genres but it failed to be good at any of them. The combat was some of the shallowest I’ve ever seen in an action RPG and neither the characters nor the plot did anything for me. At the same time, Nippon Ichi has made a nice collector’s edition for those that are big fans of the series and the combination of the artbook and soundtrack bonuses make the overall package a tempting offer to those who are looking for a new JRPG for their Playstation 3. Unfortunately, there are many better options for the system and so aside from the Nippon Ichi faithful (of which I am normally one), the game will largely be ignored and/or forgotten. Knell of Ar Ciel isn’t a bad game. It’s just not a very good one. It’s simply a middle of the road title that has some noticeable issues and fails to excel in any one area.
Miscellaneous Rating: Mediocre
Control and Gameplay: Bad
Originality: Above Average
Appeal Factor: Poor
FINAL SCORE: MEDIOCRE GAME!
Short Attention Span Summary
Although I’m generally a fan of the games Nippon Ichi publishes, Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel just wasn’t a game I could get behind. The story was bland, the characters were uninteresting and the combat system was the shallowest I’ve ever experienced in an action RPG. Think of the game as a second rate Star Ocean title in all aspect. Of course the question then becomes, “Why would I buy a second rate Star Ocean game when I could just buy a first rate one?” I applaud Gust for making the move onto the PS3, for trying action gameplay instead of turn-based and for moving from 2D to 3D graphics, but the end result was a pretty dull and forgettable affair from beginning to end. The game isn’t horrible by any means – it’s simple a mediocre one.