To be perfectly honest, I’ve never played an Ar Tonelico game before. Part of it is because the previous two titles came out when there were other things I had to/wanted to review. Part of it is the whole concept behind the games never really interested me. If I wanted a music oriented game from Nippon Ichi, I’d play Rhapsody or another Marl’s title. I did a preview of the first Ar Tonelico back in 2006, but that was the most contact I’ve had with the series before this upcoming third game. Generally Nippon Ichi titles are well received here at Diehard GameFAN, but previous games have basically been viewed by the staff as , “decent, but nothing memorable.” So what made me interested in trying out the third installment of the Ar Tonelico series?
First of all, this is a stand-alone. This meant I could be completely ignorant of the previous two games and be just fine. Second, Gust really changed things up in this version of the game. The title went from 2D to 3D and combat went from turn-based to action based. I’ve always preferred action or tactical RPGs to turn based to this was a big plus for me. Finally, there was the addition of debug mode. As a long time PC gamer, I’ve always enjoyed fooling around with the debug mode in RPGs like Neverwinter Nights or Fallout just to see what wacky things I could discover or make happen. I know a debug mode is very rare in console RPGs compared to PC games, and so the opportunity to monkey with such a thing had my curiosity piqued.
I’m currently five-six hours into the game and it’s definitely a weird title – I’ll give it that. The game takes place in the world of Ar Ciel, which the game’s prologue describes as a world without land or skies. I was like, “Okay, so this is basically Waterworld or something.” Oddly enough the game is chock full of land AND sky. So right there I’ve got a problem with the story. Your main character Aoto, who is a fairly generic spiky haired teenager with an oversized sword. He’s also an orphan. Surprisingly, he’s a fairly upbeat guy so he doesn’t complete the trifecta of JRPG clichés. One day Aota is at home lazing about when there is a commotion outside his window. There is a group of warriors from a country called Clustania, all of which are women. Well, the leader appears to be the opposite of futinari. I’m not sure if there’s even a word for that particular description, but there we go. The Clustanians have mortally wounded an old man and an armoured woman is trying her best to defend herself. Aota comes to her defense and fights off the Clustanians, but the woman collapses and transforms into a young teenage girl named Saki who speaks in the first person like she was The Rock. When Saki comes to, we learn she has amnesia (yet ANOTHER cliché…) but that she is also Reyvateli, which is the equivalent of a mage or a bard for those of you in the AD&D mindset. Reyvateli are all women in the Ar Tonelico games and they wield supernatural power by singing. Saki is different as she can also pray to the Goddess of Ar Ciel, who will answer her prayers. In the very beginning of the game, Saki turned a bunch of enemies into giant slices of cake for example. However her prayers to the Goddess have a cost: each time she uses them she gets amnesia. Aota and Saki decide to get the heck out of dodge since it’s obvious the Clustanians want her and her power for some yet to be mentioned reason. Along the way so far I’ve met up with Tatsumi who is a V-boarding (think snowboard but in the air) enthusiast and he also uses his board as a weapon, Hikari Gojo, a doctor who is your ranged attacker in the early game, and Finnel who is a “restaurant mascot” and also a Reyvateli.
So far there hasn’t been much of a story. I mean I’m only a few hours into a 100+ hour game, so I’ve only gotten the scraps of a plot, but what I’ve seen so far is pretty generic. Aota is kind of a bland hero. He and Saki are on the run from a shadowy evil nation that likes to commit genocide and turn people into mindless slaves. None of the characters have really shown any personality so far save Fennil who is either clumsy and antagonistic or a submissive sadomasochist depending if you are in the real world or in the Cosmosphere. I can’t say any of the character are likeable, but at least they aren’t annoying. So far it’s just a flimsy storyline with very shallow characters. I’m sure it’ll get better as I keep playing. Someone is bound to have a DARK SECRET in their past as par for the course with a game that already has this many clichés at the start.
Combat is pretty easy. In fact it’s a weird mix of random battles that are triggered in an overworld mixed with button mashing and a bit of tower defense. You have three attacks and one lady on your battle squad at a time. The young lady sits in the back of the battlefield singing. She emits an aura that, if you stand near her, will heal your characters amongst other benefits. She is also singing while the battle goes on. Now you can just button mash mindlessly, but if you choose to play with some strategy and hit your button in time with the high bars in her song, you’ll do more damage and power up. The bars in the “song” represent your female character’s mood. The better you do with attack, the higher your burst value gets. Once you have it up you can press one of the four shoulder buttons while shaking your Dual Shock 3 and your female character will cast a spell. If you do it right, the girl will also start to strip off some of her clothing. Yes, you read that right – the girl’s magic power is increased by how much skin she shows. Your team will also gain the power of one of four elements based on which trigger you pressed when the Reyvateli purges. That’s basically combat. There’s not a lot too it actually. You basically mash the square button in time with the graph and play tower defense in respect to the Reyvateli.
So the game does involve women stripping to get more powerful, but that’s not the only thing that has earned Ar Tonelico Qoga its M rating from the ESRB. That actually comes from what is known as “Diving.” Let’s be honest: “Diving” is just a metaphor for sex. This isn’t new to Qoga – the entire Ar Tonelico series has diving and is supersaturated with double entendres . Qoga is a bit more blatant with it, referring to characters as losing their “diving virginity,” telling Aota to be rough or gentle with them, mentioning that some women get jealous or upset if their man is diving other women and so on. For obvious reasons (as if the M rating wasn’t enough for you) this is probably not a game to give to a seven year old and “Have fun little Jimmy!”
Now this isn’t to say that diving is JUST a sexual metaphor. The act of diving into a woman itself is a thinly veiled allusion for sex sure, but once you’re inside the woman you’re actually inside her mind/soul rather than her nether regions. Here you’ll go through a series of events where you become emotional close with the female character by helping her exorcise her mental demons and emotional baggage. Basically you’re playing psychiatrist. If you spend enough DP (points that let you advance in the diving sections) you’ll eventually overcome the issue on this level of the female character’s mind and you’ll be rewarded with a glowing hole that you stick yourself in and you’ll unlock another level to dive into. There are nine levels per lady and each one is very different from the last. As well each woman’s cosmophere is different from the last. For example Saki has a nice little fantasy village until it is razed by an explosion and you have to rebuild it from the basis of an open book. Obviously a metaphor for her amnesia and the like. Meanwhile Finnel’s cosmophere is a massive BDSM dungeon complete with cages, clamps and a weird succubi-esque dominatrix overseer. As you help them overcome their deep-seated issues, the female characters become more and more emotional attached to your character and thus will let you see more and more of their naked flesh. I believe this is known in the psychological profession as “transference.” Finally, while diving you’ll also unlock Hyuma, when I accidentally misread as “hymen” when I first saw it on my screen. Hyuma are aspects of each girl’s personality taken to an extreme. Once they are unlocked, you can add them to a girl’s song magic. Each one has a song preference and a special effect they add to the character’s spell. For example, the Hyuma “Buckle” gives additional resistance to the “curse” status.
Unfortunately, one of the things I was most looking forward to, the Debug Mode, has been removed from the North America version of the game. It appears they did so to prevent people from just racking up trophies the easy way, but this is a huge disappointment to me as I wanted to play around with all the different options the same way I would with a PC RPG. I mean, if you’re playing a game JUST to earn trophies…that’s more than a little sad.
There’s more things to do in the game, like item and special move synthesis and I’m sure there is even more to come that will make the game a more complex and challenging affair that I just haven’t experienced yet. Right now my first impression is that the game is fairly generic and really hinges on the “diving is a euphemism for sex” gimmick. I don’t think it’s a bad game so far; just a one-trick pony. Again, this is just a first impression and I still have many more hours to put into Ar Tonelice Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel before I write an official review. Check back around the official release date of the game (March 15th) here at Diehard GameFAN for an even more in-depth look at the game.
To learn more about Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel, you can go visit the game’s official website. Remember that the game comes in a premium box set containing not only a CD with sixty minutes worth of music from the game’s soundtrack, but also forty page hardcover artbook similar to what came with Atelier Rorona. For ten dollars more you can get the Cosmosphere Edition which comes with a full colour calendar featuring the cast and crew (okay, mostly the ladies) of the game. Again, we’ll see you in a month to see if my first impressions with my first Ar Tonelico game have changed any.