March 15, 2011
Set in the world of Sol Cluster, Ar tonelico Qoga follows the story of a young teenage boy, who gets wrapped up in a conflict that will more than likely consume the whole world. Throw in an amnesiac, air head female lead, your resident tsundere, and a cast of charming archetypal characters and you have your typical JRPG plot. Don't stop reading this review now though; while the plot may be as classic as they come, Gust have outdone themselves with the execution, giving players a surprisingly enjoyable experience with the final Ar tonelico game.
Ar tonelico Qoga is a very story-driven experience. Just about any and everything about the game is tied into the plot. From the battle system to the character progression and yes, even those highly sexualized events you've no doubt heard about. Events are a mix of 3D cutscenes and mostly visual novelesque events. In addition to the main plot, you'll be able to cosy up with one of the female leads through nightly conversations. These can be triggered at any rest point and Talk Topics can be found as shiny orbs scattered throughout the game. The more you unlock, the closer you get to your girl of choice and the better they perform in battle.
It won't take long for players to get into the swing of things, as unlike a certain other game, the story is paced quite well and the gameplay mechanics work well in conjunction with that. You'll never really experience a lull that's too long. In fact, the game's design doesn't really encourage grinding at all. Each area is demarcated with an encounter gauge that slowly depletes with every battle you encounter until, eventually, you'll have to move on to the next area. It's not necessarily a bad thing since battles don't depend only on your level, but grinders will feel a bit left out, like myself. However, it's not something that's too difficult to remedy as all you have to do is move in between areas to refill the gauge.
The battle system, as mentioned earlier, is tied quite heavily into the plot and it'll be easier to understand it if you can quickly grasp the context by which it was designed. Parties consist of three Vanguards and one Reyvateil, an all-female race - there's a huge back-story and glossary about Reyvateils. Fans of the Ar tonelico series will instantly recognize them, while newcomers to the series might get a bit confused at first. They are basically an artificial life form capable of manipulating symphonic energy. Translated into English, that means they sing, and that's about all they can do in battle.
Reyvateils, like mages in other RPGs, provide support and powerful nuke abilities by singing. However, they are also extremely squishy and it's your job as the Vanguard to protect them from harm. The new battle system handles this dynamic in quite an interesting manner. Reyvateils can't move and are surrounded by a ring. Any enemy unit that steps into this ring will immediately cause her HP to drop by the second, so it's essential that you pay attention to what's going on on the battlefield or you'll lose your only source of power. There is a Blow prompt that players can use in order to quickly knock an enemy out of this ring simply by hitting the Circle button. However, this can't be done consecutively as it takes time to charge before the next blow.
Unlike the previous Ar tonelico games, battles are no longer turn-based, but occur on an open field in real time. Mashing the attack button is one way of going about it, but that's simply not effective and usually results in untimely deaths. The dynamic here is that the Reyvateil in your party will sing in order to boost your power. You'll likely spend less time worrying about your own HP and how much damage you're dealing and, instead, focus all efforts on protecting your Reyvateil. This sounds like a horrible concept at first, but it's certainly a nice change of pace, albeit a bit repetitive. A rhythm equalizer, the Harmograph, lets you know if you're fighting in sync with your Reyvateil's songs. High points on the equalizer mean higher damage and specially marked points will increase a Heart Gauge.
And this is where the fun begins. As the Heart Gauge grows in size, you'll reach points where you can Purge the Reyvateil's clothes. The more clothes purged and skin exposed, the stronger a Reyvateil's song becomes. Players will be able to only purge one level of clothes at first, but as you progress through the game, you'll be able to purge more levels and, eventually, to the point where the girls are left in their underwear. Hitting the X button will let players cast a Song attack that, depending on how much has been purged, can deal devastatingly massive damage. I can safely say that players will be dealing out damage over nine thousand within the first few hours of the game.
Back to the Purging, in order to increase the amount of times a Reyvateil can purge, players will have to "Dive" into them. This too has an incredibly in-depth history behind it, I won't bore you with it here, but Diving basically levels up a Reyvateil's singing ability and is only done with someone that they are close with since it essentially means opening up their entire being, their Soulspace or Cosmosphere, to someone else. Naturally, that'll be the main character. Diving is done at Dive Shops in towns and will require Dive Points, which are acquired through battle. Events within a Dive expend these points and if you run out, you'll be kicked out of whomever's Cosmosphere you were exploring.
To be honest, at first this whole methodology of purging clothes and Diving into underage girls seemed gratuitously sexual and disturbing, at best. Surprisingly, it's done exceptionally well. Sure, it's still quite perturbing, considering that they're underage, especially with some of the dialogue and really sexualized Cosmospheres, but all of it has been designed and intricately woven into the plot and lore of Ar tonelico. It'll take a bit of time to fully grasp the system, but once you do, the core mechanics becomes quite enjoyable. On that note, Ar tonelico Qoga is surprisingly huge. There are multiple event paths and different endings depending on which girl you end up with. There's plenty in terms of replayability and JRPG fans will likely waste away hundreds of hours trying to complete the game 100 percent.
Unfortunately, the presentation of the game is quite haphazard. The overall visual and audio design is nicely done; however, the graphics seem inconsistent at best. Character models are well done, but the backdrops don't seem to know what to present to players. Some are illustrated environments, some are 3D and some are a mix of both. It can become quite jarring at times. Battles take place on generic arenas, although this isn't really much of an issue as it takes more than enough focus to simply concentrate on the battle itself. More importantly, there just isn't a lot of detail in any of the environments, many of which come across as flat, floating platforms that look like something out of a PS2 game. The stiff, gliding animation doesn't help either.
The game's soundtrack is quite catchy, with many songs affecting battles. With enough time, they'll get stuck in your head, regardless of whether you actually enjoy them or not. The voice acting is quite tolerable, but as with most NIS America titles, players have the option to swap back to the original Japanese voiceovers if they wish, an option that is most appreciated.
One important bit to note is that some of the translation can come off as weird. Although a dime a dozen, some sentences don't take into context what was said beforehand and may confuse players. In addition, it baffles me as to why captions are white-on-white with a drop shadow, it makes reading the dialogue incredibly difficult and frustrating.
All things considered, Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel is a very enjoyable JRPG. Fans of the genre will definitely enjoy the scope of the game, what with the main plot, character progression and pseudo-dating events presented in a visual novelesque manner. The battle system is surprisingly deep and engaging and while there are definitely a number of flaws, they do not break or disrupt the overall experience. It's definitely not a game for everyone, but you can bet your pretty penny that if you love fun JRPGs with plenty of tongue-in-cheek, then you'll love this. There's also the whole bit with half naked ladies and that's always fun.