Ar nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star Review

By Shawn Collier on October 16, 2014

Those who know of Japanese developer Gust most likely know them for their Atelier series of games. But one less often mentioned series in their catalog, Ar tonelico, started way back on the PS2, with the third game coming out on the PS3 a few years back. After a few years' break, Gust started off a new set of games in the series under the label "Surge Concerto", which takes place many years beforehand.

The first title in the series, Ciel nosurge, was kept away from a localization due to the game's online connected nature and the sheer amount of voiced dialogue present in the game. Not to mention the visual novel-type aspects which, while more receptive now, weren't as much during the game's Japanese release in 2012.

So when Tecmo Koei announced the localization of Ar nosurge, which takes place a couple thousand years after the events of Ciel nosurge, many were left wondering if the lack of the first game's localization would affect its reception in the west. Despite jumping into the story at a halfway point, the game is still a gem that fans of the genre should experience, even if it has its flaws.

Ar nosurge takes place inside a colony ship which is drifting amiss in search of a new planet to colonize due to the destruction of their home world, Ra Ciela, the events of which took place in Ciel nosurge. To add to this misery, a few years preceding the start of the game, a mysterious race named the Sharl appeared and began to abduct the citizens living on the ship.

Initially, your party consists of two people: a young man named Delta and a young woman named Cass. Both of them were members of a group called PLASMA that protects the people living inside the ship. A little bit before the game starts, Delta ends up getting captured by a neighboring city that co-exists with the Sharl. He returns to his home city of Felion months later, but ends up opening the gate and letting the Sharl inside, although he can't remember what happened to him when he was abducted or why he opened the gate in the first place. This of course ends up causing mistrust between Delta and the citizens of Felion.

This amnesiac angle actually ends up working pretty well as players who didn't experience Ciel nosurge can generally get the gist of most of the core story elements from that game that are relevant to Ar nosurge, as either the other characters will explain them to Delta (and therefore the player), or can be further examined by an in-game encyclopedia that can be accessed during dialogue or in the game's menu.

That said, the narrative does pick up quite a bit when the other two playable characters, Ion (the central character in Ciel nosurge) and Earthes (a robot controlled by someone from another world who protects Ion) come into play. The game does expect you to have some knowledge of the prior game's events (as well as the Ar tonelico games) if you want a better understanding of the true motivations behind the characters. But if you're diligent enough at paying attention and keeping up on the encyclopedia terms, you'll essentially understand mostly everything as the game eventually deals into the key parts of the prior game's backstory throughout the game when necessary.

And surprisingly, considering the extra fluff most Japanese RPGs include in terms of narrative, that same fluff ends up being one of the game's key features as it does a lot to reward the player for investing in the game. This plays into a central theme about the game: the more you put into it, the more you'll get out of it.

The battle system, while initially basic at first glance, plays into this ideal. The game features a movement-based system in dungeons where you're more likely to fight enemies the more steps you take, with the gauge turning from blue to red once you're nearing a fight occurring. Battles consist of taking turns between you and the opponent, where you have a set number of turns to defeat all of the enemy waves before you exit the battle. If any enemies remain at the end of the battle, these will have to be defeated on the next encounter.

Each button on the controller is set to a different attack. Square is your normal attacks, Triangle generally does an AoE damage effect on enemies, Circle is a power-up move to unleash a more powerful attack using one of the other buttons and finally Cross is a more powerful attack that can be useful for breaking down the enemy's shield. The male characters (Delta & Earthes) do the attacking, while the female characters (Cass & Ion) need to be protected so they can have enough time to cast their Song Magic, a powerful attack that can wipe out the remaining enemy waves depending on how much power they've stored up.

The end goal, then, is to keep defeating enemies marked with an exclamation mark or the word "Skill" on them to earn yourself an extra turn and cancel out the enemy's own attack turn. However, if you're unsuccessful in doing so, you'll need to press the Circle button with the correct timing to deflect the attacks aimed at the female party member. The trick here is to defend successfully as she'll be unable to recover health if one of her four health gauges fully depletes, unless certain items are used to restore them. This mechanic comes into play during boss battles in particular, as often times you will have more attacks aimed at you compared to how many times you can defend, so you'll need to decide which attacks are more important to defend against.

One key feature to this system is that wiping out all of the waves in a given area allows you to progress further in the dungeon without any more encounters, removing one of the major nuisances in most modern JRPGs. This also lets the player feel more connected to the chats that occur based on your actions in the dungeons as you don't have to worry about them being interrupted by a random battle. This, combined with the generally smaller dungeons, plays into another few core aspects of the game: synthesis, diving and chats.

Playing off an idea from Gust's Atelier series, players can combine materials they find dropped by enemies in battle or from item points in the dungeons to create new items, ranging from new equipment to items that can be used for healing and other status effects in battle. The real goal of this mode, however, is the scenes that play after the items are crafted and the scenes that play after synthesizing enough items. The former are generally one-off scenes that are usually paid off for laughs, but the latter are part of a larger overarching narrative for the shopkeepers and the either set of the playable characters involved in the synthesis.

One example of this is one of Cass's friends, Sarly, learning to become more feminine due to her studious focus in science. There's quite a few scenes played for laughs, of course, but by the end of the series of post-synthesis scenes that take place, the game ends up creating more than a one-dimensional character. The key difference from other JRPGs is that you could easily not see this play out if you rushed through, but players who want to delve into the game's world building have something to keep them going outside of mere completionism.

Song magic in Ar nosurge comes from one's heart, so the Diving mechanic in the game allows the male lead to enter the inside of the heroine's heart to see her innermost feelings and work out their inner troubles. Initially, this is just limited to the heroine's heart, but eventually through the heroines linking together with other characters in the game, you can enter worlds which include both of them.

What I liked most about these segments was that even though the worlds inside their heart seemed rather outlandish, such as a world where all women must wear swimsuits as decreed by law, by the end of the level there was an overarching theme that furthers what the game's narrative only begins to hint at. The final levels of both of the heroines in particular were quite touching and made me feel rewarded for sticking through them both to the end.

All of these parts individually aren't that exciting, but what really hooked me in after a few hours was that each of these systems work together to bring the player into the game's world in a way that I haven't seen done in a while, outside of games such as Square Enix's Nier. Like Nier, the world itself feels alive because the characters feel alive as they each have their own goals, worries and their innermost feelings they can't bear to let out.

The game's music direction also plays a lot into this. Due to the focus on Song-based magic, many of the themes in the game have some sort of vocal accompaniment to them. There's parts of this in some of the general town and dungeon themes, but the real meat of the music takes place in the cutscenes where the key musical tracks are utilized. Most of these are marked by words such as "CLASS::" or words separated by hyphens, so it'll become apparent when they're about to be used. The ones that lead into the boss battles in particular have an interesting use, as the heroine is usually the one signing the song as you're fighting. This further ties into the overall character building narrative the game attempts to do for the player. I found myself listening to quite a few of the tracks outside of the game, and there's enough variety that most players shouldn't become bored anytime soon due to repetitiveness.

Like stated earlier in the review, there are some flaws that do detract the game from reaching a truly grand fortissimo. The character graphics are quite well detailed, but there's a noticeable lack of graphical sheen to much of the environment outside of the key areas and some outright PS2-level textures for items such as fruit barrels. There's also an odd "floating" effect on structures such as stairs as the hero essentially is walking on a triangle instead of the steps.

Surprisingly, considering the lack of anything too intensive graphically, there's odd pauses that feel almost like frame skips initially when stuff is loading in the background, such as an item drop's contents, or a scene about to play out. Most players will likely get used to it over time, as I myself didn't notice it anymore unless I tried looking out for it after a few hours.

New to the Western release are also a few other minor issues. Tecmo Koei did a decent job with the localization in terms of making it feel like everything was translated by one person at first glance, but there's areas where the narrative will use a particular spelling for a key character in the correct usage, but then a scene further down the road switches it to an incorrect usage, making it seem like the translation was split up between multiple people and not thoroughly proofed before shipping. There's even some downright obvious grammar and text overflow glitches that are in the non-optional dialogue that were missed. Thankfully for the most part these issues don't occur, but it does take the player out of the mood Gust was attempting to create.

Lastly, in the localization Tecmo Koei did a reduced English dub alongside the game's original Japanese voices. What lines are voiced are well done with some highly acclaimed voice actors that those who've played other high-profile JRPGs should notice, but these scenes are few and far between with some scenes you'd expect to hear voices for aren't voiced. While it's understandable due to budgets and the rather quick localization turnaround (little less than half a year after the original Japanese release), I would have liked to hear more dubbed dialogue.

Final Thoughts

With so many JRPGs stuffing tons of extra nonsensical fluff into their games to pad things out, it's utterly refreshing to see a game which lets one rush through the game if they wish, but rewards those who explore beyond those narrow boundaries. For those who give the game a chance, they'll find a flawed but deeply enriching experience awaiting them. For those who've awaited a JRPG that hearkens back to the revered PS2 JRPGs of old, this is a song that should be sung.

The side events and the Diving mechanic do a lot to make the characters feel alive.
Some of the musical tracks are simply sublime, and the rest fit great in the game's world.
For those who dislike tons of battles, playing smartly lets you enjoy the dungeons more.
While nowhere near Ar tonelico Qoga's levels of fan service, those adverse to it will find some minor instances of it here.
The localization process by Tecmo Koei could have used another month or two to fix the text and side quests mistakes.
Would have been nice to have a little more English voice acting in certain key scenes that are left voiceless.
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