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In case the contents of this blog don't make it obvious enough, I have something of an affinity for slightly "offbeat" titles, so if there's something out there that few others cover, there's a fair chance I'm at least somewhat up on it.
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Below are a handful of recaps and other links (oldest listed first by section), in case you're interested - asterisks mark promoted articles.
Well, my copy arrived a bit less than a week ago, and I’ve been playing it since – at this point I’m a good chunk into the game, though I haven’t yet finished it. In essence, I’ve played too much of this to post “impressions” of it, and too little to completely “review” it – so what do I do? Call whatever this is “something in between” and start typing without a second thought.
Anyways, the most recent DT posting on this NIS-published, Gust-developed PS2 RPG, aside from the “new this week” announcement, was a sorta-preview by Hamza (from which I’ve stolen these images), in which he kinda-declared the game to be about singing lesbians – and in all honesty, it’s not an unreasonable judgment to make after watching the trailer. Anyways, for anyone who’s interested, here’s what the rest of the game has to offer.
As I’ve stated elsewhere, one of the things that attracted me most to the first Ar Tonelico was its interesting and somewhat unconventional futuristic-fantasy setting (a world where the only human establishment left is a single, colossal tower, and music is a magic that can only be wielded by gifted women known as Reyvateils) – while the same world is invoked here, you’ve got a new setting and a new cast, despite a few references to the original game (one of which is especially cool, though I won’t spoil it). Moreover, while the setting is as evocative as before, in a purely technical sense it looks better than ever – though the first game’s visual designs were well-executed, the action (both in and out of battle) was frequently zoomed too far out to show off the sprite details in particular. Here, no such miscalculation is made, and you’re able to drink in every bit of the title’s world. Some might be interested to know that the environments have been given a 3D touchup a la Mana Khemia, but as in that game it does little to spoil the effect – in fact, the locations are in general a good deal more varied and visually interesting than before. About the only major complaint I can muster in this department is that animations in general are still a bit sparse, but it’s definitely not enough to spoil the overall effect, especially if you’re playing via an RGB or similar connection.
The other major feature of the original game was its battle system – while it utilized a “mixed turn-based” system in similar fashion to the Atelier Iris games (or Final Fantasy X, if you need a less obscure reference), it had two innovations of particular note. One, you controlled your three “Vanguards” (fighters) and one “Reyvateil” (magician) as two separate entities, and had to give each separate commands. Two, as an extension of the aforementioned system, you needed to “synch” the actions of the two for the best results – for instance, as your Reyvateil is charging up a song (spell), you’ll want your Vanguards to expend MP to hit the enemy particularly hard, as doing so will catch her attention and raise her sprits, increasing the “harmonics” between the two of you and granting bonuses to each. It wasn’t perfect, but it was something different, and cool to mess around with.
By the way, you can forget about it, as it’s been almost completely overhauled.
First and foremost, now your party has a max of two Vanguards and two Reyvateils, grouped into two “pairs” containing one of each. While you still command each faction separately, the structure of battle beyond that is very different – for one thing, the goings-on are far more strictly turn-based now, as battles are divided starkly into an “attack phase” and “defense phase.” During the former, you’re obviously on the offensive, albeit for only a precious few seconds at a time – however, instead of selecting commands off a menu, each Vanguard’s attacks are now activated in real time by its own button, and can tap into different techniques by pressing said button along with a direction on the d-pad. Mashing can win some early battles, but you’ll want to learn 1) to “chain” attacks in sequence by learning their timing, a la Final Fantasy X-2, because 2) this allows you to better get the Reyvateils’ attention and power your party up, based on what they’re trying to do at the moment – an indicator in the bottom corner lets you know what types of attacks they’re looking for in particular. The pace is very fast, and the various layers at work can be overwhelming at first – keep at it, though, and with some practice you’ll be unlocking and unleashing some impressive firepower. Especially early on you’ll want to make this your focus, as for much of the game your Reyvateils’ attacks have FAR more destructive potential than your fighters’, unlike the first game – while this may sound unbalanced, it’s actually an improvement over the original, wherein you would frequently find yourself artificially lengthening battles to synch up and earn the best items from enemies. Here, you’ll want to lay the smack down and avoid taking unnecessary damage as much as possible.
Speaking of which, once the “defense phase” starts, you’ll find that your enemies have also gotten smarter – while they’d only occasionally attack your physically weak Reyvateils in the past, now they ALWAYS go after them, and you’re required to defend (with the Vanguard absorbing the blow) by timing button presses in sequence with a scrolling meter for each pair. It’s not as complicated as it sounds, but it can be tricky, especially when facing an unfamiliar enemy – a few mistimed interceptions against a powerful enemy can wreak havoc on your ranks, and you can’t switch out to a fresh character either, making this game more challenging than its predecessor (that said, it’s still not too tough a haul once you get accustomed to it). Overall, while even less accessible than its already-complex predecessor, the battle system here, once you get the hang of it, is a lot of fun, never dull, and an even more unique hodgepodge than before, borrowing bits and pieces from various other games and giving them its own spin.
Onward, to some of the slightly-less-interesting out-of-battle mechanics – moving around the map, towns and dungeons is much the same as before (minus the somewhat vestigial jump button) - quick and efficient, with only a limited number of enemies populating each area, ensuring that you never become too overwhelmed (or bored) by random baddy encounters. You’ll now occasionally encounter aggressive “infected” NPC Reyvateils known as “IPDs,” who serve as semi-optional mini-bosses – after they’re “contained” (defeated), you’ll eventually gain the ability to cure them completely (via a pretty much completely pointless minigame) and use their abilities for help in battle. There are lots of them to track down, and, of course, plenty of different items and ingredients to collect as well – unfortunately, the crafting system is dumbed down a bit from the first game, ditching variable Grathnode crystals completely and offering a relatively small amount of recipes, which can only be altered by cooperating with a different ally during the creation process (no Mana Khamia-esque timing-based elements either). On the plus side, the annoying “Ar Tonelicards” are gone, and stats for enemies, items, and everything else are tracked automatically, giving you quick and easy reference to just about anything whenever you need it.
I suppose I can’t go any longer without addressing what constitutes possibly the best-known aspect of the game – the anime-styled naughtiness. While there’s definitely nothing pornographic in here, there is a good amount of innuendo and other “suggestive themes” sprinkled about. Female costumes are almost without exception impractical, insults involving saggy mammary glands will pop up during at least one heated argument, and leveling up your Reyvateils involves a shamelessly silly (though not very sexy, oddly enough) bathing mini-game. If this sort of thing turns you off, it may well prove distracting enough to dissuade you from the entire game – that said, it’s really not much more than a step or two beyond what you’d normally see in a T-rated JRPG, so your mileage, as always, is likely to vary depending on your tolerance for cartoon women in short skirts. On that note, “diving” (basically a mind-meld with your Reyvateils, though slightly more suggestive) is back and functions much as it did before – and THAT said, the game is still very text-heavy (“diving” sequences in particular are little more than watching characters talk), so if you’re not much interested in reading dialogue you’re apt to grow tired of it pretty quickly. Thankfully, as in the first game, most of the seemingly-stock characters are likely to reveal more interesting layers and grow on you after a bit of time, if you’re willing to sit back and observe them for a while – unfortunately, while most of the dialogue flows well and most of the voice actors (English or Japanese) do a decent-to-good job, the translation in some spots is inexcusably rough, featuring lots of “there/their/they’re” errors, and at least one line of text which still appears in the original Japanese.
I figure I also ought to devote a few words to the extra stuff that comes with the game, and some other miscellaneous items – the retail edition of the game is, again, similar to that of Mana Khemia, coming packaged with a soundtrack CD, in an outer cardboard box, though a small (about 20 pages) artbook is also included this time. The latter is a bit disappointing compared to the hardcover 50-page artbook that came with the first AT, but thankfully the soundtrack, which runs about an hour, is nice, containing a good portion of the “essential” tracks – those who pre-ordered the game (like yours truly) received a second CD (of about the same length), which contains an equally-nice selection (though the two soundtracks still don’t cover the entirety of the game’s soundtrack), as well as a bit of extra art in the CD booklet. While I’m at it, I might as well cover a part of the game you likely thought I missed - the music. As was mentioned, there’s a HUGE selection of it throughout – as with the first game, the highlights are the soaring, grandiose choral selections, though some of the lower-profile tunes may also get stuck in your head. Overall, however, the soundtrack is a bit more layered than that of the first and requires a less-passive listening approach to fully take in – not every tune is grandly orchestral in nature, obviously, but it may come off as a bit intrusive until you get used to it. On the whole it’s a very worthy listen, but as with the game’s overall subject matter it might not appeal as much to those who dislike a sometimes over-dramatic anime opera atmosphere.
So overall, where do I stand with the game now? Around 20-25 hours in, if I recall off the top of my head, and I’m not sure how much farther I have to go. From here, though, the game appears, like its forebear, to have several endings to see (and at least one point where your possible paths can and will diverge sharply), so those who are up for a replay or two of a game of this length will certainly have plenty to keep themselves occupied. Am I enjoying myself? Despite some notable quibbles, I definitely am, though I will once again readily acknowledge that this is not a game that everyone will be able to stomach, not so much for how it plays, perhaps, but due to the unapologetically fan-servicey trappings which are constantly lurking just below the surface…and frequently above it. That said, I will mention that before this game arrived, I was in the middle of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, one of my all-time favorite games – however, like all of the Gust products I’ve played before it, Ar Tonelico II hooked me like nobody’s business, and until I’m finished with it, even other games I love to death will have to wait awhile. I’ve no idea if anyone else out there would experience such a situation upon popping this unlikely localization into their PS2, but at a price of 40 bucks new there are certainly riskier experiments to subject oneself to – if you’ve got any sort of inclination towards an unabashedly Japanese title, I recommend spending some time with this game – if you aren’t already, that is.
Thanks for reading - hopefully this gives you at least some idea of what to expect, if you’re curious.