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Developer:
Gust
Publisher: NIS America
Platform: PlayStation 2
Release Date: February 6 2007

by Tony Ames




"You never forget your first..." Even with the tagline adorning the game's box, Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia, the newest Gust game released by NIS America, seems determined to invoke a very different image to the minds of players than your average RPG. But, is Ar tonelico being quirky for the sake of quirkiness, or is it truly a world apart from what we have known before?


If you've been following Gust, or indeed anything from NIS, or even took a good look at the cover art, you can probably guess that Ar tonelico is a proud member of the Save the Sprites movement. Yes, PS2-quality sprites return again, and truth be told Ar tonelico isn't breaking any new ground here, so there's not a lot to say about it. What is noteworthy, though, is the game's load times. They're really short, to the point that the game probably only loads data on the fly as it's needed. Sadly, there's another giveaway that this is what's going on; mid-animation load times. This doesn't happen very often in other games, so the first time the game had a little hiccup while I powered up a spell, there was a split second I thought it was going to freeze on me. Fortunately nothing so devastating does happen, but all the same, the jarring, unpredictable little hang-ups really wear you down after a while.


With a subtitle like Melody of Elemia, you should probably assume that music is a major focus of the game, and similarly would expect some good things out of the soundtrack. And while it's a little more understated than you'd think, the music is indeed good. In other words, songs tend to blend into the background while playing, rather than jumping out and grabbing your attention. Still, if you take a minute to really pay attention, they won't disappoint. Voice acting is a little shakier, but is within the normal range for VA these days. Though, I have to admit, characters using the same two pre-battle taunts every single fight was a bit much.


Battles, meanwhile, clearly make an attempt to do something different. For starters, you're only allowed to use one of your mages at a time, but more significantly, they work completely differently from the rest of the team. While Reyvateils (the proper name for mages in Ar tonelico) are very frail physically and have poor HP like the mages of many other games, a vast majority of enemies cannot hit them at all, and even those who can must take a turn to target the Reyvateil before actually hitting them, giving you a chance to defend her. This is important because essentially all your battle attributes depend on the Reyvateil. Once you select a Song (spell) to use, it will charge continually until the Reyvateil is told to cast it, or she runs out of MP. This boils down to a vast majority of your damage being dealt by spells. Additionally, charging Songs and having your fighters hit the enemy builds synergy between the party members. At certain benchmarks, this will open up a host of effects, including letting fighters access their skills, increasing the charging speed of Songs, and even making enemies drop more items. However, to build additional levels, you also have to let Songs resolve (that is, actually attack and not just charge them), making it even more important to keep your Reyvateil alive and kicking.


Items are a bit more important in Ar tonelico than in many other games because it features a vast item creation system. While creating items is as simple as knowing a recipe and having access to the items needed and a save point, as the game progresses the items you can make are made from increasingly more complex items, often needing parts that are themselves items you must create. Fortunately, if you don't have any on hand, the game will inform you and immediately take you to create the needed item (and so on down the line as items require created items require created items, etc.). Additionally, equipment can be equipped with Crystals, a recurring ingredient in item creation, which alter its attributes. For example, giving armor more defense or adding fire damage to weapons.


Beyond that, Ar tonelico's dungeons have some very simple puzzles, largely along the lines of barriers to progress which you use fireballs to break apart. While there is more variety than that, the basic approach remains the same, and ultimately it's not a significant part of exploration despite being used frequently.


Breaking no new ground is again the driving order for the plot. In short, bad things called Viruses have woken up and begun attacking Platina, the high-tech city atop the tower of Ar tonelico. Lyner, a Knight of Elemia, is sent to the 'lower world' by his mentor, Sherulia, to obtain the Hymn Crystal Purger, the only thing that will harm the beasts. Lyner crashes his airship on the way down, and thus he's immediately presented with the twin problems of getting the Hymn Crystal and finding a way back. Along the way he enlists the aid of Aurica, a demure Reyvateil working for the Elemia church, Misha, another Reyvateil who immediately greets Lyner as an old friend, and a cast of other assorted do-gooders. While the story does a fair job of justifying your actions, and the characters are likable enough, there's really nothing here to hook players, leaving Ar tonelico a painfully average little game.


Or that would be the case if not for Diving. Diving is effectively the system used to gain new spells for your Reyvateils, which are bought using DP earned in battle. Of course, this doesn't really get across what happens. As explained to Lyner (and thereby the player), Songs are an expression of a Reyvateil's deepest and most powerful feelings. Therefore, to craft new Songs, she must develop, understand, and shape these feelings. That's where her partner, in this case Lyner, comes in, via Diving. Lyner effectively must visit various regions within the Reyvateil's mind, exploring it with her, and helping her overcome the trials within. These take an absolute host of forms, and on the whole have a very intimate feel. Indeed, even Lyner comments that he often feels he's violating some sanctuary while Diving, which makes it somewhat less awkward for the player but still adds to the volumes of suggestive dialogue on the matter. By which I mean that the game takes every opportunity to equate Diving with, well, sex. It's incredibly overdone, honestly, since the dives themselves are really perfectly innocent, and the intimacy of it was apparent anyway. Still, the Dives themselves add a lot of personality and development for the Reyvateils, and are definitely the best reason to play the game.


If the above wasn't a strong clue, essentially this means that Ar tonelico has a strong 'dating' element, in which you must regularly converse with your Reyvateils, use them as much as possible in battle, and all that. To a point, it's somewhat funny, since in actual fact, Lyner is a very dense individual (though admittedly the nicest guy you could ever meet) with no noticeable feelings for the female race, while each of the Reyvateils display strong affection for him. Anyway, this also makes it somewhat unsurprising that Ar tonelico has several story paths based on which girl Lyner 'chooses,' adding definite replay value for those that are interested in such things.


All told, for all its quirks, Ar tonelico is a very average game, enjoyable without standing out, and sadly forgettable. Still, there are certainly worse ways to spend a few weekends, and there's always that chance the game will carve a little niche in your heart.


Final Grade: 80%




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