Ar Tonelico is the latest title to be brought to the United States by the folks at NIS America.  Co-developed by Banpresto and Gust (makers of the Atelier Iris series), Ar Tonelico is the story of a post-apocalyptic world where the Earth and the Sky have both been destroyed and the world’s population is divided between the city of Platina in the tower of Ar Tonelico and The Wings of Horus, an island.


NIS America has had a string of modestly successful games, and with the PS2 slowly fading away, the question is if Ar Tonelico will continue that string or if it will be one of those titles that drop into obscurity with the end of a console.

As with many of NIS America’s games, Ar Tonelico carries a similar graphical flair hearkening back to days on the Playstation One, if not the Super Nintendo.  The characters are small and almost super deformed on screen and in battles, although while in conversation the system puts up anime-inspired pictures of each of the character which are nicely detailed.  The spell effects are rather nice, although when you power up your spell level sufficiently, it becomes a long-term graphics explosion of magic, which can get rather annoying, especially since it takes about five to ten seconds each time you pull the spell off…and you can’t skip it.


All of the environments are very nicely detailed, and while they’re not interactive outside of chests and items on the playfield, they’re still rather nicely drawn. 


As with many Japanese RPGs, and even some American ones, the monsters suffer from the curse of palette-swap:  higher level monsters tend to have the same graphics as monsters of a lower level which are similar.  This is mildly annoying but is so common now, although it’s not certain if it’s a problem with running out of room on the PS2 DVD, or if it’s just an effort to conserve resources.

The overall level of sound effects in Ar Tonelico is rather solid.  Movement through the various playfields have different-sounding footsteps depending on what you’re stepping on.  Grass sounds grass-like, stone sounds stone-like, and so on.   The combat effects are also rather well done, with the sounds of weapons and monster attacks containing a suitable amount of impact.


The music is solid, if rather different, especially for a Japanese RPG.  Much of the game music is hymn-based, which makes sense as the majority of the game’s story and characters involve the gameworld’s Church.  What’s different is in the battle music, they’ll throw in bits of Japanese rap.  It’s not bad, really, just very different.  Then again, the same might have been said about one particular metal song early on in Final Fantasy X


While the game gives you the option between English and Japanese voices, it’s apparent early on that the English dubbing has issues.  Some of the characters don’t seem to mesh well with the personality they’re showing, and it almost seems like they’re just reading from the script instead of actually acting the parts out.  The Japanese voice acting has a rather nice cast list, and it’s nice for those who enjoy their JRPGs in Japanese, but the few animated sequences are only available in English, and that can be slightly jarring.


Also, while a fair amount of the game’s dialogue is voiced, it’s apparently hit or miss on which sections are voice and which aren’t.  It can honestly leave you wondering how they determined what sections to voice.

The controls in Ar Tonelico are pretty basic RPG fare.  You move around with the left analog stick or the d-pad.  X confirms options in the menus and in battle, while O cancels the same.  Hitting the triangle button takes you into the menu, and operates the Reyvatail’s Song Magic in battle.  R1 and L1 change which out of combat ability your Reyvatail uses, while R2 opens the area map and tells you where you’re at. 


To be honest, the biggest problem with the controls aren’t the controls themselves, but the area designs, which make it a bit hard to get around.  You’ll think that you can jump to a certain spot, but you won’t be able to, or you’ll think you’re supposed to go one way to get to the exit, while actually you’ll end up having to do a roundabout to get there.  These are more minor issues than anything really detrimental to enjoying the game, however.

Ar Tonelico is the story of a post-apocalyptic world, where a pair of conflicts have turned the sky to plasma, called the Blast Line, and turned the Earth into firey seas of lava.  Humanity is split into two groups, one living in the city of Platina, on the tower of Ar Tonelico, while the rest of humanity lives on the Wings of Horus, the largest remaining floating island.  Besides humans, there’re also a class of female humanoids called Reyvatails.  Reyvatails are further broken into two classes which denote their relative power levels and lifespans.


You play as Lyner, the son of Platina’s governor, and a member of the Knights of Elemia.  Unfortunately, early on a Virus emerges, capable of taking over any piece of technology and attacking humans.  Since technology is the only thing keeping Ar Tonelico and the Wings of Horus functioning, you are tasked to take an airship down to the Wings of Horus and retrieve the Hymn Crystal Purger, which is capable of defeating the Virus.  Unfortunately, just after leaving Platina, you’re attacked by a creature from the Blast Line, which damages your airship and sends you crashing down to earth.


In the course of attempting to both fix your airship and find the Hymn Crystal to save the world, you’ll meet a number of characters, involve yourself in plots involving the Church and their rival faction and meet two Reyvatail:  Aurica and Misha.  Aurica’s a third-generation Reyvatail with the Church, who has no partner yet, and seems to know no Song Magic. Misha’s a first-generation Reyvatail who claims to know Lyner from Platina, although he can’t remember her at all.


The use of the Reyvatail opens up what is called Diving.  Basically, Lyner Dives into the Reyvatail’s Chronosphere to help get to know the girls, as well as unlock more powerful Song Magic.  One thing that has to be noted here:  Diving is all but an euphemism for sex.  Whether this is intentional in the English translation of the game’s script, or was there originally, it’s definitely there.  The first time you go to a Dive Shop with Misha, she’s talking about being gentle, as she’s heard it hurts the first time.  And once you’re in, Misha’s guardian makes fun of Lyner for it being his first time ‘at his age’.  T rating or not, this is very definitely not a storyline aimed at children.


Of course, you can’t just run through the Reyvatail’s Cosmosphere willy-nilly.  You have to earn Dive Points through combat to unlock the various encounters in the Cosmosphere, and you also have to unlock the levels of the Cosmosphere by finding important conversation topics through your travels, and then Resting at save points and having conversations with your Reyvatail via those topics.


It’s not all combat, dungeons and Dive Shops, however.  Lyner will learn how to Grathmeld, which is basically a fancy term for alchemy, early on.  You’ll pick up recipe cards through your travels which can be used to combine items found from monsters or on the playfield to create powerful magic items and even weapons and equipment.


Also, beyond the recipe cards there’re also cards for monsters, items, people and secrets.  The hunt for all of these cards could take a long amount of time, especially when you consider that some shops change inventory throughout the game, and may only have a certain item you needed for a short while.


As many of the items for Grathmelding come from combat, it’s a shame that the combat in Ar Tonelico is so unbalanced.  First off, your party is mainly a front-line defense for your Reyvatail, as she can pump out more damage than anyone else combined very easily.  However, the only way to get the best items from the monsters is to increase the party’s Harmonization level from a minimum of 0 to a maximum of 3.  As combat tends to go by very quickly, it’s hard to manage this outside of the boss fights, especially early on in the game.  This is compounded by the fact that when your characters take damage, the Harmonization percentage of your party lowers, which makes it hard to maintain a higher level once you achieve it.


Another thing to watch out for in combat is that your Reyvatail can run out of MP.  When she does so, she loses control of her spell, which generally means she’ll set it off immediately.  It’s not hard to avoid this, but needs to be watched out for nonetheless.


First off, there’s an immense amount of gameplay in Ar Tonelico.  The storyline itself could easily take 20-30 hours, if you just ran through and tried to kill everything as quickly as possible, without doing any of the numerous subplots that pop up, or worry about trying to find all seven endings.


If you add in creating all of the items for Grathmelding, unlocking all of the items that monsters drop, finding all of the various Cards in the game, conversation topics, completely unlocking all three Cosmospheres and finding all of the outfits for the Reyvatails…you’re easily looking at 40-50 hours at the least.


There’s no replay value, but there’s simply enough storyline to make this game well worth the money.

I had originally seen the Ar Tonelico OVA early in 2006, and was intrigued by the story and the character designs.  When I found out that it was a PS2 game, and that NIS was bringing it over, I was instantly hooked.  This is readily apparent from the preview we did back in January, and nothing’s changed since then.


This is a very nice RPG, and if you enjoy Japanese RPGs at all you owe it to yourself to pick up this title, especially with the PS2 beginning its end here in the US.  Besides, you’ve probably finished Final Fantasy XII by now, right?  If so, it’s the perfect time to pick up another RPG.

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