What They Say:
Ar tonelico Qoga, the final installment of the Ar tonelico series takes place in Sol Cluster, a kingdom ruled by the mysterious Clustania organization. Join Aoto, Saki, and Finnel as they fight to save the world from enslavement of the human race. Ar tonelico Qoga’s battle system contains an exciting new action-oriented control system that makes battles super exciting! Add to that beautiful 3D graphics, multiple story paths, an expanded Cosmosphere system, and all the Song Magic you can handle and you’ve got the PlayStation®3’s most addictive new RPG! Ar tonelico fans will not want to miss this one!
Graphically Ar Tonelico Qoga isn’t going to win any awards for new game design for its characters. Generally what you get on the screen is the pseudo-3Dish models that many of the other adventure-RPG type games use as of late, though they are not nearly as smooth or refined as the higher tiered games use. They aren’t bad exactly but characters don’t reflect equipment changes and the interaction with the background goes from average to spotty. There isn’t much animation for things like opening chests, ladders are laughable in terms of realistic character interaction and there are stairs that characters float more than walk down. And when you will be spending over 50 hours on the first play through these things can stand out after a short time.
Where the game does shine is in its backgrounds. While some of the game areas the player will spend most of the time going through cheat a bit in their repeated use of textures the designers also throw in some breathtakingly designed shots in the background from time to time which really helps break up a bit of the monotony. In the battle scenes you again get the psudeo-3D characters as they run around fighting other pseudo 3D characters. These same types of character models appear in many of the bonus talk scenes as well and interact with some of the items there just about as badly.
Many scenes also make use of the characters being displayed in a visual novel type 2D “flat” method at the bottom of the screen, though these images have no real movement and rely on changes from shot to shot to reflect bits of emotion that will appear in the text. The game also makes of animation screens with certain transformations and story points. While the animation can be rather spectacular in scope the appearance has a few flaws that an HD set up (which is what the PS3 is generally aimed at) easily picks up that can distract from the presentation.
The game includes both the original Japanese voice acting for the game and the English language version that NISA created for English speaking market. The down side is that both are only available in stereo which makes the game feel a little old even when it isn’t. For the purposes of this review the Japanese language track was used during the playthrough and it is a very decent one for a stereo track, though given the role music plays in the game it certainly is a letdown as it could have been so much more. And there is a lot of music in the game as every battle that includes a Reyvateil in your party will revolve around the song they sing to power up your party which causes the music to suffer a bit by being limited to just a stereo option.
The game does let you customize the sound in some respects respects so you can boost or lower dialogue, effects and background music which is a little consolation. The voice actors themselves include some with quite a bit of voice acting experience and they play their characters with zeal, though those who have watched enough of their other work may get an odd sensation while watching them in this role and remembering them in another.
Both map/town control and battle control uses the L3 button for movement though as one would expect the other button usages change depending on the type of screen the action is taking place on. There are four different types of screens used in the game with some of the buttons being used having overlap on them overlap while others are different or completely ignored in another environment. Most of the controls are of the average sort when it comes to RPGs though there is one really big difference.
Perhaps the most unique feature is that Ar Tonelico Qoga makes use of the PS3 controllers motion sensitiveness as one of the key battle techniques in the game revolves around this when maximizing the song-battle system. The battle screen has a small graphic in the bottom right that has what looks to be a sound equalizer display bar with a heart in the far right corner and a “%” marker at the front of it. When an attack is carried out on the highest of the bar spikes it prompts the heart to beat faster and the number percentage in front of the bar to go up. At a certain point the heart is spinning fast enough to allow for a “Purge.”
In the Ar Tonelico series Reyvateils get more powerful as they remove more clothing and “Purge” carries this out. When the “Purge” command comes up holding one of the shoulder buttons and shaking the controller causes the Reyvateil to lose a certain amount of clothing and then the heart to spin faster as the tempo increases of the bar.
This energy can be used in a couple of ways. First it can be used to launch as special attack from the character above the Reyvateil that does varying amounts of damage based on the % number. Also when the “Purge” command is brought up various spell types that were unlocked in a certain game play function can be assigned to each button thus helping boost various aspects during the battle when purging clothing. Eventually the bar can also be drained with some special attacks that can be done by the playable characters or the Reyvateil though these are not available at the outset of the game.
The battles themselves are a bit simple as a single button controls character attacks initially and there is very little change in them until later in the game when special moves arrive and even these are limited to four variations (plus a super move which can only be used under certain circumstances). To this end battles largely become a bit generic as strategy isn’t really rewarded greatly versus just button mashing. The game does have three difficulty levels but outside of the hit points monsters get it doesn’t change events so there really isn’t much reason to use the highest one. I played through on “normal” and found most challenges could be overcome with a bit of level building and some strategic use of items-though after my first fight I don’t know that I needed the item screen again in battle until after I had passed the 30 hour mark.
That there is a ton on the screen to try to keep track of in terms of hit points for all four characters, heart beat and also whether the Reyvateil is under assault which doesn’t lend itself to a lot of finesse, and the game doesn’t really require a whole lot outside a few battles until late in the game either. Along that line while you can change which character you use at any point during battle from the vanguards you have available your Reyvateil is stuck in one place and is defenseless on her own, making her a bit of a magnet. For better or worse though the game AI tends to not focus strongly on exploiting this handicap, which is sort of helpful but the AI controlling the other vanguards in your party isn’t much, if any, smarter. Outside of that saves are done at hotels or save points and the visual novel aspects are rather simple direction move and conformation clicks when it comes to control.
The manual isn’t a great deal more helpful than the game tutorial and there are bits that are oddly worded which left me wondering what I was doing wrong until I broke down and asked for clarification online from some others who had played –and struggled-with similar issues. It is also a bit dry as other than the cover which features different artwork then the Premium box the manual is in black and white. This causes it to be a bit more of a chore reading than it probably should be as some splashes of color would break up things nicely. The manual runs through all the various menus that are encountered in the game as well as detailing what the functions of the buttons are, explains what the numbers on the screen mean as well as giving a small profile of the major characters found in the game. The manual then reprints its information and pictures in French for those who speak that language (or speak it better) and wish to have the game accessible to them.
For the purpose of this review the Premium Edition release of Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel was used. The Premium Edition arrives packaged in a larger than game case sized box with a special inlay for the game and a 40 page hardcover book beneath the game. The front of the box contains a striking image of the main playable character and the initial two Reyvateil. The back features an image of the three main characters in the center surrounded by some game screen shots, an image of the CD and book as well as one of the cities from the game along with technical information at the bottom. The PS3 game case itself uses the same front image though it uses fewer screenshots and a new art piece on the back and the technical stuff takes up a larger percentage of the available space.
The art book itself uses a new piece of artwork and contains images as well as profiles of much of the cast as well as some supporting ones and environment shots. I strongly recommend not cracking the book open until you have finished a playthrough as there are a number of images that are easy to qualify as heavy “spoilers.” The release also comes with a CD which contains a number of the musical tracks from the game.
The game disc features yet another new piece of art featuring the three main cast members. If possible I recommend obtaining the Premium Version of the game and feel it is worth a full 1/3 of a grade increase when rating the final product.
The text is kind of a plus and slightly minus for the release. While the text itself is in a format that is easy to read and is free of spelling errors (at least none noticed) it doesn’t always flow smoothly, ideas aren’t always as clear as they possibly could have been and there are times where the text is either longer or shorter than the spoken Japanese leading to a feeling some alterations were made. It doesn’t seem to be an issue that changes the game substantially from the bits of Japanese I can make out but it may be an issue for others who dislike such changes and are more sensitive to them.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers):
Ar Ciel was once an advanced and thriving world that was even capable of creating a new humanoid life form known as Reyvateils. These extraordinary beings are able to focus song energy to perform a number of different tasks and when they know the correct hymns they can even perform acts that are nothing short of miracles. Additionally the technology exists for humans to interact with Reyvateils on a psychological level on a plain known as a Cosmosphere. This is done through a process known as Diving with requires the aid of a special machine and an affinity with the Reyvateil.
Then a giant scientific experiment went horribly array the world was covered in a cloud known as Sea of Death that has immersed almost the entirety of the world leaving the small surviving population stuck clinging to three giant towers and the small bits of land that extend near them. Now 700 years have passed and life has done its best while clinging to these meager scraps of land. This third game in the series will focus on the third and final tower in the world and the events that surround a young man, his friends and some special Reyvateil who may be able to do more than just carve out a space for themselves in this limited environment.
But life in the tower isn’t easy. Many Reyvateils are part of Clustania-a powerful organization of that is ruled by a pure blood type of Reyvateil and who have both the will and the military might to keep them as the preeminent power in the area. To this end the Clustanians have developed a method of “purifying” humans which is an act that wipes them of their will and personalities. While they don’t use their power constantly the humans who cling to life near the tower know that the threat is always hanging over their heads and they largely go out of their way not to cause any reason for the Clustanians attention to fall upon them.
Within these bounds that he knows lives a small young man named Aoto. As a very young child he was found alone outside the small hamlet of Blue Canyon where he was adopted by a man and raised as an apprentice steeplejack and by trade has an almost complete lack of fear of heights. His life is changed when one day he discovers a collapsed older man and a swordswoman just outside of the village and who are in the midst of fighting members of the Clustanian Army. Never one to back down from a fight Aoto sides with the underdogs and winds up being put in the role of protecting the swordswoman by the collapsed man as he dies, though things get weird when she changes into the form of a smaller young woman right before his eyes.
When the young woman comes to she introduces herself as Saki and states has no memory of the events that brought her here or the swordswoman Aoto saw her change from. Rather than calling it quits here Aoto agrees to take her to Eternus Shaft, though he finds he has to take the long route as the Army has shut down the airbus system. Luckily he meets his (relatively new) friend Tatsumi as he is going to need help fighting his way out of the village and on the path to Eternus Shaft, though Tatsumi is reluctant to have anything to do with his quest initially.
Problems emerge almost immediately as they are soon set upon by the Clustania’s greatest assassin Souma, though she flees as she seems to know something about the power Saki possesses. Soon after the group finds Finnel, another Reyvateil, who is in a bit of a pinch and will help fill out the ranks of the party though there seems to be something a bit off with her from certain things she says and body movements she makes. When they finally progress to Eternus Shaft they will meet a famous Reyvateil doctor who may be able to help solve the mysteries surrounding Saki.
Life doesn’t get any easier though even with new party members as Clustania isn’t the only enemy they need worry about and almost everyone seems to be hiding a secret of one form or another. As they travel Aoto will have to decide how much faith he will put in his companions and how much he is willing to risk as there is a very real chance that they will wind up in an unenviable spot of having nearly the whole world against them…and that may actually turn out to be quite literally the case.
It is easy to toss around the concept of being in a “love and hate” type of relationship but what happens when it’s “love, kind of hate and some apathy?” There are some parts of this game I could go on for a long, long time gushing about. I love most of the characters, the voice acting, many of the environments, and the story itself as well as a few environments. I hate one particular environment with a blazing passion, the fact that I feel the game might have worked stronger as a straight VN as the leveling aspect takes time away from the story and can be a dose of cold water on its inertia as well as having to try to keep track of so much info on a rather sizable screen. I’m apathetic to the mostly boring synthesis part as there is no challenge or outcome variation like in some other games-once you have the recipe and required ingredients you’ll make the item, largely with one of a very few different synthesis animations, and only afterword will stores in the world will stock many of these items.
Then there is the ability to “break” the encounter feature. Every time you enter a new screen where random enemies can occur there is a small bar on the bottom right of the screen whose color changes the longer you walk around-what effect this has I really don’t know as the game doesn’t say. Best guess, longer you walk around the stronger enemies you’ll face but given the nature of encounters and variations, I’m not willing to put money on that guess. In any case each bar is good for 10 encounters and once you deplete the bar it remains that way until you leave that area. It is possible to “camp” near a save mark and deplete the bar so there are no random encounters along the way or leave the screen and repeat multiple times with no sort of penalty. This feels a bit like cheating and there are points later in the game where encounters become almost meaningless-until the game wises up and capriciously increases the levels and types of monsters you face without much warning.
And therein lays the biggest issue- in many RPGs part of the challenge is discovering what tactics and spells work best against a specific enemy. In Ar Tonelico Qoga it is largely just button mash till you power up the Purge meter and can unleash a more powerful attack. When you can play a game just glancing at the screen and then looking away for a good couple of moments it seems some of the flavor is missing. Also included in these issues is the uncomfortableness in shaking the controller for purges and the fact that not all shaking produces the desired results.
A special gripe goes out to loading issues. I have a later model PS3 and had the latest updates that were available while playing (haven’t gotten the new PlayStation “sign away your soul to go online” update yet) and still had the game freeze on me when trying to load it after selecting it off the PS3 start up screen causing me to have to actually reset the PS3. Worse, the game froze twice on me during playthrough- once right after a save so I lost a few game play seconds (plus PS3 reload time) but the second time during the final boss fight- which annoyed more than a little.
If I’m going to complain this much I really should explain a bit about what I love about this game shouldn’t I? Well as I said above I love some of the characters and the Cosmosphere aspect is just a brilliant idea (note to self, you bought the previous two Ar Tonelico games, playing them would be a good idea). This game doesn’t pull any punches and there are some really bizarre things to be encountered in there with some bits that range from seriously demented to seriously naïve, and sometimes both at the same time. There is stuff here that has a real chance at causing some outrage, even though they do write the reasoning behind these character issues rather well.
And it is in the Cosmosphere and cut scenes that the characters are really allowed to shine as they learn to grow and accept each other. Also of note there are at least 6 different endings and much like many visual novels the one you get will depend on the girl you focus on and a few other events*. It is in this area that I fell in love with the characters as I watched their struggles and seeing their Cosmospheres also give a great sense of depth to the character that would really be difficult to achieve without it. These struggles allow for some strong bonds to be formed between the characters that underlie the committed nature of their interactions and helps explain why they are willing to go to the lengths that they are for each other.
*To help you get these endings the game features a new game+ type of system where you lose all your items and Cosmosphere progress but keep character levels, money and dive points. This approach makes starting a new game is kind of ridiculous in the ease of dispatching enemies (I dropped the first opponent who I had struggled with the first go round with a single hit for almost double its total hit points) but it speeds up the flow of the game rather well.
Ar tonelico Qoga is one that is kind of a challenge to sum up as it isn’t really man or beast in its nature. The game merges an adventure-RPG type game with a visual novel and produces results that aren’t anywhere in the same league as combining peanut butter and jelly but aren’t oil and water either when combined. The elements mix together alright though the final product isn’t going to have the final combined audience appeal as each of the individual game tpes bring in terms of fans. There is a good deal for visual novel fans and fans of the story aspects of RPGs to love but the mechanics and battle system don’t pull their weight in the final balance. The game ends up on occasion feeling like it is fighting itself in a way as each aspect is given time but it that can affect the overall enjoyment to suddenly have to go level build…or traipse through a certain obnoxious maze for the fifth time to be able to advance the story. Defiantly more appeal here for fans of modern anime storytelling as it is heavily influenced/in the same vein of.
System: Playstation 3
(Game B-, + 1/3 for the LE extras)