Retrospective: Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia

What would happen if humanity were confined to massive towers built upon a decaying planet? What would happen if humanity’s only hope for survival were a total fucking idiot? Also, what would happen if that idiot were surrounded by beautiful girls who have the ability to destroy their enemies with the power of song? These are the questions posed by Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia, a JRPG released by Gust (makers of the long-running Atelier series) for the PS2 in 2007.

Before I continue, I should note that Ar tonelico contains a whole lot of sexual innuendo. This innuendo is woven into both the game mechanics and the story, but in a way that’s entirely unnecessary, as we’ll soon see. In any case, if these kinds of themes make you uncomfortable, you might want to stop reading.

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Ar tonelico takes place on a tower of the same name. Humans have been forced to flee to three great towers forming the Ar tonelico complex, a structure that offer shelter from the volatile surface of their planet. The towers themselves are large enough to support cities and towns, and essentials like water are freely available.

This game puts us in the role of Lyner, a young knight employed by Shurelia, the administrator of one of the towers of Ar tonelico. Lyner is sent on a journey by Shurelia to discover a cure for a virus outbreak affecting the tower’s Reyvateils – an all-female race of humanoids designed by humans specifically to control the elements with the power of their voices. Lyner is dedicated, brave, and hardworking. Unfortunately for the residents of Ar tonelico, Lyner is also an incredible idiot.  (Example: one of the later scenes in the game involves Lyner running headlong into a dangerous forcefield after every character – including Lyner – sees the forcefield and acknowledges its existence.)

Despite his astounding thickness, Lyner makes progress in his journey with the help of Aurica and Misha, two Reyvateils who are also pursuing their own goals, and with several other JRPG-ish characters (the Tough Guy, the Noble Knight, the Tomboyish Engineer Girl, etc.) who tag along. And this is where the game’s many strange mechanics come into the picture. Ar tonelico features “grathmelding”, which is basically a simplified form of the alchemy mechanic already present in Gust’s Atelier games – the idea here is that the player finds various ingredients around the game world that he can fuse to create new items. More interesting, however, are two gameplay elements introduced by Ar tonelico: Song Magic and Diving.

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The use of Song Magic is going to be your main battle strategy throughout Ar tonelico. At first glance, the game’s battles use the standard turn-based system, with your characters with high defense (Lyner, Jack, Krusche etc.) in front and your squishy magic-user/healer (the Reyvateil) in the back. However, it will soon become apparent that your front-line characters’ true purpose is to soften the enemy up and defend the Reyvateil while she charges her Song Magic in preparation to release it in a massively damaging attack. The game’s battles also incorporate a rhythm element – players who are quicker on the controller will be able to more effectively defend their Reyvateils from enemy attacks.

So how do you get Song Magic? All Reyvateils come with a basic, chargeable “energy ball” sort of attack, but to get elemental forms of attack magic or healing magic, you’ll have to conduct a “dive.”  In the world of Ar tonelico, Diving is entering a Reyvateil’s mind, or soul, or something, and rooting around in it. Essentially, Lyner has the ability to get more forms of magic and more powerful versions of songs by “diving” into Aurica, Misha, or the third Reyvateil whose identity I can’t say about because it’s a bit of a spoiler. Each Reyvateil has something called a Cosmosphere that represents her mind, and poor, thick Lyner is tasked with helping her sort out her inner demons. Lyner’s sheer stupidity makes this difficult, and he’ll sometimes find himself suddenly shut out of the Reyvateil’s Cosmosphere after particular events take place. However, once Lyner helps the Reyvateil come to some kind of inner revelation or understanding about herself, his relationship with the Reyvateil “levels up”, which means that he can unlock new Song Magic and enter deeper recesses of her mind.

Really, though, “diving” is just a placeholder for sex.

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Uh, well…

If you don’t believe me, play the game or look up a relevant Youtube video. Ar tonelico is full of sexual innuendo, and most of it involves the dive mechanic. The game’s “Dive Shops” are basically treated like pay-by-the-hour hotels, and both Lyner and the Reyvateils express concerns about diving that could apply just as easily to sex if you change a few words in the dialogue. Two of the Reyvateils even compete for Lyner’s affections throughout much of the game, and the player’s choice of either Aurica or Misha as a dive partner can change his mid-game route and lead to a different ending.* In fact, the fanservice elements of Ar tonelico are pretty strong – the Reyvateils can also unlock new costumes that change their stats in various ways, and some of these costumes, as you might predict, leave very little to the imagination (for example, one of Aurica’s costumes is called “Lilim.”  Go ahead and look that up on Google, but not if you’re at work unless you were planning to get fired.) Really, Ar tonelico could almost qualify as an “ecchi game” (don’t look this term up at work either, by the way) and it’s kind of amazing that the ESRB let it go with a T rating.**

As it is, Ar tonelico is a colorful and interesting game with some unusual game mechanics and an excellent soundtrack (some of the Song Magic and regular game tracks are written and performed by Akiko Shikata, a singer/musician who’s done music both on her own and for game OSTs for a long time.) However, it’s definitely not the greatest JRPG ever made – in fact, it’s not even the best game in the Ar tonelico series. While the battle system is unique, the battles themselves can get repetitive, and the game doesn’t offer much in the way of challenge. AT also suffers from as a result of its terrible localization. The game was published in North America by NIS America, and I have to say that they really dropped the ball, both with this title and 2009’s Ar tonelico II. Certain sections of dialogue don’t make any sense at all, and many of the game’s item descriptions are totally baffling. The English dub is also absolutely horrific, and the game offers no way to turn the voices off or to replace them with the original Japanese VAs.

Despite being a better game with a deeper combat system and a more interesting plot, Ar tonelico II‘s localization is even worse – the voice acting still sucks, some of the dialogue consists of strings of non sequiturs (especially during the IPD infection sequences) and NISA’s localization team somehow managed to leave bits of Japanese text in the game’s North American port.  The NA version of AT2 even features a game-breaking bug.  This utter failure on the part of a highly professional outfit like NIS America is confusing, especially considering the fact that they did a fine job with the ports of Ar tonelico Qoga and Ar nosurge, the third and fourth games in the series made for the PS3. Maybe they just didn’t have the budget for good VAs or for actual Japanese-to-English translators who knew what the hell they were doing back in 2007.

AT2 is a terrible port of a good game.

AT2’s combat offers more variety, but the bad quality of its official unpatched port will make you want to die.

So can I recommend this game? I don’t really know. On one hand, it’s pretty good despite its localization problems and its lack of difficulty. The setting is interesting, the art and music are quite good, and the interactions between the boneheaded Lyner and the Reyvateils are genuinely funny at times and are probably worth watching. On the other hand, the localization really is awful, and the game’s high degree of fanservice may turn some people away. If lots of sexual innuendo with cute anime girls is “your bag”, however, Ar tonelico and its sequels are worth a look.

Another possible issue is the game’s price. Like many JRPGs from the Dreamcast/PSX/PS2 libraries, the prices of both AT and AT2 are stupidly high. The original copies of these games came with soundtrack CDs and artbooks, and these deluxe packages tend to sell for well over $100.  There are certainly copies of .iso files of these games floating around on the internet, but I don’t advocate illegally downloading games.  Not at all.  Especially not with the unofficial translation patch of AT2, which fixes the port’s game-breaking bug and most/all of the dialogue.

* The player also has the option to leave both of them behind and go for the mystery Reyvateil, which I highly recommend doing, since she’s a lot better than Aurica or Misha. Doing so also opens up the game’s third act, which the player can’t access on either Aurica or Misha’s routes.

** You might have read somewhere about a JRPG for the PS3 featuring actual stripping. That game is Ar tonelico Qoga, the third title in the AT series, in which the Reyvateils absorb more power from the planet through their skin by taking off their clothes during battle (NSFW, more or less.) Yes, really. This is how the game explains it. But the ESRB wasn’t impressed – Qoga got slapped with an M rating.

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