The Great JRPG Character Face-Off: My top five

Last month, Pix1001 at Shoot the Rookie and Winst0lf started a month-long battle to determine the greatest JRPG characters, to be conducted by both bloggers and commenters making lists of their top fives with explanations. And I thought, hell, I like JRPGs, so I’ll thrown my opinions in. This is a list I might have thought up, written, and posted during a slow month, but I’m happy that I can use it to contribute to a community event like this. Hell, I can make a top ten or twenty list, probably. Maybe one day. I’d probably end up shifting a lot of these characters around and bumping some out of the top five as well, so fair warning that I’d be completely inconsistent about it. Sorry in advance!

For now, here’s my list. Also, there are probably some very, very general character arc spoilers for each of them, because I couldn’t really find another way to explain my choices.

5) Lyner Barsett (Ar tonelico)

Lyner might be the densest JRPG protagonist ever created, so god damn dense he’s about to collapse into a black hole. He’s a powerful warrior and all, but he also has a “just rush ahead” approach that gets him into trouble. And when it comes to women, he’s hopeless, or at least he should be. Ar tonelico centers on the relationships he builds with the three Reyvateils Aurica, Misha, and Shurelia, all women who can harness and use magical powers through singing. Poor Lyner has to largely rely on his own wits to progress his relationships with them to improve their compatibility in battle, and he will end up romantically involved with one of them in the end. That’s left to the player, so there is no “right” choice (the right choice is Shurelia, though. It’s Shurelia.)

Misha’s fine too, I guess. As long as it’s not Aurica.

What’s amazing is that he doesn’t strike out with all of them, because Lyner is an absolute dumbass. At one point late in the game, he and his party see a powerful forcefield that they can’t get past, and Lyner acknowledges it, and then he walks right the fuck into it getting hurt. When the other characters ask him what he was thinking, he can’t really explain himself very well other than to say he just likes to run straight ahead or something similar. You can’t just run straight through obstacles sometimes, Lyner. Lucky thing that he has women around him who are smart, and also Aurica.

So maybe it’s weird that I’m putting Lyner on this list. There was a time when he just irritated me. But now I can respect his drive, sincerity, and strong sense of morality. He’s a dense fucker, but he’s also a genuinely good guy, and one who gets thrown into a bad situation and has to make the best of things. Fellow protagonist Croix Bartel from Ar tonelico II is also a great character and a lot more capable, but it’s just that capability that puts him lower on the list of characters from #6 down that I’m not making. Croix also has a little sister to help him out in addition to his own set of Reyvateil companions. Those are advantages that Lyner doesn’t have, yet he makes it through all the same. Good man.

4) Etna (Disgaea series)

Make no mistake: even if Etna is one of my favorite JRPG characters, she’s probably not someone I’d want to know, and she’s certainly not someone I’d want for a boss. I’m not nearly that much of a masochist.

But Etna is still a great character. This prickly, vain demon girl was introduced by Nippon Ichi to the world in Disgaea 1 back in 2003, in which she was the “loyal” vassal to the young hotheaded prince and protagonist Laharl. Not really that loyal, of course — she’s extremely ambitious, and Laharl keeps a close eye on her. Etna also seems to enjoy beating up on the Prinnies, her penguin-esque servants who contain the souls of dead human sinners working off their debts in the afterlife. So she is pretty treacherous and mean on the surface, but as the story progresses, we learn that she does have a caring side to her. She loves to mock and needle Laharl, but she’s also genuinely invested in his becoming a great and caring leader in the mold of his deceased father, a man she sincerely respected.

If it weren’t for that other side of her, Etna would simply come off as sadistic and kind of annoying, but she does have her caring and forgiving sides, even towards those Prinnies she hauls around. She’s also carefree enough to make friends with humans and angels when they blunder their ways into the Netherworld. Etna pretty much does what she wants, and while she pretends to be evil, her whims usually lead her in the right direction. Eventually, anyway.

3) Ryudo (Grandia II)

I always like a character who can make light of a bad situation. Ryudo is the mercenary protagonist of the classic Dreamcast JRPG Grandia II, and he makes this list thanks in part to his dark sense of humor and his frequent quips. Like the other characters on this list, Ryudo really is a good guy, but he also buries his sense of honor deep under a thick layer of sarcasm. By putting up a bitter, jaded front, he tries to protect himself. His talking bird partner Skye sees right through it and calls him out occasionally, but it isn’t really until Ryudo takes a job with the big church organization to protect the nun Elena that that shell starts to break. That emotional front is something that helps me connect with this character, even if I wouldn’t last five seconds in the kinds of battles he gets into in Grandia II.

Bread and coffee and nothing else at every meal, that’s Ryudo’s way. I can respect it, though I’d prefer to have Mareg’s dinner (the beast guy on the far right.)

Grandia II doesn’t have the most original plot, and a lot of the story beats and especially the big twist at the end can be seen coming from very far away, especially by players who are used to standard JRPG tropes. I still really like the game’s characters, though. The game builds a real sense of camaraderie, especially during its dinner conversation scenes in which the character make small talk. Why don’t more games include those?

2) Esty Erhard (Atelier Arland series)

If this were a top list of JRPG characters who are unlucky in love, Esty would absolutely be my #1 choice. We meet Esty early on in Atelier Rorona — she’s a bureaucrat for the Kingdom of Arland and helps the alchemist player character Rorona fill orders. She’s also a knight, however, and together with her fellow knight-bureaucrat Sterkenburg, she can join Rorona while in the field hunting for ingredients and fighting monsters.

Esty makes the list mainly for her dedication to her work paired with her somewhat carefree attitude. She makes a great pair with Sterk, a bulky knight who’s extremely serious most of the time. Unfortunately, her work doesn’t leave her much time for relationships, so when she shows up in the third Arland game Atelier Meruru, still single, she’s a bit on edge about it. But not enough on edge that she isn’t still one of the best characters in the game to take along into the field. Esty’s balance between serious dutifulness and relaxation is something to admire, especially when she shows up in Meruru to encourage/intimidate her younger sister Filly.

Moments later, a sword is ready to be pulled.

And yes, it’s Esty Erhard. That’s her last name in the JP versions of these games. No, I’m not just being a big weeb here as usual: the localizers at NISA changed it from Erhard to “Dee” to create a hilarious joke. Esty Dee. Get it?!?!?! Truly, they can fuck off. I like Esty. She’s honestly one of the most likeable characters in these games, which is saying quite a lot. If Atelier games had Persona-style dating sim mechanics, she’s the one I’d go for, absolutely no question. There, now someone can go on Twitter and call me a simp for Esty, or whatever the stupid term is they’re using now.

1) Aigis (Persona 3)

Once again, no surprise here. Aigis is certainly one of my favorite game characters period, largely for her character arc in Persona 3. A weapon created to fight Shadows, Aigis goes through the old “android discovers human feelings and love” plot but in a way that isn’t nearly as tired and cliché as that might sound. I can’t say much more about why Aigis is so great without posting major spoilers for Persona 3, though, so I’ll leave it at that. Just play Persona 3, either FES or Portable — I preferred FES, but they’re both good choices.

I do hope this isn’t considered a cop-out to excuse me not being able to explain myself. If WordPress had spoiler tags, I’d use them, but it doesn’t. So blame WordPress. Hey, WordPress admins, maybe consider adding spoiler tag solutions that also work in the Reader/don’t require a plugin or a paid subscription to use? A lot of us write about fictional works on your platform if you haven’t noticed.

Those are my entries. If you also want to join the party, be sure to check out the links at the top of the page. These community events are a nice break for me, and I hope they continue to catch on.

Soundtrack reviews: Flame ~Homura~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Crimson and Waterway ~Mio~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Blue

Some time ago I was digging around an old external drive when I discovered two albums that I’d gotten (yeah, let’s leave it at that) years ago titled Flame ~Homura~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Crimson and Waterway ~Mio~ Ar tonelico II Hymmnos Concert Side Blue.  These two albums, released in 2007 along with the PS2 JRPG Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica, were originally sold together in a boxset which probably costs well over $100 today if you can even find one.  ATII is a good game with one of the worst official localizations in history – read more about it here, along with a link to a completely redone fan translation of the game.  The game’s soundtracks, though, are exceptional.

Notice I said “soundtracks”.  Each AT game has a primary soundtrack and several extra soundtracks.  The primary soundtrack to ATII is very good, but if that’s all you have, you’re missing out on some of the best tracks in the game.  Each of these Hymmnos Concert albums are linked to a particular character in the game – in this case, Flame to Luca and Waterway to Cloche, both featured on their respective covers.  To explain what the hell all this is about and why some of these songs have bizarre titles like “EXEC_with.METHOD_METAFALICA/.”, we have to take a look into the universe of Ar tonelico.  Luca and Cloche are Reyvateils, female humanoid beings who can control the elements by singing.  These songs are sort of like programs, with lyrics specifically created to cause certain effects, hence some of the songs’ weird titles.  Most of the residents of the world of AT are humans living on three massive towers alongside these Reyvateils, who often experience discrimination and worse because of their abilities.  Not without reason, because while their song magic can be used to heal, it can also be used to destroy, and a few of the most powerful Reyvateils can sing songs that are massively destructive under the right circumstances.

Pictured: potential weapons of mass destruction

The backstory and lore of this series is insanely deep, so deep that some of these songs are sung in Hymmnos, a constructed language* made specifically for the AT series.  Most of the songs on these albums are sung in-game by Cloche, Luca, or another Reyvateil, and some of them, far from being mere background music for battles, are important to the plot.  (See above: the costumes they wear also affect their song’s powers, which is where a lot of the AT series’ fanservicey reputation comes from.  Also, you get to pair up with one of these ladies on their own routes through Croix, the game’s protagonist, so you can see at least part of the appeal of Ar tonelico II aside from its music.)

The games are worth diving into, but if you don’t have the time or inclination to play a series of JRPGs with weird rhythm-based battle mechanics, you can still appreciate the music.  Almost every song on Flame and Waterway are centered around the vocals of one of four singers: Akiko Shikata, Haruka Shimotsuki, Yuuko Ishibashi, and Noriko Mitose.  Each one of these singers apparently had a serious career before the AT games were a thing, and according to the AT wiki, a lot of the songs in these games were created specifically with these four in mind.  Each one has her own distinct style, but they’re all amazingly talented singers, to the extent that I can’t say I prefer one over the others.

A lot of these songs are standouts as well.  Almost every one is a spot-on hit.  METHOD_IMPLANTA/. is beautiful and a great introduction to Akiko Shikata’s style.  I’m a great fan of Yuuko Ishibashi’s songs Reisha’s Lullaby and Eternally Connected as well.  Eternally Connected features some of the most stunning singing on these albums – it sounds like it belongs in an opera rather than a PS2 game.

My favorite, though, is Noriko Mitose’s EXEC_SPHILIA/. Once, I wrote about how much I hate the lazy key change as a method of trying to artificially create emotion in a bad or mediocre song.  EXEC_SPHILIA/., despite being mostly sung in a constructed language that pretty much no one is going to understand, packs more emotion without using this cheap trick than a thousand sappy modern R&B and singer-songwriter ballads that do.  It’s fantastic.  I like all of Mitose’s other work on Flame as well; her stuff has a harder edge that appeals to me.

While I can’t say the same for the AT games themselves, their music is diverse enough in tone that there’s enough here to appeal to pretty much everyone, ranging from cute (Hartes ciel, melenas walasye) to operatic (Eternally Connected, The Heart Speaks) to apocalyptic (EXEC_DESPEDIA/.).  If you’re a fan of vocal/choral music at all, you need to check these two albums out.  And it goes without saying that these are must-haves for Ar tonelico fans.  Since I have no complaints about either Flame or Waterway, they both get perfect ratings of 7.

* I don’t really know if Hymmnos is complete enough to count as a constructed language, but I’ve read threads with people arguing about the grammar of the language, so I figure it must be close enough.  It even has its own script!  That’s dedication.

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.