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.

Retrospective: Disgaea

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I’m a big fan of Nippon Ichi Software. Their approach to the strategy RPG is unique, and their games have a light comedic quality that’s a real breath of fresh air in a genre that is choked with seriousness and end-of-the-world scenarios and angst-filled heroes (SRPGs as a whole aren’t as guilty of this sort of thing as more typical turn-based JRPG titles are, but they’ve got their fair share of DRAMA.)

NIS, a Japanese developer (if you couldn’t tell from their name – “Japan’s Best” I think it means?) started out getting notoriety with the release of Marl Kingdom for the Playstation. I’ve never played Marl Kingdom, but it is apparently an RPG about a teenage girl in a fairytale land with a puppet girl as her best friend and is full of Disneyesque musical numbers. For a reason that is totally impossible to understand, this game was stamped with the title Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure and imported to the US, where I’m pretty sure 98% of Playstation owners at the time were teenage boys who wouldn’t be caught dead with such a game in their Playstations (well, I know because I was one of them.) So the game flopped Stateside. NIS followed up with the SRPG La Pucelle Tactics for the PS2, which I have played, and it really tones down the pure unadulterated cheese of Marl Kingdom. You play as a tomboy nun-in-training who’s also a member of an elite demon-hunting team. So that’s different right there.

Prier, the protagonist of La Pucelle Tactics

Prier, the protagonist of La Pucelle Tactics

It’s still a pretty obscure game here, but La Pucelle must have been a relative success in the States, because big-time developer and publisher Atlus took a chance on 2003’s Disgaea and published it in the US. And Disgaea was definitely a hit – it would become the first title in a long line of sequels, spinoffs and ports to portable systems.

So what is Disgaea exactly? For the novice, imagine an SRPG – say a Fire Emblem or Shining Force game – with soldier and mage sort of characters moving around on a grid and attacking each other. Now replace these soldiers and mages with demons and monsters that have 500,000 HP, 300,000 MP and attacks that can bring down meteors and giant lasers upon their opponents. Every turn. Also, exploding penguins. That’s Disgaea.

Step 1: Become the Overlord of the Netherworld.  Step 2: Laugh menacingly inside your huge castle.

Step 1: Become the Overlord of the Netherworld. Step 2: Laugh menacingly inside your huge castle.

Disgaea tells the story of Laharl, the son of the king of the Netherworld, who unbeknownst to him has been dead for two years (because Laharl has been taking a two-year nap, you see.) Laharl, who now believes himself to have inherited the title of Overlord from his dead father, decides to show all his new vassals that he means business. Sadly for him, nobody seems to accept this kid as their new king, so he’ll have to use some force to get his subjects to obey him.

Laharl doesn't get much respect initially, no.

Laharl doesn’t get much respect initially, no.

Even worse, an angelic assassin has been sent from Celestia to kill him. Fortunately for Laharl, she’s new to the job and doesn’t really know what she’s doing (see top of page.) Together with his “loyal” vassal, Etna, the three of them end up having wacky Netherworld antics together. Or something. It’s definitely a nice story, and in 2003 Disgaea stood out for its humor where most other games in the genre were deadly serious. Juvenile jokes are mixed up with references to the Power Rangers (or old sentai shows if you’re from Japan) and 50s sci-fi serial Buck Rogers-type stuff. It’s a weird mix, to be sure, and it could be dismissed as a lot of pointless goofiness, but I think it works.

A pretty basic Disgaea battle

A pretty basic Disgaea battle

Gameplay-wise, as good for its time as La Pucelle was, Disgaea outdid it in every category. Disgaea is more or less divided into two parts: the initial game, which covers the main story, and the post-game, which is totally optional and can potentially go on forever if you let it. The core of the gameplay should be familiar to anyone who’s touched an SRPG before. You have your units and move them around on a map divided into squares on a big diagonal grid. The object of each map is usually to kill all the enemy units, though there are also maps where the goal is to reach a particular space on the map.

Disgaea has a lot more to offer than its regular missions, though – specifically two innovations that have become a staple of the series. The Dark Assembly (or the Dark Senate) is the first. Here, you can choose one of your characters to present a “bill” to an assembly of other demons who will vote on it. Subjects for debate include opening up new post-game areas, getting triple exp on the next map played, and even extorting money from the senators. If your bill fails, you even have the option of forcing it through – by beating up all the nay-voting senators in the assembly.

Like this, but with more swords and magic spells.

The second innovation in Disgaea is the Item World. The Item World is a truly devilish gameplay element. It allows you to level up any item in the game by playing through a succession of maps “inside” that item (it’s weird, I know.) Most items contain 30 levels, but some have 60 and some 100. Each level is designed to be beatable but is otherwise more or less randomly generated. The Item World is infuriatingly addictive and may well comprise the part of Disgaea you spend the most time playing.

An actual Item World level.  They're usually not this easy, believe me.

An actual Item World level. They’re usually not this easy, believe me.

Together with the ability to create new units from dozens of different character types and classes that can fight alongside the story characters, Disgaea offered an insane amount of customization and depth when it came out. I played the hell out of it and loved every minute, and that’s why I’m now an NIS fanboy. Not the proudest of badges to wear, but I will wear it all the same.

Disgaea has spawned three sequels featuring different casts and stories (Disgaea 2, 3 and 4), a direct sequel featuring the original cast (Disgaea D2), a bunch of SRPG spinoffs with different stories and different gameplay mechanics (Makai Kingdom, Phantom Brave, Soul Nomad and the World Eaters), a couple of stupidly difficult PSP platformers (Prinny 1 and 2), a weird visual novel sort of thing (Disgaea Infinite), a sort of crappy looking anime adaptation, and a truckload of portable system ports for the PSP, the Vita, and the DS (basically one for every Disgaea game and then some.) It also inspired this cross-stitch of one of its main characters, Etna:

To be honest, later Disgaea games have really improved on the old formula, especially the third one; Disgaea 3 is a great title that I like about as much as the original. Still, the original is the original and should get some respect. The original Disgaea is currently out in its PS2 original and as a port to the DS and the PSP. Of the two ports, the PSP one is definitely better, though the DS port has a couple of extras that fans might like (like the opportunity to get fan favorite silent girl Pleinair as a playable character.)

Pleinair doesn't talk.   That's her thing.  She has a sentient stuffed rabbit toy that sometimes talks for her.  No, I don't get it.

Pleinair doesn’t talk. That’s her thing. She has a sentient stuffed rabbit toy that sometimes talks for her. No, I don’t get it.

So if you’re unemployed and need something to do between searching for jobs, or you’re in solitary confinement for life and somehow get to have a PSP or Vita in your cell with you, I highly recommend Disgaea. I’d also recommend Disgaea 3, which is just as good cast-wise and has tons more content (and also looks prettier, being a PS3 game.) You can’t really go wrong with either one. The only danger involved is that you’ll become an NIS fanboy/girl, which is not really a fate I can recommend. Well, better than being a brony, I guess.

New year’s resolution: Finish Disgaea D2 before the year ends

I’m five years behind everyone else. After the PS4 was released, I decided it was finally time to get a PS3. I don’t have a whole lot of money to spend on games – the greatest part of it has to go to my education, food, rent, etc. Whatever games I buy I buy with a part of the writing income I make. Which isn’t all that much.

But I decided I had to have a PS3. One of the reasons for this decision was Disgaea D2, the direct sequel to 2003’s Disgaea: Hour of Darkness.

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I’ve played about 10 hours of D2 so far. Since I’m on vacation right now, I finally have some time away to play games, read books (that I want to read – i.e. not cases and treatises) and play music. This isn’t a review because I haven’t actually gotten anywhere near finishing D2 yet, but I can say that I haven’t regretted using my scant downtime to play this thing. Part of it is the great cast – Laharl, Etna and Flonne return with all their wacky antics etc. There are some new characters as well, most notably Laharl’s little sister, who may or may not be lying about the fact that she’s his little sister. She wants to take his place as Overlord, you see.

It sure is, Flonne.

It sure is, Flonne.

Notice the new HD sprites – D2 looks great, especially when compared to Disgaea 3, released just a few years ago on the same system.

The gameplay seems to be the same as always – grind-based SRPG action, crazy special abilities, a massively addictive Item World to play in and so on. Everything is here. I’d say it’s more of the same – the Polygon review gives D2 a low rating for this very reason (along with the fact that it has “over-the-top characters” and “eye-rolling jokes” – yeah, this is a Disgaea game; of course it’s got those. What did you expect, dear Polygon reviewer?)

But I heartily disagree with the Polygon review so far. Maybe I just enjoy more of the same. Maybe I enjoy it as long as it’s NIS producing the same high-quality, high-entertainment work they always have. Or maybe I’m just a fanboy (this is probably the truest statement in this post.) If you’re also an NIS fanboy too (or fangirl – I know at least a few of you exist) you probably already have this game, so I don’t actually need to do any convincing here, do I? Anyway, this is a new year’s resolution that I might really keep.