Up on the block today we have another offering from the folks at NIS America, Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel. Developed by the team at Gust and of course imported by NIS, this title is apparently the final chapter of the Ar Tonelico games and it looks to send the series out with a bang. While I have never played a game from this series I’m always open to seeing what’s what with an established franchise. That’s not to say this game is just supposed to be a retread of the past games though (at least as far as I know), there are a number of unique gameplay systems and concepts here to keep things fresh. If you’re not interested in those but do like yourself some awkwardly sexy anime then you’ll still get more than a kick out of this game. Either way there’s plenty here to talk about and we’ll go into as with much depth as we can before I fall into some sort of anime induced catatonic state.
So before we talk about any of those minor things the game has to offer like gameplay, story, or graphics let’s discuss this game’s true selling point, T&A. This is a game that wears its creepy love of anime boobies not on its sleeve but on the center of its Cheetos stained T-shirt. A majority of the characters are designed to appeal to a variety of fetishes and I shit you not stripping is literally the most integral thing in the gameplay and narrative. I’ll describe in-depth later exactly how it affects the gameplay but put simply, less clothes=more power. As for how it affects the narrative arc, well let’s just say the game is packed with story scenes that are only a few vague euphemisms away from just being straight up porn. You’ll have to regularly deal with things like “diving” and “installer ports” which are references to sex and vaginas so thinly veiled I imagined every character winking so hard they gave themselves black eyes when these things were mentioned.
Alright so you’d think all this weird sexuality would put me off like it did in HyperDimension Neptunia but oddly enough it didn’t; in fact in ways it made the game that much more endearing. Ar Tonelico is much more up front about its “Hey check out des titties” attitude than HDN was and in addition to that it uses these themes in some really interesting as well as humorous ways. The aspects of sexuality the game uses helps it delve into things like character building and explorations of Freudian ideas; this makes what was unsavory become intelligent, it’s an uncomfortable kind of intelligent but intelligent none the less. That’s the thing JRPG developers, we both know your primary audience wants scantily clad anime ladies acting suggestively and no one can blame you for indulging that meal ticket but when you use that attitude to do something truly interesting that’s when the rest of the world and I might just want to take a look.
I talked earlier about “Diving” and I think I should explain what that is because despite its somewhat creepy implications it is one the more fascinating things this game has to offer. The idea is that the world is split into two types of beings, good old boring humans and a race of robotic magic wielding anime ladies called reyvateils. Now in order for reyvateils to get more powerful they need humans (primarily male) to “dive” into them; along with being a vague euphemism for sex it essentially means going into their mind and playing the psychology version of the Fantastic Voyage. As your party has two reyvateils both of which are integral to the party’s success (again more on gameplay mechanics later) so you’ll need to “dive” into both of them on repeated occasions in order to keep step with the enemies. Once you’re in there you’ll run into a variety of characters-minor and major-which all represent facets of these ultimately broken and fractured minds. Themes such as dependence, masochism, nihilism, self-defeating prophecies, naivety, abuse, and a smorgasboard of other issues are explored and characterized in the reyvateils’ minds and as you solve these issues the character back in the real world grows as a person and come to terms with these psychoses. Not only does this facet of the gameplay improve your party and provide some interesting food for thought but it helps you get to know the characters you’re diving into and makes them all the more worth while.
As great as the themes explored in the side stories are the main story thread is sadly fairly boiler-plate. It’s the same old unassuming teenager finds inexplicably important damsel in distress and sets out on a journey with her and a cadre of other characters to save her/the world/McGuffin of the day. If only to make things more typical of the genre this happens in the midst of a war between human and not-quite-humans where the sides are both fighting for vague reasons and ideologies. Even after dumping a good 22-24 hours into this game I still have little idea as to what exactly transpired in the game’s world, all I really know is it involved a lot of stripping.
While we’re on the subject of stripping (again) let’s discuss exactly how it affects the gameplay, both in and out of combat. In combat stripping is essentially a more convoluted version of a super meter; as a reyvateil strips in a process called “purging” their attacks becomes stronger. In addition completely or mostly stripping a reyvateil can initiate or enable incredibly strong (like 8 digit damage number strong) attacks that both look impressive and are incredibly useful. A cool thing about the “purging” mechanic is that it is easily on of the best implementations of Six-Axis controls I have ever seen; it’s simple, it’s elegant, and it gives the mechanic weight. Basically whenever your reyvateil’s heart starts racing fast enough (represented by a gauge in the bottom right corner) you hold one of the shoulder buttons and give the controller a shake at which point the reyvateil will strip off a layer of clothes powering up her attack. Attacks by the reyvateil drain the gauge and re-cloth her but they are often so strong you can use them to end the battle. Outside of battle you can ask one of your reyvateils to strip so you can program them with creatures called hyumas that you find while “diving”, this will add various effects to your “purges” and will generally buff your whole party. It also comes into play in a number of story sequences but to be fair you probably could have guessed that at this point.
The actual gameplay of the battles is a surprisingly interesting twist on the old action RPG formula. Similar to the Tales series your battle takes place in a large field and you have free control over any one character with which you can attack, perform special moves, and use items. The twist is that rather than just throwing your characters at the enemy and hoping for the best your goal is to protect the reyvateil you’re using in battle so she can build her strength (again by stripping) and then unleash hell upon the enemy. This “protecting the artillery” style of gameplay makes for some interesting strategies and is a real change of pace from the bog standard RPG gameplay I’ve become accustomed to in other games.
Lastly we’ll talk about the presentation which is generally pretty good though it does fall into a few of the JRPG pitfalls. Visually this game is nothing special, alright graphics and the design is the stereotypical over-designed JRPG gold standard. The only real thing of note is actually a mark against it, weapons don’t visually change when you equip new ones. While I can understand a commitment to a visual style, this 2011 there’s not technical limitations to use as an excuse here, not immersing the player by leaving out a blatant detail like that is just lazy. The sound design on the other hand is surprising bearable for a JRPG. Its soundtrack while being J-pop as all hell changes up enough and is a kind of benign fun that it never becomes really unbearably annoying. The voice acting is also of pretty good quality with most characters having at least somewhat fitting and well done voices; there are still a few screechy “ow stopping raping my ears” anime girl voices but they aren’t as common or as bad as I was expecting.
I went into Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel not really expecting much, JRPGs have been kind of lacking with this generation of console hardware and as such my expectations have been kept low. You can imagine my surprise when I popped this game in and not only was I actually playing inside of five minutes but enjoying myself to boot. While the main story is kind of bland and the constant sexuality is a little creepy, there is something undeniably charming about this game and even though I’m done the review I’ll probably actually go back in and try to finish the game. For the best JRPG I’ve played since Persona 4, Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel gets a 4 out 5 stars; while there is definitely a lot here that’s mildly unsettling and you certainly won’t want to play it around a wife or girlfriend if you’re a fan of JRPGs and own a PS3 this is easily one of-if not the-best option you have going right now.