Nippon Ichi Software seems to be going the route of Atlus with their newest RPG, Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia. Ar Tonelico features a fun little diversion not seen since Thousand Arms, and that’s a dating sim! Well not in the sense of something like Konami’s Tokimeki Memorial titles which is like a straight up courtship. No Ar Tonelico is an RPG with a dating sim thrown in for some added kicks, and it works out in the game’s favor, couple this with a fairly well written story and a solid battle system and you’ve got a title that despite a few flaws manages to hold up well even though it contains an archaic graphical style and music and acting that makes me want to hit the mute button on my TV.
Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia I guess has the first distinction of having a dating simulation under its hood on the PS2. I mean if there was another that came before then pardon my ignorance on the subject, either way the first time I heard about this little feature I was more than surprised. Getting my hands on it proved what I was expecting. It is well implemented within the game, and it really helps make the end product better. Gust was wise to team up with developer Banpresto because in doing so they have made one of the most enjoyable old-school style RPGs to come along in a good amount of time.
Out of the box you will note that the presentation feels very drawn out and epic and it is really one of the high points in the game. The way the game transitions between normal game play and the sort of sub-games is just sort of interesting and I’m glad they did it, because it always excited me when I was about to go to this little side world. What I am referring to now I will explain later when I discuss the actual game play. But there is a solid mixture of music, cut-scenes, and game play and graphics and it is all drawn out for you in a very clean and intriguing way and it’s just something I felt was very prominent and strong here.
Graphics here are obviously not going to be all the rage here; it’s an old-school isometric world that you will be exploring. The only time you will see any 3-D is when you are out traversing the world map. And by traversing I mean you’ll be moving a cursor from place to place. Aside from that the 2-D graphics are very anime, and it works well for the storytelling, which feels very brisk and reads more like a visual novel more than anything else. The only downside here is that not all the lines are acted out so there are periods where you’re just reading and reading and reading. Though those spots are few and far between it would have been nice if there were something more than the background music to keep me interested in the game.
Sound is this game has to be both the high and the low at the same time. There is a myriad of musical styling ranging from rock, to peppy little techno bits, to epic vocal scores. And then there is the battle music which manages to ruin any good merits this game earned on music. It all starts out well and good as a synth bit, and then all of sudden it breaks in to these slow versed hip-hop lyrics. It makes absolutely no sense as to why these are here and are agonizing to listen to. The first time I heard it I busted up laughing, but after that I was hard-pressed to enjoy my battles. Aside from that the voice acting is so-so and I am always glad that NIS is placing a Japanese audio track in their games.
Ar Tonelico contains one of the very oh so cliché stories that follows young Lyner Barsett who is an Apostle of Elemia which in layman’s is knight. He is tasked with going to the lower world to find a weapon that is capable of defeating a cybernetic virus that has manifested and is on the cusp of world destruction. But that doesn’t stop our plucky young hero from finding a way to get himself between two very polar opposite girls who have some interest in him. The story moves along at a very speedy pace and is one that you actually want to pay attention to because you have so much vested in the characters with this game.
So one of the big draws to Ar Tonelico is the dating simulation that is thankfully not shoehorned into this game, but instead is a very subtle aspect that you actually enjoy taking part in. The way this plays out is very simple, over the course of exploration you will come across areas of interest. This will generate topics of conversation that Lyner will discuss with one of the two girls. Once they have opened up enough to Lyner you enter a place called a Dive Shop, once there you enter the psyche of the girl, and from there help them get over fears or doubts that they may have. You might be wondering the purpose of all this and I can assure you it’s worth the effort. By helping these girls, you unlock skills in battle and new costumes that will further enhance their abilities, which is silly but it works, and it’s quite fun.
Battle is a very simple turn based affair, and it has a lot going on on screen. Between watching your song maiden in the back power up her skills to keeping her protected the battle system is surprisingly simple yet fun. Each character has a portrait in line at the top of the screen showing their place in the queue. While this is going, the song maiden hanging out in the back of the group is powering up a spell and can be called upon at any time. During battle the power of songs is determined by how long the song is kept active. So an attack spell just gets stronger over time resulting in more damage, and the same goes for healing spells. The song maiden isn’t an invincible entity and must be protected, bringing a little bit of strategy to the mix. If it weren’t for the music, I would have absolutely no problems with the battles, but as I stated above, it’s hard to cope with the audio.
If you can get past the fact that you’re playing a game where you interact with virtual females and try to talk through their problems (sounds like a light night on World of Warcraft for some people) then you’ll find a title that’s a fast paced and enjoyable RPG. And if you are one of those Japan-o-philes who loves everything Japanese and wanted a good dating sim, give this game a look as well as it contains a fairly good introduction to that whole genre of game that will never see the light of day on American shores. While the graphics are archaic and the audio has a few snags, the overall game-play experience is great and helps get us through a lull of RPGs as we wait for the next generation of titles to arrive.