The Ar Tonelico series is one that I've always been on the fence about. I kind of dig the combat system, I like the "song maiden" aspect of the game, the storylines are usually pretty good. But they have a certain something that feels like it's crossing a line where it ceases to be all fun and games. It looks like NIS America and Gust finally took it a bit too far with Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel. With the surprising rating of Mature, I just had to find out what they could have done that would have pushed the ESRB to their decision. Reading further it seems like they don't take kindly to things like 'exposed buttocks.' Yes folks, they finally went too far, they just re-packaged their previous games and the ESRB finally caught wind of it.
Actually, it's nothing like that, Gust and NIS seem to have decided it was high time to get their RPG franchise on to some more powerful hardware and really push their talents to the limit. It's looking quite good from the preview build that we received, with a few hours clocked in and the first chapter of the game complete I've seen quite a bit of what the final version has to offer, and you can obviously tell that NIS knows exactly who they are going to market this game to, with use of words like tsundere
(warning, semi-NSFW) and some very obvious anime-inspired tropes.
The most jarring changes that are present in Knell of Ar Ciel has to be the move to 3D characters as opposed to the sprites that were ever present in the PS2 era, and the battle system that has switched from turn-based to a real-time free-roaming melee. The graphics are a pretty easy thing to get used to for the most part. The static 2D backdrops are still present and make it a little bit difficult to navigate with a 3D avatar just because it's difficult to judge the depth and boundaries of areas. The battle system is completely revamped and requires a lot more attention from the player, which is a nice change of pace since previous games were actually a bit on the easy side. This new combat is actually somewhat challenging if not almost too hard and unforgiving, but it's quite fun once you get the hang of it. Rather than having commands that get issued from a menu, instead you are just thrown in to the fray, using an analog stick to move around and the square button for basic attacks. As you progress through the game you'll unlock new attacks through item synthesis, a staple of any Gust title.
A new protagonist by the name of Aoto is a steeplejack who one day finds his hometown being overrun by Clustanians, an organization that is known for wiping out entire towns for disobeying their rule. They are after the Reyvatiel, Saki, an artificial being that can wield supernatural powers through singing. They don't look any different from Humans, but are quite powerful beings. Saki just happens to also suffer from a convenient case of amnesia that will serve to motivate the player to figure out what is going on and why the Clustanians are after her. Aoto is also accompanied with his friend Tatsumi, a doctor by the name of Gojo, and another Reyvatiel named Finnel.
The Reyvatiels are an integral part of your team in combat, with their songs they can heal party members and cast devastating spells, provided you keep them out of harms way. Once a battle begins you are free to roam around the battle arena to keep enemies occupied while the Reyvatiel continues to sing. As the song gets stronger and stronger it will deal more damage when its power is finally unleashed. You can also power up the songs by having them strip, another wonderful wrinkle that will make this game difficult to explain to the parents or your girlfriend (or boyfriend). But in order to get to that point you'll have to dive in to their Cosmosphere to get them to overcome fears and anxieties, often with hilarious, and sometimes serious results. In order to get in to the Cosmophere you'll have to get close to the Reyvatiels through conversation points that come up over the course of the adventure or by meeting certain criteria, like buying unusual items. From there you'll unlock more powerful spells that you'll 'install' within them, which probably lead to more eyebrows being raised at the ESRB.
From the early build we were given it looks like Ar Tonelico Qoga Knell of Ar Ciel is coming along just fine. The game is looking good from a graphical standpoint with the new design, the storytelling is solid, and the new combat system is a welcome addition to the franchise. If the localization and the story hold up well then it looks like Ar Tonelico will be a success when it drops next month. Check back with us in the future for a full review.