Combat started out as an interesting new take on a real time combat, until I realized it was like a weaker version of the Tales series that Namco Bandai produces, only with a character being a sort of side player who has to sing. The Reyvatiel character that sings can produce spells that will do ridiculous amount of damage, restore extra hit points, or provide status buffs or effects, like poison when attacking enemies. The longer the character sings the more powerful the spell becomes, and eventually combat boils down to waiting for a spell to reach a strength that it will obliterate the enemy party and then moving on to the next fight. The spells can power up faster by fighting in sync with the song, which is displayed at the bottom of the screen. By attacking during peak moments of the song you'll synchronize with the singer, who can then shed some clothes to become more powerful. Meanwhile with the character you're controlling you can just mash the square button to oblivion, or press the square button with a direction on the control pad for special attacks and in a pinch can press the circle button to rush to the aid of the singer. Part of the reason this felt so one dimensional was because the party consisted of just three characters through the whole game, despite at many times being hinted that you would get more characters, it just never seemed to pan out because they had to be elsewhere.
Graphically this game doesn't do much to stand out but it doesn't really disappoint either. It runs kind of middle of the road with characters who look pretty good, at least better than Hyperdimension Neptunia, but the world they inhabit at times feels lifeless and empty. There are some people that are littered in the cities, but aside from that you run around very open and empty places. It's a bit jarring too with the pseudo-3D visuals. Your character is a 3D model, but some of the locations feel like a really colorful 2D background, with no clear cut distinction to where you can and cannot go. Enemies seem kind of bland, with many just being palette swaps or with additional appendages tacked on. It gets really annoying near the end of the game when enemies seem to be the exact same, but are just more powerful because they are a different color. Voice acting and audio is pretty solid, the Japanese cast reads like a who's who of anime voice actors, and the American dialog fares well. The music is where the game tries to stand out, with a few different tracks that dynamically change as battle progresses. Unfortunately that's kind of just limited to battle, outside of that the music is pretty forgettable.
The 'diving' was one of the more interesting aspects of the game, as it was in previous installments. By having conversations with female characters you're able to get to know them better and will allow you to go deeper in to their cosmosphere where they hide all there personal quirks and foibles. By doing this you'll meet hyumas that unlock more powerful spells with better effects, but not without seeing some bizarre stuff. Some of these characters house multiple personalities who want to be the dominant personality and will stop at nothing to achieve their goals to live their lives. Learning what these other personalities want to accomplish will just unravel more mysteries about the world. Unfortunately you'll only get to learn so much about each character, for you must make a choice on which character you wish to be your 'special one' allowing you access to the deepest levels of their cosmosphere.
Ar Tonelico Qoga Knell of Ar Ciel is just one of those games I wanted to see to the end, and by the time I reached the finale I was surprisingly satisfied. I felt like putting up with all the crap this game served up I was rewarded sufficiently, then I found that there was a new game plus option that lets me start at different point in the game, allowing me to get to know a different character better and keep all my previous experience, making the forty hour trek a lot shorter the second time around. The only problem is getting around a fairly boring combat system, but at least the confusing direction of the game is a bit clearer after having beat the game.
The JRPG is something of a rare breed on the PS3, and it feels like NIS is the only company that's able to deliver, it's just troubling that the games aren't all that great. I wanted to like Ar Tonelico Qoga a lot more than I actually did, which seems to be a common theme with NIS titles these days. They have one aspect that makes me want to keep playing, but about five or six that make me want to shut the game off in disgust. Sadly Ar Tonelico's great characters are mired in a story that is all over the place, decorated with visuals that fail to impress, and thrust in to combat that quickly becomes a boring affair. It's going to take some serious dedication for buyers to get through this game, and really that's a sign that a game should be avoided. But give this game a chance, you might find something in here that resonates with you.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Just be aware that you're getting in to a game that's got a few rough spots that you'll have to navigate to find the good bits. You'll also have to brown bag it when you walk out of the store.
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