It’s been around a year since Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia was released in Japan and after the game was given extra care from NIS America it’s finally out in North America. The story starts in Platina high up on the tower of Ar Tonelico where Lyner Barsett, the game’s main character lives. As a Knight of Elemia his daily grind is fighting Viruses in the tower and avoiding his father’s requests about moving into politics. Under the request of Lady Shurelia, who lives on the top of the tower and acts as its manager, Lyner heads in an airship to the bottom of the tower in search of the purger, which can release the hymn crystal and save the world from destruction.
The plot might not grab you in at first, but Ar Tonelico isn’t out there to deviate from the RPG cliché too much. Instead Gust focuses on the cast of characters and in Ar Tonelico you’re going to get to know them very well. Early on Lyner will run into Jack a womanizing mercenary with a gun arm, the airship engineer Krusche and Radolf a priest in Elemia’s Church. While these characters are part of the main cast, the two Reyvateils, Aurica and Misha take center stage. Each time you rest at an inn or a save point, Lyner talks to one of the girls about the journey that they are on and he builds a relationship with them sort of like a dating game. You earn points depending on how deep the conversation is, which lets you “dive” deeper in a Reyvateil’s cosmosphere (read: mind). At dive shops Lyner can enter the mind of Misha and Aurica, dig through their subconscious and unlock some extra spells. It’s an interesting concept that gets (forces?) players to know the characters on a deeper level and as Lyner explore their subconscious he finds dark secrets. There are points where cosmosphere exploration actually changes the story, but let’s focus on the spells for now.
Combat in Ar Tonelico is turn based and it’s sort of like the Atelier Iris games. You start out by selecting a spell for your Reyvateil to cast. Both Aurica and Misha have a basic energy ball spell that has infinite uses. Other spells like Aurica’s flamia, which calls a giant smiling fireball and Misha’s absorbing balloon, which summons a raccoon to absorb damage have a limited number of uses. If you call flamia too much you have to wait until the spell recharges during other battles or until you can find a save point to rest at. Once a spell is selected the Reyvateil begins chanting the song and you’re free to attack with the other three party members. The top left hand corner shows the turn order and when its one of your character’s turns you can select basic commands like fight or use skills that cost a small amount of HP. While the action is going on your Reyvateil is still charging up their spell and the amount of damage it gives is dependent on how much the spell is charged. At any time you can press triangle and make the Reyvateil cast their spell, so you can opt for a barrage of tiny energy blasts or a mega sized blast that takes up the entire screen. Usually your Reyvateil is “invincible” because they’re in the back row and can’t be directly hit. The only time they can be attacked is when an enemy targets them, but if that happens they won’t be able to execute the attack until the following turn. You have the option to either eliminate the enemy or select guard and use one of your characters as a human shield for the Reyvateil.
Ar Tonelico does have random battles, but they don’t interrupt exploration. Similar to Atelier Iris 2 there is an encounter bar which flashes red when you’re about to be attacked. After each battle the bar drops a little and when it is empty you no enemies will attack you until you leave the area. This gives players plenty of time to seek out treasure chests at their own pace and use action skills like “gale shot” which blows away some obstacles. While there’s a fair amount of exploration in the dungeon and while you’re climbing up the tower Ar Tonelico gets rid of an overworld map. Instead you select locations via a map, which is really a glorified menu.
While you’re not going to be spending a lot of time searching for hidden dungeons you are going to be doing a lot of crafting grathmelding. Throughout the adventure you’re going to find recipe cards and the necessary items for the formula. Grathmelding saves players cash early on because you can make healing items for a fraction of the cost. Later on it plays a more important role because you will be able to make more powerful items. The grathmelding system is pretty deep to get into, but it’s not overly complicated either. If you want to make an item you select it from a menu and if you’re missing any of the ingredients you’re given a chance to make them without having to wade through lots of menus.
Ar Tonelico has a lot in common with the RPGs of yesteryear instead of the flashy glitz and 3D graphics. While the story might not be the most gripping tale you’ve heard the gameplay holds down the fort and the way Ar Tonelico handles the main characters is very good. Another thing Ar Tonelico has going for it, which caters directly to NIS’ fanbase is the game is bundled with a 50+ page hardcover art book. If you’re not into the game the art book isn’t going to convince you and if you’re not into RPGs Ar Tonelico isn’t going to be a game you’re going to enjoy. However, if you’ve been searching for a good RPG with multiple endings to play Ar Tonelico is definitely worth checking out.