I had the chance to play through the beginning of Ar Tonelico and you know what I realized? Do you know why people look back on retro RPGs from the NES and SNES era with such reverence? Because they were charming. Do you know what makes them charming? Part of the charm is the fact that THERE’S NO VOICE ACTING to mar the experience. That being said, Ar Tonelico has the same old school charm of RPGs of yesteryear, only with incredibly bad voice acting. I know we’re leaps above where we were in the 16-bit days when it comes to console technology and it’s good to take advantage of the hardware we have, but I would rather play a game with no voice acting at all than a game with horrible voice acting. The only good thing about the VA in Ar Tonelico is that not every scene is voice. But then, that ends up being a bit odd because it seems random which scenes are voiced and which ones aren’t.
Other than the cheesy voice acting (the worse is Misha’s voice during battle), the game actually has a lot to offer. Graphically, the game is a mix of 2D sprites on static 3D background (think: Shining Tears). Dialog between characters takes place in your usual detailed, anime character portrait with text in a box at the bottom of the screen. The localization is nothing spectacular and people who watch anime should feel right at home with the style of humor Ar Tonelico uses. One line that gave me a chuckle in the beginning is Lyner (our protagonist) saying, "If I put my heart into it, I know I can beat them to death with my sword" after being told that a certain type of enemy was impervious to his attacks. Unfortunately, I noticed that the naming of items and menu features sometimes is inconsistent. For example, in a tutorial about how to use a Reyvateil in battle, the instruction says to use Guard to keep your Reyvateil from taking damage, which is confusing because the corresponding action in the menu is actually called ‘Protect’ instead of ‘Guard’. The music in Ar Tonelico is an odd mix of standard RPG instrumental songs and hip-hop J-pop sounding songs during fights. I’m not sure if I like it yet, but it certainly keeps things interesting through the juxtaposition of the two forms.
Reyvateils, magical song maidens, are Ar Tonelico’s take on the magic system and it’s a welcome change to the usual magic system in other RPGs. Like most magic users, Reyvateils are placed in the back of a formation so they take minimal damage. During a fight, one can command the Reyvateil to sing, which starts a gauge that builds throughout the lifetime of that battle. The fuller the gauge, the more effective a particular song is. Since a song is basically magic, there are songs that heal the party and there are ones that deal area damage to the enemy. In the beginning of the game, song magic is particularly strong, which I think is the developers’ way of making players think, "Holy crap, Rayvateils are AWESOME!" There’s also a thing called ‘Harmonics’ when a Reyvateil is aiding the player in battle. A gauge at the bottom of a fight screen builds as the player deals more damage. When that gauge meets another gauge coming from the opposite side (the Reyvateil’s gauge), a harmonic is achieved, which casts beneficial magic to the team, such as giving them a speed up or making their attacks more powerful. All this may sound complicated, but it’s easy to understand in the game thanks to the tutorials that get unlocked whenever a new feature in the game comes up.
I was also introduced to grathmelding early on in the game, which is a way to create items by combining the right stones and crystals together. Recipe cards can be bought or found in battles, which show what can be combined together to make things like missiles or healing items. It seems that crystals can also be put on equipment like swords to give it stat boosts or elemental damage. Items which are grathmelded once can then be purchased in a store. Item synthesis seems to be an integral part of Gus’s games (like Atelier Iris) but I’m still pretty new to it. Since I’m a cheapskate when it comes to buying items, I actually prefer to make my own items from things I find during battle than actually spending money on them.
One thing a lot of people seem to be interested in is the dating sim part of Ar Tonelico. You don’t actually go on dates, but it is definitely necessary to establish a good relationship with the Reyvateils you want to use in battle. Players have to converse with Reyvateils in camp spots when they’re resting about a number of topics. New topics can be collected by touching sparkling objects in the world, going to a specific location, or triggering an event. After talking to the Reyvateil about a specific topic, a relationship chart gets filled. Players must also dive into a Reyvateil’s mind. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but all the talk about diving in the game seems to be full of sexual innuendo. Diving puts the player in the Reyvateil’s mind and it’s not exactly full of hearts and butterflies. I felt like I was playing psychologist or something when I interacted with my Reyvateil outside of battle and in a way, I kind of am. Only through diving deeper into different levels of a Reyvateil’s mind can you unlock new songs.
I both like and dislike exploration in Ar Tonelico. Instead of a free-roaming world map like in Final Fantasy games, players have to choose from specific accessible points on the map, much like the world map in Final Fantasy Tactics, in order to enter dungeons. I don’t mind this and actually prefer it to random wandering around because going from place to place this way is quick, but man, the world map is ugly. It looks like something out of a PS1 game. The actual dungeons are pretty drab and generic looking, where one screen of the dungeon looks like the previous one. Luckily, there doesn’t seem to be any need for a map because in each screen of the dungeon, there seems to be only one way to enter and one way to exit to the next screen.
Overall, Ar Tonelico is a game that has a lot of potential, but isn’t without some pretty big flaws. Is it a fun game? If you can overlook an ugly world map, turn down the volume during voice overs, then sure, it’s fun. The relationship aspect is such a crucial part to the game that Ar Tonelico may be the closest thing we’ll get to dating sim game on the PS2 for a while, so the game might be worth getting if you’ve been dying for a dating sim game to come stateside.