Waifus and music: the RPG, from Gust. Since it’s Gust, expect some sort of unconventional customization system (even if it’s not hardcore alchemy). As soon as I finished this game, I went out and bought the second and third game online, so that in itself is pretty clear indication of how I feel about the game.
While being from the company most well-known for their alchemy RPGs starring female protagonists, Ar Tonelico plays more like a standard RPG centered around a guy’s journey to save the world. The progression is like a normal RPG with none of the Atelier games’ time-based system, but there is still an item-crafting system and flexible equipment and magic customization. The battle system is also worth noting in that while it is not as fast-paced and exciting as the Mana Khemia series, it has its own distinct take on magic that differs from the more standard turn-based battle systems other Atelier games have.
If you pay enough attention to backstories and NPC dialogue, you will find that the world of Ar Tonelico has quite the interesting lore surrounding it. Long ago, people lived on land with highly advanced technology. They created the Tower of Ar Tonelico, which looks over the world as a source of power. However, disasters struck the world, destroying the land, and eventually, the old civilization. In what is now called the Third Era, people live on floating islands that surround the Tower, called the Wings of Horus. They depend on the Tower, which allows them to Grathmeld (this world’s version of alchemy), and through that they developed their own technology and strive to live, even if it cannot compare to the remnants of the old civilization. Humans living below cannot physically climb the Tower due to prohibition from a tribe that has guarded it for generations, nor can they fly up with the airships they made due to the impenetrable Blastline residing in the higher levels of the Tower.
In the higher levels of the Tower resides a city named Platina. It is home to the Apostles of Elemia, who are tasked with protecting the Tower’s administrator Shurelia and performing maintenance on the Tower such as exterminating the viruses that attack. Lyner Barsette resides in Elemia, and works as one of Lady Shurelia’s knights. The new viruses attacking have been too strong, and he has been tasked with the job of heading to the lower world to find the Hymn Crystal Purger, which contains data for a song that can defeat the viruses.
In this world, there is a separate all-female species called Reyvateils. They are unconsciously connected to the Tower, and hold the power of Songs, which act as magic. They each have a distinct soulspace called a Cosmosphere, where a trusted partner can “dive” into and learn of their inner selves and help them craft songs to be used in the real world. All the main heroines in the game are Reyvateils. To craft more magic, Lyner has to dive into their Cosmospheres, and each subsequent level will reveal more of the heroine’s inner self and flaws hidden on the surface. It’s not like he can dive whenever he wants though, as new levels unlock by befriending the heroine in the real world, through having conversations with them when resting and battling to gain dive points.
The battle setup consists of one Reyvateil in the back to act as the caster, and three physical fighters in the vanguard. While the vanguard characters have to diligently wait for their turn, the Reyvateil can be commanded at any time. The songs they use fall into either attack or support category. The latter has to take time charging before it can be executed, and obviously the longer you leave it charging the higher the eventual damage output. Attacking magic that is released prematurely will barely scratch enemies barring the initial mobs, and while they can be left charging for as long as you want, the Reyvateils’ MP continuously decreases when they are singing and recovers when they rest. Support magic either gives buffs or HP regen, and those effects will last as long as the Reyvateil is singing the song.
The characters in the vanguard play out normally, where they wait their turn and get the option of attacking, using a skill, using an item, or standby. They don’t have an MP gauge, so their skills drain HP. At the beginning of battle, you can only use the lowest-level skill. However, as the Reyvateil executes more magic (watch for the bar at the bottom), higher level skills unlock (up to 3 levels). Each character gets around three offensive skills so the game is not exactly generous with number and variety in that department. Meanwhile the Reyvateils will get more magic than you know what to do with if you advance in their Cosmospheres far enough.
In battle, enemies cannot directly attack your Reyvateil. To do so, they have to charge up for a skill that targets them, and you can use your vanguard characters to defend her (believe me you will want to do this, Reyvateils have terrible HP and defense). The only exception is the final boss who can attack the entire party including the Reyvateil directly, but the game is so easy and generous with revival items that it never becomes a worry.
Soeaking of difficulty, Ar Tonelico is definitely on the low side. This is one of the few games where I legitimately have never gotten a game over, ever. All random battles can be escaped from with zero consequences, and boss fights are never a threat except for the bad ending boss, possibly the final boss (which is the same as the former except you’d be a good 10 levels higher and more prepared than when you get access to the bad end), and the bonus boss which grows stronger each time you fight it. There aren’t any real difficulty spikes or difficult bosses to speak of, and the battle system brings much more advantage to the player than the enemy.
Through Grathmelding, you can create various usable items and equipment not available in stores. It’s this world’s alchemy, but less complicated as quality has no effect on an item’s stats or effectiveness, and there are no traits to watch out for during synthesis. Instead, each piece of equipment has up to four slots where you can insert a Grathnode Crystal into. Each one offers a different effect, be it stat gains or added elemental attacks. Essentially, it is like a much simpler version of the Atelier games’ alchemy. The four slots are also by level from 1-4, and each Grathnode Crystal comes with a level requirement. A slot can only hold a crystal of its level or lower, so the stronger level 4 crystals cannot be installed into basic early equipment that comes with level 1-2 slots only.
In addition to equipment, Reyvateils can have Grathnode Crystals installed into their songs for added effects. Likewise they have slots from level 1-4. Added effects can be increases in attack power, number of hits, or added elemental damage for offensive songs, or additional buffs for support songs. With this, you can make the HP regen songs buff your vanguard characters as well, killing two or three birds with one stone.
This is actually a very neat system that makes all the difference in the world and allows for some really powerful songs and attacks, but the game is so easy that you don’t get any satisfaction from utilizing all the options presented to you to maximum effectiveness. I spent hours messing with Grathmelding and Grathnode Crystals before facing the final boss, and in return wanted to apologize for defeating it too easily.
While you get a variety of party members, the heroines are by far the most developed and complex characters. While seemingly normal on the surface, you get to see various facets of their true character inside their Cosmosphere, including their insecurities and flaws that must be overcome or accepted. They develop in such a way that even if they do not appear to be likable initially, it is easy for that opinion to change by the end. I preferred the energetic Misha over the gloomy and under-confident Aurica by miles in the beginning, but the former is a lot less secure than what she lets off, and the latter eventually brightens up. There’s a third Reyvateil who doesn’t go through the same amount of development due to plot reasons and lack of screentime, but is my personal favorite due to aesthetic reasons and the tsundere side. The stuff happening inside the Cosmosphere is probably as unsubtle as you can get in terms of describing a character’s emotions and insecurities, so the third Reyvateil whose “Cosmosphere” doesn’t work the same way gets my preference.
A lot of time is spent developing the heroines and their relationships with Lyner, so naturally everyone else gets the short end of the stick. The other playable characters, while entertaining and likable, are barely a step above being one dimensional. While they have their own backstories and motivations, not enough time is spent in developing them. If there was a stronger focus in developing each character’s story arc, the party could become much more memorable. I especially like Jack and Krusche, the latter of which began off with an interesting backstory that fuels her ambitions, but is never fully resolved. Their interactions are fun though, so the party is tolerable on a whole.
Also falling into the underdeveloped group is the protagonist himself. Lyner, despite being the hero, is honestly not an interesting character. Although he has the usual protagonist tropes of being kind, dense, and somewhat hot-headed with a strong sense of justice, he doesn’t go through enough of the growth that a protagonist usually does. He remains super dense towards romance even late in the game, even though he has seen the girls’ Cosmospheres and should know how they feel by then. He has several moments when he seems to finally understand their feelings and reciprocate them, only to go back to being dense and indecisive later on. As a protagonist that is supposed to be in a relationship with well-developed girls with real insecurities and a variety of emotions, Lyner is nowhere near engaging enough to stand as an equal. Even if dense protagonists are something I can forgive and even like in other RPGs, Ar Tonelico has a much stronger focus on romance due to its galge elements and the couple gets together much earlier than the very end so it is harder to tolerate here.
There’s also the fact that even after choosing one heroine’s route, Lyner can still advance to the deepest level of the other heroine’s Cosmosphere (which implies a very deep and meaningful relationship). It is essentially cheating on your waifu, but hey, gotta do it for the magic!
The game looks very dated, especially when you play on a PS2 connected to a huge HDTV. It looks old even compared to other games released in the same time. The 2D sprites and dungeons look identical to Mana Khemia’s, but the 3D world map looks terrible. The FMVs are filled with off-model animations, and no matter what you do the game lags. A lot. The standing portraits and illustrated backgrounds look decent, but not outstanding.
Music, is a whole other matter. While the usual BGM didn’t draw my attention much in comparison to other Gust games, the battle tracks get better as the game progresses. But the normal music isn’t the highlight of Ar Tonelico. After all, for a game about singing magic, it would be a sin to not have vocal tracks. And that’s where the best music lies. The use of vocal tracks is abundant, and they are beautifully sung. Gust doesn’t disappoint in this front.
Ar Tonelico is certainly a flawed game, thanks to its dated presentation, lack of battle difficulty, and flat protagonist. However, there are enough merits for me to overlook the flaws and enjoy the game for the heroines and rich setting, as well as the item crafting and Grathnode inserting system. I found the world interesting enough to buy the second and third games in the series, and the concept of the Cosmosphere is nice. Here’s hoping that at least the next game has a more interesting protagonist.
Also, I really need to mess around with the TV settings because PS2 games look way worse than they should on mine.