Officially Ar Tonelico 3, NISA gave the final installment of the series a different name, likely to encourage those who have not played the first two games to pick this up. Unfortunately, I’d say that Qoga is the game that only an Ar Tonelico fan who has played the previous games and gotten invested in the world-building and concepts can enjoy, and it is probably the worst entry point into the series. Deciding to forgo the improvements from Ar Tonelico 2, Qoga (which I shall refer to as AT3 from this point on) tried to return to the atmosphere and character dynamics of the first game, but did so in a half-hearted way that relied too much on distracting gimmicks rather than improving the core aspects that made the series memorable compared to other RPGs.
Not that I didn’t get any enjoyment out of the game, but as the final entry of the Ar Tonelico series, AT3 was far too weak for the burden it carried on its shoulders. Looking from the standpoint of someone who hasn’t been invested in previous games, the story is subpar and the writing hits some rather cringe-worthy levels of cheese. Even though the characters aren’t as strong as previous entries, there was still fun to be had with the various heroine personalities. Of course, the fanservice element that had previously been solely confined to some text, 2D sprites, and the occasional CG has now gotten much bolder with the system of stripping to power up in battle.
The final installment of the Ar Tonelico trilogy takes place around the third and final Tower that sustains life in the world where the lands are lost. This final region is called Sol Cluster, and is much more technologically advanced than the lands the previous games took place in. Sol Cluster is ruled by an organization of Reyvateils called Clustania, and humans are considered second-class citizens that are forbidden from forming towns of over 1000 people. Those who disobey Clustania will either be captured and “purified” (brainwashed) or “cleansed” (genocide, essentially). This is an interesting contrast to Sol Ciel, which had an organization that treated Reyvateils as objects, and Metafalss where humans and Reyvateils live in respect of each other.
Naturally, the final trilogy involves the much awaited mission to revive the planet that has fallen into despair (literally). But before reaching the meat of what most fans are anticipating, you start out with a young steeplejack in a countryside village who meets a young girl under attack right outside his house and decides to leave on a journey to protect her from her pursuers in all of ten minutes. The pursuers are the aforementioned Clustania who really want their hands on the girl, and said girl has some powerful song magic that conveniently gives her amnesia when she uses too much of it. Rather than giving the protagonist, Aoto, a sensible motivation for departing on a journey, the writers decided on a badly executed cliche that solely relies on the fact that a hot-blooded, righteous teenage protagonist must absolutely help a cute girl in danger. While such a classic setup would have been fitting for the first game of a trilogy, things should have picked up by the final game and starred a protagonist closer to the matters at heart.
In general, the story was underwhelming when it came to the climax and ending, and failed to recreate the grandeur of its predecessor. Even the scenes that should have been impactful to a fan of the series were passable at best. Character motivations were kind of flimsy in general, and the good ol’ cliche-riddled “humans are bastards and to be blamed” theme is rampant. Normally, the story would work to disprove such a philosophy and show that humans do indeed learn from their mistakes, can live in harmony and are good at heart, but even that is half-heartedly done.
In previous games, you could dive into a heroine’s soulspace, named the Cosmosphere, where the embodiments of her deepest emotions appeared as her alternate costumed forms. In AT3, the two main heroines literally has different personae residing within her, who act like completely different people with their own body and character design. So in reality, it’s like getting 8 heroines in 2! Except that the Cosmosphere is still the same length so character development is crippled in favor of quantity. While the different personalities can be fun and in some cases preferable to the actual heroine (Soma is the best girl~), none of that can replace the interestingly well-developed heroines that were a staple of the series.
Aoto is the hot-blooded main character who fills the very standard heroic archetype. Uttering lines like “I’ll protect you!” as if he has to fill a daily quota of cheese, Aoto takes on the job of protecting a girl he just met and taking her home. With a bit of cockiness and pervertedness, he feels more human than Lyner did and isn’t that bad of a protagonist, even if cliched. It feels like he was created in contrast to Croix, as Aoto is the charge first think later type who pulls the heroines along, rather than the one who snarks at the back while getting dragged along.
Under pursuit with mysterious powers and convenient amnesia is Saki, a girl entrusted to Aoto several minutes after they met. Unlike any previous Ar Tonelico heroine, Saki’s defining trait is her purity and almost childish innocence. The creators admitted that they wanted to go experimental by making the absolutely standard fantasy RPG heroine from olden times. Unfortunately, characterization was also set back some years and the result was a flat, uninteresting heroine who has little reason to be liked other than her cuteness. She never actually does anything outstanding, and her interactions with those around her aren’t very fun. The speaking in third-person quirk is also unfittingly annoying since that should be reserved for imouto-type characters.
She is a host to 3 other personalities, and without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the best of them appears the last, and she would have made a better main heroine because her situation would actually cause an interesting internal conflict.
If you aren’t satisfied with Saki, there’s also Finnel, who is closer to the standard Ar Tonelico heroine and thus has more depth. She is weak and clumsy compared to the average Reyvateil, but also likes to show some attitude (especially towards Aoto), making her a bit of a tsundere even though her tsun side mellows out rather easily. Digging deeper into her Cosmosphere will reveal that she has terrible self-confidence and is masochistic, measuring her self-worth by the amount of hardship she can take. She has the best chemistry with Aoto of all the heroines, and also the most development and interesting Cosmosphere. Even though she is classified as a tsundere, she still feels very different from past Ar Tonelico tsundere characters and has refreshing elements to make up for things. Also, she has a fear of heights.
Aside from being the best default personality, Finnel’s different personae are also more fun on average, making her the best heroine on average (although Soma is still my favorite~).
Of course, to no one’s surprise, there is a Third Reyvateil who joins later in the game. Because AT3 tries to be similar in story structure to the first game, the latter’s problems come rushing back including having a third heroine who appeared too late and didn’t get sufficient development. She reacts casually in even the most dire situations, and is generally sort of a weird denpa type. Although she is quite funny in some talk topics and synthesis conversations, she could have been so much more interesting if given more room to develop (like AT2’s third heroine) or joined the story earlier. Her soulspace felt half-assed as well, compared to previous characters in the same position.
As for the other party members, the game did a good job of proving character types that weren’t used in the previous games, but having 3 vanguards total (including Aoto) rather than 5 means a lot less variety. A certain someone from AT2 is back as the most reliable girl in the game. Most supporting characters range from unnecessarily silly to dull, and the villains are forgettable.
Oh Gust, what have you done? Did you feel the pressure of the PS3 and decided to go for a fully real-time party-based action RPG system like Tales or Star Ocean? What’s wrong with turn-based anyways? Or rather, why not improve on AT2’s system? After all, this pretty much proves that Gust cannot do action-based battle systems. It tries to be a party-based real-time system, but lacks the elements that made successful games like Tales of Graces/Xillia or even Star Ocean 4 fun. Each vanguard gets a grand total of 4 skills that get old real fast, the only attacking button is the square button, and there is no way to manually guard or jump. Vanguard characters all play rather similarly and there aren’t any skills that particularly stand out. Unlike the recent Tales games where you get a plethora of Artes and new gameplay elements continue to be introduced or evolve, the combat in Ar Tonelico 3 will always feel the same. There are no promises of “it’ll get better.” Oh yeah, and there are no ally AI options so if your ally is a dumbass, good luck. The player also controls all item use and you can use items continuously without consequence.
Active parties are made of 3 vanguards and 1 Reyvateil, the latter of which stands stationary while chanting her song magic in battle. Since you cannot control the Reyvateil and there are no other caster-type characters, those who enjoy casting magic will be stuck with close-range combat. Even the one sort-of mid-range fighter doesn’t have enough distinction in range to feel any different. Bosses don’t have any interesting or unique attacks, and you’ll pretty much use the same strategy for every single fight. The only difference with crucial bosses are that they don’t get stunned after attacks. A Hard mode is introduced but the difficulty balancing is terrible and the first tutorial fight will be nearly impossible due to the player dishing out 2 damage per hit and receiving around 40. Too much addition in the damage formula, maybe?
Song magic is as broken as ever, and in fact, is probably the most broken out of all 3 games and never stop being ridiculously powerful. Even late into the game your vanguards will continue to do pathetic damage, making battles long and tedious until you can unleash the magic. Reyvateil no longer get a long list of magic to cast as each heroine personality gets one magic and that’s it. There are no healing songs, but you get HP regen while the Reyvateil is singing. Magic is controlled by the “purging” system where the Reyvateil takes off clothes to power up.
He who controls stripping controls the battle! This stripping to power up thing sure makes a good selling line. Anyway, you can purge up to 4 times with each heroine through the used of the 4 shoulder buttons and also equip bonuses to each purge like ATK/DEF up or better HP regen. Each shoulder button is also associated with an element so you get added elemental attacks. At the 3rd purge you can activate the limit breaks of the vanguards and the 4th purge is the heroine’s limit break which does loads and loads of damage if you manage to succeed at the rhythm mini-game that has a huge tolerance for failure.
To be able to purge to the next level, you must hit the attack button to the red beats in the bar at the bottom to increase the heroine’s “heart rate” to a certain level. The system doesn’t allow for as many options as AT1’s Grathnodes or AT2’s Girl Power as the bonuses are all ATK/DEF/Healing up or status effect related. There aren’t any interesting bonuses like AT2’s increased chain rates or guarding time frames.
Visual & Audio:
This is the series’ transition to 3D and Gust’s second 3D game. Needless to say, the character models aren’t very good and cutscenes rely on the 2D portraits since the models lack the detail of those in later Gust games. Thankfully they improved a lot in that aspect and Ayesha had wonderful 3D models. But for this game, the 3D is pretty much last-gen level in terms of detail and proportions. Any 2D background looks crisp and beautiful, but the 3D areas like most of the dungeons just look incredibly dull.
The character design artist sure changed his style a lot. It’s a lot more crisp and delicate with cleaner shading and colors, so I like it better on a whole, but I can’t help but feel that his sense of fashion declined. Also you see his anatomy evolve from realistic to elongated, as the 145 cm Cocona now has proportions more suitable for a 170+ cm girl. The CG events got better though, as they have better composition and backgrounds.
At first, I feared for the music because there are a lot more pop-sounding songs, but the good hymns came later. Each Reyvateil comes with her own set of battle themes and Finnel has the best one because I cannot stand Saki’s saccharine sweet-sounding songs. Important Hymns are still good, but I preferred AT2’s style more on a whole. Finnel’s battle music is very catchy though.
With a lacking story, less interesting characters, and a fully real-time battle system that managed to be less fun than choosing commands from a menu, Ar Tonelico 3 feels particularly half-assed for the finale of the series. I’ll admit that despite all these complaints I still managed to enjoy the game to some degree, but I’d hesitate to recommend it to newcomers to the series. Is it just me or do Gust trilogies tend to peak at the second entry? AT3 lacked the charm of the first game, and also went backwards from the improvements made in the second game. Character interactions are not as fun as their other games (including the Ateliers), and the item crafting is backwards in complexity. If they have time to be remaking Rorona, I hope they can remake AT3 as well…
Finnel is the best standard heroine in this game (because she has Soma~~oh, only if you were your own heroine), but my favorite character has to be a certain someone from Metafalss who also ends up as the ending if you don’t choose any of the heroines.