You ever play a game that infuriates you and seems to do everything in its power to prevent you from playing on and enjoying yourself? I really feel like I had that situation come up multiple times over the course of this review. Ar Tonelico Qoga Knell of Ar Ciel is just one of those games that has so many aspects of it from tired JRPG tropes that it's incredibly hard to find much to enjoy about this game in the first place. But then there are the times where the characters step in and start interacting with each other and you start to forgive the game. Then it decides to throw you in a random battle, or send you off to a dungeon with no discernible way to get there. It's a constant tug-of-war with the bad aspects and the good. If I had to judge this game solely on characters, this game would have fared a lot better. But the mediocre aspects of the game do a lot of damage to helping this game succeed.
Ar Tonelico is a game that is definitively for the fan of all things Japanese. I hate to make a sweeping generalization like that but really it's true, you've got to love stuff like Hyperdimension Neptunia, the Atelier series, or pretty much anything else from NIS America's stable of games. It just has that level of quirk that is tough for the average gamer to handle. Those familiar with a 'harem anime' type of plot will not be surprised by anything in the game. The ESRB recently handed an M rating to Ar Tonelico Qoga, and after seeing what the game has to offer it's not without good reason. Nudity is a common theme, with female characters shedding clothes to gain more power. I don't know how that works, it was briefly explained in the game but I'm pretty sure I just glossed over it and got it that being nude was a good thing. But other stuff like suggestive moaning, and implied sexual encounters aren't all that uncommon either. If anything it feels like the ESRB was a bit heavy-handed, but some of the content is so blatant and ridiculous it's kind of hard to look at this with any kind of straight face.
Let's get those negatives out of the way. First, random battles. Why do these still happen? When even the most classic of franchises like Dragon Quest can abandon this mechanic it's high time to just stop doing it altogether. Now, to stave off too much random battling there is a limit to the number of fights you can get in to in any one area, but that's only so long as you remain in the area. If you go out to the world map the meter will reset. After an event about half way through the game the standard monsters will change to something more powerful, making each area a prime place to level up, but sometimes you just want to cruise through an area. There are items for that, but they have to be used frequently and are not very cheap.
Next up we have a very fragmented story that at times seems to feel awkward and stunted. Aoto is a steeplejack who one day wakes to find the city of Clustania raiding his village in an attempt to hunt down a Reyvatiel named Saki. After saving her it's a long adventure that because a matter of saving the world, through the power of song, so to speak. You'll learn that the world is actively trying to destroy humanity and the reasoning behind Clustania's actions. A lot of my hang ups on the story just stems from events that seem to happen and they have no consequence. Someone in my party has to sing an important song, yet they still fight in my party, or they've just been gravely injured but are still well enough to fight alongside me. A lot of events just happen in this game, with no sense of passing time, and with little consequence to the story. On the flip side of this there are the character interactions that do a lot to shape the story of Aoto. By 'diving' in to the minds of the three female leads he's able to form a relationship with each character that ultimately determines his future, sometimes with very offbeat results. One ending had me leaving the world behind with my female companion following along so she could be my 'gal wife.' One of the pleasant surprises though was seeing characters from previous Ar Tonelico games show up to help me out in my quest, it made the world as a whole feel a lot more cohesive.
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.