2011 is a great year for role-playing fans, and one of the first promising titles for JRPG aficionados will release in two weeks time: Gust’s Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel . The game features a completely overhauled combat mechanic, a relatively interesting storyline, some unique characters, and a very clean – albeit somewhat lacking – visual style. Fans of past entries aren’t guaranteed to enjoy it; the gameplay is vastly different. The traditional turn-based format is gone (surprise, surprise) but the depth is still there and the battle mechanic, although problematic in some ways, is intriguing. I’ll actually be interested to see what the hardcore JRPG fans have to say about this because in all honesty, I really can’t predict. However, I will say that the presentation is classic JRPG from front to back, so that’ll appeal to the targeted audience.
The graphics are extremely clear and vibrant, but to attain that level of brilliance, it’s clear the developers sacrificed a lot of intricate detail. The combat special effects and basic visuals are so sheer and devoid of texture depth, it might almost be confused for a cel-shaded style. The animations, especially when just moving around the environment, are super smooth; almost too smooth, as the character feels weightless and collision detection is an issue. But that’s very minor in terms of gameplay implications. The high points of this graphical palette are undoubtedly the character and world design, as many of the towns and outdoor locations are nicely depicted and appointed. The game really starts to shine later after you’ve unlocked a few of the more powerful vanguard moves and Song Magic; the accompanying effects are a sight to behold. But it takes a while to reach that point, and I could understand the complaint that everything seems a little too stark.
The audio receives a definite boost from the soundtrack, which has always been a plus in this series. The music enhances most combat situations and although downplayed for your standard exploration and adventuring, it still resides pleasantly in the background. The effects range from decent to great, depending on the battle scenario. As for the voice acting, that’s mostly a personal thing, because we always have that exaggerated Japanese emotion; subtlety really isn’t practiced. Some really enjoy this style and that’s fine by me. But as is typically the case with JRPGs these days, I found some of the characters to be downright intolerable, while others were great. For instance, I thought Saki was always adorable and I usually couldn’t stand Finnel. I’m indifferent regarding the main character, Aoto. In general, the sound works very well on a technical level and the voices are about as subjective as can be.
It won’t take long to dive into this role-playing adventure, because you’ll be thrust into battle within the first few minutes of starting your quest. That being said, it’ll be quite some time before you unlock the full potential of your party; I think I had to play for a good four or five hours before I completely understood all aspects of the combat. …and I’m still not entirely sure I get it all. I’ll elaborate in a moment. The combat is the major focal point but for now, just the basics- you will run through standard open environments, where you will find random encounters (with a twist). You can jump and while it’s really floaty and erratic, this isn’t a platformer so I’m okay with this small eccentricity. You will visit towns and other civilizations but because all designers seem to have ditched the interact-able world map, the map in Ar Tonelico Qoga merely consists of selectable icons, denoting locations. Slick but kinda boring.
Now, before I get involved in the battle, let me talk about one interesting addition; it almost reminded me of Thousand Arms and the “dating” process. You don’t actually go on dates in this game, but you will have chances to talk to your female traveling companions when you break for camp (or wherever there’s the option to Rest). If there’s a topic available, you’ll see “Talk” next to the character’s name in the menu screen. So go Rest and have a chat; doing so will enhance your relationship with that character, and there are nine total levels of conversational goodness. You can even find new topics of discussion; they’re shining little balls you can grab when roaming about. The more you talk to one of your Rayvateils, the more she’ll like you, and the better she’ll perform in battle. I enjoyed this new feature quite a bit because it builds on the Cosmosphere idea.
Each Rayvateil has a Cosmosphere, and Aoto must “Dive” into that Cosmosphere in order to unlock the girl’s full potential. You need Dive Points and an understanding of the Rayvateil’s inherent personality, because there are mini-puzzles down there that require you to think about the girl you’re…in. Okay, there’s some innuendo there but it fits, because innuendo is deeply embedded in the game. And this is were we come to battle:
Yes, the turn-based combat is gone. Now we have an open field where everything happens in real-time. The setup is reminiscent of something like Star Ocean , where the allies and enemies start on separate sides, run at each other, and are limited to the size of the battlefield, which isn’t huge. You press the Square button to attack and while you’re moving or attacking, you’re susceptible to strikes; only if you stop can you block. That’s something to think about although the more I played, the less I paid attention to this. What I had to pay most attention to was the health and skills of my Ravateil- you can never control her but she helps if you attack in tandem with a rhythm bar – the Harmograph – that flows along the bottom of the screen. I found this to be interesting but also a touch confusing. When the Rayvateil’s heart grows enough, she can Purge…where she strips off some clothing and does something quite fancy. The more clothes she loses, the more powerful she becomes.
Titillating, yes, but also quite effective. Those around her – the vanguards – also have Supermoves that can be learned, and those can be quite deadly as well but without your Ravateil, you’re probably mincemeat. Purging is done by holding down all the shoulder buttons and shaking the controller but much like the Harmograph function, it doesn’t work 100% of the time. There were times when I was almost convinced that the entire mechanic was hit or miss, and I never knew how to “hit” all the time. A Ravateil’s basic skills can enhance the vanguard’s attack and defense, and protect them from various status ailments. She can also directly target enemies; you can aim the spell (and hand out Items) by pausing the game. The overall feel of combat is fast-paced and satisfying, but it just felt like things were a little beyond my control too often. Regardless of the Rayvateil of your choice, she’s always extremely susceptible and even low-level enemies can kill her quickly.
And given her importance, you find yourself standing close to your most valuable party member, playing defense. This is usually only during tough battles but I still found it annoying. The Harmograph is a really neat idea but it’s just too erratic in my eyes, and I never like the idea of only being able to control one character. Thankfully, the AI is pretty darn solid and you won’t be yelling at your screen too often; they typically do their jobs well. The enemies pose various challenges, the environments are usually fun to explore (even if the linear progression is obvious), and the story can be gripping when the plot gets dark and bizarre. This contrasts sharply with the kooky, flighty nature of some of the characters, but that sort of adds to the appeal, doesn’t it? The control is fine and although you don’t ever feel like a true field tactician, you rarely feel out of touch with the flow of battle.
One last thing I will mention, and this is bad news to the grinders out there. When out in the open, you will see an encounter bar on your screen. At first, it’s completely full. The change in color – from blue to green to orange to red – denotes the chances of you running into a random battle. When that battle is complete, the bar will drop permanently and when the bar is entirely depleted, you will never again run into a battle, so long as you stay in that area. Even jumping out and quickly returning won’t cause the bar to refill and enemies to respawn and I found this intensely irritating, because I’m one of those people who likes to build up. The problem is that this game seems specifically designed to discourage anything slow-paced; the combat is now crazy hectic and even the random encounters are limited, all for the sake of speed. I’m just not sure this is what the fans want from their JRPG.
In the end, Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel is a decent game that many should enjoy, provided they’re familiar with the distinct Japanese flair, and provided they like the drastic gameplay change. To be clear, I like a great many things- I like the Cosmosphere – weird and slightly perverted, but a nice change of pace – I like the conversation/relationship system, I like the AI and attempts at combat innovation, I like some of the characters, and I like parts of the story. I just don’t feel like I’m in full control during battle and despite all the depth, you won’t tap into the majority of that depth unless you’re engaged in a particularly challenging fight. And the idea that greater strength is derived from more bare skin is…well, I’ll leave that open to interpretation. If you’re a fan of the genre, my recommendation would be to watch some battle footage; if you like what you see, make the purchase.
I say that because, for all intents and purposes outside of the overhauled combat, this is an easily recognizable JRPG.
The Good: Great music and a few well-voiced characters. Several interesting twists to new combat mechanic. Depth and presentation are highlights. Character interaction via conversation and Cosmospheres can be fun. Story has a few surprises.
The Bad: Lack of detail in the admittedly sharp graphics. Innovative gameplay attempts fall a little short. Parts of combat can be unreliable. Design focus on speed is questionable.
The Ugly: “No…no Finnel…shut up…stop talking…”