Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: February 6, 2007
Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia is a rather strange game, by any means. For those who primarily play RPGs released in the United States, there is almost nothing like it, and the closest title to which it can be compared is the obscure PlayStation 1 RPG, Thousand Arms. Mixing elements of Atelier Iris with those of the "Date Sim" genre, Ar Tonelico brings a unique spin to the classic RPG formula.
People in the world of Ar Tonelico are divided into two races: humans and Reyvateil. Reyvateil are artificial beings that vary from humans in a number of ways: They are exclusively female, they have Install Ports, they can use Song Magic and they only live for about 20 years without human assistance. Our story opens up after two major wars that scorched the planet, rendering the land uninhabitable.
Ar Tonelico opens up in a world already twice destroyed by disaster. The ground has been rendered uninhabitable, and the sky is an impenetrable plasma barrier known as the Blastline. All of humanity is forced to eke out a meager existence in floating cities around The Tower, a technological marvel that keeps humanity alive. The humans are further divided into those who live on the floating island Wings of Horus, known as the Lower Worlders, and those who live in Platina, or the Upper Worlders. The Upper Worlders are charged with defending humanity from the Viruses, evil monsters that can possesses electronics or take corporeal form and attack humans directly. Ar Tonelico's protagonist is a young knight named Lyner, who serves under the Reyvateil Shurelia. When an invincible new Virus appears that the knights are unable to defeat, Lyner is sent to the Lower World to find the key to defeating them.
Players will spend their time controlling Lyner as he explores the world of Ar Tonelico. Quite similar to previous Gust game Atelier Iris, Lyner can interact with the area maps in a number of ways. He can leap from platform to platform, or use a number of elemental-based Song Magic spells in order to do everything from blowing open doors to cooking chicken. Travel from location to location is done simply by selecting your destination from a choice, as there is no world map to explore.
Also like Atelier Iris, players can create new items via alchemy. Early on, Lyner learns to Grathmeld, or to create new items by combining other items together. Grathmelding is fairly simple: Find a recipe, and then collect the items listed on it. Once you've got the materials, you can go to an inn or save point and create the item. Although the item Lyner creates is from a recipe card, it can be modified in a few ways: Stronger materials can be exchanged to improve the rank of the item, and certain party members may even offer to rename the item to something more fitting. Items can then be equipped or even converted into Grathnode Crystals, which can in turn be equipped on weapons and armor to improve their stats.
Combat in Ar Tonelico is fairly unique, but poorly balanced. The player's party is made up of four characters: three humans and one Reyvateil. The humans form the "front line" of combat and function basically how one would expect from an RPG party; they can attack, use items, or use special skills. Worth noting, however, is that special skills in Ar Tonelico don't use MP, but instead use a percentage of a character's HP. (Ten percent for tier one, 20% for tier two and 30% for tier-three skills.). However, their primary purpose isn't attacking; in fact, one of the best tactics I discovered was unequipping my character's weapons and focusing entirely on defense! The reason for this is that the humans function mostly as a support unit for their Reyvateil partners.
The Reyvateil, on the other hand, remains in the back row. Rather than attacking in a classic fashion, Reyvateil instead use Song Magic, which is an incredibly powerful magical energy crafted by a Reyvateil's inner feelings and is manifested as a variety of spells. Rather than taking normal turns, a Reyvateil can activate their powers or change their song at any time. Once a song has been chosen, the Reyvateil begins to sing and slowly powers up its magic. Attack Magic simply charges over time; the longer a Reyvateil sings, the more powerful their magic becomes, and it can be launched at any time to do massive damage.
Support Magic simply constantly provides its effects, and longer songs improve the effect of these spells. However, unlike humans, a Reyvateil does have MP, and the longer a Reyvateil sings, the more their MP drains. If a Reyvateil's MP hits zero, it loses control of the magic. While this may sound frustrating, it must be stressed exactly how powerful a Reyvateil's magic is: As early as level 10, a Reyvateil can do 80,000+ damage with a single attack. Even in the very end of the game, Lyner's strongest skill is lucky to break 6,000 damage.
As I mentioned above, the humans function as a support group for the Reyvateil, and this is where the best and worst of the battle system come into play. First, let's discuss the good aspects. While regular attacks can't harm a Reyvateil, many enemies have a specific attack that targets a Reyvateil. Reyvateil are incredibly fragile, and a single attack is usually enough to take them down. Luckily, once one of these attacks is targeted, a human (or humans, depending on the strength of the attack) can leap in front of the attack. However, these Reyvateil-targeting attacks are incredibly slow. In fact, you can usually have a human attack and still have time to protect a Reyvateil, so these attacks provide very little threat, and unless you're not paying attention, it is unlikely you'll ever see a Reyvateil fall. The humans' attacks also serve to increase the Ambience of a battle. Every time a foe is attacked, their Ambience level increases, from zero to three, and each level of Ambience heavily increases the amount of damage Song Magic does to a foe.
The biggest problem and one that turns the battle system into an exercise in tedium is Harmonics. As the party battles, the Harmonics between the Reyvateil and the human improve, and if it improves enough, the Harmonics level increases. A Harmonics level increase does a number of things. Higher Harmonic levels allow the humans access to new attacks, and at the highest levels, it can even change their regular attack into a new and more powerful form. Each level of Harmonics that is achieved also improves the quality of the enemy's item drop, and this is where things fall apart. In order to raise Harmonics, you have to hold back in combat. Fighting will cause the enemies to fall so fast you'll only get Level 1 or 2 items in a fight, but the game's Grathmelding requires you to farm these enemies for their higher level items. Thus, in order to keep a solid supply of alchemic items, you must do as little damage as possible in order to build up your Harmonics, thus turning each fight into either a waste of time or a tedious exercise in using the weakest Song Magic and attacks.
As discussed above, Song Magic is a bit different from classic magic in that it's created from the inner feelings of a Reyvateil. However, Reyvateil are not able to craft this magic on their own and must have a trusted partner Dive into their Cosmosphere, which is the mental realm of a Reyvateil, where their inner quirks are given flesh. Lyner must enter the Reyvateil's Cosmosphere himself in order to help them overcome their inner demons and connect to their true power. In order to dive, Lyner must have accumulated a number of "Dive Points" via combat. Like Experience Points, Dive Points are gained by fighting with a Reyvateil. Using powerful song magic and doing lots of damage improves the amount of DP you get from a fight.
Once you've dived into a Reyvateil, you have to help them defeat their inner demons, and this is done in the form of story segments. Cosmospheres have almost no interactivity; players can wander around the "map," but the next story location is marked with a glowing yellow star. Each "location" costs a number of Dive Points to enter. In the few situations where you have multiple stars to go to, the most expensive star is always the correct one. As the story segments play out, you are able to witness more of the Reyvateil's history and personality, and new magic is developed from this. Occasionally, you must pay a second "emergency" DP cost after entering a location, in order to support the Reyvateil through a particularly tough situation. However, as long as you've been fighting smart, you should never worry about running out of DP.
Once you've helped a Reyvateil solve their current mental dilemma, a Paradigm Shift occurs, and Lyner is able to reach a new layer of their subconscious. Deeper layers are more dangerous, with more eccentric characters and more expensive locations to visit. However, after each layer is completed, a Reyvateil gains access to new Costumes. Unlike humans, Reyvateil can't equip weapons; they equip Costumes, which improve their Song Magic and overall stats. Each costume represents a certain facet of a Reyvateil's personality, and naturally, each costume is also reeking of fan service - from Aurica's skimpy Lillim and Bathtime Fun costumes to Misha's Y-Shirt and Sailor Girl suits, the girls are not particularly modest.
Another aspect of traveling through a Reyvateil's Cosmosphere is gaining enough trust for them to allow Lyner to Install, which is the act of inserting a Grathnode Crystal into a Reyvateil. Grathnode Crystals are compressed Song Magic, and their abilities can improve the effect of Song Magic, but the process is very personal and painful. Installing a Crystal allows you to equip it to a specific song, which has varying effects. One Crystal may increase the attack power of a song, but also drastically increase the MP cost of the song. Others may improve the speed and power of spells used on the field map, or add status effects to the songs. Like many other aspects of the game, Installing is mostly there for those who seek to max out their stats; one can easily beat the game without doing much Installing.
One thing I really need to discuss about this game is the level of innuendo and surprisingly mature content. While Ar Tonelico is rated T for Teen by the ESRB, don't mistake it for a kid-friendly game. Almost every aspect of the Reyvateil's plots is dripping with innuendo. Diving and Installing are discussed exactly how one would expect sex to be. Disturbing comments about how "I heard it hurts when you push it in," and "I want you to be my first, Lyner," can make one feel rather uncomfortable, especially when Misha is involved. (Misha is an 18-year-old girl trapped in the body of a 12-year-old girl.) Matters only compound later on, including a few moments inside the Cosmosphere that make Dead or Alive: Xtreme 2 seem modest and subtle in comparison, complete with special character artwork. While a majority of those planning on picking up Ar Tonelico probably won't care one way or the other, the rather cheerful cover and T rating makes the game seem much more innocent than it actually is.
Ar Tonelico has some of the nicest sprites I've ever seen. They are all big, distinct and well animated, and combat animations are excellent. While the variation in animations is a bit low, they look so good that you'll probably never get tired of them. Likewise, the backgrounds and cities are beautiful, with a great amount of detail and bright glowing colors. A few of the dungeons tend to be a bit bland, especially the areas inside Ar Tonelico, but that is a minor complaint at best. Spell animations are interesting and often amusing, ranging from Aurica's ability to summon an army of angry stuffed animals to Misha's "Stubborn Father" attack, where an angry father flips over a massive dinner table to deal serious damage to foes. While the gameplay may be lacking, Gust never lets you down graphically.
I can't quite say the same about the audio aspect of the game. Ar Tonelico offers a choice between dub or Japanese vocals, but with one problem – neither are any good. The dub is passable, but many of the voices grind on your nerves, and a few major characters are heavily miscast. The Japanese voices just seem to lack emotion, although they are easier to listen to, overall. Likewise, the music is a bizarre mix of hymns and rap; the first time I got into a boss fight, a J-Rap theme started up and made me double-check the speakers on my television. The softer hymn music is nice, but not particularly memorable, and the rap music feels so out of place and strange when compared with the bright, cheerful sprites.
If you're looking for a light RPG, then Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia definitely fits the bill because it's cheerful, well animated and utterly predictable. Combat is a breeze, even if you're farming for items, and the plot is lackluster at best. The characters have fairly interesting personalities, and exploring the Cosmosphere can be an interesting experience, although an option to skip cinemas would have been deeply welcome. With seven different endings, Ar Tonelico is sure to keep completionists busy, although few aspects of the plot change between the endings.