Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel might be better known to its fanbase as Ar Tonelico 3. This is the first and final entry in the series to appear on the PlayStation 3, with the previous two titles appearing only on the PS2. It's from the well-loved Japanese development house Gust, who is also the developer behind the Atelier series and one of my personal favorites, Mana Khemia. If you're already a fan of Gust, then you have an idea of what to expect from the final entry in the Ar Tonelico series, but if this is your first foray into the world of Reyvateils, you're in for a pretty distinctive experience.
Ar Tonelico Qoga has loose ties to the original two games, with references to a couple of characters and some locations and lore, but you can easily jump into this entry without being well-versed in the prior titles. The story revolves around the main hero, Aoto, who steps in to the fray to rescue a girl named Saki from the Clustanian forces that are trying to capture her. This in turn sets the story in motion, and along the way, Aoto meets up with other characters, including another Reyvateil known as Finnel and a doctor named Hikari Gojo. The overall cast of playable characters might seem a bit small, but there are some surprises later in the game.
The battle system plays out like a Tales title. You have direct control over one character, but you can switch between them on the fly while in battle. You take three companions from your party into the fight, along with an extra spot for the current Reyvateil. During the fight, your Reyvateil remains in one spot on the battlefield, singing a hymn that powers up your characters in the fight. There's an odd mechanic that involves stripping away the clothing of your Reyvateil to "purge," or unleash stat bonuses to your characters. These bonuses come in the form of things like Attack Up, Defense Up, Resistance to Poison and so on. If you manage to purge the Reyvateil four times within one battle, you'll unleash a special move that causes a huge amount of damage and usually guarantees a win.
For the actual fighting, you only need to use one button to perform a small string of attacks on the nearest foe. You can unleash special moves by holding down a directional button on the d-pad, and if your Reyvateil has been singing long enough, you might be able to access a devastating EX move, or super move, which is unique to each character and has its own special animation. Victorious battles yield the typical role-playing game rewards in the form of experience to level up your heroes and item drops that are tiered into four different categories. You're also ranked on how well you fight, with S rank being the best, but that seems to have little effect on the experience earned.
Another thing you'll earn from winning battles is DP, or Dive Points. Diving is a huge mechanic in Ar Tonelico Qoga, and it's the only way to make your Reyvateils more useful in battle. The idea involves taking your Reyvateil party members to town locations called Dive Shops, where you'll jack in to a machine and dive into the consciousness of one of the Reyvateils. This area is called a Cosmosphere, and there are nine different layers to explore in sequential order. These layers reveal different sides to the personalities of each Reyvateil, and successfully completing layers allows your Reyvateil to purge more during battle or unlocks additional rewards.
The diving mechanic requires you to use the Dive Points to uncover events in each Cosmosphere. It's generally presented as an overhead map, with about five or six different locations. Important locations on the map are highlighted with a gold star, and placing your cursor over each area reveals how much DP you need to advance the plot, and whether or not you'll uncover a new Hyuma — a fairy-like creature that dictates a Reyvateil's ability during each purge cycle.
Another big gameplay element is crafting, or alchemy, which isn't uncommon in a Gust RPG. You earn recipes for items from treasure chests, and you must combine two to three components when you're at an inn or save point. The neat thing about crafting is that it'll always initiate a little scene where particular party members stand around and talk about the new item and suggest names for it. You need at least one Reyvateil in your party to craft, and only certain Reyvateils can craft certain items.
As far as the overall look of the game, it's certainly a step up from the Ar Tonelico titles that appeared on PS2. Even forgoing the obvious differences between an HD system and Sony's last-generation console, the previous Ar Tonelico games relied heavily on 2-D sprite work with pretty low resolution. Even for PS2 games, they weren't what I'd call good-looking titles. Ar Tonelico Qoga ditches the 2-D artwork for the more current 3-D style of character and world design, and while the dungeon design falls a little flat this time out, the character models are rendered pretty well and stay true to their anime-inspired roots. They're crisp and clear on an HD set, and there are some good details in the character models.
The soundtrack is also shaping up to be really solid, with lots of upbeat melodies spread throughout different story scenes. There's a slightly oppressive feeling to the tunes you encounter in dungeons, so there's a nice contrast between the two styles. There are also a few standout performances in the voice-over work.
Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel has a lot of humor and definitely earns its Mature rating in this outing. The constant references to girls stripping, flirting and the occasional tasteless joke isn't going to be for everyone, but from what I've seen of the game so far, there's a very addictive quality to the gameplay. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea, but RPG fans should keep an eye out for this final entry in the Ar Tonelico series.
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