As the epitome of niche, Ar Tonelico 2: Melody of Metafalica will never enjoy mass-market appeal, and it’s kind of a shame. As far as JRPGs go, AT2 does absolutely everything right, with an innovative battle system that never seems to get old, well-developed characters, a complex yet easily-followable story, and even a well-streamlined map system that eliminates the tedium of traveling. Unless you totally hate RPGs, you will enjoy this game.
The turn-based battle system feels more actiony than your typical RPG, and each round is divided into an attack phase and a defense phase. Your party formation is made up of two components – the vanguard, who are basically meat shields fighting on the front lines of battle, and the Reyvateils (protected by the vanguard), who are magical girls with powerful “song magic” attacks that are charged by the energy of their vanguard partners.
During the attack phase, the two vanguard party members chain combos, attacking the enemy while the Reyvateils' song magic gauge builds. By pressing specific directions on the directional pad while attacking with the X and square buttons, the vanguard can perform special attacks, as well as charge the Reyvateils’ song magic gauges faster. At any time, you can release a song magic attack by hitting the circle button, and the strength of the attack will be determined by the percentage you’ve accumulated in the magic gauge. The defense phase is like a rhythm-based minigame, where waves of enemy attacks are represented by lines moving across a bar that you have to hit precisely when the lines sync up to successfully guard. It sounds simple, but it works a lot better and is less frustrating than reflex-based guard systems or trying to decipher ambiguous visual cues.
Not only is the battle system already solidly fun as-is, but AT2 rations out additions to the system at a pace that always keeps things interesting. Not just extra magic attacks and so forth – but completely novel additions like “Girl Power” where you can pick an additional Reyvateil partner to give you stat boosts, and a super powerful mega-attack called Replakia that actually pulls power from all the different Reyvateils you’ve saved over the course of the game.
The story is lengthy and complex, but it pretty much boils down to a conflict between two opposing groups, the Grand Bell and the Sacred Army. Both sides have the same problem – the oppressive Goddess who controls Metafalss (their world) refuses to grant the people the land they need to flourish and prosper, which has been idealized in the minds of the people as a mythical utopia called Metafalica.
The Grand Bell believes the solution is to destroy the Goddess and create Metafalica themselves, using the power of their Reyvateil maiden Lady Cloche. The Sacred Army, on the other hand, believes that going to war with the Goddess will bring about the end of the world, and that there must be a reason why the Goddess hasn’t granted them Metafalica yet. The greatness of the story is in its moral ambiguity – both sides have worthy causes, and there are honorable and dishonorable characters as key players of each movement.
Like the first Ar Tonelico, the moe element is where Melody of Metafalica really shines. It might sounds creepy, but getting to know the ladies in the game (mainly Lady Cloche and Luca) is actually the most rewarding part. While human characters (vanguard) level up normally through experience points gained in battle, Reyvateils actually level up in a completely different way. A Reyvateil’s magic gets stronger depending on how closely she’s bonded with her partner, so to level up a Reyvateil you must “dive” into her mind, into a virtual representation of her psyche called a Cosmosphere. By getting to know her and gaining her trust subconsciously during these dives, you’ll unlock deeper levels of her Cosmosphere, each representing a more private aspect of her personality.
The whole concept of becoming “close” with these characters is inherently a very talky way to go about things, so it completely relies on excellent writing to work. Although Ar Tonelico is known for its humorously overt sexual innuendo, there’s more to its humor than “put it in the hole” jokes. Aside from superficial typos, the writing in AT2 is incredibly good, both in the big picture, with its believable characters and storylines, and in its small details, with tons of clever jokes and memorable lines throughout. Not to mention that it’s quite an achievement that a game about quasi-lesbian goddesses manages to show subtlety and sensitivity, without even remotely being pervy or creepy.
Our only major gripe is that we would have loved to see this on PS3 – the static character and background art is beautifully detailed throughout, and we would have really liked to see it fully realized with more powerful graphics. It’s a big time commitment and it’s really text heavy, but if you’re even remotely into JRPGs, Ar Tonelico 2 is easily worth it. Then again, if endearing, well-written characters and well-crafted turn-based battle systems aren’t your thing, well, it’s your loss.
Jan 21, 2008