Ten minutes is all the time you need to spend in Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel in order to understand what you're getting yourself into. The game starts like countless JPRGs before it, with the protagonist in bed of course. For good measure, it's sheer laziness that has put him - his name is Aoto by the way - to sleep. Yet adventure awaits. Nearby a young woman named Saki is stuck defending herself against some soldiers who are trying to capture her because she's among a group of valued mages known as Revyateils. And she's so special that she ends up turning these soldiers into slices of cake, a trick she can only perform by losing most of her clothes.
As thirtysomething anime enthusiasts who grew up at a time when the majority of female characters didn't look like To Catch a Predator bait, we can only take moe character designs every so often. At least the ones in Knell of Ar Ciel look like they were designed with some thought and look much less generic than the characters in the other two Ar tonelico games.
Above: NIS America – masters of the pick-up line
Developer Gust's Ar tonelico series has never taken itself too seriously. Sure, the world needs to be saved and Revyateils are being exploited but there's always time to get to know the lady friends in your party. When you're not busy ogling them in their underwear you can dive into the heads of the party mages to craft the game's “song magic” - the principle spells in the game – which is similar to the diving mechanic in the previous games. These sections, which also include a dating-sim inspired conversation component, help strengthen your bonds with the ladies and enhance battle performance, which again often involves the removal of clothing.
It is this battle system where Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel makes its most notable departure. The series' battles have evolved beyond its turn-based beginnings for a more dynamic, real-time format, visually similar to Namco's Tales franchise. Much of the challenge is the balancing act in making the most of the Revyateils' powers while keeping them guarded as they're defenseless on their own. Their spells are also song based so there’s an intensive rhythm action component that isn’t especially hard, but you can’t get complacent either due to the music variety.
Above: Keep your shirt on! I got this werewolf!
Art style isn't far removed from the Phantasy Star games of the past ten years. Many of the outdoor environments use safe and familiar countryside/desert/mountainous regions while the cities, towns and objects offer a mix of modern and futuristic designs. Graphics junkies will get turned off by the predominantly static backgrounds indicative of a studio with a limited budget. At least much of the animation runs at 60 fps, even if the running movements in relation to the ground make the characters look floaty - not unlike many Dreamcast games. And some of the characters are also dressed like they're a couple makeovers away from qualifying for a Tetsuya Nomura game; all they need are uneven pant legs, giant buckles, and tons of zippers.
NIS should also get some credit for not botching the localization like they did for Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica: no more freezing issues or crashes during boss fights. While we didn't go through the seemingly countless text boxes with a fine-tooth comb, there's the general impression that NIS took special care with the translation of Ar Ciel, where they actually got the genders right and consistent this time around. Purists can also look forward to a Japanese language option (with English subtitles), a feature that is practically a standard in niche titles today.
It seems like it was only yesterday that we'd feel grateful when any US publisher took a chance at a niche property like Ar tonelico. Now there are more than enough niche game hours than there are hours for any full-time working adult. Where the game lacks in production values it makes up for in a lengthy story that fans of Japanese visual novels will enjoy (although it's not as static as visual novels). The fluid battles make for a great complement to the all the dialogue reading and there is enough depth in character upgrades to make the brain diving interesting. It is not a definite that this is the final Ar tonelico that Gust led us to believe, but many of the game's endings do provide a satisfying resolution if the studio does decide to focus on a new IP instead.
Mar 28, 2011