Ever wish your Japanese RPGs had more talking? How about surreal mind-diving where you explore fragile girls' deepest thoughts and slowly unlock their magical potential? That's what Ar tonelico brings to the anime-draped table - a huge focus on character development and chatting. Everything else is pretty standard stuff. Random battles, cool art design, a truly "out there" plot about viruses trying to eat all the humans in the world... you know, all the staple features you'd associate with this kind of game.
But despite its familiar appearance, tonelico manages to stay fresh and bafflingly interesting throughout its lengthy quest. A truly terrific battle system has your magic singers (called Reyva Teils) chanting in the back row while your front line dishes out swordy justice to the various monsters and henchmen that stand in your way. As you fight, you charge a meter from the left, but the longer your Reyva Teil sings, the faster she charges the meter from the right. Once the two charges meet, you open another level of attacks plus supercharge whichever spell she happens to be casting.
But without a doubt, the most intriguing aspect of the game is the whole pseudo-boyfriend fiasco with hero Lyner and the Reyva Teils. To obtain new spells, you have to literally dive into their minds and wade through their emotional baggage. Nothing makes sense at all (how about a cat riding a jewel-encrusted vacuum cleaner?), but when you sift through all the text and finally get to the end of a chapter, you learn tons of info about the girl in question and unlock new powers.
All this talking and diving comes across as one giant sexual reference. The girls are all mopey, hesitant and worried before their "first time" with a dude, so get ready for a lot of suggestive lines. One of the best refers to you inserting a Grathnode Crystal into her access port - "To be honest, I'm a little scared, since I've heard that it hurts when you put it in."
What's a Grathnode? It's one of a billion little trinkets you'll find lying around the tonelico world. Each has an attribute assigned to it (like "Kinda Defensive" or "Tingling") that can affect your weapons, armor and Reyva Teils. There are so many of these damn things you can spend a huge chunk of time trying them all out, just to see what's the best fit. We said it once in our preview, but it bears repeating that this system works a lot like the materia setup in Final Fantasy VII. If you want to get lost in it, you can, but if you want to press on and just go with obvious choices, that works too.
Most new equipment is bought in stores, but much of your inventory will come from Grathmelding, or as we know it, alchemy. If you played the Atelier Iris games (and if you're reading this, you likely did), you know what to expect - craploads of recipe cards that have a list of ingredients needed to create that item. Better materials yield better items and so on. Crafted items can also be broken down into their crystal beginnings, which occasionally rewards you with better base ingredients.
As for the main plot, it's alright. There are a lot of clichéd setups at work ("Who are you? Prove yourself in battle and we'll talk!") and the rise-above-your-perceived-mediocrity motif surrounding the Teils gets annoying. Tales of the class struggle between the Teils and their cruel masters occasionally impress, and damn, they sure lay it on thick. But even with all the talking, talking and more talking, we couldn't help getting sucked into Aurica's crazy, emotional little world.
Ar tonelico's developer, Gust, has been very kind to the RPG audience the past couple of years. With two Iris games in the bag and tonelico already arriving less than a year later, fans should eat this up with a huge smile on their faces. We certainly loved pounding bosses with the game's frantic battle system and spelunking through the Reyva Teils' inner workings ("Please be gentle..."), but Final Fantasy followers might be looking for more. Even so, at times tonelico conveys more energy and thoughtfulness than most big-budget RPGs even attempt. It's primarily for the hardcore audience, though any gamer looking for another fantasy outlet should take a look.