America - Front
America - Back
By Karl Koebke 16th Oct 2014 | 5,414 views
When Ar Tonelico Qoga was announced as the final game in the Ar Tonelico series and I eventually got to play it I was disappointed by what I felt was a less than stellar ending to an interesting and unique RPG series. Ar Tonelico 2 was marred by a lackluster localization for what was an otherwise great game, and Ar Tonelico Qoga unfortunately slowed down the battle system to a snail's pace to allow for 3D battles, so the release of Ar Nosurge - a prequel to the Ar Tonelico series - offered a chance at redemption.
Ar Nosurge is the story of the people of Ra Ciela. They destroyed their own planet and used the energy produced to migrate so that they could escape an impending supernova from the planet's closest star. Something went wrong however - something that is hinted at but never fully explained - and the planet's human population takes to the stars in a giant spaceship called the Orei. Thousands of years later a new, apparently malevolent force of fairy-like creatures called the Sharl are abducting humans. Humanity's only hope of fending off the Sharl lies in awakening ancients who have been sleeping since the time of Ra Ciela and who can use song magic to fight off the Sharl.
Thus the storyline centers around two warring forces and, although things seem black and white at first, as with most good JRPG storylines you find that no one is truly evil for evil's sake. People act with the best of intentions in their own way and conflict is usually the product of simple misunderstanding. After a short introductory period you are given control of two groups of people: Ion/Earthes and Delta/Casty. The former view events from the side of the Sharl while the latter view events from the human perspective, which is a nice set-up for allowing the player to see things from both sides in the conflict.
Ar Nosurge's narrative is definitely the high point of the game, and that's in no small part thanks to the pairing of Ion and Earthes. Ion is one of the aforementioned ancients, but Earthes is actually a robot controlled by an outside force similar to an avatar in an MMORPG. It's not often that RPGs like Ar Nosurge, which features very distinct world building, introduces the meta concept of the player, but I really enjoyed its use here. Later on in the game you find out about the issues that come with such a set-up and how Delta and Casty's storyline is related to it, and together these sections make for great storytelling. Eschewing sexual overtones (for the most part) in favour of a more serious storyline could have been a disaster but Ar Nosurge makes it work by introducing the concept of the player behind the screen into an otherwise “by the numbers” JRPG storyline.
The gameplay mechanic of diving into your partner's brain to learn about their inner feelings, grow closer to them, and weave new song magic makes a return from Ar Tonelico, albeit with some notable changes. Instead of going deeper and deeper into the mindscape of your chosen partner, Casty or Ion actually join you in traversing the mental worlds of their friends and acquaintances who they link with as well as their own. This means that you'll get to understand a number of different characters on a deeper level than you once did, but I didn't feel as compelled to delve into this part of the game as I have in the past; there's something more interesting about the concept of “genometrics” when it focuses on a handful of partners in great depth rather than offering a shallow understanding of a large number of people. I also wish that some of the production value put into the game had been devoted to these genometrics sections - they're highly interesting but could strongly benefit from the addition of voice acting.
Speaking of production values, if you're expecting much beyond a PlayStation 2-era level of graphical quality then you're setting yourself up for disappointment. On top of graphical deficiencies, there are also some notable localization issues, such as misspellings and NPC responses that seem to be completely out of order, which makes them difficult to understand. On the other hand the high quality of the soundtrack is a huge plus, as fans have come to expect from Gust, although it isn't quite as stellar as that from its spiritual predecessors.
Ar Nosurge maintains the standard combat system found in Ar Tonelico - which is all about attacking your enemies while defending a caster who is preparing song magic - and adopts a turn based structure similar to the one in Ar Tonelico 2, with each button performing a different move until you run out of attacks and must defend your songstress from rebuttal by correctly anticipating the incoming attacks. However, instead of fighting a single group of enemies at a time you fight waves upon waves until you deplete all the adversarial forces in the surrounding area. The battle ends when all of these waves are defeated, a certain number of turns are used, or your partner's song magic is activated. Activated song magic will then obliterate a number of waves based on how much you increased its power before using it. This means that if you do things correctly you can clear the area from random encounters in a single fight, which seems nice in principle but unfortunately it's a repetitive trudge in practice because of the game's difficulty level.
I found that on normal difficulty the game was mindlessly simple until you approach the end, but the higher difficulty setting is plagued by imbalance, as standard encounters become more challenging and fun but boss fights become virtually impossible to complete. Constantly switching difficulty levels is a partial solution, but you have to hope never to be caught off guard by an unexpected boss fight, otherwise you're likely to lose large chunks of progress. Having a large gap between different difficulty levels isn't unheard of or necessarily a bad thing of course, but never before have I found myself completely unable to find a happy medium.
The main storyline took me about 34 hours to complete, although there were some additional genometrics levels left that I could have played through, had I felt so inclined. If you're looking to increase your play-time the aforementioned higher difficulty level will certainly keep you on your toes but that's about it. In all, Ar Nosurge boasts a reasonable amount of content, but it's not overly impressive on the value front.
Ar Nosurge isn't the “Ar Tonelico 2 with a good localization” that I was hoping for but it's nonetheless a welcome release. The movement away from sexual humor to something more serious and meta could prove to be a positive one, but the new genometrics set-up and wildly varied difficulty levels removed a lot of the enjoyment I would've otherwise derived from Ar Nosurge - a definite case of one step forwards and two steps backwards. That said, I certainly hope Gust continue with the series - the unique setting, mental world-hopping, and strong audio presentation show that there's an excellent game just waiting to be made here. Until all of that potential is realized, however, I can only dream of the game that could be.