The Ar Tonelico series is back for an apparently final hurrah of JRPG goodness, great music, and more than a bit of debauchery. Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel is a hallmark for the series, not only as the final game, but also the first game in 3D, and the first to get an ESRB rating of M. Is this really the dirtiest Ar Tonelico yet?
Like the previous games in the series, Ar Tonelico Qoga takes place on a planet called Ar Ciel which has become uninhabitable on the surface forcing humanity to eek out a meager living by taking residence on towers high over the hostile environment on the surface (kind of like a fantasy version of the Jetsons). Ar Tonelico Qoga follows the trend of the previous Ar Tonelico games by focusing on a new tower in an area called Sol Cluster. The main character is Aoto, a young steeplejack who gets caught up in world affairs after meeting a Reyvateil named Saki. A warring nation of Reyvateils called Clustania is on the warpath, and you quickly get caught up in a battle between Reyvateils and the humans they wish to exterminate. Love interests are no fun without choices, so Aoto also meets another Reyvateil named Finnel soon after meeting Saki. Both Saki and Finnel have some dark secrets in their pasts and turn out to be more than just random girls.
I know, pretty standard, but what’s great about the story is how it keeps from following an overly cliché “good versus evil” and instead has this group of adventurers stuck between warring factions that are both somewhat in the wrong. There are also a lot of pretty good jokes and just a couple of those scenes where it gets so suggestively sexual that, apparently, the ESRB had a fit. If you want a break from the main storyline you can always dive into one of your female partners. Just like in previous Ar Tonelico games you are able to dive into the psyches of the reyvateils in your party after earning their trust.
I personally enjoyed Finnel’s cosmosphere the most, because it is a bit darker than the rest, and you really work through a lot of issues that the poor girl has. Saki’s cosmosphere, on the other hand, was a little too bubbly for me, but it’s nice that they made them so different to allow for varying tastes. Later in the gamem you open up a third cosmosphere that has a lot more choices in how the levels can go and allows you to backtrack at any time, if you think you were headed in the wrong direction. Cosmospheres seem to take the place of side quests in Ar Tonelico, and I think the games are all the better for it: cosmospheres are more story driven than most side quests in other JRPGs, so they are more worthy of the effort put in.
Gameplay in Ar Tonelico Qoga has seen a major overhaul from the battle system of the last two games in order to allow for 3D battles and a more action oriented set up. There are no turns; instead, you are able to run around a small 3D arena and use Square to hit enemies with a simple melee attack in a three hit combo. After progressing through the game, you can gain some super moves, but these aren’t usually necessary or very powerful, until you get the final super move, which does a ton of damage, but only does damage to one enemy, unlike your Reyvateil’s spells. Speaking of your Reyvateil, although you can do melee damage and defeat most enemies slowly that way, the real goal is to protect your Reyvateil while she powers up her song magic. Song magic can take quite a while to power up, but that’s obviously because the reyvateil is wearing too many clothes. By working through her cosmosphere, you gain access to what are called purges, which are most likely the reason behind the M rating.
Purges are when your reyvateil magically takes off clothes (at least as far as I can tell it’s done by magic) in order to have more skin exposed which allows for more contact with the planet. This increases the speed that her burst percentage goes up, which increases the damage her spell will do when you eventually use it. In order to unlock a purge, each battle, you have to hit the enemy in time with the music. Luckily this isn’t left totally up to your musical ability (since I have none) and you have a visual representation of the music on the bottom of the screen. Time your melee hits with the orange bars passing by and you’ll increase the size of your Reyvateil’s heart in the bottom right of the screen. If her heart gets big enough and you’re deep enough in her cosmosphere, you can do a purge by holding one of the shoulder buttons and shaking the controller. If you time the purge right, you can see a scene of the Reyvateil getting undressed, but for the less perverted among us you can activate the purge without watching a strip scene every time.
One unfortunate change is that each Reyvateil you can choose to accompany you into battle only gets one spell. The spell's visual effects change for each purge (up to 3) and then there is also an ultimate spell called a flipsphere which does damage to all enemies on the screen and is accompanied by a short anime cutscene. Variety is provided by giving you a large number of Reyvateils to choose from, each with their own spell. This might be surprising to anyone who has read my review up to this point (congratulations on not just looking at the scores by the way). Since there are only three cosmospheres to explore, you would expect to only get three Reyvateils. This is true, but each Reyvateil actually has several different personae inside them. This means that if you tire of the flat chested clumsy Finnel, you can change her out to the curvaceous and confident nurse. This also means that you have multiple main characters to deal with inside two of the cosmospheres which makes things more interesting than dealing with the exact same girl over and over again.
Long time Ar Tonelico fans might wonder “since each Reyvateil only has one spell, what do you unlock in the cosmosphere”? Well you still unlock tiny little mostly humanoid looking creatures called Hyumas, but instead of each one being a spell, they allow the Reyvateil to give the party passive bonuses during the battle. As I mentioned before, when you purge you can press and hold any of the shoulder buttons and shake the controller to activate it, and you can assign Hyumas to each shoulder button with different passive bonuses such as increased attack power or resistance to poison. Hyumas have levels, and the higher the level, the more clothes your reyvateil has to take off for you to program it into the shoulder buttons, so even if you randomly get a high powered Hyuma early on in the game you still have some work ahead of you before she’ll trust you enough to let you program it in.
Another change I could have lived without is that item creation isn’t quite as interesting as it was in previous games. In Ar Tonelico 2, if you chose a different Reyvateil to craft with you could get a totally different item out of the deal as well as a different event/conversation while making the new item, but in Ar Tonelico Qoga, you make the same item every time you use that recipe, and the only difference is the dialogue while making it. It’s probably a minor issue to most, but I really enjoyed trying every item synthesis with each Reyvateil to see what they would make, and this system was less exciting for me.
Overall, I think the gameplay in Ar Tonelico Qoga is slightly worse than its predecessor. It ends up being more slow paced (somewhat unexpected since previous Ar Tonelicos were turn based) and unlocking new Hyumas isn’t as exciting when I don’t get rewarded with a new cool looking or hilarious spell. Ar Tonelico 2 also had different attacks the melee character could do that would give different power ups to the Reyvateil, and I think Ar Tonelico 3’s battle system could have used something similar so that you had more choice in your basic melee attacks and more strategy to think about for their use. Trying to time your melee attacks with the song was an interesting way to make boss battles different, though, since each of them has their own unique song that you have to adjust your strategy to. I also liked the cosmospheres more in Ar Tonelico 3 than 2 because of the multiple personae and the darker nature of Finnel’s cosmosphere.
The move to 3D was a good step up in presentation for the series, but it still doesn’t make it up to current standards. Simple character models and painted on facial features abound in the 3D portions of the presentation. The 2D character portraits are more detailed but I think the different emotional facial expressions with almost exactly the same pose were too similar. Often, I couldn’t even tell the difference and eventually I ignored the character portraits altogether and simply read the text. I’m not saying that the characters should have cartoonish overreactions, but when the only difference between two portraits is just mouth movement, it’s rather underwhelming. There is also some pretty poor texture work with huge pixels in battle areas, where they assumed you wouldn’t look too closely. Framerates during battles can sometimes chug but luckily the battle system isn’t nearly as dependent on good timing as the previous games, so low framerate never got me killed.
Like all of the Ar Tonelico games, Ar Tonelico Qoga has some great music, which probably comes from songs being such a focus of the story. There’s a lot of variety here but they’re all distinctly Ar Tonelico songs. Extras in the main menu include a place where you can play all of the songs you have unlocked and even read a little blurb from the composer. Voice over work didn’t fare quite as well, however, with a large portion of the main story being text only and Aoto (the main character) seeming a bit off in the more emotional events. A couple of the one-time use side characters were closer to terrible than good but the main characters (beyond the issues I just mentioned with Aoto) were all voiced well.
My review of Ar Tonelico 2 mentioned how the localization nearly ruined the game, and thankfully Ar Tonelico Qoga is a much better effort. There are still a couple of grammatical errors now and then, and one line of dialogue where the audio and the text did not match in the slightest, but it’s still much better. There are no obvious bugs in the game that I could see, and certainly nothing as bad as the game crasher from the second game. I’m happy to see NISA redeem themselves when it comes to this series.
Value has to be Ar Tonelico Qoga’s best quality assuming that you don’t quit too soon. Similar to Persona 4, Ar Tonelico Qoga has a “bad” ending that you can get in a relatively short amount of time, or a “true” ending that takes considerably longer and puts you through a lot more story elements. It only took me 23 hours to get a bad ending but it took another 12.5 hours beyond that to get the true one. Getting past the bad ending is also the only way to unlock the third cosmosphere and finish the other two so if you let yourself end with the bad ending you’ll be missing quite a lot of story. Fortunately, the difference between a bad ending and twelve more hours of fun is just a single choice that should be obvious to anyone an hour or two before the bad ending. Just know that there are four phases to the story, and if the game ends before that then you are missing out.
Choices throughout the main storyline, multiple endings based on which girl you put the most effort into, and three difficulty settings give Ar Tonelico Qoga more replay value than your average JRPG. There is also a “new game+” which gives you the option of restarting the game from three different points in the story, which I hope is something other RPG’s adopt, since many times you don’t want to have to slog through the beginning 12 hours just to get to the important choice you wanted to change.
It’s kind of sad to think that one of the kookiest JRPG series in recent memory is coming to an end. Sure, some may see Ar Tonelico as just overly sexual tripe, but even if you’re a celibate monk, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. The battle system may be slower, and I miss earning new spells, but the addition of multiple personae makes the cosmospheres more interesting and the localization effort is far better. Ar Tonelico Qoga is a fun game that I recommend to any JRPG fan. Just make sure you lock your doors if you’re easily embarrassed.