The Good: Beautiful music, unique battle system, deep characters and story, wonderful anime cut scenes, limited random battles in dungeons, includes Japanese voice track
The Bad: Last 20% of the game is drawn out and frustrating, English voices are abysmal, drab 2D sprites, not enough anime cut scenes, not enough spoken dialog, a few game breaking glitches
I first have to say that this is a review coming from someone who particularly doesn't care for, or can stand JRPG's. I forced myself to play this, and I am very glad I did. Ar Tonelico II strays from the typical JRPG battle system and story with a little sexually confused boy trying to save some generic fantasy world with generic fantasy characters. You play as an entire team of people whose balance of Ar Tonelico (the world they live in) is resting on two Song Maidens. The game is full of political schemes, betrayals, and deception. These two maidens must also get to know each other more before they can sing Metafalica and bring about paradise to Metafalss. The characters are very well designed and because of how the story is developed you get to love these characters more than you probably would in any JRPG.
The main design behind the characters and story is getting to know their deep dark secrets. This is done through Diving into Reyvateil's minds at a Dive Shop. There are different levels of their Cosmosphere that you must explore, and these are played through dialog. You need Dive Points to trigger certain events, but this is where you really get to know the characters. After completing each level you will unlock new Song Magic which is essential for battle. Without Song Magic you will not get anywhere in the game. You can also unlock new costumes for the three Reyvateils that will increase their stats. The Diving gets really deep into the character's minds and actually is quite interesting. These are some very deep and well-developed characters with some serious issues that make you even question your own. There is also the Infelsphere which is where two of the three Reyvateils need to learn to understand each other and get out their deepest darkest secrets and thoughts about each other out (the two depend on how you play the story).
The main protagonist, Croix, is caught in a love triangle between these two Song Maidens and the third Reyvateil. There's sexual tension between them, which can be awkward in the game, but by the end there's some pretty good scenes that will tug at your heart-strings. Overall, the story is well-developed, deep, and intelligent and very self-aware. When you Rest at saves you can talk to the Reyvateils and bring your relationship closer which will unlock different levels of their Cosmosphere that you can dive into. Of course the game can't just wing it on story, so let's get to combat.
The game uses mini-games during battle. There are two phases: Attack and Defense. When you attack you have to use the D-pad along with each of the two characters assigned attack button. This will help your Reyvateils sing better depending on what directional attack you're using. There's a meter that will show their desires for what direction they want. You're banking on your Reyvateils song magic to do the most damage. You are just whittling down health and protecting them while they charge. There are different phases of each song tree that do different attacks. Thankfully there are also healing songs that you can use as many times as you want, but when you switch to another song in the same attack phase the points will carry over so you don't have to charge again. I found myself charging a song tree as far as I could go and then unleashing the attack and then using a healing song. This also reduces the amount of potions and healing items you need to use which removes that headache that most JRPGs have. This makes combat exciting because you aren't just mashing X until the enemy dies. Those attack buttons have meters on them and you have to press the button when the green line goes by otherwise you won't defend your Reyvateil and they will take damage. They are fragile and can't take much so you must be on your guard and press that attack button quickly. If you get a perfect rating you won't take any damage! But this is hard and requires precise timing. Depending on which two Reyvateils got along and went through the Infelsphere they can synch during combat and bring out devastatingly powerful dual song magic. This can only be done towards the end of the game, but it also requires doing the same attacks with your Vanguards so the girls synch.
Other than that the combat is pretty straight forward. Each Vanguard's attacks will increase in levels during fights so you can do more deadly attacks. The main issue I have with JRPGs are random battles. These usually keep me from completing them, but Ar Tonelico II skirts this by making random battles limited. There is a meter that goes down as you do each battle. Each dungeon only has about 10 (until the last dungeon which is infinite), but it also turns from blue to flashing red that will indicate you are about to get into a fight. This lets you explore dungeons freely without getting frustrated. Once that meter runs down there are no more battles until you leave the dungeon. Even the map system is very useful when most JRPGs don't even have one.
Of course there are some side things you can do like synthesizing items with shop owners. As you advance the story you will get new recipe cards from them, but unlike most games this isn't just menu driven. When you synthesize it brings the characters together more and dialog plays through. Some times the item may not even be what was on the recipe! After a while you can go back and try again to improve on it. Lastly, you will run into I.P.D. victims in dungeons which are high level Reyvateils that you have to battle. If you can beat them you can do Dive Therapy on them which will give you Girl Power that can raise your stats quite a bit. You can even Dualstall during saves and level up your Reyvateils by doing onsen baths! You find Dualithnode crystals and but them in this bath and the girls will absorb them. It is not recommended doing solo baths because the effects aren't that strong.
The game isn't perfect though. The very last dungeon (Sol Morta) is a long frustrating nightmare with endless random battles and too much backtracking. The visuals are disapprovingly 2D and not very good-looking. During dialog characters pop up with different facial expressions, but there are some anime cut scenes, but not nearly enough. There's even a lack of spoken dialog, but at least the game includes the Japanese tracks. The English voices are hilariously bad and make you want to tear your ears off. There's also a few game breaking glitches as well as typos. The last 20% of the game is just really tough and the game stops giving you a sense of direction. This last 20% really disappointed me and was kind of drawn out and long-winded. If it weren't for these issues I would give this game a higher score. One plus for me is the amazingly beautiful music in this game. The Hymnos are beautiful and I loved them so much I downloaded the songs and listen to them often.
Overall, Ar Tonelico II breaks the JRPG mold with unique gameplay elements from combat, to leveling up Reyvateils via baths, and synthesizing. The music is beautiful, and the story is deep with political intrigue and revealing the deepest darkest secrets a person can hold. However, that are some issues that hold this otherwise wonderful game back. If you hate JRPGs I recommend giving this one a shot.