Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia is the latest 2-D RPG from the developers at Gust, who are mostly known for the long-running Atelier series. The game was released in North America by NIS America, over a year after the Japanese release. Originally scheduled for a much earlier release date, the game was delayed several times due to NIS America not realizing just how much dialogue needed translating.
Ar Tonelico takes place in a unique fantasy world centering around a massive tower called *shockgasp* Ar Tonelico. At the base of the tower lie the Wings of Horus, a land where the common folk live their puny little lives. Much farther up Ar Tonelico is the holy city of Platina, where our whiny protagonist, Lyner Barsett, resides. As an Apostle of Elemia, Lyner's job is to fight off viruses invading Platina.
Soon, however, Lyner crashes his airship (why does that always happen?) and lands on the Wings of Horus. He comes to meet two cute beings known as Reyvateils. This strange race consisting of only attractive young girls is a vital force in Ar Tonelico's world, as they are the only capable bearers of Song Magic.
The shy, traumatized Aurica, and the spicy loli, Misha, are the two Reyvs fighting for Lyner's, and thus the player's, attention. You must make a choice between the two at one point, so I suppose there is a tiny element of dating simulator here, but it certainly isn't prominent.
This branching point, among others, create seven possible endings. The girls' personalities, as well as the two paths, are different enough to warrant playing the game more than once, despite the lack of a "New Game+" option.
Other characters include the stereotypical lone gunman Jack, the unsocial, chainsaw-wielding female mechanic Krusche, and the holy knight Radolf. These party members don't have many lines or really much depth, because most of the narrative attention is (understandably) given to the Reyvateils.
As you explore Ar Tonelico's varying environments, you will, just like in any RPG, have to engage in combat with assorted foes. The battles are random (ie you don't see the enemies on the field), which is, as usual, annoying. A nifty little encounter feature helps make up for this, however. A green bar appears on the lower-right corner of the screen whenever fiends are present. As battle draws near, the bar begins flashing red. After each encounter is complete, the bar is drained a bit. When it empties, you no longer have to fight monsters in the current area (unless you exit and re-enter). This aspect helps lessen the tedium of fighting countless battles in massive areas, in that you can actually feel progress being made with each fight.
The battles themselves take place with a party of four: Three normal combatants plus a Reyvateil. Reyvateils can do nothing but sing Song Magic, which works by charging the magic to a certain point, then using it. Song Magic itself is really just a fancy name for standard RPG spells (attack magic, healing, and stat enhancers), except for the charging aspect. Most Song Magic is extremely potent, and can obliterate foes in one shot if charged long enough. This means the Reyvateils are the focal point of battles, and the flow of conflict largely depends upon them.
Combat is generally extremely easy and doesn't have much depth. For example, each normal character can learn only four skills throughout the entire game, and even most of those are entirely useless. Dependence on the Reyvateils is made even greater by this.
Each fight is also overly lengthy, partly due to the irritatingly long animations for both charging and using Song Magic. You'll often have the urge to forget about Song Magic and simply use brute force, entirely because of those damned animations.
However, I don't believe the battle system was meant to be the crowning achievement of this RPG. Its main appeal comes from the relationship Lyner forms with each of the cuties, and much of this relationship is formed through the well-publicized Dive System. Basically, you can visit Dive shops, which are present in most towns, and "dive" into each girl's mind.
Diving is the only way to learn new Song Magic or stat-enhancing costumes for the girls, so it very much serves a functional purpose. Regardless, the main attraction is learning more about the girls' thoughts, feelings, and memories. The Reyvateils have compelling personalities, so diving is always fun and never a chore.
As Ar Tonelico comes late in the PS2's lifespan, some might expect dazzling or incredible visual artistry. This certainly isn't the case, but what is given is more than acceptable. Sprites are large and clear, and the world is detailed. The 3-D world map looks rather rough, but you won't be spending much time there anyway. The game looks nice and purty overall, just don't expect something on the level of Odin Sphere.
Most of the music here is quite good, with the several beautiful, angelic hymns sung by the girlies as particular high points. Each Reyvateil has a unique voice and all are lovely. I could live without the execrable rap interludes present in a few songs, but they at least aren't quite as mind-numbing as one might imagine.
NIS America thankfully gives gamers the choice between the original Japanese voice acting and an English dub. I thank them for consistently giving their consumers this choice.
Sadly, though, the Japanese acting is serviceable, but not extraordinary. Most of the seiyuu sound as if they are phoning this one in, and much of the emotion in their voices sounds forced. An exception is Kanako Sakai, who is very convincing as the pseudo mother figure Shurelia. The English dub was poor judging from the very small sample I listened to.
The game should last a good 30-50 hours, subject to how much diving is performed. Of course, you can at least double that total if you plan on taking all paths and viewing all endings.
Ar Tonelico is highly recommended to 2-D fans, general RPG fans, or fans of anime-style hijinks. To the rest of you, well, give it a rental and see what you think.