Sugar, spice, and that’s about it.
A funny thing happened to me when I ran into the fatal PS3 memory card glitch several hours into playing Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia. First, there was disbelief. Next, a fine rage. And then just a lingering ethical dilemma: If I write the review without finishing the game, then I’d have to part with my hardly spotless journalistic integrity. But in order to see any more of the game, I would have to retread those hours of anime juvenilia. Oh, the horror.
But that isn’t the funny thing that happened. The funny thing is this: after the disbelief and rage and ethical head scratching, I felt something I did not expect to feel at all at the backwardness of PS3 backward compatibility: disappointment.
I usually don’t use the first-person in my reviews because it tends to sound pretentious and self-important. But it’s unavoidable here because I’m telling a heartfelt story, and, by the way, check me out. I’m awesome.
For the first bit of Ar Tonelico, I was being my usual critical self, laughing at ridiculous dialogue like “Hey Misha, you grew tits!” (an actual quote from the game) and crafting gems of witty ridicule like, “Ar Tonelico’s title sounds like it’s about pirate rap—Arrr, I’m Tone Loc-o!” and “this game’s graphics are the digital interpretation of a particularly heinous fart.” The game was predictable, easy, ugly, and dumb. I secretly mouthed a wish for some act of God or Sony to end the misery.
And then my wish was granted. The PS3 sprung a doo-hickey and the game up and died. (By the way, don’t play this game on the PS3. Nothing should be played on the PS3. It’s not meant for playing.)
My wish granted, my misery ended, I had a legitimate excuse for not playing any more of the game. Why, then, did I have this panging sense of disappointment. Could I have, against all my better judgment, begun to actually care about poor 16-bit lookin’ Lyner and his band of stereotypical anime heroes?
Maybe, and that’s when it occurred to me that this wasn’t going to be the horrible F review that I had anticipated. Nope, it would be a mediocre C review. And that’s high praise for a game that looks like crap and breaks your console.
The story is a standard Japanese RPG mess. There is a lower world of people who are good at mechanical stuff, an upper world of religio-magic types, and an evil corporation. There is also Lyner, a knight of the upper realm destined to get sidetracked and stranded time and time again in his quest to save, well, it’s not always clear. Oh, there are also evil viruses that look like rhinoceroses too. Got it?
You play as Lyner, and are quickly introduced to a bunch of comrades. The most compelling of your new friends are the hot chicks. In this world, the Reyvatiels (Don’t blame me, man, I just work here) are, on the main, cute, scantily-clad anime maidens who can sing magic songs. They are also, like most hot girls you know, psycho and have tons of emotional and psychological hang-ups.
The Reyvatiels are the most powerful characters in combat, and your job as Lyner and other non-singing fighters, is mainly to protect the Reyvatiel until she can charge her song up to an enemy-clearing nuclear event. Combat seems thin on options—most characters have only a basic attack and a few unlockable skills. Combat also looks dated, the side-view screen looks like a not-flattering recreation of Final Fantasy III’s SNES incarnation.
But instead of a lot of options and strategy, combat in Ar Tonelico
focuses on maximizing the Reyvatiel song. As the Reyvatiel sings (but you can’t hear her singing, which is probably a good thing), her magic power charges up and a bar fills up on a meter at the bottom of the screen. At the same time, attacks made by the other characters raise a bar from the other side of the meter. When they meet at the middle, “harmonization” occurs and all kinds of good stuff happens—attacks become quicker, the song charges faster, and you receive more items for defeating the monsters.
It’s a quirky system, but it moves fast and the rewards are potent. On the other hand, the Reyvatiels’ devastating attacks take much of the strategy out of the combat. Lyner’s sword does little to match the oceanic power of the Reyvatiels’ magic orifices. Oh, the sexual innuendo there is so . . . so intended.
And that’s because sex is all over this game. When Lyner does good stuff for a Reyvatiel, say, gives titless Misha a power-up drink during battle, that Reyvatiel will come visit him in his tent or bedroom when he rests. They’ll “talk.” And every conversation with a Reyvatiel gives Lyner points towards his dive sessions. Diving, by the way, is a metaphor for sex.
When Misha first tells Lyner that she will let him be the first guy to “dive into her,” Lyner and I were both surprised. And then I figured out that diving, in the game, is not rompa-room animal sex. Just an analogy for it.
By diving, Lyner enters into the crazy psyche of his Reyvatiel friends and, like a Psychonaut
, untangles some of the cobwebs he finds there. However, unlike Psychonauts
, there is no action or fun here, just Lyner making his way through a series of text boxes. As Lyner builds up conversation points and rapport with a girl, she’ll let him go deeper. And that is nowhere near as hot as it sounds.
Not that we would want to see any hot coffee scenes here. The graphics are less than just substandard—they actually look bad by SNES standards. The environment looks like a two-dimensional Hollywood soundstage backdrop done with finger-paints. And Lyner moving looks like a wiggling cursor. It really looks bad, and if you’re into graphics, this sets the low end of the bar.
However, there might be an upside to this: load times are reduced to a fraction of a second. The game moves quick, especially when the text speed is set to “bam.”
And the game brings back a lot of what has been missing from new Final Fantasy
formulas—easy to manage item and equipment options. Lyner early on learns the art of “grathmelding,” which is a fancy way of saying that he can combine all kinds of items to make new ones. It’s the old alchemy formula, done handily.
The game’s RPG elements and quick pace are reminiscent of the classics, to the point of getting text-based
. The world and the towns are navigated by way of a menu—you simply select which area you want to visit and there you are. It speeds up the pace a lot, reducing travel time and unnecessary encounters. But it also removes any sense of scale. The world of Ar Tonelico
is just a long list of poorly-rendered dungeons and shops.
For a game in which singing is the major thematic element, music is rarely a factor. You can’t hear the Reyvatiel’s songs, but you can hear a crazy combat theme that sounds just like any other Japanese RPG casio-inspired combat theme until you hear some guy start rapping, in English.
Voices are decent, especially for Lyner who sounds sort of surfer dude inspired. But the female voices are familiarly horrendous. Why they get forty-year-old women to try and squeak like twelve-year-old girls is beyond me. The results are horrifying.
But despite it all, this game isn’t as bad as even next-gen RPG’s like Enchanted Arms
. Its tone is a perfect balance—not cutesy and not over-serious. The characters may be stereotypical, but there’s a real sense of self-awareness and satirical humor in them as well. Ar Tonelico
blends the quest to get laid with the quest to save the world: an American Pie
for the Pokemon
generation, on a porno’s budget.