Suspiciously young looking girls wearing inappropriately small items of clothing, outrageous sexual innuendo and statistics galore – yep, it’s another JRPG. Few games highlight the cultural differences between Japan and the western world quite like the humble JRPG, and few are quite as Japanese as the sexually charged Ar Tonelico series.
Playing as Aoto, a simple construction worker, you will be tasked with keeping an uber cute Reyvateil (a futuristic magician) safe from the pursuing Clustanian army. To do so, you’ll have to team up with Saki and a host of other interesting characters that you’ll meet along the way in order to fight off the many, many enemies baying for your blood. While the basic set-up is certainly simple enough, Ar Tonelico: Qoga is actually home to a pretty decent story, one that takes in an impressive collection of locations, numerous genuinely entertaining characters and enough deception and double crossing to keep you interested until you reach the final credits…..not to mention more double entendres than I thought humanly possible.
As the third game in the series and the first on the PlayStation 3, Qoga, while keeping the rampant sexuality that the series is now famous for, has seen some drastic changes to the visual style and battle system. Removing the more strategic approach to battle and 2D, 16-bit inspired character art found in the previous two games, Qoga instead delivers beautiful cel-shaded character art in front of hand painted backgrounds, hi-res visuals and a battle system that is now home to real-time combat that forgoes strategy in favour of more immediate, flashy thrills.
Some fans will inevitably bemoan the new visual style, but despite some minor issues, the new look really is rather easy on the eyes. The characters are all gorgeously realized and home to some stunning animations. Attacks look great and the environments have a beautiful hand drawn look to them. The only problem is that the characters and the world surrounding them don’t quite match up. Movement in its own right is extremely natural but it rarely looks like it belongs or has any attachment to the environments built around them. Individually, everything looks very nice; it’s just a shame that the character work and environmental art feels like they are from two completely different games – they may be thematically the same, but technically they are very disparate entities. Other than that, the only other issue is one of emptiness. Everything may look nice enough but there is rarely enough of it. This issue is especially prevalent on battlefields which, while taking the vague form of your current location, are usually flat and rather boring looking….an issue of note when you take into consideration just how much battling you’ll be doing in Qoga.
Leveling up your characters is as major part of the experience as you would expect from any JRPG. The difference here is that while the core leveling is dealt with via combat, there is also the game’s unique relationship and ‘diving’ mechanics to take into consideration. By building up relationships with your teammates as you progress, the story will subsequently take unique paths based on how well you are getting on with specific members of the team, while ‘diving’ allows you to enter the often filthy subconscious of the girls on your team in order to help them with their personal problems and teen-themed dilemmas. Regardless of the often sexual nature of these issues (more silly than flat out rude), the idea of entering their minds is a great idea. Sadly, like the relationship system, it’s all far too simplistic form a mechanical standpoint and rarely goes beyond choosing the correct text response to their questions.
While these potentially solid ideas remain underdeveloped for the duration of the game, the battle system, by comparison, has clearly been blessed with a far higher percentage of the development team’s time and effort. Like its predecessors, the battle system is linked into the magical music that runs throughout every aspect of the Ar Tonelico universe. With your Reyvateil at the back of the field singing songs that build up their magical powers, you will take direct control of your Vanguard as you smash away at enemies in time to the music. As they sing, they build up a purge meter that allows for stronger attacks and abilities. Once filled, this allows you to unleash a huge attack that deals massive damage to all those unlucky enough to be in your path. The battle system is highly satisfying, but in the long term, fails to evolve as much as you would hope and with level increases coming easily, money and new items aplenty and enemies that rarely deliver a notable challenge, it soon becomes far too easy to fall into a strike, purge, repeat pattern that will essentially see you right through to the end of the game. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an entertaining battle system, it just could have done with a little more depth and challenge that encouraged experimentation.
Although the mechanics may well become a little stale towards the end of the game, one aspect of the battle system that will hold the interest of a specific type of gamer is the visual accompaniment to the girls’ purging abilities. As they increase their power and move through the three stages of purging, for reasons far too strange to be known by mortal men, their clothes magically drop off amidst visually explosive close ups of their lady bits. It’s utterly bonkers, but in the bizarre world of Ar Tonelico, feels strangely at home
Ar Tonelico: Qoga is far from perfect and will inevitably appeal to a very niche market, but if you’re willing to embrace the sexual nature of the dialogue and borderline explicit art style, you’ll find a very solid JRPG hiding underneath. The visuals are mostly beautiful, the soundtrack (which often reminded me of the Ghost in the Shell soundtrack) is ace and the voice work in both English and original Japanese is consistently solid. The combat system does become repetitive after extended play thanks to an inherent lack of challenge and the relationship and diving systems are sorely underplayed, but there is still more than enough quality and interesting ideas on display to make Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel a unique and worthwhile curio title.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 3 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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