IGN Review of AR Tonelico 2: Melody of MetaFalica
Ar Tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica occupies an extremely niche corner of the RPG spectrum. It's a game featuring underage girls and generously-breasted heroines alike in "romantic" situations and heaps on innuendo like developers Banpresto (now a part of Namco Bandai) and Gust and publisher NIS America found tons of the stuff at Costco. So heavy is the hand that guides ATII's lewd-ish narrative and more "personal" scenes that I was frankly a little embarrassed to have anyone overhear or witness me playing it.
It's that kind of dorky. It's also borderline perverted in some cases and to be frank I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the wardrobe choices of some of the characters in the game. To put it modestly, the game is focused at a rather specific kind of gamer and in a bit of contrast to the first game, it's not the ones that like ogling a woman's chest.
There's also a bizarre dynamic in that the game spends ages on the whole process of getting to know the main female characters, exploring their particular emotional hang-ups and personality quirks with a surprisingly adult level of refinement and detail, yet despite all these little neurotic threads that are eventually woven together to make the girls "whole" again, the actual relationships hardly ever seem to progress past the point of schoolyard teasing and pointless flirting. The characters do eventually go through a metamorphosis, but the male/female dynamics almost never make that same leap.
Ah, but here's where the "but" comes into play. Ar Tonelico II is also, unequivocally, one of the best PlayStation 2 RPGs on the system. In fact, it's one of the best RPGs I've ever played. Mull that over for a second: a game, featuring scenes and situations that I was loathe to expose anyone who knew me to, is also something that I'll recommend to anyone who was a fan of the old 16- and 32-bit RPGs of yore. This is a labor of love, a downright gushing tribute to the kind of RPGs that were previous generations' bread and butter, but it's not entirely resistant to adding in a few new things here and there.
It's the game's refinement of those old bits of gameplay that make it so good, though. Random encounters? Yeah, this game's got 'em, but like other Gust RPGs, you're warned ahead of time when one is close to popping up. Better still, you can actually burn through all the encounters in an area (at least until you leave that area for the world map or a new section). Ironically, it actually encourages you to fight a little more and thus all but eliminates grinding. Turn-based battles? Sure, they're here, but split into attack and defend phases that actually include a timing-based block system during the latter. Dating game elements? Well, those aren't really in most other RPGs, but they're here by the fistful. Leveling up characters? Even those that didn't participate in the fight get experience -- in fact, they get more if they're lower leveled.
Those that played the first game will no doubt know most of this (though the battle system is new and I'll get to it shortly), but everything that game did well -- and there was plenty of it -- is trounced the second time around. Diving into the heroines' minds (sorry, Cosmospheres) is still the text-oriented, head-driven bit of dating fluff from the first game, but this time around, you're only allowed to "get to know" one character all the way through and choices made in the Cosmospheres actually have repercussions in the real game (namely the ability to learn and develop higher levels of song magic).
If I start prattling on about all the little things that have been improved or fixed, this review will likely never end, so instead I'll shift to just talking about how the roles of the maidens/girls/Reyvateils/headcases have changed this time around, because it encompasses quite a bit more. In addition to being able to Dive into the three main characters in the game (though, again, you can only commit to one and thus see her full side of things and ending), other "infected" Reyvateils can be fought, captured and then Dove into through Dive Therapy, where you can be quizzed by them and, upon answering correctly, cure their infection. These girls then become fans and end up helping enormously during a certain spell booster attack in battles.
Those battles themselves are also aided by something called "Girl Power" -- effectively an additional item slot consisting of one of these cured girls that can be attached to the main front line fighting characters that will add additional offensive or defensive characteristics, and these girls can level up their powers the longer they're equipped.
It sort of defines the more central role of Reyvateils this time around. Instead of battles breaking down into just having the girls sing in the back row until they unleash a spell and wipe out all the enemies while the actual fighters ineffectually slap at enemies, things are split into two rows. The vanguard -- up to two of your party members -- holds the front line and protects up to two Reyvateils in the back during the Guard Phase of battles. They're assigned to either the Square or X Buttons, and by tapping that button as close to the end point of a guard meter's sweet spot as possible, you'll either decrease or outright nullify incoming attacks -- and you'll give a boost to that ridiculously high-counting song magic percentage.
Of course, there's a great risk/reward set up in that a split second later, what was a perfect block is now a completel failure and the Reyvateil will take the full brunt of the assault. Often times these attacks hit both Reyvateils at the same time -- and in rapid-fire succession -- though they generally adhere to a basic set of equal or half-spaced rhythms, and the rush you'll get from deflecting five or six of a boss' most powerful attacks is hard to put into words. No, wait, here's a few: it feels badass.
Equally wicked is the way your attacks build up a synchronization meter at the bottom of the screen. See, those two singing girls will respond to one of four D-pad or analog stick attack commands. The more in sync with their requests your attacks are, the more powerful your strikes will be (eventually culminating in attacks that actually break into little anime cutscenes before delivering high-damage sequences), so it all feeds on itself. Better still, the higher-level attacks take longer to charge, so fights are a constant juggling act between higher-level attacks that do more damage and just getting in one extra weaker attack in the small amount of time that's meted out during the Attack Phase.
All these systems -- the limited encounters per area, the way all characters gain experience at the same time no matter who's fighting, the total involvement you have in shirking incoming strikes from enemies, the chains, combos and graded attack levels -- mean that each and every fight is a joy to experience... at least until the final dungeon in the game where the encounter rate skyrockets, the enemies take a bit more of a pounding and the encounter meter barely budges after fights. Plus, a ton of backtracking is suddenly introduced. Luckily, you can easily run from all but the boss fights in the game with ease.
Interestingly, the actual exploration of dungeons and towns is just as fun. There's a small amount of switch flipping in dungeons, but by and large rooting around for spare items or equipment in chests is made all the less annoying by the fact that you're not wondering if there's going to be 20 fights between bits of interaction. When you're running around towns, the NPCs actually chat to themselves with little speech bubbles that pop up when you get near, Final Fantasy XII style, and some of that eavesdropped chatter can be hilarious (guards spending their down time playing a game of cards, for instance).
Visually, the game rests rather heavily on the established look and feel of those 32-bit games it so handily piggybacks off of. The sprites are basic, and even the main characters' running animations are just a few frames swapped back and forth (though the battle animations -- especially the super attacks, are quite a bit more detailed). Even more peculiarly, the game uses sort of a faux 3D effect of layering multiple 2D planes to indicate depth.
The actual ground is mostly 3D, but it's an odd mix. It works mostly to the game's advantage, as things have more depth than a pure 2D affair, but it's hardly the kind of sophistication you'd find in, say, a Square Enix RPG. Then again, I seriously doubt Square Enix would have the balls to try a game this niche in the first place.
The game does throw a few anime cutscenes into more dramatic moments and the character portraits are detailed and really quite pleasant to look at -- a good thing considering you'll be staring at them plenty as there is a ton of text to read through -- particularly when you consider the fact that whatever maiden you end up effectively "siding" with about a quarter of the way through the game will determine an entire story arc, and the two aren't merely mirror images of each other.
Aurally, things are just as solid though it's pretty standard stuff, matching the visuals in terms of decent-but-not-overwhelmingly-amazing effort. Both the English and Japanese voices are included on the disc and for the sake of seeing how the voice cast did throughout the game, I stuck with the dub. It's not terrible, but like the game's battle sounds and chirpy/whooshy/chimey confirmation effects, it's really not going to blow you away. Purists will probably throw on the Japanese voices and never look back, which is fine, as they're really quite good. Overall, the dub is nowhere near cringe-worthy in anything but the comically emotive battle quips from the Reyvateils.
By far, though, the standout part of Ar Tonelico II's presentation is its music, which may well be the most impressive collection of tunes I've heard in a game since Chrono Cross. Ranging from a languid harmonica-driven town theme to a smattering of techno-industrial aural backdrops, to multiple choir-driven hymns that serve as the foil for almost all of the game's most dramatic moments, the music is wonderful. It's also plentiful, with multiple battle themes present to avoid getting tired of the same tunes. The soundtrack is, across the board, fantastic stuff, and if you pick up a copy of the game now, you'll get an art book and a soundtrack CD included.
Ah, but before you go racing out to pick up the game, there's a very important thing we need to talk about, so I saved it for last. There is a particular bug in the game that you'll almost invariably hit literally minutes before the final boss. I actually managed to skirt it by blind luck (and was treated to one of the more rewarding ending sequences after finishing off a pretty epic final boss), but others may not be so lucky. At some point during the game, the boss will attempt an attack that was removed from the game. It locks up, and you can kiss any progress made since the last save point bye-bye.
That this made it through both NIS America and SCEA QA departments is, frankly, inexcusable. It's a potentially game-ending bug -- and one that, worst of all -- happens right before the end of the game. I don't know the particulars of why this bug appears in the localized version of things and not the JP release, but it honestly doesn't matter. It shouldn't have been there and the fact that you may end up getting past it randomly if the boss doesn't use that move (the alternative is to power-level until you can beat it in a turn or two) amounts to a crapshoot on whether or not you can actually finish the game... most definitely a bad thing.
It exemplifies one of the other, less glaring issues I had with NISA's localization this time around. Normally NISA is quite competent, but there were a startling number of grammar, spacing and spelling issues in the text -- not to mention some dubiously translated lines here and there. I suspect it has plenty to do with the sheer amount of text in the game, but I wouldn't have minded another few weeks' delay if these things could have been ironed out. As it stands now, all the little things plus a very big thing have dragged down the score on what was an otherwise fantastic experience.
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