The Ar Tonelico series is well known for its rampant innuendos, scantily clad heroines, and overarching love stories that span epic narratives. The third title in the series, Ar Tonelico Qoga: The Knell of Ar Ciel, is the first title to arrive on the PlayStation 3. Full of quirky oddities that can mainly be chalked up to a difference in culture, this game continues the trends of its predecessors but changes enough elements of the formula to set itself apart, for better and for worse. The biggest problem the game faces is that the jump into this generation of console actually hinders certain game mechanics to the point of frustration. Additionally, the handling of intricate relationships often takes a lowbrow route that misses the mark.
You control Aoto, a simple construction apprentice who finds himself swept into a plot that takes him places far removed from his humble beginnings. He falls in the path of two mysterious Reyvatiels (the game world's version of spell-casters), Saki and Finnel, and must protect them as the team strives to discover why they're being pursued by the armies of Clustania. The overall story is a compelling one. There are memorable characters throughout and the twists, changes, and shifting loyalties remain intriguing from start to finish. It follows a long arc where you'll encounter branching paths and multiple endings depending on how you choose to play out your relationships at certain key moments.
The developers created a schism in the graphical department. The main characters are well designed and animate beautifully, but the crisp animations end up creating a stark contrast between the character models and the hand-painted backgrounds. The separation makes the characters feel as though they're floating around the world and not actually a part of it. Characters will run faster than their legs are moving on screen, they'll bounce up and down stairs, they'll jump awkwardly into the air at different times, and none of it feels as though there's a smooth balance between their feet and the world around them.
Combat has been completely revamped in this new take on the Ar Tonelico world. Rather than a turn-based series of button-combos, Ar Tonelico Qoga has switched over to a real-time combat system where your party is thrown onto a flat battlefield to fight soldiers, robots and any number of odd beasts populating the world. Your Reyvatiel holds her position on the battlefield and by fighting to the beat of her singing you'll build up powerful Purge spells and Burst attacks to unleash on your enemies. While it's a bold departure from its predecessors, the new combat system is bland, repetitive and wholly unsatisfying.
The problem with switching to a real-time system is that the combat ends up feeling like button-mashing. While you need to attack to the beat, you're only using a single button to attack with your Vanguard and mashing out three-hit combos. As you go, you'll synthesize new special moves, but they're all based on adding a directional arrow to your original attack button. After completing my first hundred battles (nowhere near the end), I already found the combat system to be overly simplistic, which is not a common trait to JRPGs. Attack, protect your Reyvatiel, Purge, repeat.
The battlegrounds are loose interpretations of whatever environment you happen to be exploring at the time, but they're always a flat, round, and boring plane that doesn't add to the overall excitement. The lack of obstacles and variety feel like a wasted opportunity. Especially the more powerful variations of the Purges show off just how empty the battleground is. Beyond the bland battlegrounds, the overall world feels empty, too. You'll wander long and empty sections of futuristic dungeons where every wrong turn will throw a chest full of goodies at your feet. The town segments are the best looking, with a variation of several locations spattered across the map.
The game features three key elements that all combine to augment how powerful your characters are in various ways. First up is the aforementioned combat. Second is the ability to have intimate conversations with your Reyvatiels at any point where you can rest for the night. The third element is diving into the mind of your Reyvatiels in order to help them with emotional hang-ups, personal insecurities, and growing their person from within. The problem with these components is that combat is by far the most developed, and the conversations and diving are limited to simple two-dimensional conversations and a board-game like map. I understand the conversation elements and do like what the developers tried to accomplish by allowing you to create a stronger bond between the characters. What I don't like about the system is that while talking and diving deal with high-level emotional issues, the majority of the dialogue falls upon sophomoric giggling and embarrassment over simple kissing. Granted, this is a common trait in the world of anime, but the game truly reaches touching heights by its late stage relationship breakthroughs.
While the game offers multiple difficulty levels, none of them truly present a challenge. Characters gain levels every few battles and without grinding you'll easily hit around level 50 by the time you hit hour 20. Additionally, the diving and crafting elements don't force you to go beyond a certain point, so their inclusion becomes a task for completionists rather than a requirement for growth. You'll constantly gather equipment and items from treasure chests, so you'll never be lacking for items or money.
The game retains the same tone and level of innuendo as its predecessors. The humor, the awkwardness, and the downright horror of certain scenes remain forefront in the game. The sexual conversations, the way "diving" is described, having to remove crystals from inside characters -- all of these things will either make you smile with their sexual-quirkiness or shirk in horror from what you're seeing. But for fans of the series, you'll feel right at home with the tongue-in-cheek references found in almost every conversation of the game.
The voice acting works pretty well, though the high-pitched naivety and innocence of the female stars in the English track certainly doesn't change as they grow from an emotional standpoint. And if you switch to the original Japanese soundtrack, often the recorded dialogue is blown out to the point of it sounding like a scratchy mistake. These sound foibles are accompanied by a great soundtrack, but one where key tracks are repeated too often during story-scenes. One of my favorite aspects of moving through an epic RPG is when the music takes a similar emotional journey to the high points of the drama. But even late in the game you'll still hear simple tracks that popped up just a few hours into the game against much lesser evils. That being said, the larger confrontations do present more interesting songs as the beat to which you'll need to attack becomes more important and prominent to the battle.