Name: Ar Tonelico 2: Melody of Metafalica
I have a reputation around the office for being something of an RPG fan. It’s not that I’m the only writer at Gamervision who enjoys role-playing games; that’s not true at all. It’s also not the case that I only play games of this genre. However, it is a fact that I love a good RPG, so when one finds our way into Gamervision HQ and no one has called it, it usually makes its way onto my desk. This was the case with Ar Tonelico 2, which arrived from NIS America shortly after its release date last month. I never played the first game in the series, but it looked interesting enough, so I dusted off the office PS2 and popped it in. While it does bring some unique ideas to the traditional Japanese RPG formula, the dated graphics, sometimes silly plot points, and poor localization stop this from being a must-have game.
First of all, if you want to play this game, you’re going to have to be able to swallow some ridiculous realities about the world in which Ar Tonelico takes place. The game blends science fiction and fantasy, and while some RPGs have done that seamlessly (Chrono Trigger, for example), I never felt completely engaged by this one. In Ar Tonelico 2, our hero is Croix, a young soldier fighting in a civil war. Meanwhile, an epidemic called I.P.D. is ravaging the Reyvateil in the land, causing them to lose control over their Song Magic power and do extensive damage. As a result, the infected must be taken from their families and quarantined, and that dirty job falls on Croix’s hands. He also becomes responsible for protecting Cloche, a super-bitchy Holy Maiden who also happens to be a Reyvateil.
Perhaps I missed out on too much by not having played the first game, but I never felt any attachment to Croix. Of course, that also may have been because he’s such an RPG stereotype: young and androgynous, an orphan, fighting his own inner battle, and dealing with his attraction to certain female characters. Oh, and did I mention the younger female sidekick? Many of the other characters in the game are more appealing, but none of them are exceedingly memorable. The dialogue between characters is often laughable, if not uncomfortable. Seriously, try playing this game in a room full of people for a few hours; the implications will make you squirm, especially when you consider that most of the characters in the game are teenagers. The over-the-top drama and cheesy dialogue sometimes made it hard to actually take this game seriously.
The battle system is interesting, but often feels more frantic than strategic. Battles are random and turn-based, and split between quick periods of attack and defense; in that way, it’s a bit reminiscent of Yggdra Union. Instead of picking attacks, characters in your party are mapped to buttons on the controller, and only have a short amount of time to try and damage the enemy before the attack period runs out; this means a lot of button-mashing without a whole lot of thought behind it. The fighting does get deeper later in the game with the addition of Song Magic, which is a big selling point for this game. With a Reyvateil in the party, it is up to her partner to defend her while she charges up her magical powers. If she takes damage directly, she won’t be able to use her Song Magic, and you wouldn’t want that to happen.
By now, you’re probably wondering what this whole Song Magic thing is all about. Basically, the Reyvateil have the ability to develop Song Magic. It’s like regular magic, only it is powered by different harmonies. The Reyvateil can use Red Song Magic for offense, or Blue Song Magic for party support. Many fighters can be linked to a Reyvateil, and if their link becomes strong enough (by building their relationship throughout the game), the Song Magic also becomes more powerful. A relationship with a Reyvateil can be strengthened by diving into her head (in other words, a trip through the subconscious, a normal practice in this world), but this is expensive and sometimes risky. Of course, there are other, more “traditional” ways to get closer to a Reyvateil (one soldier tastefully described it as “becoming lovers”).
While the environments and art style are visually appealing for a PS2 game, the use of sprites set the game back and make it look at least two generations old. I’m not opposed to the use of Disgaea-style sprites, as this has been a staple of RPGs for decades, but when the character models look generic and lack detail, it’s hard to care about them. I would be more willing to overlook the game’s graphical setbacks if everything else about it was top-notch, but as it is, the visuals just magnify other problems I had with Ar Tonelico 2. The animated cut scenes, however, are lovely, even if I wasn’t a big fan of the accompanying soundtrack.
While it seems like I have a laundry list of complaints about this game, I actually found enough to like about it to keep playing. Yes, the story can be ridiculous, but it has its moments of being interesting, humorous, and even heartfelt. While I felt disconnected from the universe because I had not played the first game, that’s not really a fault of this one; in fact, I wouldn’t find giving Ar Tonelico a try, if I could track down a copy. The battle system, while not my favorite, adds a different kind of challenge to the game: trying to squeeze as many attacks in as possible while also defending the Reyvateil and using Song Magic. It’s not the kind of strategy I was expecting, but at least the game tried something different.
Unfortunately, there is one serious issue with this game that, to me, is unforgivable. By now, many of you may have heard that the U.S. version of the game shipped with a game-breaking glitch that will cause the game to freeze shortly before the final boss. This will happen about 80 to 100 hours into the game, and there are two ways around it: either go for it and hope you get lucky, squeezing through that particular boss fight without a problem; or you can spend enough extra hours grinding that you blow through the fight, again, hoping that you finish quickly enough that the boss doesn’t have a chance to glitch out. This is completely unacceptable in my book. NIS America never should have released a game with a problem like this, which could cause some people to never actually complete the game. In fact, there are many translation issues, like grammatical errors, misspellings, or sentences that seem incomplete sprinkled throughout the whole game, but they’re a little easier to overlook (though I do find them irritating). However, when there’s a good chance I’ll never even make it to the final boss because of a localization problem? That’s a deal breaker.
It’s a real shame, too, because NIS America has brought some great games to our shores, and I’m sure they will do so again in the future. Ar Tonelico 2 would have received a higher score if not for a technical problem that easily could have been avoided with proper testing. As is, I can’t recommend spending $40 on a game you may never get to finish, even if it is ten times as long as some single-player campaigns. If you’re still interested, give it a try, but don’t invest just yet. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by some of the phenomenal RPG releases over the past year or so, but Song Magic just isn’t enough.