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Ar Tonelico II

Posted: Thu May 14, 2009 6:53 pm
by Stilts

Psychiatry Is Hard

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Ar Tonelico II, like its predecessor, is a fairly obscure JRPG developed by Gust and localized by NIS America. As is typical of games published by NIS (i.e. Disgaea and Phantom Brave), it features 2D sprites moving around pre-rendered 3D environments. The graphics are nice enough for what they are and the CG character artwork is certainly appealing--if a little generic at times. The pretty pictures, though, are not the point of this game, which is why I wanted to get that part of the review out of the way at the beginning. What I really want to talk about is the gameplay: a fusion of a turn-based, button-mashing battle system (a la Valkyrie Profile) and a dating sim that actually matters. Let's start with the battle system.

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The next paragraph would be SO much more difficult to write without the benefit of this screenshot.

There are two basic types of party members that can be used to fill the four battle-formation slots in Ar Tonelico II: frontliners and Reyvateils. Reyvateils, who occupy the two slots in the back, are basically mages. They are easy to kill and have no way to attack directly; instead, they charge up powerful song magic that can be used either to deal massive damage to the enemy or boost the party's survivability. The two front slots can be filled with frontliners, who don't do much damage compared to the Reyvateils, but are very good at keeping the songstresses alive. During the attack phase, the frontliners can attack by pressing a combination of a D-pad button and either X or O (depending on which frontliner you want to use). The D-pad directions correspond to certain parameters represented by the pink diamond on the bottom left of the screen. Each parameter serves a specific purpose (such as increasing the frontliners' attack levels or "synching" the singing of two Reyvateils to access ridiculously powerful Dual Song Magic), and which attacks you want to use before your turn timer runs out will depend on which parameters are more important to you at the moment. During the defense phase, the enemies will try to attack the Reyvateils. As long as there is a conscious frontliner paired with a Reyvateil, that frontliner will soak up most of the damage. To make the most of the battle system, though, you'll need good timing; every enemy attack is accompanied by one or more vertical bars moving across a box above the heads of the frontliners receiving the attack. Hitting X or O (again, depending on which frontliner is being attacked) when the bars reach a certain point in the box can greatly reduce or even negate the damage the party takes. This combination of play styles keeps battle moving at a brisk pace and makes every second involving, so battles rarely become boring. On the other hand, the later enemies and bosses like to fill the screen with fancy particle effects, which will cause the game to lag and throw off your timing. There are few things more frustrating than seeing a game-over screen simply because Gust overestimated the PS2's capabilities.

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Most of the costumes the Reyvateils can wear are designed to match their personality. So, in a bizarre way, the game is far more aware that Cloche is a tsundere than any of the characters are.

Since song magic provides most of your firepower, you're going to want to get better spells as quickly as possible. For that, you need to dive into the Reyvateils' minds (called "Cosmospheres" in the game) to unlock their potential. This is where the dating sim portion of the game comes in. It's pretty simplistic--Croix, the main character, accumulates Dive Points in battle that allow him to visit important locations in a girl's Cosmosphere and sort out her psychological problems--but has important story and gameplay consequences. Besides getting more magic, each completed level of a Cosmophere unlocks a new costume that the Reyvteil can wear to increase her stats. Yes, that's right, you can force your girls to cosplay to make them stronger. Also, once you get to the fifth level of a girl's Cosmosphere, you have to make a commitment to her to go any farther. You can only be committed to one girl, so your best Reyvateil will naturally be the one you choose to be Croix's girlfriend. Which ending you get also depends on which Reyvateil you commit to--if you commit at all. It helps that the Cosmospheres are fun to visit, as each level offers a new and sometimes disturbing peek into your singers' complex psyches.

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Oh yeah, there's also a bathing minigame. You know, just in case there wasn't already enough fanservice for you.

Though the battle system and dating sim aspects are the biggest draws, there's a lot more to Ar Tonelico II (like "equipping" members of Cloche's all-female fanclub to your frontliners) than I can concisely describe. However, I can briefly mention that the interesting story premise is marred by writing that is often mediocre and occasionally insulting to my intelligence. I also found Luca and Cloche, the main Reyvateils, to be so unlikable at times that I felt like diving into their Cosmospheres was a sign of masochism. By the time I got to the end of the game, I ceased to care about the plot and only kept playing because I enjoyed to battle system and wanted to see if the later Cosmosphere levels of my chosen girl would eventually redeem her previous actions.

Despite its flaws, if you're a fan of JRPGs, this is one of the few released in the past couple years that I'd actually recommend playing. All the new and crazy things it tries is a breath of fresh air in a genre that's stagnating. In fact, pick both Ar Tonelico games up if you can. They probably won't make it into any "Top 5 Favorite..." lists, but they'll definitely entertain you.