If you had no idea what genre a game called Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia fell into, it’s highly likely that you’d guess that it was a JRPG. And you’d be absolutely correct. It’s a title that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if you know nothing about the game, though to its credit, unlike many other barely-pronounceable game names, its relevance does become apparent almost immediately. However, it’s still pretty much the exact opposite of the rather literal naming conventions adopted by social and mobile games these days, which tend to be called things like “City Wars” and “Farm Town” and “Slots”.
Strange name aside… yes, I’ve been playing the PS2 game Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia, hereafter referred to as Ar Tonelico to save me typing out that whole title every time. I knew literally nothing about this game prior to firing it up for the first time, but had been urged to do so by a friend over at the Squadron of Shame who has been accompanying on my journey through the oddest and quirkiest undiscovered treasures that the Japanese role-playing game genre has to offer. I promised him that the next game I played after I completed the crap out of Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2 would be Ar Tonelico, so here I am.
So what’s it all about? Well, if you live in the UK, don’t count on any help from the box or manual — the game never saw an official release in the UK despite being fully-translated into English, and instead your best bet for a copy these days is Italy, of all places. It’s rather peculiar to think of Italians playing JRPGs, but there you go.
Anyway. Ar Tonelico initially appears to be a rather straightforward JRPG with a floppy-haired, youthful protagonist wandering around the world seeking adventure on a Grand Quest to Save the World. And on the one hand, it is. On the other hand, however, it does a lot of very, very interesting things that have really made me sit up and pay attention, even only about four hours into the whole experience.
For starters, there’s a deep crafting system to explore. This is a game from Gust, developers of the Atelier series (which I am yet to try but have all the PS3 incarnations of on my shelf), and their specialism is deep crafting systems. In Ar Tonelico’s case, it takes the form of the peculiarly-named “Grathmeld” system, in which you have to find recipe cards around the world and in shops, find ingredients inside chests, shops and monsters and then fuse them all together using crystals. When you craft, you get a fun little animated sequence of your character Lyner assembling whatever item it is, then if it’s a new item he has a fun little conversation with one of the other characters about it, and a discussion often ensues about what the new item should be called. You can’t freely rename items, which is a shame, but you do get to choose between a couple of different suggestions, and the game then tracks which character named which item, which is a nice touch.
Perhaps the most bewildering aspect of the game is its battle system. For the first hour or two, it’s a very conventional turn-based “attack, magic, item” affair. But as soon as you encounter the “Reyvateil” characters, also known as Song Maidens, things start to get interesting.
Reyvateils sit in the back row of your party and don’t follow the usual turn order. Instead, they act like a mage or priest in an MMO, sitting behind the front row of fighters charging up spells (or Songs, in this case) to have various effects, while at the same time the front row is knocking seven shades of shit out of the enemy and ensuring the Reyvateil doesn’t take damage. A strong focus is placed on the party’s “harmonics” with the Reyvateil, with this represented by a bifurcated horizontal meter at the bottom of the screen. The left half of the bar fills when the front row lands successful attacks and drops when they take damage. The right half of the bar fills as the Reyvateil chants to charge up a spell. Should the two halves meet, the whole party goes up a “Harmonic level”, which means the Reyvateil’s spellcasting speeds up and the front row gain access to stronger attacks. The Harmonic level at the end of the battle also determines what rewards you receive.
There’s another consideration in that system, which is the cap on the Harmonic level. At the start of each battle, you can only level the Harmonics up to 2; to increase the cap, you have to let the Reyvateil unleash her magic and deal enough damage for a separate bar to fill and open up the next level cap. The trouble is, at least early in the game, most enemies are absolutely obliterated by the Reyvateil’s Song Magic, so you’ll sometimes find yourself deliberately pulling your punches a little in an attempt to earn some higher Harmonic levels. It’s an interesting system that will doubtless come into its own in more difficult battles later.
By far my favorite part of the game so far, however, has been the “Dive” system, where the protagonist Lyner is able to enter the subconscious of a Reyvateil and learn more about her. A Reyvateil’s subconscious is split into ten distinct levels, each of which is made up of a number of different locations. Lyner must spend “Dive Points” earned through battle — which represent the trust the Reyvateil holds in him — to trigger various events, with revelations and strange happenings often unlocking new spells for the Reyvateil to cast in the real world. These vary from simple attack magic to “green magic” spells which can be cast outside of battle, usually to solve puzzles.
In gameplay terms, it’s an elaborate means of unlocking abilities. But in story terms, it’s a way of literally doing a deep dive into a character and discovering their innermost secrets. The scenes I’ve seen already have been heartfelt, interesting and help make me interested in the character. I’m very intrigued to see how they continue as the game progresses, as it’s clear that the whole point of the “Dive” system is to help the Reyvateil come to terms with repressed memories and emotions in a vaguely similar manner to Persona 4′s “Midnight Channel” — or perhaps just to peek in on some embarrassing things they’d rather forget about.
At four hours in, that’s about all I can say so far, but I’m enjoying it a great deal. It looks super-dated — it’s in 4:3 aspect ratio running on the PS2 and it pretty much looked like a PS1 game in the first place — but none of that matters to me. It is worth noting that it has an astonishingly good soundtrack, and that the English dub appears to be handled by the entire cast of Persona 3, which is fine by me — if a little odd to hear voices I recognise playing characters I’m less familiar with. (If you’re wondering why I’m not playing with the Japanese voices, which are also included on the disc, it’s because the FMV sequences in the game use the English voices, and it would be somewhat jarring to go back and forth between the two. The game also isn’t fully-voiced, either, so it doesn’t make as much difference as it would have in, say Hyperdimension Neptunia mk2.)
I’ll be sticking with this one, then — though I may well be splitting my time between it and the Gamecube version of Fire Emblem when that eventually arrives. (The new 3DS version isn’t out here until April, and I’m told I should play the Gamecube version before the Wii version that I scored for a song when Game was in trouble a while back.)