I’ve been playing Ar tonelico with a friend, and I’m surprised at how good it is. It apparently wasn’t a popular game, but it’s not bad at all. I admit that the plot is nothing to write home about and the characters’ interactions can be horribly stereotypical (particularly in the dating sim way), but the game is so darned fun.
For one thing, although the battle system does have something of an “old routine” to it, the way I have to strategize for the battles is completely different. At one point I was delighted to find myself up against enemies who couldn’t be hurt by bladed weapons, because it made the battles so much easier. In general, I find myself negotiating between building up three different meters with different types of attacks, and trying not to kill the enemies too soon.
There’s also a fun item creation and exchange system, which makes up for the fact that my heroes are always broke. Besides synthesizing items from various unlikely components, there are characters who sell equippable enhancement crystals, and characters who will find treasures in exchange for them. Juggling my inventory isn’t just a matter of accumulation, but of deciding which items to give up in order to synthesize other ones. The items are tagged with funny commentary from the main character, too, which keeps inventory sorting and management from being boring.
The most novel part of the game, though, is exploring the insides of the characters’ minds; it’s fun to watch the characters grow and resolve their conflicts. At first all of the characters seem like tremendously banal stereotypes, but through the dive system they are revealed to be more complex, individual characters, who change more than the average RPG character does over the course of a game. Even the hero develops, and learns to think rather than blindly swinging his sword.
I admit a fondness for the fantasy/futuristic setting of so many RPGs, and this game is drowning in it. Magical beings, artifacts and spells are more often than not conflated with computers, peripherals and programs. Humans can catch computer viruses, especially if they’re good at magic. And, of course, there are airships. Unfortunately, although the worldbuilding has been well-thought-through, the plot events haven’t, leaving enormous gaping holes of the form “Why can’t the characters just do X?” all over the place. A world where too many things are possible is a world where the heroes can’t get stuck on too many obstacles, and the storywriters weren’t very careful about plausibility, or even about giving the characters realistic reactions to the demands of their quest.
At the very least, it is a pretty game. The individual town backgrounds are lovely, but even lovelier is the soundtrack, which is what interested me in the game in the first place. I would have some reservations about recommending the game, particularly to someone who’s looking for a solid, interesting plot and unique characters, but I would have no reservations urging them to buy the soundtrack. The choral music is epic and uplifting, bright and intense, and the lyrics are written in a fictional language that was made up just for the game, which gives it an ancient, traditional feel. Yet it isn’t somber; it’s catchy and swift, with an active energy behind it. Further, unlike some RPG choral music, it isn’t heavy-handed nor meant to intimidate; it’s light, delicate, and inviting (perhaps appropriate given the dating sim aspect of the game). If there’s one thing about this game that’s worthwhile, the soundtrack is it.