Fighting Monsters in the Tower of Songs

Combat in Ar Tonelico is fairly novel, and it is a bit of a shame the designers did not do more with what they had.

Your party moves between screens on a dungeon map and enters random battles. This is actually a touch frustrating, as many games have moved past this system. I was actually hoping for something like SaGa Frontier, with the interesting and bizarre sprites appearing on the map; it would have solidified that nostalgic feel, and could have lent even more beauty and depth to the world by giving the empty-looking dungeons a populated feel. The one novel thing about the dungeon maps is the bar on the bottom right corner of the screen. It gradually shifts from blue to red, and the likelihood of encountering monsters increases as it changes color. After every battle, the bar decreases. Once the bar is emptied, no more monsters appear. This would be really interesting if only it emptied faster; in some dungeons, it just won’t empty at all. And its emptying rate doesn’t seem dependent on the difficulty of the monsters; beside that, if you return to an old area, you have to fight the weak monsters still. All of this could have been avoided with just a flag that prevented those monsters from spawning again. Also, there is no real benefit to emptying the bar, other than that the monsters no longer appear. It would be cool if you got some special prize, or that it unlocked a secret monster in each area. But there really is nothing.

Battles themselves can contain up to four party members. Normally, you will have three party members whom constitute the front row, and a fourth party member whom acts as the back row. There are five different party members whom can fill the front slots, and three whom can fill the back. Their roles are distinct. The front row members do regular attacks and protect the back row character, while the back row character supports the front row and can lay down devastating attacks. It is akin to having three fighters and a mage. The back row can be targeted only by special attacks, and in such a case, the front party members need to use a command to Guard the back row from damage, which in turn enables them to unleash a counterattack. It’s cool, but also a bit trite. You will always be able to effectively guard and counterattack. There isn’t much skill to it, unless you somehow let your party be so badly injured that the enemy could kill your front row characters if they do Guard.

The really novel thing is the Song Magic which the back row characters can use. The casters, called Reyvateils, choose from a limited selection of spells. The list includes a bunch of attack spells, called Red Magic, all of which appear to be non-elemental, and the only difference being their MP cost, their appearance, the rate at which they power up, and how much damage they can do. You can also cast Blue Magic, which are support spells. These can improve your elemental resistance/offense, your party stats, heal, revive, or absorb damage. Blue Magic seems to be the most tactically-sound option. Ironically, you can do more damage overall with Blue Magic, since you can make your front liners’ turns come up more frequently, and have them do more damage when that happens. Yes, Red Magic can become more powerful by attuning your party to an enemy (Just keep attacking an enemy, and a number will rise from 0 to 3 as you attack it), but you can still be more devastating with a good Blue Magic set-up. In either case, the longer a Reyvateil holds Red Magic, the more powerful the pay-off when the spell is unleashed, and the longer a Reyvateil holds Blue Magic, the higher the party’s stats rise. Reyvateils have an MP bar that drains, but by end game, the drain is negligible, and it refills very quickly when a Reyvateil is not casting.

The system would be a touch bland there, but it goes deeper. Grathnode Crystals, basically upgrades, can be installed into Reyvateils to power up spells, or anybody’s equipment, in order to power up the characters’ stats. Grathnode crystals have a rating of 1-4, which corresponds to the slots in a given spell or item. A higher slot can hold lower slot items, but not vice-versa, and there is only one slot for each. Furthermore, they have different ranks, from C to S, which determine their quality and overall usefulness. This has a variety of effects: for any character, you can have them add status effects to their attacks, and improve their base stats. For Reyvateils, you can also add more potent effects to their spells, other buffs, and make casting cheaper. This system makes characters distinct from each other, such that one character might specialize in having a massive attack, with every element doing 100% again of the base damage. Another character could specialize in crits. So forth.

The final major feature of combat is the series of bars at the bottom of the screen. A red bar grows right right to left, depending on how long a Reyvateil casts Blue Magic, or the devastation wrought by the Red Magic. Red Magic is much better at filling the bar, and even a very weak Red Magic spell will do so quickly. Did the designers mean for it to be like this? Probably not, because it means that Red Magic isn’t meant for doing damage: just for filling the bar. Anyway, on the left side of the bar is an empty circle. The circle feels when two conditions are met: the red bar is filled, and the bar below it is filled. The bar below the red bar consists of two bars meeting: a blue and a purple bar, from left and right respectively. These represent the front liners’ attacks increasing the blue bar, and the Reyvateil’s casting increasing the purple bar. When they meet, and the red bar is maxed, the circle is filled with a red dot, and another empty circle appears. This causes the Reyvateil to cast faster and unlocks better attacks for the front liners. You can fill up to three circles in a battle, at which point the party is devastating. This is not hard to do. Enemies can try to counter this by attacking, which drops the blue bar and may even remove a circle (which can then be filled again, but without the red bar requirement). However, their attempts tend to end in failure. The payoff is that the battles become easier, and the party gains more and better items when they fill more circles. Every enemy has guaranteed item drops of four grades, corresponding to the number of circles you have filled +1.

So, it is a complex system, but easy to understand and use. Once the player understands it, most battles become far too easy to win. Boss battles turn into stand-offs where the party just stands there, waiting as the Blue Magic causes the bar to rise and their stats to increase, occasionally attacking, until everything is maxed out, then finishing off the boss immediately.

And the enemies suck. Really, there are about eight different enemy models in the game, not counting bosses. I understand reusing sprites, but it is ridiculous how few monster models there are in this game. In this, different but similar models must be counted as the same. There is the bird. Then there is the somewhat bigger bird. And there are four different models of those two birds, which are really almost exactly the same bird anyway. It is trite, and end game battles do not offer much variety.

The greatest flaw of the battle system is that they never take full advantage of its promises. There are not monsters whom just steal MP. No monster acts so quickly that the party needs to have buffs up to effectively Guard the Reyvateil. There is rarely any need to switch between Songs. There is really only one type of Red Magic, and almost all enemies react the same toward being hit by it. Battles encourage party members to waste turns doing nothing in order to get the best result. Enemies can’t drop the current efficacy of the spells. It is a system that, were it more fleshed out, could have been amazing: as it is, it is just novel.


A Gay Man Plays Ar Tonelico

I am gay. This is a fact which only a few of my regular readers knew until now, although some of you might have pieced it together by some of the comments I make about video game characters. This same fact was unknown to Xerain, whom recommended to me Ar Tonelico, and Lumice, whom actually lent me the game. So it is that my reaction to this game, which is half straight dating sim, isn’t what they expected.

Oh, I can still play the game. The other half is definitely RPG, and I do so enjoy the combat system. However, there is no way around the dating. It’s integral to the game’s combat system. So, before I can explain to you how being gay colors my vision of this game, I need to explain how fighting works.

Okay, Reyvateils. Half-human, half-machine, except the machine part doesn’t get discussed so much and they don’t seem to have much metal going on anywhere. A fact you will notice because you get to see a couple Reyvateils half-naked. Oh, fan service… do you straight guys even care anymore, or do you just visit Gelbooru to get something better? Anyway, Reyvateils aren’t humans, even though they look practically identical. Their special deal is song magic. Their singing can tap into the power of a monumental tower that functions like a battery and HDD in one. By channeling this power, they can unleash devastating magical attacks or heal and protect their allies/masters.

And it’s usually the latter. You see, Reyvateils are controlled by either the Church of the Trio of Elemia or the Tenba, the EEEEEEEVIL secular people. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about the church, which is run by a fellow whom actually calls himself Bishop Falss. Both groups attach Reyvateils to groups of warriors whom carry out missions. Tenba is the worst in this regard because they have a practically S&M relationship between the Reyvateils and the people (it appears to be all men) whom control them. They basically force the Reyvateils to fight for them, pushing them to their limits and letting them burn out as they channel too much power. Then they discard them.

Why do the Reyvateils suffer this? Well, they will die if they don’t. Most Reyvateils can’t live past 20. However, there is a medicine which can fix this, but only the Church and Tenba have access to it.

All of this is beside the point of how the dating figures into combat. See, Reyvateils can learn how to sing more powerful songs. However, they need to become increasingly attached to one person. Having a good rapport, being nice, and all that – that takes you only so far. No, for the real power to be unleashed, somebody needs to Dive into the Reyvateil. To do this, you go to a Dive Shop. It is chain of locations run by squat fat men whom leer greedily and chuckle as they ask into which Reyvateil you want to dive. It’s impossible to not feel that they get something out of this. Anyway, through a process that isn’t quite explained well, they apparently get hooked up into a machine, and somebody enters their mindscape.

Their mindscape is their inner selves, the layers of their being. It is an interesting way to peel back the layers of their personality and get to know the characters better. It is also increasingly intimate, and anyone willing to dive more than a couple layers better be willing to make a commitment to the Reyvateil in question. It is heavily implied that the intimacy begins as deep friendship but shifts to romantic, and the deeper that the player dives, the more romantic the scenes tend to become. Do note that in order to even visit these minscapes, Lyner must have regular conversations with the Reyvateils, either in his room or their room, in private. There are about 100 of these conversations, and you will likely see at least 50% of them if you want to unlock every level of the mindscape.

Lyner needs to Dive into the Reyvateils whom join the party. By doing so, he unlocks the aforementioned magic, as well as new costumes that give the Reyvateils some impressive stat upgrades. However, he also has to help them solve their inner turmoil: relationship issues, fears, doubts. Many of the scenes involve them hitting on Lyner, whom has the density of a coconut shell coated in steel. He is somehow surprised when the Reyvateils inner selves, in one instance each, pounce him and try to take him by force then and there. By the way, these are the scenes in such games that are always the most embarrassing for me to play. Half-naked girl, whatever, but it’s hard to explain out of context to somebody. While I don’t feel the need to defend my sexuality, I must admit that the situation as I imagine it would require some explanation to sate the confusion of my friends.

“Wait, why’re you looking at a screen with a half-naked chick? Aren’t you gay?”
“Yes, but… getting her half-naked is making my party more powerful.”

Which raises the question as to why I picked up a game with a heavy dating sim in the first place, and I haven’t even gotten to Installing yet.

Installing is a metaphor for sex, and a blatantly obvious one. See, this is a very special thing you can do with a Reyvateil, but only once you have built up a very strong relationship with her. They warn you… it’s their first time. They’ve never let anybody else Install in them ever before. But, Lyner assures them, he will be gentle with them. And they are willing to trust him, even though they’ve heard it is painful the first time. Then, you hold her close and put a rod into her hole.

In her back or between her breasts, depending on which Reyvateil it is. And the rod is any of the grathnode crystals you have accumulated. But don’t worry; Lyner promises they will find less painful ways to do it after the first time.

And all I can think about is, why can’t Lyner Install into Radolf instead? But I’m not here to write Lyner/Radolf fanfiction for you tonight.

So, yes, I find myself skipping much of the dialogue in the romance scenes. I like the characters and want to connect with them, but I’m not particularly interested in their straight romance. I’m not the target audience for that. To me, it just detracts from the game that I expected to play. The main game itself is still entertaining, although I cannot say whether I would play any of the game’s future installments. Particularly the third, where the girls get more powerful as their clothes disappear.

Mind you, the game is still fun. The Song Magic system, which I shall outline in greater detail later, makes every combat interesting. The plot is serviceable. The music is awesome. The lag has been… bearable. And I suppose I can live with the romantic stuff if it means I can kick the villain’s ass by summoning a gigantic tree or the manifestation of hopelessness and despair.

Fusion and Disarray

The natural world is meshed with the technological world. Dialogue boxes resemble monitor screens, but the bars beneath character portraits look runic. Much of the music has a tribal feel to it. Characters wear medieval armor, usually a variation of Feudal plate, but it all has a stylized technological edge to it; notice the strange little wires on Lyner’s armor. Beautiful forests and ruins are suspended in mid-air, via wondrous technology. The most stunning feature of the world, the tower Ar Tonelico, is a tremendous shaft of metal, surmounted with tremendous brass instruments and a wonderland castle town that one might find in a fairy tale. Even the viruses fall into this theme: the first virus seen is a program which has taken on the shape of a wolf.

My favorite example, however, is the way the landscape flows into the buildings. One screen, you are walking along a pipeline. The next, you are standing on a dirt road in front of a country home.

If you have ever played SaGa Frontier, the graphics of Ar Tonelico should make you feel nostalgic. They’re the same, just cleaned up. I’m almost certain that the same graphics design artist worked on it. Notice the almost-two-dimensional way that everything looks, the angle of creatures on the battlefield, the designs of monsters. It makes me want to play that game again, and wish they would rerelease it. The game is awesome, but unfinished and could use a new coat of paint.

I do so love a complicated battle system. I’m going to elaborate on this later, but I’m happy to say that combat is more than just a “press A” turn-based affair.

I don’t get why security is so lax around Platina. In fact, a lot of things about Platina don’t make sense. Okay, there is the Altar of Apostles, the place from whence viruses, which destroy the world, emerge. Yet they don’t have any weaponry turned toward the altar, don’t have any guardians on full-alert, and none of the knights, whom are dedicated to protecting the world from the viruses.

They also don’t have failsafes for more powerful viruses. See, there are hymns, which are crystals with great magical power. One of these hymns would be awesome; it could defeat the leader of the viruses which emerge. Yet it has been rotting in some easily-accessed ruins for whom knows how long? Lyner actually has to go on a quest to find this thing, while the world is endangered. The virus is actually taking over tower guardians and trying to kill people.

I don’t know what they were thinking with Platina, or if they just got lazy. You start out knowing almost nothing about the people, the environment, and the situation. You’re in Lyner’s shoes, but you don’t understand his perspective very well, so you bumble around for a lot of the game, confused as to what exactly is happening in his head, how important he thinks the situation is, whether he finds certain things strange or unusual, and so forth. There is just no context to refer back to in regards to Lyner’s impressions of the Lower World.

Why is there so much lag in this game? I wonder if the programming is shoddy. It lags every fight, during a lot of the dialogue, when opening and closing menus; everywhere. The game is playable, but this is very irritating. I wish I could play it on my PS3, but they did a foul job with their save programming, so my memory card would be corrupted. I have to play on my PS2 (original model!). Hopefully, I can put together the money for an HDD hook-up so I can make it run quicker. That will also help with some other games too, so it is a wise investment.

I wonder whether some of the sound effects are missing from this game. During the action-packed [i]media res[/i] intro, doors opened and closed, people hit the ground, and they didn’t make any noise. How is it that a game lauded for its excellent sound production could [i]not[/i] have any sound for these things?

Why must the English VAs suck? Granted, I’ve only heard one of them, Lyner, during the airship crash scene (because you cannot have the Japanese vocals with subtitles during those *grumble*). He sounded terribly bored by his daring escape, and even when he was shot out of the sky and the airship was crashing, his scream sounded less than enthusiastic. So, judging by that lackluster performance, the rest of the cast will be worthless to me in English. I’m keeping the Japanese VAs.

And what’s with the animation anyway? It’s sub-par. Maybe I’m just spoiled on some of the latest series, but the animation is a bit choppy; they didn’t use a lot of frames. Also, their art for dragons is terrible. They look like they ought to be in a kids’ cartoon, singing songs and playing hide-n-go-seek.

After Lyner crashes, he has a flashback to, literally, five minutes ago. What’s the point of that? I think we all remember it.

Also, what’s with their religion’s hierarchy in the Lower World? Cardinal Radolf is doing missionary work while reporting to BISHOP Falss. I think somebody got their terms confused.