High atop the Tower of Ar Tonelico, the inhabitants of the city of Platina live a life of peace and technological advancement- at least until the day when they are beset by attacks from mysterious viruses. On the order of Lady Shurelia, Lyner Barsett, a young knight of Elemia, is sent to the lower world to retrieve the Hymn Crystal Purger, an item necessary for the defence of the city. When Lyner’s airship crashes, however, he is forced to ally with the people of the less developed lower world in an attempt to find both the crystal and a way back home.
Created by Gust, the company responsible for the addictive Atelier games, Ar Tonelico is just what you would expect from them- a mixture of RPG and visual novel elements with a healthy dash of alchemy thrown in for good measure. Although it is destined to always be a niche title, the addictiveness of Ar Tonelico should not be underestimated.
The World of Elemia
In overall structure, the world of Ar Tonelico is much the same as any other RPG, consisting of a world map with selectable towns and dungeons, more of which unlock as the game progresses. The world of the game is split into two parts- the surface world (aka the Wings of Horus), a typical low level fantasy setting, and the more technologically advanced tower of Ar Tonelico, which stretches up into space. Due to the demands of the story, areas you’ve already visited often become unavailable for long stretches, or have to be accessed through roundabout dungeon routes.
Rather than being one continuous whole, towns and cities are presented as menus from which you can pick a particular shop or street. The opportunities for shopping are extensive in towns, whilst important NPCs such as Grathnode Crystal seller Spica or item hunter Lyra are always worth visiting for the services they provide.
As with Atelier Iris 2, battles in dungeons are random, but limited by a gauge that empties out as you fight battles and resets whenever you leave an area. Once again, this feature is welcome, as it ensures that if you’ve been running around for ages, you can retrace your steps without having to worry about tedious levels of combat. The dungeon map feature of Atelier Iris 3 and Mana Khemia is also present, and, as expected, it proves to be a useful inclusion.
The most important factor that distinguishes Ar Tonelico from Gust’s other titles is the inclusion of Reyvateils, beautiful girls who weave magic with their songs. As well as being important to the story, Reyvateils play a key role in the game’s battle system, wielding as they do both offensive and defensive magic from the back row (more on that later). Reyvateils also provide the game’s equivalent of action commands, enabling you to fire off different elemental shots in the field- an ability that’s vital for opening doors and breaking obstacles in the field. Reyvateils are also key to the non-RPG side to the game, providing a visual novel type experience through the process of ‘diving’ into their Cosmospheres.
If the last sentence seems like little more than gibberish to you, then fear not, for all is about to be explained. The three Reyvateil girls in the game each have a Cosmosphere- effectively a world created from the feelings in their souls. As Lyner gains the trust of the girls in the real world, he is able to enter this Cosmophere and use DP accumulated in battle to enter different locations within and help the girls get over their various issues and hangups. Effectively, these
are self-contained visual novels in which you experience scenes with minimal player input, but they mark Ar Tonelico out as being different from the average RPG.
The Cosmosphere is more than just an interesting diversion, however- it also brings rewards that will make your Reyvateil more effective in battle. As you explore the Cosmosphere, the Reyvateil will become more confident in her abilities, crafting new spells for use in battle and also gaining more costumes to wear in combat. Although the costumes are arguably little more than eye candy (and very nice eye candy at that), they also have the useful effect of boosting a Reyvateil’s stats when equipped.
Another important method of interacting with Reyvateils is through night-time conversations at inns. Conversation topics are unlocked by proceeding through the game or visiting certain areas, and will be available any time you rest overnight. Conversations are an important aspect of the visual novel side of the game, helping to open up deeper levels of the Cosmosphere.
The world of Ar Tonelico is replete with Grathnode Crystals, multi-purpose items that can enhance every aspect of your party. The various types of crystal can be installed in weapons, armour, accessories and even the Reyvateils themselves, where they increase stats, boost magic or add special effects to both attack and defence.
As to be expected from a Gust game, Ar Tonelico also boasts its own alchemy system, known as Grathmelding. Using both Grathnode crystals and various ingredients collected from battles and treasure chests, all kinds of useful items can be synthesised- some of which will be familiar to long-time Atelier series players. In a pleasant change from Mana Khemia and the Atelier Iris series, the frustrations of realising you have to synthesise intermediate ingredients before you can make your desire item is also taken care of- if you don’t have those ingredients but are able to synthesise them, the game will prompt you to go ahead and do just that. There is also the amusing but useless option to rename the items you synthesise according to the somewhat bizarre whims of your Reyvateils.
The basic battle system of Ar Tonelico is based on that of Atelier Iris 2-3; characters and enemies are represented by cards that move along a time bar, each taking their turn when they reach the end. The key difference is that in this game Reyvateils play a key role in combat; unlike your regular three party members, your active Reyvateil sits in the back row and can take her turn at any time. At this point, you can command your Reyvateil to power up her song magic- the longer you leave her to it, the more powerful the end result will be, but the more her MP will be drained (and if it reaches zero, the spell fails). In the case of attack magic, you can let it charge as much as you like before releasing the spell onto your unsuspecting enemies, whilst defensive magic continuously powers up your team until you cancel the spell or run out of MP. MP can be restored either through item use or simply by letting your Reyvateil rest.
Atelier Iris players will also recognise the return of the Burst Gauge (now known as the Harmonics Gauge), although in this game it works somewhat differently. As both the front line warriors and Reyvateil attack the enemy, the gauge will fill from both ends, and when the two sides meet, your party becomes more in sync, powering them up (attacks from enemies act to deplete this effect). Performing attack magic also activates ‘Harmocrystals’- having these in play enables your front line attackers to access their own special skills, which usually involve depleting HP to perform powerful attacks.
Although being in the back row largely protects your Reyvateil from the fray, there are times when enemies will perform specific attacks that target a Reyvateil. When this happens, you will be given some warning and the chance to use up to three of your front line attackers to guard your Reyvateil before they take some serious damage. If you have a Harmocrystal in play, you can also trigger a counterattack that will make the enemy think twice about striking back.
Overall, battles in Ar Tonelico can often be lengthy affairs, but they are rarely difficult- and even if you find them a bit tedious at first, once your Reyvateils start learning more powerful skills, you’ll breeze through much of the game in no time.
Lyner Barsett: the main character, sword-wielding Lyner is a permanent fixture on the front line. A typical good all-rounder, he excels at physical attacks but also has one magic-based skill to call upon for tougher enemies.
Aurica Nestmile: A shy and detached Reyvateil, Aurica is a low-class member of the Church who has come to distrust people. As she gets over her various issues and hang-ups, she learns to craft powerful attack magic, and is also quick to learn healing skills.
Misha Arsellec Lune: Trapped in the body of a loli for the first part of the game, Reyvateil Misha eventually gains access to both child and adult bodies, each with different costume transformations. Although her initial specialty is thunder magic and she is slow to learn healing skills, she proves a useful presence throughout the game.
Lady Shurelia: A powerful Reyvateil, Lady Shurelia is not playable until later in the game, and her skillset is both powerful and limited.
Jack Hamilton: A sharpshooter with an eye for the ladies and a mechanical arm, Jack is not the strongest of attackers, but he is very swift.
Krusche Elendia: A talented mechanic who wants to search for her intrepid boyfriend, Krusche carries a chainsaw into battle. She is a weak attacker, but is the only non-Reyvateil to have a healing skill- a useful asset early in the game but somewhat outclassed later on.
Radolf Schnaizen: A strong but slow spear user, Radolf is a Cardinal of the Church. He is a powerhouse in battle.
Ayatane Michitaka: A swift katana user, Ayatane is not as strong as one would expect, but is still a solid character to have on your side- when he’s fighting with you and not against you, that is.
Ar Tonelico is a game of three phases, with both multiple routes and a selection of different endings. Phase One plays out the same regardless of what you do, whilst Phase Two can go two completely different ways depending on whether you choose Misha or Aurica’s path. At the end of Phase Two, you can finish the game there and then, or carry on into Phase Three where further endings are possible. Of course, I hate having to choose between one girl or another, but at least I know that the game has plenty of new material to offer me when I finally get around to replaying it.
As you might expect, the visual novel aspects of the game move it beyond the standard RPG fare, injecting additional character development into what would otherwise be a typical tale of a hero and his harem fighting an ancient evil. In addition, whether by accident or design, the dialogue is laced with double entendres, such as the following hilarious scene:
Aurica: It’s about an install. Will you install in me?
Aurica: I’m so much weaker than average Reyvateils…and I don’t want to cause you any more trouble. It’s the least I can do… Besides…I’ll try my best as long as I’m with you…
Aurica: You’re the only person I feel comfortable enough to ask. So, please?
Lyner: Alright, but are you sure about this? I don’t want to force you.
Aurica: I don’t mind. To be honest, I’m a little scared, since I’ve heard that it hurts when you push it in… But if I overcome my fear, I can get stronger. It makes me happy knowing I can help you. Please don’t make it too painful.
Lyner: I’ll do my best.
Aurica: Thanks, Lyner. You’re so kind. If you don’t have a Grathnode Crystal, use this. It’s not as effective, but doesn’t hurt as much going in.
Visually, Ar Tonelico is in line with other Gust PS2 titles in its attractive but low key graphical elements. The in-game sprites are cute, whilst character artwork is aesthetically pleasing and in keeping with the visual novel style the game’s dialogue sections aim to emulate. There are also a few animated scenes, but don’t let this whet your appetite for more, as the Ar Tonelico OVA is predictably disappointing.
From the sweeping opening theme right through to the end credits, Ar Tonelico is filled with worthy musical tracks in the usual lyrical Gust style, with a few bizarre yet oddly effectively rap style tracks thrown in for good measure. The English voices are the usual average fare, but fortunately the superior Japanese audio is available, although in one of the animated cutscenes the dialogue gratingly cut back to English.
It may not be perfect, but in Ar Tonelico Gust have again demonstrated their expertise in creating thoroughly absorbing character driven RPGs. Action-orientated fans may chafe at the integrated visual novel style elements, but those looking for a more immersive experience will have great fun with this unique title.