Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Lackluster Third Act - Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel


 As I mentioned in a previous post about Atelier Rorona, I have a love-hate relationship with games developed by Gust.  When it comes to Ar Tonelico games, however, there's mostly love.  It's funny, really, because these were the last sort of games I expected to ever like.  For those unfamiliar with them, think of them as what you get when you cross an Atelier game with a dating sim with a turn-based RPG.

Sounds like a crazy combination, right?  What's even crazier is that it works.  Or at least, it did until Ar Tonelico Qoga:  Knell of Ar Ciel came along.  When you look across the Ar Tonelico games, the first entry, Melody of Elemia distinguished itself as simplistic, yet quirky and interesting enough to sustain one's attention.  The second game, Melody of Metafalica, in short, improved on just about everything from the first game (except for quirks in the localization process..).

Unfortunately, rather than further refining what made the series likable, ATQ takes a number of steps back, showing a far inferior combat system, less interesting characters, and a less robust crafting system.  While at the core, it still has many of the things that characterize an Ar Tonelico game, it is a sadly lackluster ending to a series that showed great promise.

So what happened with the third game?  You'd think that the potential of the PS3 would allow for a game of even greater magnitude.  Did trying to be more poetic by using "qoga" and "knell" in lieu of the numbered entry and usual subtitle change up things that much for the worse?

Well, you'd be surprised. . .


The Final Act - How Qoga Measures Up


This isn't the first time the third and final entry in a series has disappointed, as evidenced by my post on Shadow Hearts 3 (though technically, in the grand scheme of things, SH3 is actually the 4th entry in that continuum).  However, my main contention with Shadow Hearts 3 came from the lackluster cast compared to the first game.  If you're able to look past that (which can be hard for some, as it was for me), the remaining components of the game (combat, sidequests, dialogue, and general mood) stay true to the series, either maintaining most of what it's predecessor had, or in some cases, actually improving upon it.

This wasn't the case with AT3, unfortunately.  To fully understand this, you have to look across the four key components of the series:  The characters, the Reyvateil cosmosphere (the dating sim component), crafting, and combat.

Characters

While the main cast of the Ar Tonelico games won't leave a lasting impression on every person who plays them, for the most part, they were interesting enough individuals who had some degree of depth and development as the story progressed.  Here's where things are a mixed bag for me, and yet another similarity Shadow Hearts surfaces.  The main character of the first game, Lyner, was a brain-dead idiot who, while likable, was painful to watch in action at times:

Yes, he's blond.  Big surprise.
He was succeeded by Croix in the second game, who was superior in many ways:  For one, he was a heck of a lot smarter.  Secondly, he was a lot less dense when it came to navigating his relationships.  Third, he had a bit of a sarcastic side to him.  Fourth, he used a rocket-powered lance.

An improvement in every way.  ..Save the metal man skirt.
One of the cool things these characters had in common, however, is that they were already distinguished fighters in their own right, and reputed members of their respective knight organizations.  Qoga gives us Aoto, who is a steeplejack:  To the best of my knowledge, this involves fixing roofs..or something, but that whole bit of his occupation kind of goes out the window within the first hour of gameplay.  Still, Aoto is a happy medium, really.  He's not quite as dense as Lyner, yet not quite as subdued as Croix.  Plus, how can you really hate a guy that coins the term "manly cooking" during his culinary exploits?

This isn't Aoto, obviously, but it IS something he'd make.
 He's similar to Johnny for me in a lot of ways:  He doesn't quite measure up to the previous protagonist (though the shoes Aoto had to fill were much smaller than Johnny's..), but also suffers from a somewhat mediocre supporting cast:  Hikari Gojo, a Reyvatologist (essentially, he's a gynecologist) and Tatsumi, a V-Boarder (and, much like being a steeplejack, this is a plot point that gets discarded -- though admittedly later), as well as an unnamed third character who I won't spoil*.

*[An aside -- most AT games have a surprise reveal for a character.  Qoga is no exception, and while this member is welcome, it's still rather lackluster compared to the previous 2 games]

The main cast of vanguards isn't bad, per se:  They gel together for the most part, have humorous commentary at points, and function.  They just don't stand out all that much.  Much of the same can be said for the supporting, non-party characters.  Two characters return from Melody of Elemia, and while their presence makes sense (one of them gets a major point of her past resolved in this final game), you're left wishing that it had been someone more significant.  Furthermore, one of the cooler looking characters who should join your party doesn't.
Seriously, give me ONE good reason why she's not in my party.
Overall, the cast, both controllable and non-controllabe, feels smaller.  I'm all for eschewing quantity in favor of quality, but such is not the case here.  However, the vanguards are not problematic:  The Reyvateils, who they're assigned to guard, present the real issue

Reyvateils

In Ar Tonelico, Reyvateils are your casters, who weave song magic with a variety of effects:  They damage your enemies, buff allies, and provide more substantial healing (sometimes).  They also provide the dating sim element through their Cosmospheres:  Basically, you dive into their souls, help them resolve past traumas, and grow closer to them -- party therapy, part bonding.

I won't spend a lot of time reviewing the Reyvateils in the previous game (partially because of spoilers), but I'll sum it up in short:  They were a heck of a lot interesting and had more interesting pasts, as well as overall backstory that made you sympathetic to them than Saki and Finnel, the girls in this game:

One refers to herself in third person.  The other has stupid hair.  Thanks, Japan.
Qoga attempts to add depth to these girls by making multiple spirits manifest in them and giving you the option to use said spirits in battle.  In my playthrough, I opted to go with Finnel.  This wasn't because I liked Finnel all that much, rather, her interactions with Aoto were a lot more amusing, Saki irritated the hell out of me, and Finnel's other personalities (referred to as "Wills of the Planet" in the game) were a heck of a lot more interesting by comparison.  For example, there's Yurisica:
A cross between a nurse and a walking arsenal.
Then there's Soma:
In case you needed another reason to be scared of clowns.
There are a few problems here, however, regardless of how much I liked these two.  One, since Finnel is the main Reyvateil, they didn't get quite as much screentime as one would like.  Secondly, you know things are bad when someone else's OTHER PERSONALITIES are more appealing than the person themselves.  By the end of the game, Aoto's supposed to end up with one of these girls.  The sad part is that I disliked them all to the point that I'd rather him have remained single, or at least end up with one of the other characters in the game.

While the 'different personalities' thing was definitely a unique spin on the usual formula, it also served as a subtle way to mask the lack of depth and variety in the magic system compared to the previous.  This in turn brings us to one of the largest, and perhaps most glaring qualities of the game:  Battle.

Combat

Combat in the Ar Tonelico games centers around the song magic of the Reyvateils, while your vanguards have the dual task of defending the aforementioned casters from harm, as well as damaging the opposition in tandem with said song magic.  The first game gives a simpler form of this, with one Reyvateil in the back and three vanguards fighting the enemy in a simple turn-based affair.  The second game. . well, it's easier to show, than try to explain:


To this day, the second Ar Tonelico game has one of the most unique and flat out fun combat systems that I have ever encountered in an RPG.  In the second game, you're able to have two Reyvateils (at the expense of one of the vanguard characters), combat is divided between an attack and defense phase (with the player being rewarded for executing well-timed guards, if successful, when the phase changes over again), and the array of song magic is expanded even further.

It's a hard system to top, I admit.  I was willing to cut Qoga some slack if it didn't surpass it.  Furthermore, I understand not wanting to do a repeat of the same thing.  Unfortunately, Qoga takes more than a few steps back, giving us what feels like a generic Tales battle system:


Compared to the second game, and heck, to some degree, even the first, everything feels so much slower. This time around.  Additionally, we've gone back to having only one Reyvateil in battle.  Also, while in the previous games, song magic was still the most damaging means of taking out big opponents, after a certain point in the game, your vanguards became strong enough to take out lower to mid-level enemies on their own before the magic was fully charged.

Such is not the case with Qoga.  Now, you spend much of the battle timing attack to the right beats (the bar you saw on the bottom) until your Reyvateil is ready to purge a layer of her clothing to get higher level song magic.  Usually after a second layer purge, the magic is strong enough to wipe out some of your later enemies.

..Yes.  I am aware of what I just wrote.  No, I am not making it up.  Yes, I felt dirty typing it, worse playing it, and you should to.

Overall, combat felt light and fun in the first game, engaging and exciting during the second, and outright tedious in the third.  It got to the point that, by the end of the game, I bumped down the difficulty to easy:  Not because the combat was becoming too hard, but rather that it became so much of a chore that I just wanted to breeze by the battle and finish the story.

To add insult to injury?  While the first games had pretty cool battle themes that changed a few times through the story, with the exception of boss fights (which still boast awesome themes), regular combat sounded like a peppy kid's garage band.  Not exactly a good sign for a game that focuses around singing.

So far, I know it sounds like a pretty damning assessment of the game.  Did they leave anything good intact?  Well, there is crafting. . .

Crafting

In most games I've played, I tend to enjoy the item creation system (David, who played XI with me, can attest to this, as between the two of us, I was the only one with the patience to max out a craft):  I've always liked the possibility of creating things beyond what was offered in the shops.  I also enjoyed the possibility of sometimes exploiting the game and creating something very powerful far earlier than I should have.  Yet, when it came to Ar Tonelico, what I enjoyed most about the crafting did not include the previous elements.

In short, crafting in Ar Tonelico is hilarious.  Each time you craft an item for the first time, you're treated to some hilarious dialogue between characters, which furthers development, and at the same time offers a variety of possibilities depending on which Reyvateil you choose to create with.  It's a nice touch.  Admittedly, while the number of items in Qoga, much like everything else, seems less robust, I was at least happy that the conversational element remained mostly intact.  In fact, the part I looked forward to most in the game (besides getting it over with) was when I found a new recipe to make in a dungeon.


Not the best representation, but a glimpse into one of the crafting screens.
Still, when crafting conversations are the best point of the game, and the game you're playing isn't an Atelier game, something's wrong here.

To Play or Not to Play? Concluding Thoughts
As I reflect back on many of my posts, I realize I'm sounding more and more like a sour old man.  I assure you that there are games that I enjoy.  And honestly, I really wanted to like Qoga.  Unlike Shadow Hearts, I was willing to look past not seeing as many old faces (since the second game gave you a dose of this) just for a chance to play the game, as the localization was up in the air for awhile.

Perhaps what saddens me the most is that this is the last game in the series.  While it's true that this game resolves many of the loose ends and effectively closes out the story, something just felt unsatisfactory about it.  However, I'm hard pressed to say, at least storywise, what could have been done more effectively.  While I'd like to say that more cameos from the first game might have been nice, the conclusions in each of those games more or less resolved the conflict and issues for the immediate present in those games.  Furthermore, the cameos that we did get in Qoga made sense (sans Spica, the black market dealer, who I was sure would pop up..) in the story.  A reviewer on GameFAQs put it best:  "An acceptable end to the series, but a mediocre game by itself".

This is indicative of a bigger issue, however:  In all honesty, which series of RPGs manages to actually close out its plot across a span of games satisfactorily?  Aside from the original Phantasy Star games on the Genesis (let's face it, if you're going to end a series, Phantasy Star IV is the way to do it) I'm hard pressed to come up with any.

Thus we come to the ultimate question:  To play or not to play?  To even allow it on your backlog in the first place?  If you're like me and a few of my friends who have played through the previous games, you've likely snatched up Qoga already.  Even if you haven't, I'll hesitantly say that if you're fully invested in the story and really want to see how the end plays out, then Qoga might be worth your time.  If the Cosmosphere and crafting elements were a big part of what you enjoyed about the previous games, then you'll find those mostly intact here (though, while they're entertaining, don't expect to feel as big of an attachment to the Reyvateils in this one..).

If you're still on the fence, though, you might want to pass this one up.  After all, if you're fortunate enough to own more than one console, there's no shortage of good RPGs, or heck, good games in general out there to play.  Increasingly, and perhaps sadly, as proven by Ar Tonelico: Qoga, fewer and fewer of these seem to be PS3 exclusives.

Ar Tonelico: Qoga is the knell that heralds the end of a surprisingly endearing series.  I just wish that end hadn't been so bittersweet.

1 comment:

Kevin Octavianus said...

i`am a fans of AT series,what i really love is their song and BGM though..