(PlayStation 3 Review) Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel

Developer: Gust
Publisher: NIS America
Genre: Role-Playing Game
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Marcus Way

Overall: 6 = Fair

Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel is the third and final installment of the Ar tonelico series, and the latest title from Gust to make its way to North America courtesy of NIS. It’s been a little over two years since Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica, and it’s finally time for fans to end their journey in the world of Song Magic and floating cities. Series newcomers need not worry about missing out, though, as Knell of Ar Ciel is a largely self-contained title with little relation to either Melody of Metafalica or 2007’s Melody of Elemia. PlayStation 3 owners are instead given an experience of their own with a revamped art style and combat system. Although some longtime fans might want more closure from the series, I think most will end up wanting a title that stands up better against its predecessors.

Knell of Ar Ciel revolves around the brash, berated, and slightly naive Aoto and his quest to protect the high-pitched, largely helpless, and unnervingly young Saki. The duo is accompanied on their journey by a few helpful companions, including Aoto’s aloof V-Boarding friend Tatsumi and the bumbling Finnel. The group is involved in a bitter struggle against the armies of Clusternia, who are cleansing neighboring territories by wiping away their populations’ egos and making them slaves. At the heart of the conflict is Saki, a powerful multi-personality Reyvateil, beings capable of harnessing magical powers through song, who escaped from captivity in Clusternia and found a protector in Aoto.  As Clusternia widened its search for Saki, it became increasingly aggressive towards the townsfolk in the areas they entered, and shortly thereafter began a widespread campaign to stomp out resistance. With an army at their heels, the group sets out to unravel the mystery of Saki’s past before it’s too late.

While not the most original of storylines, the science-project-gone-awry scenario isn’t a bad one and has done well by many a game. The characters, as archetypal as they are, could’ve also carried it along nicely. Unfortunately, with subpar, clumsy writing, bland combat, and characters that have a knack for being unlikable, Aoto’s quest often feels more like a chore than an adventure for the ages.

One of the more interesting aspects of the series has been its use of songs. By singing, Reyvateils are able to channel the forces of nature and the heavens into powerful spell-like hymns that can support allies and ravage foes. This also brings up one of the game’s more unusual aspects: in order to increase the power of a hymn, Saki and Finnel must be “Purged” of their clothing. A beat meter at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen indicates when a high note is approaching, and each synchronized hit on an enemy generates a heartbeat that goes towards a Purge. The story goes that, the more skin that is revealed, the greater the conductive powers Reyvateils have with their surroundings. What this translates to is a casting sequence in which the character’s clothes are removed—something that was fine in the super-deformed, proportion-be-damned 2D, but not quite in 3D. Depending on which personality Saki and Finnel are channeling, they look way too young to have so much revealed. I could go on about thematic styles of certain subgenres, but I would just be trying to bluff my way out of admitting that some sequences were just too creepy. And that’s a shame, because the Reyvateil elements are by far the most interesting thing about the combat system.

One of the biggest changes in the series is how encounters are handled. Instead of the traditional 2D turn-based system, fights now take place on free-roaming battlefields with a four-character party, three fighters (the Vanguards, one of which you control) and a Reyvateil, battling any number of enemies. The Reyvateil stays in the back as the fighters take a forward position to defend them and deal steady damage. The Reyvateils themselves are extremely vulnerable, so much so that a sound effect is triggered to alert you when they are in danger, and also allows for enemies to be rebuffed through a rechargeable attack known as a Blowback.  Purges are initiated by holding on a shoulder button, each corresponding to a different offensive and/or defensive power, and shaking the controller (which also means that this is one of the few titles left to take advantage of the sixaxis functionality). Once powered up, the hymn spells can then be unleashed for devastating effect–so much so that all but the lowliest enemies are dangerous without the assistance of a Reyvateil.

Unlocking more powerful songs requires ‘diving’ into a character’s Cosmopshere. Diving involves going through a series of largely story-driven sequences that delve ever deeper into the Reyvateil’s psyche in order to gain a greater level of friendship (or more). As you help Saki and Finnel to overcome their inner struggles, guided along the way (and sometimes hindered) by Mind Guardians and imp-like creatures known as Hyumas, they will craft stronger Song Magic. Captured Hyumas can later be programmed into the Reyvateils, adding additional abilities to spells. Purges also give the Vanguards special abilities, such as wind attack and resistance, which work in tandem with the Hyuma bonuses, such as a boost to defense or health regeneration, making Reyvateils the ultimate mages.

Hyumas just can’t be programmed, however. The Reyvateils must trust the person doing the programming as the act of being Purged is emotionally and physically draining, leaving the caster in a vulnerable state. Strengthening the bond between Aoto and Saki and Fennil involves not only exploring their Cosmosphere but also talking to them and giving them gifts. Discussion topics come from a variety of sources, including storyline events and topics in the form of red orbs discovered throughout the world. As conversation and Cosmopshere layers are explored, the Reyvateils can be approached at inns or at camp for some ‘higher-level programming,’ which involves you asking them to strip. Yep, it’s pretty embarrassing for everyone all around.

But embarrassed you will be, because victory is all but impossible otherwise. Aside from furthering the storyline, which itself branches off and offers multiple endings depending on choices taken, combat is a futile affair without Song Magic. Each warrior has a set of three-hit combos that are all fairly basic, with extra moves added by synthesizing objects to learn additional powerful but health-draining attacks that are mapped to the directional pad.  Even with the extra moves, combat can be pretty tedious. Timing attacks and choosing which spells and how many (Purge abilities can be combined) to activate is by far the most entertaining thing about encounters. Plus, in addition to experience and cash, victory also earns Aoto some Dive Points so that he can wander about the Cosmosphere and synthesize songs and items. If it wasn’t for the extra layer of strategy that the Reyvateils’ safety and abilities add to the system, it would be nothing more than grinding down the square button: tap-tap-tap-run-tap-tap-tap-zzz.

The interactions are just as light as the combat system, and can often be just as tedious. In most of Gust’s and NIS’s titles, dialog is rife with double entendres and characters that have their expressions and certain portions of the body exaggerated for comedic effect. It’s a balancing act that isn’t always easy to get right, but both companies have managed to hit the right notes more often than not. Knell of Ar Ciel is not one of those times. The dialog tends to swing wildly between nonsensical to overly eager to squeeze in even more sexual innuendo. There are some genuinely interesting moments between the characters, especially in the Cosmosphere sequences, as they confront self-doubt, helplessness, and loneliness with the help of their newfound friends, but the conversations just as quickly devolve into a sequence straight out of a Porky’s. There’s a difference between a comment said with a wink and a nudge and made with the subtly of a hammer to the face, and more winks and nudges are desperately needed here.

For much of the story to progress at the dictated pace, the characters are both amazingly dense and completely random. It’s incredible what ridiculous side plots and non sequiturs are squeezed in just to eke out another half hour or so because resolution was coming too soon. Many of the companies’ prior efforts have their fair share of wacky exchanges, but much of Knell of Ar Ciel can be classified as simply dumb. In one scene, Tatsumi is upset with a former teacher because he cannot receive lessons on V-Boarding on the eve of a battle that the leader is setting off for. As pointless as that exchange is, more often than not, they tend to just devolve into Aoto being confused or berated about some random comment or event as an excuse to wrap things up so they can shove off. It takes hours for Aoto to even begin to get a clue, and just as he does, he will make some off-the-wall comment that just restarts a tiresome argument. After the NIS-published Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love on the Wii and PlayStation 2, it’s hard to engage in a relationship system that involves little more than speeding through a rolodex of ‘What? Why did they just say that?’ comments.

The relationship system isn’t the only thing that’s wafer thin. Item synthesizing is a pretty mundane affair as well, with the only true prerequisites being the raw materials and dive points necessary to create an item. Assistance might be needed for some, but item creation is largely done by simply selecting an object that is noted as being ready to synthesize from a list and watching a cutscene that is interspersed with a few exchanges about the item. There’s no failing and, save for choosing between two names, no interaction.

On a positive note, the soundtrack is quite nice. While not as varied as those of its predecessors, and prone to reusing shorter sequences a bit too often, it’s definitely one of the more interesting track selections that I’ve heard for some time. As a nice bonus, all launch copies are Premium Editions that come with a soundtrack on disc. The graphics are also nice, in particular the profile art and character models. The world isn’t as nice, however, with many areas being very bland, especially the battlefields and overly dark dungeons. There is also a weird disconnect between Aoto and the world around him as he doesn’t seem to make direct contact with the environment, sliding around surfaces and bouncing down stairs. The 8-bit, retro-style Cosmphere was great, though—more imagination and less skin, please.

In the end, Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel isn’t a bad game, just a disappointing one. Gust has done much better work in the past, and for the last of a series that’s hit cult status, it’s a shame that they seem content with delivering a so-so adventure rather than the grand finale the series deserves. So many elements are underdeveloped, from combat to synthesizing, and so much of the experience feels superficial. Series veterans will of course want to know how things end, but newcomers would be better off checking out Melody of Elemia or Melody of Elemia.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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