Just recently, I’ve gotten back to playing Ar tonelico 2. Pretty fun game, this is. Let me explain why.
I won’t bother with the premise or anything because I’m sure any other review will tell you that much, so let’s get right into it. First of all, the core of the game. It’s an RPG with more focus on reflexes than say, Persona, which relies much more on exploiting enemy weaknesses and the like. Two vanguards attack and defend from damage, while two Reyvateils – spellcasters, in essence – provide support or attack magic (note that this is a major change; previously, the player had three vanguards and one Reyvateil). During the attack phase, pressing a button with the corresponding direction will have the character launch an attack on the enemy. During defense phase, pressing the character’s assigned button at the right moment will block the enemy’s attack. Do it perfectly and you take nil damage. Slightly off will get you a bit of damage, even further off will net you worse damage, and being completely off will result in damage for you and your supporting Reyvateil. It’s a great system that really makes me wonder why developers don’t use this more often. It has the trappings of a normal turn-based RPG, without the hassle of grinding for levels. Rather than demanding the player to waste time on something so idiotic as to kill countless enemies for hours on end (days, in extreme cases), the game allows him to spend it on something more worthwhile, such as side quests (of which there are plenty), or even just going around and talking to people.
A very common complaint from the players of the first game is that it was too easy. That is to say, in the later phases, one could just choose not to sing a song and spam the attack option a turn or three and get through any fight – even boss fights – relatively unscathed. This older battle system was, to be honest, mind-numbingly boring. Though it wouldn’t have been bad on its own, combined with the game’s incredible ease of difficulty, this made for a really crappy game which you would play for the game itself, the other portions (ie: diving, conversation, etc.) being the game’s saving grace. That being said, Ar tonelico 2’s totally revamped system was a breath of fresh air. The game provides significantly stronger enemies – ones that could probably take you out in two turns, provided you sucked at blocking attacks. Furthermore, since the game requires actual thought on attacks to expand the radar-gauge in the desired direction, you constantly have to consider what kind of attacks you’d be throwing at the enemy, rather than just pressing square and x all the time.
Another game system mechanic that’s been changed is the songs usable in battle. Before, you’d have a gargantuan list of songs that you could use for the fight. Each was limited in their use, ranging from 1 to 9 or infinite (the basic spell), and took about three battles to charge up for another one use. I never ended up using a single one of the guard spells, and pretty much relied on the basic attack spell, healing, and Ar tonelico whenever it got a little tough, which basically made all the other spells completely worthless; it was pretty skewed in general. In other words, it wasn’t all that good a system. Enter Ar tonelico 2. Rather than having a screen-length long list of spells to choose from, you are given at most 8 or so spells with which to use. “Well then where the hell do all the spells learnt in diving go to then?” Rather than assigning each spell one freaking slot, the “songs” are more of a group of songs. You start off with a plain song, and then based on your attacks – whether your attack is more harmonics-focused, more psyco-focused, more burst-focused, or if you went for the care option, the song and its effect will evolve in that direction (hence, the need to know what the hell you’re doing in the attack phase).
There are a lot of other changes, some I’d say are good, others not so much, but overall, the game feels and plays loads better than its predecessors. And for those who aren’t as inclined to reflex-based blocking, there’s even an easy mode!
Next thing on the list – characters. The characters of Ar tonelico 2 are a whole lot more three-dimensional, personable, and a lot more well-developed compared to Ar tonelico’s. Chroah is a huge leap forward for Lyner. While Lyner was basically quite the flawed character, Chroah was, unlike most game protagonists, a decent guy. He’s rather smart and pleasant to talk to, and cares for Cocona as a brother ought to; he knows when he’s wrong and quickly admits his faults and apologizes; he follows his duties as a knight and does what is right, and is reasonable, thinking ahead before charging in. Even the side characters are such. Compare, for example, Jack to say, Legris. Jack is a guy who used to be from the Teru Tribe. He had a fight with the head and left. That is his backstory. On the other hand, Legris was a Grand Bell Knight who knew Reisha, Luca’s mother. He went to rescue the previous maiden during a coup d’etat masked as an IPD outbreak, only to find her and Batz there. He helps them escape the area, and eventually goes on to father a daughter. Both his daughter and wife ended up being killed by an IPD outbreak later on. During the game proper, you meet Amarie, whom Legris eventually comes to care for like his own daughter (contrary to his earlier bahavior). Though both characters are just as proficient in battle, they aren’t all that equal outside of it. Thusly, the player has a much better game experience because the characters are better-written and are more endearing compared to the previous game’s.
Ar tonelico is rather well-known (in some circles, at least) for its music, which is phenomenal, to say the least. One only needs to listen to EXEC_PHANTASMAGORIA/. to see just what I mean. Ar tonelico 2 doesn’t disappoint either. Background music fits the tone and mood of the scenes just about perfectly. For example, Sincere’s (Cynthia’s) theme,陽だまりhas a very relaxed mood to it – perfect for such a character, whose laid back and positive, sunny disposition never fail to cheer me and Chroah up in the game. Or perhaps how Mint Ward’s own BGM is simple and calm, just like the area itself. But of course, the highlight of the music is the hymns. All of the hymns are great in their own way, though I’ve taken quite a liking to 謳う丘～Harmonics FRELIA～, METHOD_IMPLANTA/., METHOD_METAFALICA/., EXEC_METAFALICA/., EXEC_VIENA/., Hartes ciel, melenas walasye., and EXEC_with.METHOD_METAFALICA/.. Tsuchiya’s really made me a fan of the multiple-chorus, as evidenced by EXEC_PHANTASMAGORIA/. and EXEC_with.METHOD_METAFALICA/.. The instruments work well together, and with vocalists like Shikata Akiko and Shimotsuki Haruka, they all blend beautifully into some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.
The game’s sense of humor is, needless to say, great. Significantly better compared to Ar tonelico’s (though grathmelding with Aurica still makes for one great experience too). The euphemisms and double entendres are hillariously done (“it’s funny because ‘diving’ means sex!”), and the little random conversations between the characters is great as both comic relief and as something which really makes you feel like you’re really friends with them, as opposed to say, just people who you are acquaintances with for convenient storyline purposes. Not only that, but the countless references to the previous game are fast and furious, especially once Jakuri enters the picture. I couldn’t stop myself from laughing when she talked about a certain person who “not only forgot that he made a childhood promise, but also about the person he made the promise with even existed,” and the time that she hacks into a maintenance-roid to talk to Shurelia. The game does drama just as well too. I was (surprisingly) on the verge of tears the entire time during the events regarding Reisha and Luca. Unfortunately, it’s all-too-often marred with some really, really bad translation, editing, and quality checking (but then I guess that’s why you’ve got people re-translating it, eh?).
Finally, on the setting. This is perhaps where I am most impressed about. One only needs to take a look at the HymmnoServer (English version) set up by the game’s director, Tsuchiya Akira, to see just how well thought-out the world of Ar tonelico really is. He wrote a language just for the Ar tonelico universe – Hymmnos, which means “song” in said language (quite fitting, for obvious reasons). Not only that, but he has also written about much of the science and theory behind the game, what with D-waves, S-waves, and all that jazz. It’s all freely accessible too, albeit mostly in Japanese, though there has been an ongoing wiki-style translation for it at the Ar tonelico Wikia page. I could rave a little more about it all, but basically, the amount of work put into fleshing out the world of Ar tonelico in itself deserves respect.
In closing, each of the game’s elements combine to make one of the best RPG’s on the PS2. Though I was rather averse to paying good money (a lot of it) for a copy of NISA’s localization of Ar tonelico 2, the game itself is such an incredibly well-done piece of work that I can’t not own a copy of it. This article on Heisei Democracy pretty much sums up what I feel on Ar tonelico 2. It’s such a damn fun game that I’d forget to breathe for half a minute or so.
Now have some CaramelldansenShurelia