Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia Review

Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia is totally different from your typical role-playing game, yet painfully the same. The novelty of the game comes from the unique combat system and the interesting development of relationships between the game’s main character and his supporting female party members. It’s a traditional sprite-based, turn-based RPG with courtship elements, and plenty of sexual innuendo, but it simply fails to captivate, and is ultimately unimpressive.

The story takes place on Sol Ciel, a world twice destroyed and subsequently rebuilt. It is made up of floating islands surrounding the Ar Tonelico, a central tower that sustains all life in the Sol Ciel, and is divided into the Upper World and the Lower World. The adventure begins when a seemingly invincible "virus" appears in the Upper World, and the young knight Lyner Barset is sent to the Lower World to find a Hymn Crystal — the only way to defeat it.

In this game, players will traverse the world in pursuit of their goals, picking up a variety of party members along the way. The overworld screen functions differently from most RPGs in that there is no free reign to explore. Players select a destination on the map and are simply taken there. Within these locations, one chooses more specific points of interest to visit from a list superimposed over a rough sketch of the area. At this point, control is turned over, and Lyner is free to move about. He’s able to jump onto and over certain portions of the environment, and can even interact with objects by casting certain spells (like breaking down a wall) while exploring.

The most interesting elements of the game, however, do not focus on Lyner, himself — but on members of the all-female race known as the Reyvateils. These legendary maidens are the key to combat in Ar Tonelico, as they provide the most substantial means to obliterate foes, as well as heal and otherwise aid the party. Reyvateils are a magical race, capable of concentrating and projecting their inner feelings into powerful Song Magic that can either damage enemies or support allies. Battle consists of a front line of three human characters who have typical commands available to them, such as attack, use skill, use item, and wait; one Reyvateil, who remains in the rear, is perpetually singing and charging magical energy. The function of the human characters is nominal, as they are mainly used to protect the Reyvateil and set up enemies for her eventual assault. The formation most closely equates to a line of meat-shield soldiers in front of a cannon preparing to fire.

Reyvateils are not restricted by the turn-based system, and can be made to perform actions at any point in the battle by pressing triangle. A song is first selected and then charges up, slowly consuming MP and becoming more and more powerful, until it is released to do critical damage. Support magic is selected and produces effects the entire time the song is sung. In the meantime, the other characters work to improve the "ambiance" of the fight by striking their foes. As an opponent is attacked, ambiance increases, making Reyvateil attacks become more powerful when they’re launched. Furthering the depth of combat is the Harmonics system, which represents the synergy between a Reyvateil and the rest of the party. As harmonics increase, so too does the effectiveness of the humans’ attacks, as well as the quality of the enemies’ dropped items; it’s best to increase harmonic levels as much as possible. Unfortunately, doing so requires curbing one’s offense, and amounts to what is basically waiting. Combat becomes boring, tedious and somewhat dreadful as the hours go by. Eventually, typical combat procedure boils down to the Reyvateil beginning a song, the human party members making a few attacks as her song charges, and then activating the magic, destroying all enemies.

Just as they do in combat, Reyvateils differ from human characters in the way they advance in skill and power. Spell songs are awakened from a Reyvateil’s inner consciousness by her partner, after he "dives" into her cosmosphere and pokes around. In order to dive, Lyner must earn the trust of his Reyvateil by having conversations with her and developing a trusting relationship. Girls never let boys dive into their cosmospheres unless they trust them enough.

Through battle, Lyner accumulates Dive Points (DP), which are used to navigate inside this inner world. There is no control during these segments; the player simply chooses nodes along a path, expends DP and watches story segments unfold and reveal more about the Reyvateil. Certain nodes end in the acquisition of new song magic, which is the goal of the Dive system. When all nodes are completed, a new layer of the cosmosphere becomes available for diving, but only if enough trust has been built via conversations with conscious Reyvateil. The whole thing is one big sexual metaphor, slowly building up, then suddenly letting out lines like, "…let’s just say I know her real hair color" or "I heard it hurts when you push it in."

The game features an item synthesis system, as well, called Grathmelding. Grathmelding allows Lyner to take components dropped by enemies — usually in the form of crystals — and combine them into new, useful items. He will first need a recipe card, outlining the item’s creation, and then must find his way to a camp or inn where he can perform the grathmeld. The strength, function and effectiveness of the synthesized items depends on the quality of components, and much time can be spent gathering the best crystals to form the highest level items.

Searching Sol Ciel may not be the most aesthetically pleasing of endeavors, however, as this game appears to have come straight out of the 32-bit era. Just about everything about the graphics is sub-par, from the fuzzy sprites to the poorly rendered polygonal overworld. Battle animations are not fluid and unvaried, and dungeon and wilderness backgrounds are often repeated. Town areas show the most artistic merit, and the character art overlaying dialogue segments is solid. The most jarring of visual stimuli occurs during cutscenes, which are a mix of sprites, rendered 3-D video and anime animation. It doesn’t mesh well at all.

Also failing to mesh is the audio. The opening title song is good, but it’s all downhill from there. Voice acting is pretty horrible, and reminds me of the quality experienced in Baten Kaitos for GCN. Luckily, it can be turned off — and really should be, unless you enjoy making fun of the characters’ voices like I did. The game includes only the most basic of sound effects, and the general background tracks are mediocre at best. Some songs stand out above the rest, and are even catchy, but then you hear a common instrumental play, with totally unexpected rap delivered over top of it, and can’t help but wonder what the audio director was thinking.

Overall, Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia is not a bad game, but just falls short in the execution of some pretty unique and inventive ideas. It’s still an okay game, and offers some good laughs and interesting gameplay mechanics, but it looks, sounds and plays a generation behind its platform, leaving this reviewer yearning for other entries in the genre.


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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