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Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel
Score: 77%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: NIS America
Developer: Gust
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1
Genre: RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel is the series' third entry and its first on the PS3. As expected, the game has received a complete visual overhaul, ditching the low-res 2D sprites for beautiful, new 3D characters. However, Ar tonelico retains the series' core gameplay and, well, let's just say unique sense of humor.

I'll always love the 2D sprites from the first two titles, but am happy to see that even though the characters have gained a dimension, they haven't lost any personality. Characters are still fun to look at and, for the first time in the series, there isn't as big a divide between how characters look during story sequences and how they look in battle. The added horsepower also adds a new sheen to the series' techo-fantasy wonderland.

For all the improvements, there are few issues. The most noticeable is the lack of weight to anything in the environment. Characters glide across the map while going through their run cycle. The same happens whenever you have interaction with the environment. It's like things are there, but aren't rooted into the same space.

A soundtrack CD ships with the game (alongside a visual guide full of artwork), though the music is best when listened to in context. This is not a knock on the quality; it's great stuff, but without the visuals, it isn't nearly as interesting.


Gameplay:
Over the course of the past two games, the series has developed a complex and interesting mythology. The cornerstone of the entire world is Song Magic, which is channeled through Reyvateils, who are the rough equivalent of priestesses. Like most of the game's story elements, it is something that is hard to explain without actually playing the game. There's a lot of series-specific vocabulary (there's an in-game glossary) that only makes sense once you've seen it during gameplay.

However, the lack of familiarity shouldn't deter newcomers. The plot is very straightforward and easy to follow. Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel centers on Aoto, a young steeplejack (a guy who climbs buildings and repairs them) whose life goes off course when he's asked to protect Saki, a Reyvateil. Aoto's original goal is to get Saki to a special Reyvateil doctor, but in JRPG tradition, his quest is bigger than it initially looked. He eventually meets another Reyvateil, Finnel, and makes a few powerful enemies in the group tracking down Saki.

There isn't much to the initial gameplay, though eventually Aoto has to begin charging up the Reyvateils' magic, introducing the concept of Diving. In order to access new magic, Reyvateils must overcome emotional issues with the help of their guardian. The concept has always been the series' strongest element and helps separate it from other JRPGs. Gameplay isn't much more than a text adventure, though the decisions you make while Diving have an impact on your quest. It's possible to lock yourself out of certain abilities if you make the wrong choices. Even more importantly - at least for my tastes - is how well you get to know characters through each Dive.

Diving does, however, introduce another of the series' trademark features. The game is loaded with innuendo, almost to an embarrassing degree. Diving is the equivalent of sex, and treated in the same way within the context of the game, right down to girls giving up their "Diving Virginity." Then there's the idea of Purging, which involves the Reyvateils shedding clothes. It's all a bit too silly to take seriously, and never gets much worse than dialogue and girls in underwear, but worth mentioning since it could potentially offend some players.


Difficulty:
Three difficulty options are available, which primarily affect combat. Monsters are stronger in higher difficulties, though if you're able to get the hang of combat, they aren't too bad. It's all about making sure you have the right equipment and thinking before you act. Always make sure you have a good stock of health items and save whenever possible. Even when you plan ahead, there's always the chance of an enemy unleashing some sort of massive attack, so be aware.

Unfortunately, Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel sticks to the antiquated idea of random encounters. On the plus side, you'll only encounter a limited number of battles in each area, which is indicated by a gauge. Once the gauge depletes all the way, you can explore without the risk of running into enemies. It adds the annoyance of having to exit an area if you want to grind up a few levels, though you shouldn't have to grind unless you really need an edge on a particular boss or some extra cash.

The gauge also doubles as a monster detector and turns red when you're about to run into a battle. You won't know what's coming up, but at least the battle won't take you by surprise.


Game Mechanics:
You know you're in for a wild time when a tutorial ends with, "He who controls the stripping controls the battle!"

Combat takes a bit of a departure from previous games. The concept is still the same - protect your Reyvateil as she weaves Song Magic - though the turn-based system has been traded in for an action-based one. Each round, you're given a set number of attack points, which dictate how many times you can hit an enemy... or something like that. There's a system at play, though even after reading over the tutorials, I couldn't determine exactly how it works. It's a small element of combat and not worth pondering for long, though it does add a clunky feel. By instinct you'll want to just hack away, though you can't, which feels weird.

Whatever is going on under the hood, the system is really just around to keep combat from devolving into random button-mashing. Instead, your goal is to time attacks with the high points of the Reyvateil's song. Syncing attacks with her song builds up her excitement level, eventually allowing her to climax. The interplay between the two systems is neat and I can definitely see where the developers were trying to take it. At the same time, the system doesn't work as well as it should. The round trade-offs happen quickly and its hard to get a real sense of when you can attack or not. It's even harder to figure out how to match your attacks to the song bar. The meter is easy to read, but the guide bar and your attacks never seem to sync up the way they should.

Once your Reyvateil hits a certain level, she can Purge - leading us back to the bit about, "he who controls the stripping." When a Reyvateil Purges, she removes a layer of clothing. More skin offers more connection with the planet, equaling more powerful spells. The number of Purge levels is directly related to how well you get to know your Reyvateil during conversations and Dives. The catch is you're only allowed to go "all the way" with one Reyvateil, limiting your access to really powerful magic.

Deciding on a girl is harder than it initially seems. It's hard to not become just a little invested in the girl's personalities, so it's really difficult to decide exactly which one to choose. It's a neat tangling of story and play mechanics and one of the reasons Ar Tonelico Qoga is so enjoyable.

For all its sophomoric humor and clunk, Ar Tonelico Qoga is still a fun JRPG for fans. Like previous installments, the appeal is limited by what you're looking for in a game, but it's worth it just to see how well the story and gameplay mesh together.


-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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