"Without ever being obvious about it, Ar Tonelico successfully immerses you in its world, makes you anxious to seek out each new song and experience. Try to fight it and you’ll hate the game. Embrace it and you’ll find yourself wrapped in one of the most unique experiences available, wrapped up nicely in an intriguing story and tied together with the pretty little bow that is the reyvateil."
Reyvateils resemble human females, but they’re actually something else entirely. Each one has a slot located somewhere on her body that allows her assigned partner to inject her with special energy crystals that enhance her combat capabilities and a melodious voice that enables her to turn the very air around her into magical energy. Reyvateils are weapons, and that’s how most of the military types in the world of Sol Ciel view them. Lyner Barsett, the hero of Ar Tonelico, is different. But then, you might expect that from someone raised in the idealistic sky city of Platina.
The game begins with an attack on that very city. Lyner, a Knight of Elemia, is one of several tasked with keeping everyone safe. That responsibility thrusts him into the center of a millenniums-old feud with an ancient virus that seeks to exterminate the human race. After surviving an initial encounter, the intrepid hero is asked to retrieve a magical artifact from the earth far below. What begins as a simple journey soon turns into much more, however, when a powerful beast knocks the airship he’s piloting out of the sky. Lyner nearly dies, but a reyvateil saves him and then leaves him lying unconscious in a forest clearing. Thus begins Ar Tonelico, one of the PlayStation 2’s most fascinating RPGs to date.
At a glance, Ar Tonelico might not seem particularly unique. It’s a Gust project, so you already know to expect an isometric perspective full of lush forests and earthy tones. Those trademarks and others return here, from the anime-styled character portraits to the item alchemy you would expect from an Atelier Iris game. Even the battles look the same. . . at a glance. Like an old Final Fantasy game, the heroes line up on the right side and the villains on the left. It’s all standard stuff, right up until the moment you factor in the reyvateils.
In Sol Ciel, reyvateils are much more than just an interesting diversion. They are at the heart of everything that makes Ar Tonelico the fantastic game it is and everything that makes you wonder at times why you’re still playing. They blend all of the game’s elements, from its twisting plot to the unique combat system to the character customization. Everywhere you travel in Sol Ciel, you’ll see the effects of a world that has relied on their strength and songs for its development.
They affect the story because so much of who they are serves to motivate the game’s villains. Reyvateils have long been viewed as a power source, but now someone wants to exploit that energy to advance civilization. Two groups--the church and a military organization known as Tenba--seek to accomplish their greatest desires with the help of the enchanting songstresses. Their feud over how reyvateils should be treated and growing tensions provide much of the game’s early conflict, while the constant threat from the virus gives nearly everyone in the world a reason to overcome differences.
When Lyner crash lands on the planet surface, he’s thrust right into the center of those struggles, but all he knows is that no one seems interested in treating the reyvateils correctly. Many seem to view them as little more than magical vessels, to be used and then discarded once they’ve outlived their usefulness. Early dialogue sets the mood, such as the moment when you overhear a soldier complaining about recent dives he took into his reyvateil’s cosmosphere.
The cosmosphere is one of the game’s innovations that simply couldn’t exist without the concept of the reyvateil. Essentially, it’s a virtual universe that exists within a reyvateil’s head. By performing a ‘dive,’ a reyvateil’s partner can learn more about his companion’s personality. Meanwhile, the not-quite-human songstress can craft new songs that she will use in battle. This symbiotic relationship is one you’ll experience regularly as you work through Ar Tonelico. You’ll spend many hours reading lines of dialogue--and sometimes, listening as the mostly skillful voice work adds an extra layer of emotion--and spending your dive points to glean new information.
Dive points are another of Ar Tonelico’s innovations. They let you develop each reyvateil from a confused young lady to a competent song crafter. You gain them in one of two ways: by talking to your saucy little reyvateil, or by helping her perform her very best in battle.
The conversations you have with each of your reyvateil companions account for much of the nearly 40 hours you’ll likely spend with the game before truly completing it (subtract 10 or 15 from that number if you settle for one of its premature endings). Each dungeon might contain a glowing crystal that will trigger a short discussion the next time you rest at an inn or pitch a tent in the middle of one of Sol Ciel’s many labyrinths. Likewise, crafting certain items will provide new topics, while supporting your partner in combat or spending too much time chatting with her rivals will have the same effect. If you just want to stop the chatter and kick some virus butt, the game’s simulation aspects will irritate you. There are literally hours of conversation where your only reward is character development. You could gain that all-important new skill at any time, though, which will keep you talking to each leading lady and diving whenever the opportunity presents itself.
Diving is also a requirement if you want to enable the ‘install’ capability (you do). Each new song a reyvateil learns can be enhanced with the grathnode crystals you find scattered around the world, or that you snag from the corpses of those monsters you’ve slain. If you choose to avoid the feature, you’ll probably have a difficult time with Ar Tonelico. If you instead utilize it to its fullest potential, then breezing through the game without dying is a cinch. The system really rewards you for experimentation, which is another thing that makes it so much fun.
All of that leads to combat. You’ll play through a lot of battles, since enemy confrontations are random. Gust kindly included a feature that switches them off once you’ve faced enough of them in a single dungeon, so if you’re having trouble exploring because of constant interruptions, know that they’ll eventually go away and leave you to wander in peace.
That feature definitely is appreciated, since Ar Tonelico’s battles tend to drag on a little longer than normal. The reyvateils are to blame. As a fight begins, you tell your partner which song to sing. From that point, you will be responsible for attacking monsters, defending the reyvateil from physical harm and keeping her magic meter full. Every second she sings, that gauge depletes. At the same time, the song’s effects grow more powerful. The more decisively you smash your adversaries, the heftier your rewards are when a round concludes. Because of this unique dynamic, battles become a lot more interesting. Everything is about the songs.
That includes the game’s soundtrack, which is one of the genre’s most refreshing. You’ll hear wind instruments and pianos and all the sort of stuff you’d expect from a game filled with sunny fields and baby blue skies. But there also are dungeons, long corridors where darkness reigns. The composers took those moments into consideration, as well. From the rousing battle themes to the tender moments when you bare a ryvateil’s soul deep within her cosmosphere, the music is always just right. Whoever is responsible should definitely consider it a triumph, with gamers the fortunate beneficiaries.
Of course, anything less would have made the game a failure. Music is so central to Ar Tonelico’s plot that you face it at every turn. A lackluster soundtrack would have fostered apathy for the whole concept. Thankfully, nothing went wrong. Without ever being obvious about it, Ar Tonelico successfully immerses you in its world, makes you anxious to seek out each new song and experience. Try to fight it and you’ll hate the game. Embrace it and you’ll find yourself wrapped in one of the most unique experiences available, wrapped up nicely in an intriguing story and tied together with the pretty little bow that is the reyvateil. If you’ve been looking for the next great thing and you can put up with a few distractions along the way, you’ve just found it. Role-playing bliss, your name is Ar Tonelico.
Staff review by Jason Venter (February 09, 2007)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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