Most of you are probably wondering what I’m thinking, writing something like this so after the fact. More importantly, why am I not working on my translations day and night, am I right!? This review is coming way after the fact, but I’m writing it following the announcement of Ar tonelico 2 for US release. Basically, I just had a lot of thoughts that I desperately wanted to get down. They were floating around in my head and I can’t get any translating done like this. So if you have some time and perhaps some interest in playing this game (is there anyone left like that?) maybe it will be useful.
Now I’m a fan of action RPGs, but that is a recent trend in my tastes. Like most all gamers, my first experiences in the RPG world were turn based. I may have fallen out of love with the concept of turn based games, but every once in a while, I really get into one. Ar tonelico had enough innovation that it was interesting to play, though I wouldn’t necessarily call it groundbreaking in any way. During combat, the player controls 3 combat characters and one Reyvateil. Reyvateils are the only spellcasters, handling all powerful magic which breaks down into support, healing, and attack varieties. Combat characters work to weaken enemy defense while dealing damage, which increases the potential power of song magic. Including the main character, there are 5 combat characters and 3 Reyvateils in the game. Who you use is really mostly dependent upon who you have the best equipment for and who is available at the time. The special combat moves in the game aren’t really worth too much, most damage will either be done by pure brute force from your combat characters or spells cast by Reyvateils.
The turn based system is pretty pure. The only exception to it are the Reyvateils, whose attacks are charged as the battle proceeds and can interrupt the normal flow of battle. More detailed systems exist within the game, but the only way to truly understand them is to play with them. New song magic is obtained by using the “Dive System” to interact with individual Reyvateils. In addition, the player learns much about the backstory for the Reyvateils is told through this system. The best items are created using a system called “Grathmelding”. It’s a fairly basic item creation mechanic that involves combining old equipment and various materials. There are certainly more things that I could go into about the mechanics, but that’s not what I really want to focus on with this review. I will state that I was fairly impressed with the basic game mechanics, they kept me interested without becoming overly complicated or distracting me from the main story.
If there is anything worth praising in Ar tonelico, it is without a doubt the soundtrack. The game centers around music, so it’s understandable that they would put a lot of focus on the music. The hymns are certainly some of my favorite tracks on the OST, but sadly, they were left completely untranslated. That aside, the music in Ar tonelico was well timed and none of it felt overused. Likewise, the battle theme changed between the different sections of the game, which helped them to stay fresh. Dungeon music was usually unique to the area or changed based on game progress. Considering the length of the dungeons, the encounter rate, and the limited number of areas in the game, I certainly have to give credit to the music for preventing the game from feeling repetitive.
Ar tonelico includes an option to play the game with either the original Japanese voiceover or the English dub. I personally found the English to be somewhat difficult on the ears, and given that I wanted to evaluate the translation anyway, I opted to play the game in Japanese. And so began my problems… First of all, I don’t know if they changed the sound levels or what, but with the default settings, it’s almost impossible to hear the Japanese audio. You have to crank the BGM and SFX way down for them to be audible. That was an annoyance early on, but once someone told me how to correct it, it got a little better. My second complaint is that cutscenes are in English no matter what audio option you choose. Now I realize that they would have to have included both videos for the audio to change, but they honestly should have done it. Having a sudden and unexpected language shift is like waking up to a bucket of cold water.
Getting down to the voice acting itself, most of my experience was with the Japanese voice acting. I haven’t played the entire game in English, though I did play some of the important scenes over again in English. The Japanese voice acting was average. Not great, not bad, just average. Some characters really surpassed their roles while others were underperformers. I don’t feel the need to comment on characters individually, but overall, it was a decent enough performance. Lyner has some of the corniest lines that I’ve ever heard, but that’s the fault of the script, not the voice actor. Additionally, it would have been nice to have had more of the main story include voice acting, but that’s a complaint that can’t be helped at this point.
If I had to make one comment on the English cast, it would be that their performance is very flat. They fail to capture all of the emotional ups and downs of some of the important events and it really makes it hard to enjoy. Many of the characters, particularly the females, sound much older than I think they should. The actors are trying way too hard with normal dialogue and then often not trying hard enough when they need to put some feeling into it. I was also disappointed that they didn’t make any attempt to translate the Hymns, especially the ending theme. That song isn’t just there to sound cool, it really embodies a lot of what the journey was about, what the world is made of. By leaving the hymns in Japanese, the player experiences NONE of that. I realize that translating songs like these is one of the hardest things for a translator to do, but the entire ending hinges on Phantasmagoria, so much of the meaning is lost without it.
Characters and Story **No Spoilers**
Ar tonelico has a very dating-sim-esque structure to it. I think that’s a big part of what I didn’t like about it. By letting the player decide on the ending, it really didn’t feel very powerful. Even in games with multiple endings, especially ones with sequels, there is usually a sense that one of the endings is the “true ending”. Tales of Symphonia might be case-in-point. With Ar tonelico, I really didn’t feel like the game had a conclusive ending. Because the game wanted to make ANY of the endings seem possible, it made it feel like none of them were truly conclusive.
The thing I hate the most about the dating-sim model is usually the main character. The character is supposed to embody the player. So the character has to be an everyman, but for some reason, he always becomes a faceless void. I will praise Ar tonelico in that Lyner did have some personality. However, the multiple endings forced him to be a wishy-washy idiot when it came to interaction with the female characters. For much of the game, he was a very flat character. It wasn’t until the final stretch that he finally grew into someone interesting. The supporting cast honestly felt pretty weak to me. Most of the character backstories only scratched the surface. As a result, I hardly felt any connection to companions that I was supposed to be fighting alongside. I chose my party based on pure strength, because their personalities really didn’t matter much to me. The exception, of course, were the three Reyvateils. The entire dive system focused on providing them additional (and much needed) backstory. Without the dive system, I’m not sure that I would have completed the game. The group felt like a bunch of people who liked fighting and dungeon crawling, because for most of them, if they had some deeper reason for fighting, it never felt very strong.
Ar tonelico had an interesting world and a varied set of characters to work with. It built itself a strong foundation that should have allowed a great story to be built on top of it. Unfortunately, like the Tower of Ar tonelico itself, the story was built straight up. The story certainly was interesting, but without any of the supporting structure, the world was unable to expand and grow. It felt very small. Only a few cities seemed to have more than 20 residents since the game did a poor job of creating the illusion of depth. Even the main cast lacked the essential depth that should have been a basic element of the story. It was a sad waste of a good setup.
Ar tonelico’s translation was uninspiring at best and downright awful at worst. If Odin Sphere is the example of how to translate a game, Ar tonelico is a guide of how not to. Character dialogue was often very dry, most of the characters were not but shells of their Japanese selves. Perhaps the biggest downfall of the translated script was the lack of subtlety. Games that want to work romance without actually having to bring it to fruition live and die on their ability to drop subtle hints. And Ar tonelico was a case where it certainly died with it. Further, mistranslations abounded. Awkward word choice and further contributed to an unnatural feeling that I just couldn’t shake. They translated “utahime” as “singing princess”. Seriously!? I don’t know anyone in their right mind who would look at those kanji as separate entities. Singer, songstress – practically anything would have been a better choice. There were also some unexplained changes to names (Tenpa to Tenba), but those sorts of things often occur in localization, so I’m sure there was some reasoning behind those changes. That being said, I would have translated countless lines very differently.
There were also some things that I could hardly believe I was seeing in an official game. I’m not even sure if they managed to implement a variable width font. The ellipses were all off on their spacing, likewise many words like “Leaf” didn’t seem to space out correctly. Often times, the more expensive items in the game would overrun the windows, making costs of 50,000 look like 150,000. Likewise, some item names were so long that they barely fit on-screen much less inside of their respective boxes. The font they used was rather displeasing as well. The capital “A” looked so much like a capital “R” that I honestly thought one of the girls names was “Rurica” at first glance. Frankly, it was just a haphazard localization. The kinds of mistakes and oversights made in this localization were things that I don’t even forgive in fan translation, so certainly to see them in a real localization was a bit of a shock and a disappointment.
Ar tonelico is the most fantastically average game that I have played in quite some time. I don’t mean it was bad average. I don’t mean it was good average either. I mean it was practically a non-event for me. I put 50 hours into the game and I hardly know what to think of it. I do recommend playing the game, if for no other reason than to experience the battle system and the music. Plus, I admit, I have never played a game that is so perfectly average. I have played truly bad games and I have played truly great ones. Most fall to one side or the other, but Ar tonelico is the most truly average game that I have ever played. That being said, I think the game has preformed beyond expectations. It seems to have a fair number of dedicated fans, which I think is admirable for a game of its nature. I think I will probably be buying the sequel when it comes out. I believe that the world has a lot of potential, there is so much possibility. I hope that the sequel can show how much NIS America has improved since the first game.