Every avid gamer out there has at least one series — or perhaps even just one game — that they latch onto and will defend to the death.
For my friend Alex, it was the Ar Tonelico series, a generation-spanning series of role-playing games from Gust, the team best-known for the Atelier series. And, once I’d played through all three games in the series, I became a true believer, too.
I came to Ar Tonelico and its two sequels quite a while after their initial release, but they’re not as old as you might think — or as their dated graphics might suggest. In fact, the initial games’ release on the PlayStation 2 just as the PlayStation 3 was starting to wind up and capture the attention of everyone probably contributed to the fact that, although rather wonderful, these three games are somewhat underappreciated by many, and even unknown to some.
So let’s rectify that, shall we?
The three Ar Tonelico games are all their own separate adventures, but they all unfold in the same world and share a common mythology as well as some common themes and ideas.
One particularly prominent common aspect between all three games is the presence of a huge tower, stretching from the poisoned surface of the planet on which the games’ casts live all the way up into the heavens. To varying degrees throughout the course of each of the three games, you’ll find yourself exploring and climbing this tower, attempting to discover the secrets hidden within. When you’re not doing that, you’re immersing yourselves in the culture of the people who live on and around the towers. And when you’re not doing that, you’re delving into the minds of your companions to discover what really makes them tick.
It’s this latter aspect in particular that elevated Ar Tonelico from a competent series of RPGs (albeit with great soundtracks) to a series I will happily champion to anyone who will listen.
Dubbed the “Dive” system, the three Ar Tonelico games each provide you with at least two female companions who play an important part in the overall unfolding story. As Reyvateils — women who are able to unleash powerful magic through singing — they are an important part of the overall Ar Tonelico lore, which is deep and complicated, but it’s their personal stories that you explore over the course of the three games that prove to be by far the most compelling.
Diving is a system whereby a Reyvateil and her partner can share such an intimate moment with one another that the latter is able to effectively jump inside the former’s mind and explore her innermost thoughts. A Reyvateil’s mind is layered, however, and her most secret desires and impulses are buried deep within herself, inaccessible to anyone except those with whom she shares the tightest of bonds.
What was surprising to me as I explored the Ar Tonelico series in detail was quite how hard-hitting and uncompromising these “Dive” sequences proved to be. While often presented in a humorous, light-hearted and slapstick way, in many cases the personal stories told therein dealt with familiar, real-life issues such as depression, anxiety, inferiority complexes, guilt over sexuality and all manner of other meaty stuff. And, moreover, it treated these issues with sensitivity and respect.
Let’s take Finnel, one of the heroines of the third game in the series, as an example. Finnel initially appears to be a fairly conventional tsundere sort of character, being thoroughly hot-and-cold towards the protagonist Aoto in the early hours of the story.
As the narrative progresses, though, we start to learn more about Finnel. We start to learn secrets about her, both within and outside her mind. It’s not long before you’ll start seeing this quick-to-anger but somewhat shy young girl in a whole new light, particularly once her masochistic tendencies start to become apparent.
In an interesting twist on conventional tropes, Aoto doesn’t act as a “magic bullet” to fix all of Finnel’s problems with a few well-chosen words. In fact, in the layer of her mind where her particular proclivities come to light, it becomes very apparent that she doesn’t particularly want to be “saved” — at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, in a rather touching scene, she pledges herself to Aoto, on the understanding that he will be her new “master”, and that it’ll be their little secret. It’s a curious scene that could have easily been completely fetishised, but instead it comes across as very genuine; an expression of how these characters really feel about one another. And it’s far from an isolated example: throughout the rest of the series, each of the main Reyvateil heroines have their own fascinating sequence of events to play through and explore, and in many cases these are more compelling than even the games’ main plotlines.
This isn’t to say that the main plots aren’t worth paying attention to, however. Quite the opposite, in fact; the setting of Ar Tonelico is one of the most well-realised fantasy worlds I’ve ever had the pleasure of encountering. Its lore runs deep and is consistently well-handled between the three games — the second in particular has a delightful surprise for those who saw the first game through to its “true” conclusion — and the overall setting is convincing and believable while still being imaginative and fantastic, with much of its strength coming from implication and a sense of “show, don’t tell” rather than bombarding the player with information.
And on this note, it would be remiss of me not to mention Hymmnos, the game’s fully functional fictional language, used in lore terms by Reyvateils to summon up their song magic by interfacing with ancient machinery, and in game terms as part of some of the most spectacular pieces of music you’ll ever hear in a piece of entertainment, any medium. Don’t believe me when I say it’s fully functional? Educate yourself.
If you understand the Hymmnos language, the songs which are sung in it throughout the series have particular emotional resonance, but even if you don’t there’s little denying the sheer, visceral power of these pieces of music blasting your senses, often at the most dramatic moments in the story. Composed with beautifully thick, rich, complex textures — and a surprising amount of variety in their compositional styles — the Hymmnos pieces are very much a highlight of the Ar Tonelico experience, and proof if proof were needed that Gust’s sound team is one of the very finest in the business.
So should you play these games today? Absolutely. The first game in particular has not aged all that well graphically — it looked like a PS1 game even on its original PS2 release — but it’s still a solid RPG with a fascinating story. Arguably the high point of the series is the second game Melody of Metafalica, but the series’ jump to PS3 in the form of Ar Tonelico Qoga is well worth your time and attention, too.
There’s also the fact that Ar no Surge has just arrived on Western shores after many doubted it would make it over. Ar no Surge, for the uninitiated, acts as a prequel to the series as a whole, and features many of the elements fans have come to know and love over time — including Diving into the heroines’ minds, and bathing with them in order to both power them up and improve your intra-party relationships. If you’re looking for a new RPG with which to spend your time, you could certainly do far worse than jump on board with this fascinating series.
And if you want to get your hands on your very own copy of Ar no Surge as your starting point with the series? Well, NeoGAF user kiryogi has very kindly offered to give a copy away. Check out this thread for details… and with any luck, I’ll see you halfway up a tower to the stars sometime very soon.