Thursday, March 6, 2008

Ar Tonelico Part 4

Game Completion: Pretty much full completion of the Misha path through the game.

Well, I must say Ar tonelico took me quite a bit longer than I expected. What I thought was about 50% ended up being more like 30%. In fact, I think this game is in some ways too long of a game, something which I really need to explain more.

Ar tonelico's plot is split into three phases, each about twenty hours long. It actually has a pretty good structure. The first phase introduces the main characters, explores most of the setting, and establishes the central conflict very successfully. In the second phase, the plot splits into two different paths for most of the phase. At the end of the second phase is a "false" ending (which rather kindly unlocks all the post-game bonus features, which is a nice touch). The third phase has a major change to the cast and mostly re-unifies the two paths, leading up into a proper final battle. What is more, in each phase of the game there is a noticeable increase in the difficulty level (though in this game's case, it is a change from incredibly easy, to easy, to having a small chance of providing a challenge). At its core, this is a solid three-act structure that can be very useful. Unfortunately, it doesn't work very well in this game.

The problem with the structure and pacing of this game is that the third part of the game feels forced and unnecessary, and contradicts and weakens the plot of the previous parts. The center of the story of this game is the love triangle between Lyner, Aurica, and Misha, and it works very well up until the end of the second phase. The split path in the second phase is a choice between an Aurica route or a Misha route, and this split works really well. The (in my opinion, annoying) uncertainty of the love triangle fades away in the second phase, replaced by a visible growing relationship between Lyner and the chosen girl, ending with them falling in love and staying together in the false ending. However, the problem is that this good plot development only really ends properly in a false ending, which is obviously only a part of the way through the game and is very unsatisfying. The beginning of the third phase is based on the hero suddenly fixating on a third girl, Shurelia (a minor character up to that point who sacrificed herself at the end of the second phase), which leads to the reintroduction of the love triangle (with Shurelia added), pretty much ignoring the character development of the second phase. The choices you made in the second phase have an effect again at the true ending of the game, but up until that point the plot of the third phase is extremely focused on the third girl, Shurelia, to the exclusion of the more likable Aurica and Misha who have been developed from the start.

I think Ar tonelico would be a better game if it did not transform Shurelia into a major character so late into the game, after the love triangle had already been resolved. She should probably have either remained a minor character (an ideal for Aurica and Misha to pursue, I suppose), or have been a major character and romance interest for Lyner from the start. Also, building the false ending and third phase around Shurelia specifically puts too much emphasis on her and leaves the false ending as too happy of one, so I would probably have the false ending be based on the girl you have chosen up until that point. For example, the point in the second phase where Misha resumes her role as the Star Singer, singing eternally to seal away the villain, is very similar to the situation Shurelia is placed in for the false ending, and is actually much more dramatic (in fact, it is one of the best scenes in the game). The game cheapens that scene on the Misha route by quickly undoing Misha's sacrifice, so I think that putting a scene like that as the false ending would be more appropriate than leaving it in the middle of a phase.

I suppose that is enough about my complaints concerning the plot. On to the things I liked.

First, I must say that, appropriately enough for a game built around something called Song Magic, the music in Ar tonelico is very good. There are a few tracks that are absolutely terrible (the song played whenever a character is being goofy is jarring and painful), but these are rare, and there are many, many good songs. In particular, the plot important "Hymn Crystal" songs are incredibly good and add a lot to the game. I just wish there was a greater link between activating normal Song Magic in battle and actual music.

Second, I still like the Reyvateil characters (even the third, Shurelia) and their Cosmospheres. Shurelia's Cosmosphere doesn't have the surrealistic charm of the others', but it has more real plot and actual battles, which makes it interesting enough. I wish the strong points of Shurelia's long plot and battle system was combined better with the way the other Cosmopsheres reflected personality and subconscious thought.

Third, despite a few places where the plot gets a bit preachy and cliche in the third phase, I like the way the game breaks from the mold of having characters defeat villains with brute force all of the time. The game could have set up Mir as a sympathetic villain a bit better (it is amazing that they were able to do so at all, considering she is so single-minded on total genocide), but the events of the actual final battle, in which the heros try to convince Mir to end her rampage, is a good sequence and matches the basic premise of the game (the hero helping Reyvateils heal their mental scars) very well.

I am still curious about the Aurica route through the game, but I will probably set this game down for a while. I have been holding back a few other really good games far longer than I intended.

No comments: