Game Review: Ar nosurge

Ar nosurge ~The Song that Prays for an Unborn Star~
GUST CO., 2012

No pictures this time, because the PS3 can’t take screenshots. Sorry, you’ll have to wait for the professional reviews. Or watch videos.

Is there beauty in imperfection, even in games?

I find it difficult to begin this review, because I know the conclusion I have to come to—Ar nosurge is objectively a bad game, and is likely to disappoint to all but the most fervent fan of the Ar tonelico series or of JRPGs in general. Yet I don’t personally find myself disappointed by it, and I wonder if there’s something I’m failing to realize… about the game, or about myself. Am I blinded by nostalgia? Do I just like bad games? Or can a game be worthwhile solely on the basis of what it tried to accomplish, no matter how many fatal flaws it has?

Those questions should be left for later. First, let me explain why Ar nosurge forces them to be asked.

Ar tonelico and Ar nosurge

In my previous review of Ciel nosurge, Ar nosurge‘s prequel, I wrote a little about Akira Tsuchiya, the creator and director of the Surge Concerto series which both games are a part of. For that review, I assumed everyone who was interested in Ciel nosurge probably had an inkling of who Tsuchiya was and the previous games he has created. I feel like going into more detail this time, for the benefit of anyone who doesn’t.

First of all, there’s Gust Co. Ltd. They were a Japanese game studio that originally formed in 1993 to release doujin games for the PC, but soon became an official developer for the Sony PlayStation. In 1997, they released Atelier Marie, which was a smash hit that has outsold all of their other games to date with over 200,000 copies sold. The Atelier games, a long-running and loosely connected series of RPGs that focus upon item creation, remain their flagship product to this day.

In 2011, Koei Tecmo purchased the company for the stated purpose of developing cell phone games out of the Atelier franchise, and in 2014 after several financially unsuccessful game releases (including the Surge Concerto series) Gust was absorbed into Koei Tecmo as an in-house development team. The future of the Surge Concerto series, and of Akira Tsuchiya as a game director, are uncertain.

Who is Akira Tsuchiya? A composer by trade, he joined Gust Co. in 1998, where he composed music for several of the early Atelier games as well as a few unrelated titles. However, in 2006, he was given the chance to direct his own RPG: Ar tonelico, for the PS2. It was modestly successful and received one sequel on the PS2 and a third game on the PS3. His second game series, Surge Concerto, started with the sim game/visual novel Ciel nosurge on the PS Vita. Ar nosurge, its sequel, is a proper RPG.

Why is Ar tonelico important to Ar nosurge? Well, the obvious reason—which is a bit of a spoiler, but one revealed by the website and promotional materials—is that you revisit (or rather previsit) its setting in Ar nosurge and meet several characters that were featured in Ar tonelico. As a result, you need to have played at least the first Ar tonelico game to fully appreciate the direction that Ar nosurge‘s story takes. (It won’t ruin the experience if you haven’t, though—and building up a few years of nostalgia is probably important as well.)

The more subtle reason that the Ar tonelico series is important is that having played it gives you an idea of what to expect from Tsuchiya’s games. He has never had the resources to properly depict the settings he’s thought up (if it’s even possible within the medium of RPGs,) and an awareness of the various ways in which he’s failed gives you an idea of what to look for to appreciate them a little more. Game systems that seem like fanservice, like the hero and heroine powering up by bathing together, become slightly less puerile when you’re aware that Tsuchiya has written pages upon pages about how he struggles to depict the bonds of love in his stories and that Surge Concerto, while still a little naughty, is considerably more wholesome than any of the Ar tonelico games were. I could go on, but there’s little reason to; either you share my perspective or you don’t.

And ultimately, I might just be an apologist, trying to justify problems with games that are still problems no matter what context you try to put them in. If I were to try and come up with an analogy, looking at the Ar tonelico and Surge Concerto games evokes emotions in me a bit like those of a parent looking at their young child’s clumsy scribbles of the mighty heroes who will save the world. But Tsuchiya has had seven years to emerge from game design infancy. And I really shouldn’t patronize him, especially since he’s far from the only person at fault for Surge Concerto being the failure that it is.

The Facts of the Matter

Let’s begin with the graphics.

First, the good news. ntny, Surge Concerto’s art director and chief illustrator, is a talented fellow—especially when he gets to take his time a little, as was evidently the case with the character designs and their concept art. The 3D models for the key characters are pretty decent (though the longer-haired ones like Casty conspicuously suffer from hairstyles apparently held in place by epoxy,) and those parts of the game they put particular effort into animating like the item creation dances are a delight to watch. The illustrated backgrounds for towns are also lovely.

Unfortunately, that’s the limit of my positivity. The graphics are heavily recycled throughout the game; almost every NPC uses one of the same handful of models, and many of the environments look nearly identical as well. Every Ar tonelico game did similar things, but it’s far more excusable in 2D than in 3D.

While Ciel nosurge also suffered from reused graphics, one of the nice things about it is that every major character had a couple of unique animations, and were constantly in motion; even if you’d seen the animation many times before, it made the characters feel alive. In Ar nosurge, animations hardly exist. One episode of the game that stuck with me was when the characters open a door, and it’s indicated only by a sound effect, after which they stand around and chat about the supposedly open (but to all appearances closed) door. On another occasion, the antagonists catch our heroes hiding from them behind a partition; the heroes stare blankly forward at the wall as if unaware they’ve been discovered, while right next to them, the antagonists discuss their presence. Characters will often stand stock still with impassive expressions during dramatic scenes, even as they shout emotionally in the voice acting.

The game has a number of 2D illustrations that are displayed onscreen during cutscenes and the Genometrics, but many of them are noticeably sloppy and lacking in detail. Cynicism leads me to suspect that they were used because they were cheaper than properly animating the events in 3D. There are also anime cutscenes, which look decent enough, but are somewhat odd to watch as the characters don’t look very much like their 3D models do.

There’s less to complain about in the audio department. The soundtrack is composed chiefly by veteran Gust musician Daisuke Achiwa and one of their newer composers, Kazuki Yanagawa. Yanagawa debuted as a Gust employee with some atrocious work on the Ar tonelico 3 soundtrack, but he’s been whipped into shape since and can crank out pretty solid tunes now, and Achiwa has always been good. Ar nosurge‘s music doesn’t reach the lofty heights of Ar tonelico 2‘s, back when Tsuchiya himself still had the free time to compose most of his own music, but that’s just the difference between a Gust soundtrack being “excellent” and “mind-blowing.”

The voice cast remains decent, but unlike Ciel nosurge, a majority of text in the game is unvoiced—you can only count on the most dramatic scenes in the central plot and the Genometrics having voices. It’s a shame, but obviously happened due to the game’s lacking budget rather than anyone’s poor decisions.

In stark contrast to the Ar tonelico series, the combat system of Ar nosurge is probably the least flawed part of the game. It feels like a refined version of Ar tonelico 2‘s combat; there’s an attack phase in which you can choose from a variety of attacks to launch against the enemy (generally it won’t end until you’ve used them all up,) and a defense phase in which you must press buttons with the proper timing to defend your partner. In Ar tonelico 2, there wasn’t much depth to the combat; when attacking, it didn’t much matter which buttons you pressed. But while you can button mash your way through battles in Ar nosurge on normal difficulty (luckily the harder difficulties are available from the start,) the system rewards using a modicum of tactics and thinking about what you’re doing can carry you through fights with considerably greater speed and efficiency.

A unique feature of the combat is that you can defeat every enemy in the area at once; they come in about 10-30 waves, and if you run out of turns or use your song magic before it’s at full power, the combat ends early and you’ll fight the remaining foes later. I have to wonder if it’s because of this feature that all the areas are extremely small; they’re three modestly sized screens at the longest. Whether it was deliberate or not, it makes the game’s world feel minuscule and lazily designed, even though larger areas might make it feel empty and lifeless with only one encounter per area. The Ar tonelico series never had good area design, so I suppose this is pretty much to be expected.

In any case, the game’s other systems are straight out of Ar tonelico 2 as well. You can engage in ‘purification’ with your partner, which entails taking a bath together and chatting about various subjects, as well as equipping ‘crystallized emotions’ you unlock in the Genometrics. Items are created by working together with shopkeepers, an endeavour whose value lies more in the amusing conversations prompted by the act than the usefulness of the items themselves. Genometrics are basically the same thing as Cosmospheres; you can dive into various characters’ psyches and explore the worlds they’ve unconsciously created. By resolving their inner fears, you’ll unlock more powerful song magic for your partner to use. The ability to visit the Genometrics of nearly every important character helps greatly to develop them, deftly avoiding issues like how in Ar tonelico 2 you came to know the shopkeepers better than your own party members.

But paradoxically, Ar nosurge‘s story might be better if you don’t know the characters all that well.

I haven’t completed the entire story, but let me summarize my reaction upon playing enough of the game to see the direction the plot was heading: “Oh, look, it’s the same people up to the same shit as they tried and failed to do in Chapter 4 of Ciel nosurge. And Chapter 8. And Chapter 12.” While the antagonists aren’t particularly bad characters in their own right and have adequate motivations to try and try again to accomplish their ultimate goal, it’s just getting tiring at this point, and I’ve gone so far as to compare the plot of Surge Concerto to Pinky and the Brain if one were expected to take that show seriously. I’m not really that interested in knowing what happens next anymore (since it’s almost undoubtedly some variation of “the antagonists will fail and then try to do the same thing again.”) If some amazing twist that will turn the central plot upon its head is yet to happen, it’s going to be too little, too late.

As a tangent illustrative of Ar nosurge‘s general sloppiness, the dialogue in the game was written by a multitude of different writers and they don’t seem to have paid attention to what anyone else was doing. Several of the Genometrics and even the tutorials will casually reveal spoilers about the main story long before you’re supposed to find them out, and there’s incessant moments of typical RPG dissonance like Nay complaining that her restaurant has no customers while the entire town is there taking shelter from the invading monsters.

Since an RPG is ultimately made or broken by its story, that’s about all there is to it.

Ode to an Unrealized Dream

But was this really the way it should be?

I claimed in my Ciel nosurge review that despite the game’s many flaws, I still liked it because it was a labor of love that had high ambitions but fell short of them. That was an oversimplification. If I could appreciate games simply on the basis of their creators’ ambition and passion, I don’t think I’d feel so much self-doubt over the fact (and would probably like a much wider variety of games.) A better way to put it is that I believe it’s necessary to appreciate stories like that of the Surge Concerto series. I say ‘stories’ because I don’t really need to make the statement specific to games.

How many other stories take place half in the mechanical halls of a spaceship fleeing from a dying world, half upon a recreation of that world crafted above it through the powers of feeling and song? How many stories incorporate the reader, player or what have you as more than an avatar (well, there’s an avatar too, but you’ll see the difference)? How many stories are about those abducted from another world threatening its existence with their very presence, rather than being its destined saviors? Not enough. And I’m not saying those specific plot elements are what’s extraordinary about Ar nosurge, but the fact that its story, as clumsily as it’s told, doesn’t just retread the footsteps of what has come before.

Polished fantasy games like Dragon Age or the Elder Scrolls series may have come up with some twists in regards to the political structure of the world and the role of each race, but they’re still slaves to Tolkien. Leading JRPG series like Final Fantasy, Tales and Shin Megami Tensei are just retreading their own footsteps at this point. It seems one has to make a choice between originality and execution, and I know which one I’ve chosen.

That’s why Surge Concerto was a worthwhile experience for me. That’s why I felt the need to write, in advance, a counterpoint to those who will unsparingly judge Ar nosurge on its objective merits and find it to be the opposite of worthwhile. But they won’t be wrong, and I’m still not sure that I’m right.

Are you willing to invest yourself in a flawed dream, like I did?

Perhaps that’s the only question that needs to be asked.

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