Writing a review of a sequel is always an interesting endeavor. Not only must you realize what changes from one game to the next, you have to realize if fans of the original will actually enjoy the changes. Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica is quite possibly one of the hardest games I have had to review in quite some time. Mainly because I had never played the original and secondly because this is easily one of the most obscure and deceptively engaging titles I have come across in recent memory. When a game combines busty heroines, bathing, psyche diving, song attacks and boatloads of sexual innuendo you have to step back and realize that if there were a definition of niche, this would certainly be it. Underneath it all though is one of the most finely tuned turn-based RPGs I have ever encountered, and extremely rewarding for those willing to dedicate enough time to learn all it has to offer.
The story behind the Ar tonelico series contains some of the clichë elements found in other JRPGs, but it also benefits from the fact that its history is so rich with content. The second game takes place on Meta Falss, a floating land located on the second tower of Ar Ciel (the first game took place on the first tower). Ar Ciel is a world that has been marred by a history of wars and conflicts that have caused the planet to be uninhabitable. There are three land masses that float above the charred planet, which make up the areas where these games take place. Even though all three lands hover above the same planet none of the residents of each land know about the other two’s existence as they are all located far away from each other.
You begin the game in the shoes of Croix Bartel, a rookie soldier for the Grand Bell. During your normal routine of hunting for infected Reyvateils (more on this in a bit) you run across Cloche Leythal Pastalia, the 33rd Holy Maiden and a veteran Reyvateil. You are entrusted with protecting her from assassination, thus your journey begins. The premise behind the entire game is that Meta Falss is not the most ideal of destinations and everyone believes that through the magic of song a utopia of sorts can be conjured using Reyvateils. Reyvateils are the only beings that can understand and interpret the magic of Hymmnos, which is believed to be the only way to conjure the utopian world, even if it has never been done and is believed to be a myth.
Trust me swallowing all of this info is enough to make your brain expand and hurt, but it really does speak volumes for the amount of depth the creators have poured into the game. The rest of the story is unfolded through hours of dialogue as you develop relationships with some of the most interesting characters I have come across. It is also worth noting that Ar tonelico dives into the dating-sim aspect and allows you to progress a relationship with characters of the opposite sex and will even change the outcome of the ending, of which there are a total of four. Needless to say Melody of Metafalica has enough to keep fans of the genre busy for many months to come.
The battle system in Ar tonelico II works as sort of a hybrid between traditional turn-based affairs with a mix of its own personal panache. Your combatants are setup in a two line row with aggressors in the front and the Reyvateils in the back. This will feel familiar to fans of the original game, but for newcomers it will take some time to adjust. The idea is that the frontline is meant for attacking the enemy, but also to defend the singers in the back row. You can have two fighters out in front and by tapping a specific button during an incoming assault soften or even nullify the damage delivered to your backup. Success is not only rewarded with keeping your party alive, but also with song bonuses that boost the effects of the magic for your Reyvatiels.
There are also an arrangement of special attacks for both the front and back lines. The Reyvatiels increase what is known as a synchronicity bar during successive attacks that will eventually give them the ability to unleash a Synchronicity Chain. This is basically a duet song that is much more powerful than any single song. There are a limited number of these in the game, but once unleashed you can take out even the biggest and strongest enemies in the game. Attackers also have an advanced attack called an EX attack that unleashes a flashy super combo style move reminiscent of summon spells in the Final Fantasy series. Early on in the game these are few and far between so when you get a chance to witness them they are truly an event. However, the later you get into the story they become more and more prevalent making them almost more of a chore than a treat.
As I mentioned earlier you began the game hunting infected Reyvatiels and along your journey in the game you will continue to encounter them. This adds more customization because now you can actually utilize these crazed singers if you manage to defeat them. Once defeated you can use a sort of psychotherapy to cure their madness and persuade them to join your cause. These additional characters can provide countless benefits including elemental damage and equipment bonuses. To level up any of your Reyvatiels though requires a unique and peculiar system that requires you to give these ladies a nice bath. Unlike your frontline attackers these backup vocalists do not gain experience during regular encounters. Instead you will obtain crystals during each confrontation that you mix into a nice soak for your singers. You can also trigger dialogue sequences during bath time as well as add in various items such as toys and herbs. Quite possibly the most interesting way to level up in an RPG ever.
Also making a return for this sequel is the ability to mind meld with your buxom companions. This mode allows you to form a closer bond between you and one of your Reyvatiel companions. This time around the game forces you to focus on one lady and stick with it, as it does decide the outcome of the game. Outside of the social aspect, bonding also has benefits for battle. The closer you get with your virtual BFF the more powerful spells you can obtain. There is also a new feature to Metafalica where you can increase the bond between both of your Reyvatiels. This is known as the Infel Sphere and it also comes with benefits for combat. Mostly comprised of text boxes this side mission will allow you to unlock the aforementioned almighty duet song. Some gamers will likely find this ridiculously cheesy, but I guarantee you there are some that will appreciate the amount of depth to be found in relationship building within the game.
Visually the game rests on the laurels set forth by its predecessors. The simple sprite-based motif has been working for all games of this type and Metafalica takes no chances with innovation. The characters sport minimal animations in general, but the larger attacks are much more involved and visually pleasing. The backgrounds are a mix between 2D planes and 3D visuals creating a unique, but typical layout and the character portraits used in some of the dialogue scenes are beautifully drawn with, once again, limited animations. The cut scenes are the highlight of the visuals which is a good thing considering how many of them there are.
For a game that bases some of its mechanics on music you would expect an outstanding soundtrack to accompany it. Thankfully the score for Metafalica is about as good as they come, and if you managed to snag a copy early on you know that all the more because of the included soundtrack. The melodies range from traditional RPG tunes to more dramatic arrangements featuring fantastic harmonies and outstanding variety. This is quite possibly the best soundtrack I have heard for a game in years definitely deserves credit. The voice work is also well done and for purists the disc contains both English and Japanese tracks. The sound effects are mainly ho-hum, but when everything else excels so much it is hard to fault the game for recycling some sound effects.
Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica may have one of the weirdest names and some even weirder game mechanics, but once you get into it you can really feel that it was a labor of love. There is so much depth and attention to detail in this game that anyone who is remotely a fan of classic turn-based RPGs would be doing themselves a disservice to ignore it. If you are looking for something to entertain you on the long wait until the next top-tier JRPG to come along look no further than NIS and Gust’s latest entry in the Ar tonelico series. It truly is another fantastic addition to the already impenetrable library of RPGs on the PlayStation 2.