Long ago, it was said that [Songs] carried unusual powers. People believed that [Songs] were the hands of mother nature that enveloped the world, and they continued to sing without pause.
With these words, displayed in the game's introduction sequence, we are treated to a glimpse at the premise of Ar tonelico. The game is a joint project between Gust (makers of the Atelier series) and Banpresto (makers of the Super Robot Taisen series). Add NIS America to the mix for the localization, and you have an all-star cast of small-scale teams working together to bring a very unique title to gamers everywhere.
The game looks to be even more eye-opening for US gamers, as much of the gameplay involves a dating-sim aspect that we haven't seen on a Sony console since Red's "Thousand Arms" made it to our shores on PlayStation nearly a decade ago. The premise of the "dating" aspect is innocent enough; you control Lyner, a knight from the upper part of the world, and after being sent to the lower world, you end up getting to know two different girls. But these girls aren't quite human: they're somewhat mechanical, and they're the only people who know how to sing. They're called "Reyvateil," and the two you meet are Misha and Aurica.
Your "compatability" with each girl helps to forge new magic and further the plot in the game. To do this, you must dive into their subconscious and deal with all their various emotions. It's at this point that the innocence begins to fade, because everyone in this world talks about diving with a euphemistic vocabulary that is clearly reminiscent to sexual innuendo. NIS themselves have begun to advertise the game with such slogans as "You never forget your first..."
The whole dating sim aspect is put in the middle of a fairly epic RPG experience, however. Lyner's world is actually just one floating island (with a few island chains surrounding it) high above the sea. In the middle of the island (which has multiple layers of land vertically) there is a tower that connects the world. Halfway up the tower is a barrier that keeps most commoners out, and the upper tier holds the secrets of the world and the most powerful people. As it turns out, Lyner is the son of the ruler up on the top, but Lyner has made the choice to defend his country as a knight rather than venture into politics. After a serious crisis, you are sent to the lower world to retrieve a "Hymn Crystal" that has the power to stop the evil forces (called "viruses") from taking over. That's how it all starts.
Much of the graphic and user interface is lifted straight out of Atelier Iris 1 and 2, so for fans of those titles, there doesn't seem to be much difference, at least in the first few hours of play. What is different is the way battles take place and characters grow. Your party can hold up to three fighters, and then one Reyvateil in the back. The Reyvateil continually sings throughout battle (much like a Bard's role in an MMORPG), and depending on the song chosen, various things can happen. There is a lot of complexity to the battle system, and winning will not be determined solely by who has the best equipment and the highest levels. Knowing your stuff is what matters in the game's battle system.
The more you use Misha or Aurica, the more "DP" (dive points) you earn. These points are used to enter the adventure/dating-sim mode of the game, which is "diving." If you think you're in for some sort of lolilicious panty-shot treat, you better import some other game. In Ar tonelico, your time spent "getting to know" your girls is hardly pleasant. Their subconscious is broken into layers, and as you descend deeper into each layer, they change costume, personality, and even age! Despite the cute talk that relates diving to sex, what you're really doing is playing the role of a counselor and fixing their various emotional problems after years of abuse by previous owners: in Aurica's case, the church, and in Misha's case, an organization hell-bent on furthering technology. So far, the only thing I can safely say is that it's going to get interesting, and it may help some poor saps snap back into reality and learn how fragile people can be (both male and female).
And, since it is a Gust title, there is item synthesis. In this world, it's called "Grathmelding." Every item you make can be named one of a few different options, and your Reyvateil (who helps you with the Grathmelding process) usually has her own suggestion. It's not the all-consuming feature that it was in the Atelier series, but fans will probably be happy to know that it's in this game too.
The first few hours of gameplay sport some lovely video sequences that combine anime visuals with 3D computer graphics, as well as some excellent music (which is to be expected from a game that makes music a key point in its plot). The graphical weaknesses, thus far, fall on the repetitive dungeon designs.
Expect a full, comprehensive review of Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia upon its release in February. Also, should this preview catch your interest, don't forget to preorder the item from NIS America! The preorder bonuses include a hardcover artbook and a soundtrack: not too shabby.