Some games are aimed at a wide audience, able to be enjoyed by anyone familiar with a controller.  Some games are far more narrow in their appeal, alienating those outside its target audience but being adored by those within it.  Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel is a game that most definitely falls into the latter category.

Ar Tonelico Qoga is the third game in a series of musical anime RPGs by Gust.  It follows the story of Aoto, a young construction worker (called a steeplejack) who has sworn to protect a young girl named Saki.  The story develops at a relatively slow pace and doesn’t begin to get truly interesting until you hit the second chapter and from there it plays out much like an anime would, which is a theme that permeates the entire experience.  Ar Tonelico Qoga is aimed squarely at anime fans, and if you fall into that category you’re definitely going to enjoy the game.  If you don’t, then you may wanna pass this one up.

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Ar Tonelico plays similarly to any other RPG you may have played.  You level up your party by battling opponents and manage equipment and skills outside of combat.  It doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from the previous games in the series besides its battle system, which has changed from a traditional turn based system to a more action oriented battle system reminiscent of Namco’s Tales series.

Although Ar Tonelico mostly plays like an RPG, there’s also a dating sim buried in there.  This means that not only do you have to manage your party’s equipment and performance in combat, you also have to manage Aoto’s relationships with the two female leads.  In theory, this adds depth to the gameplay, but in practice the dating sim aspect isn’t fully developed and mostly relies on a few key choices throughout the game.  It also bogs the game down with conversations between Aoto and the girls that never really go anywhere.  For the most part the dialogue is competently written, but there are some sloppy sections with typos and boring, drawn out conversations that seem to go on forever.

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Ar Tonelico Qoga is a very pretty game, and the spectacular hand drawn backgrounds are breathtaking.  Unfortunately, they don’t mesh so well with the polygonal graphics of the rest of the game.  While everything is wonderfully animated, the characters look like they float over the backgrounds and never really look like they are part of the world at all.  The music, however, is consistently great throughout, although certain songs do repeat far too often.  The voice acting isn’t the greatest, but it gets the job done (with a few poor exceptions).  Oddly, the voice work seems to cut in and out, with scenes voiced or not voiced seemingly at random.

Combat obviously makes up a large portion of the game (as it does in any RPG) and is unfortunately where Ar Tonelico Qoga falls the most flat.  It has an interesting gimmick in that the female Reyvateil (spellcaster) cannot attack and must be protected at all times and your player characters must attack to the beat of the music in order to power her up and unleash devastating spells.  Too bad it doesn’t play out as well as it should.  You only have one attack button and a single 3 hit combo to perform, making every single encounter play out the same.  You rush at the enemy, mash your attack button, and heal when necessary.  There is a pretty cool encounter bar, showing how many random encounters remain in the dungeon.

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Speaking of the dungeons, a map would go a long way to making the game more fun.  Every dungeon is just a maze of corridors between point A and point B with treasure to be found along the alternate paths.  It also would have been nice to see the dungeon design have a little more variety to it.

Despite everything, the single most noticeable thing about Ar Tonelico is just how creepy the whole game is.  Creepy enough that you really won’t want anyone watching you play the game.  The dialogue is sexually suggestive, to say the least, and you power up your Reyvateils in combat by making them strip off their clothing.  Now, the worst part is that the game makes no it no secret that both Reyvateils are underage.  The first time Saki explains that she “Wants you to dive into me” or that “I want to feel you come inside me” is when you’ll be worried that Chris Hanson is about to bust down your door and ask you to “take a seat over there”.  It certainly takes some getting used to, and most definitely isn’t for everyone.

Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel is by no means a bad game.  It is a fairly entertaining, low budget RPG if you can get past the sloppy, sexually charged dialogue and boring battle system.  It’s not a game for everyone, but if you fall into the game’s admittedly niche audience you’re gonna enjoy yourself.

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Title : Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel
Format : PS3
Developer : Gust
Publisher : NIS
Release Date : 03/15/11

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*NIS America provided SlimGamer.com with a review copy.