Ar Tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica Review
Although the day of traditional JRPGs is fast disappearing behind us, there are a few that continue to arrive on the aging PS2. Those who have become familiar with the genre over the past decade know what to expect: cutesy, appealing characters with that patented Japanese flair, colorful, diverse environments, and a storyline that’s well worth following. The best part is that most titles in this genre have offered many different styles of combat while the WRPGs of its time typically stuck to a standard real-time hack ‘n slash formula. The truth is, you never really knew what to expect from a JRPG when it came to the battles, and Ar Tonelico II: Melody of MetaFalica only proves that developers like Gust are often endlessly creative in this capacity. This sequel is actually a lot better than you might’ve expected and if you’re disappointed in the lack of similar titles this generation, it’s a great buy. It’s great if you’ve often opined, “where o where has my JRPG gone?”
The graphics aren’t quite as refined as we would’ve liked, as the sprite characters are found lacking in the way of detail and polish and the backdrops aren’t overly impressive. We have seen better examples of JRPG-style visual palettes in the past on the PS2, and that’s somewhat disappointing. On the other hand, there’s a good amount of variety and creativity in the environmental and enemy designs, and the graphics are mostly consistent throughout your adventure. This was before the time when graphical hitches and glitches could cripple a game – developers can encounter such issues in a new generation where graphics have become more important than ever – and we appreciate the solid reliability of MetaFalica’s look. One could easily accuse the designers of producing some clichéd characters and you could also nitpick a little when it comes to the special effects, which aren’t exactly mind-blowing, but that’s unnecessary in our eyes. The bottom line is that fans of this genre won’t be impressed, but they won’t be unhappy, either.
The sound is much better and features more of a universal appeal thanks to an excellent soundtrack and a goodly array of clear sound effects. Even the voice acting, which one would assume might be atrocious based on JRPG history, actually isn’t that bad; the main characters are quite good despite a few minor characters that grate and irritate. The music really is wonderfully implemented and even inspired in many situations, especially when you’re just wandering around, exploring the different locales and environments. There’s also a great balance between the soundtrack, effects, and voiceovers, as everything seems to come together in a well-orchestrated package. There could’ve been more in the way of different exclamations in battle and more in-your-face effects, but other than these minor complaints, the sound presentation in Melody of MetaFalica adds a great deal to the experience. And lest we forget, the purpose of sound is to act as an immersion-inducing accoutrement to our game playing; here, Gust’s sound guys do their job admirably.
The gameplay is an interesting blend of real-time and turn-based elements, and this includes almost every aspect of your adventure. Ar Tonelico II: Melody of MetaFalica is indeed story-driven as you will learn all about the troubled kingdom, Rayveteils, Song Magic, the Sacred Army and the mysterious pasts of many significant and intriguing characters. You will wander about in what appears to be an entirely hand-drawn landscape, and although the wilderness areas and towns aren’t large by any stretch of the imagination, they remain accessible and relatively easy to traverse. The standard style is in place when exploring a new city; you will talk to NPCs, visit shops, and attempt to pick up new information concerning your current quest. It’s when you’re in the field when everything starts to open up and become both unique and entertaining, even if it’s there’s too much emphasis on fighting and not enough focus on the actual exploration.
It’s easy enough to run around, check the map, find some boxes with goodies, and try to spot a few hidden areas here and there. But this gets a little tiresome after a while, which is why the combat must act as the primary saving grace…and thankfully, it does just that. You will face random encounters in the field and in the traditional JRPG format, the enemies sit on the left while your party is on the right. This real-time/turn-based hybrid isn’t like anything else you’ve played, although it won’t take long to learn. Basically, each side – not each character, mind you – gets a turn, and you have a certain amount of time to do whatever you wish. When the ball is in your court, the timer immediately begins and you have to choose which characters to use, and how to use them. The designers streamline this concept by simply assigning each character to a face button on the controller; your lead character will be controlled with the Square button, for example, and a character in the rear will be controlled with the Circle button.
But here’s where things get interesting. Depending on which direction you select on the directional pad, your character will perform a certain attack. So if you hit up and X, Croix will perform a special skill, and if you hit down and Square, he will execute an entirely different skill (and one could be long-range while the other is up-close-and-personal). You can select any character you wish and have them perform any action you wish, provided you have time left; you can even open up the Battle Menu with the Triangle button to select Items and target enemies. The best part comes when you have a Rayveteil in your party; these are the magicians of the game and they use the extremely effective Song Magic. When a battle begins, you can select a Song you wish your Rayveteil to sing and she will begin spinning out the song. However, during this time, you have to protect her as it will take several turns to prepare the Song, which can either be offensive or supportive in nature.
Protecting the Rayveteil has you watching a small meter that shows up near your characters in battle: when an enemy goes to strike, a bar slides across the meter and you have to hit the Square button as close as you can to the Red target line. The closer you get, the more effective your block will be. If the enemy goes to launch multiple attacks, multiple lines will come across the meter and you’ll have to be fast and accurate. The more attacks that get through, the less effective that Song will be. Furthermore, you have to keep an eye on the Emotion Indicator, which tells you how the Rayveteil is feeling during battle, and will also tell you how to fill the graph in order to build up the effectiveness of the Song. The graph relies on the attacks you use in battle; the more ferocious your strikes are, the happier your Rayveteil becomes, and thus, the more you will benefit from her Song. Chances are, in random encounters, an offensive Song spell can eliminate everything on the screen, so you can’t possibly discount the importance of Song Magic throughout the game.
Oh, and you will meet more Rayveteils in your travels, all of whom you can speak to when you go to Rest in the field. You will have conversations with them and as a nice little side-quest, you can try to open up all the conversations – denoted by a simple chart – with every Rayveteil. Now, all of this works extremely well and as we said, because combat is the primary focus of the game, this original fighting mechanic is most appreciated. The only real problem we have is that we could’ve used more time for our turn (although we understand the rapidity of the timer as it speeds things up), and sometimes, you find yourself mashing buttons in random encounters. We really liked how they designed a lot of the battle around Song Magic, but there are other characters, including the protagonist (Croix), who seem almost superfluous far too often. Sure, you’ll open up new battle skills for everyone, but you would always be well aware of the fact that your party is only effective with a Rayveteil.
Ar Tonelico II: Melody of MetaFalica provides JRPG fans with a very cool combat mechanic that is entertaining enough to sustain you throughout the lengthy quest. There isn’t enough in the way of exploration and the emphasis on Song Magic makes everything feel a little one-sided, but the concept is solid. The characters are appealing and even lovable, the storyline is good, the soundtrack is fantastic, and although the graphics fall a little short, the technicals are decent. It’s one of the better JRPGs of the past year on the PS2, and although only fans of the genre should apply, they’ll likely find enough reasons to keep coming back for more.
3/30/2009 Ben Dutka