Music has long since been a major theme in video games, but itís only recently that developers have begun using music as an actual foundation for gameplay. Granted, the entire rhythm/dance genre centers on music, but when another genre does something similar, itís a rare Ė and often special Ė thing. Lunar: Silver Star Story Complete for the PS1 played out more like a musical than a cinematic RPG, and Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure was another PS1 RPG that utilized music as a cornerstone for the gameplay build. And now, Gust and NIS America are implementing that same idea for the upcoming Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia for the PS2.
One might be able to describe it as "musical warfare," but the concept is even more original than you may believe. There appears to be an obscene level of depth on display in this one, along with a magical and almost surreal adventure. Set in the colorful world of Sol Ciel, a planet far outside any solar system in reality, you will find yourself amidst floating continents in a bright blue sky. A central tower, called Ar Tonelico, is the landís centerpiece, and youíll learn the country had been destroyed and rebuilt twice; the second time from viruses escaping the tower. But from there on, Gust brings the theory of musical battles into play, evidently giving the player an ultra-original gameplay experience.
Sol Ciel isnít comprised of humans; the world is populated by magical beings known as Legendary Maidens. They are given credit for eradicating the viruses that last ravaged the empire, and the Maidens used Hymn Crystals to get the job done. Through the Power of Song, they wage war against all evils that threaten the land, and eventually, the Maidens created their own city, called Platina. For hundreds of years, both the Maidens and their descendents, who created the Knights of Elemia, fought relentlessly against monster attacks. This wouldíve worked out just fine, but one enemy somehow managed to instantly break through the Knightsí defense, placing all of Sol Ciel in immediate jeopardy.
As you begin your musical quest, you play as Lyner Barset, a young Knight of Elemia. Your first assignment is to seek out the Purger, a Hymn Crystal that may represent the best Ė and last Ė hope for the Knights, and indeed, for the entire land. He must travel to the "Lower World" to locate the Crystal as soon as possible, because the latest virus strain is putting a serious hurt on Sol Ciel. Barset, a noble and capable individual, quickly vows to obtain the lost artifact and ultimately defeat the nasty creatures continuously issuing from Ar Tolenico. But of course, he wonít be alone in this dangerous endeavor. After all, whenís the last time you played a traditional RPG with only one character?
An elite band of songstresses, called the Reyvatiels, will accompany Lyner along the way. The Reyvatiels are a unique race, supposedly very similar to the Legendary Maidens, who use the eternal power of music and song to deal their damage. Oddly enough, they donít use any physical weaponry; instead, they wield two different kinds of song magic that assists party members. Red Magic is specially designed for powerful attacks while they take advantage of Blue Magic to take care of health recovery and stat boosters. The interesting part of this format is that the player will have to juggle the songs, after a fashion, because the longer a song plays, the more effective they become. But at the same time, that will also drain more energy from the characters, and at a faster rate. Therefore, there will be some strategy involved in not only the selection of songs, but how long you choose to maintain them during battle.
If you choose to halt a song in mid-play, you can replenish the characterís energy, so you just have to ascertain the best time to charge and execute songs with the Reyvatiels. But just so you can have an added way of saving their power, Gust has included something called the Encounter Gauge, which allows you to see just how frequent battles will be. The redder the gauge gets, the more likely of an encounter, but once the gauge is completely depleted (either by killing everything in the area or fleeing the area), you can just wander around and explore to your heartís content. Itís an interesting little feature, and one that could serve to spruce up a traditional turn-based random encounter style.
Of course, the other standards from traditional RPGs still apply, such as gold and experience drops from enemies. But even then, this game tosses in another nifty system, called Grathmeld. Itís basically an item synthesis mode (perhaps similar to the Synthesis system in Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana or the Invention process in Star Ocean: ĎTil the End of Time), where you collect raw materials for the creation of equipment. You can acquire these specific ingredients from enemy drops or stores, and youíll also usually require a Grathnode crystal. Obviously, the power of the item, weapon, or piece of armor you create will depend on the quality of the materials, but you can also choose to boost the invention even further with another Grathnode crystal. These can add all kinds of cool effects, like elemental protection or even more attacks per turn.
For now, Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia is shaping up to be one hell of an original game. There are all kinds of interesting facets to this one, but the key will revolve around Gustís ability to meld those unique systems into the gameplay without breaking pace or flow. We donít want to be bogged down by complex and intricate supplemental systems, regardless of how well-implemented they are, so letís just hope thereís enough actual action in the game to keep everyone happy. Hopefully, though, this wonít become an issue, and the PS2 will get yet another great RPG in the waning days of its lifespan.
1/6/2007 Ben Dutka