Developer: Gust / Publisher: NIS America / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature (Fantasy Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes)
It’s hip to hate on McDonalds, and for good reason. The food is nutritionally devoid and objectively terrible, so hating it is what smart people do. But you know what? Sometimes I need a goddamn Big Mac and nothing else will hit the spot. Ar Tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel is similarly devoid of nourishment. It’s shallow, unabashed with its fan service, and toes the JRPG line to a fault. And yet, for anyone reared on JRPGs, sometimes you need to scratch that itch, and nothing short of a NIS-styled Big Mac will do.
Story and Gameplay
The broad strokes of Qoga’s story are lifted straight from the unofficial JRPG playbook. There is a plucky, brash hero, a ditsy amnesiac heroine that possesses an incredible power she can’t control, and an oppressive evil empire that chases them around a wacky fantasy setting. There’s nothing noteworthy or interesting about the plot at all. Every bit of charm you uncover in this game comes from its setting, which is so clever in establishing an unnecessary framework for its low-brow pandering that you can’t help but appreciate it.
So get this. The main heroine of the game is a Reyvateil, which means she channels energy through song to cast powerful magic. She starts singing when you enter combat, and if you attack in time with her singing, she gets more excited. Once your Reyvateil gets worked up enough, you can trigger a “purge” that removes her clothing, allowing her to absorb more energy and cast more powerful magic. Basically put, in Ar Tonelico, you beat ass in front of your anime girlfriend until she gets so excited she blasts off her clothes. On top of that, some dating sim elements sit behind the scenes. Butter up your anime lady enough and you can vaporize her clothes more quickly in battle. It’s absurd, but delivered with enough of a wink and nudge that I can’t be angry.
That’s not the half of it either. Your Reyvateils (you eventually collect more than one) have multiple personalities that change their appearance when they surface. By diving into their subconscious in an Inception sort of way, you can help them mentally merge with these personalities, allowing you to change them into these other personalities at will. That means you can change the demure, angry one into the sultry nurse. Of course, you can blast her clothing off as well.
Actually playing Qoga isn’t nearly as exciting as it might sound. As previously stated, combat revolves around attacking in time with a song, but the beats you should attack on don’t make a lot of auditory sense. A scrolling graph at the bottom of the screen relates when you should attack, but the beats that excite your woman feel arbitrary. Progressing the story involves triggering the right events and thumbing through windows of text in typical JRPG fashion.
That said, there’s a lot of humor in this game, even if it’s not very interactive. Flavor text on items you pick up is often bizarre and usually hilarious, such as this description for the “Air Cutter:”
“A propeller with edged wings. It cuts edges into air, but no one knows what to do with sharp air once they have it.”
Sections of the Reyvateil’s subconscious are creative as well, such as an 8-bit RPG area where the characters speak in all caps and have five-character limits for their names. While Qoga is guilty of nearly every JRPG anachronism–linear gameplay, random encounters, story archetypes–the world is injected with so much humor and charm that it’s still a fun ride.
Qoga’s presentation is an even split in quality. The game’s 3D environments look terrible–mostly flat geometry painted with boring textures. Battles and any non-city environments are 3D, so you’ll be staring at this the majority of the time. The one bright spot is easy to predict: the close-up animations of the Reyvateils losing their clothes look pretty nice (objectively speaking, natch), and set new standards for low-gravity breast jiggle.
The game’s 2D art–towns, character artwork, and the subconscious landscapes of your harem–look much better. The game’s towns are diverse and artistically impressive, such as a city built upside down in the sky, hanging from a rock outcropping. Transitioning between the two is actually visually jarring. My eyes would go to sleep from boredom only to wake up every time I hit a town to appreciate the lavish artwork.
Most of Qoga’s plot-critical dialogue is voice acted with above-average performances. However, there’s a pause before any new line of dialogue starts playing, so you’ll likely read ahead and thumb through the text way faster than the actors can deliver it to you. The game’s soundtrack varies from decent to annoying, more often in the latter category. Many tracks echo a shrill traditional Japanese vocal style. The music that plays during battle sounds on par with a mid-90s karaoke machine, which is oddly fitting given that you’re fighting against a singer’s performance.
Qoga adheres to every JRPG trope you can imagine but manages to be disarmingly charming and original within that framework. Think of it as a low-budget Tales of Vesperia. Personally, I started the game scoffing at all the stereotypes but over time grew to appreciate the game’s lack of pretense and outlandish humor. Trying to convey why I like this game is slightly painful–like trying to explain why sometimes you just need a Big Mac. Qoga is comfort gaming for anyone with an appreciation for classic JRPGs.