A popular subgenre of the Japanese gaming industry, dating sims usually only find their way to our shores when toned down and packaged with other elements. Take Gust’s latest hybrid, Ar Tonelico 2, which to me feels like an edited version of what may, in its full form, have been a high-production hentai RPG. It has all the elements, minus the sex of course. I bring this up because the sequel to the good-but-not-quite-there original ups the ante on sexual innuendo, playfully taunting fanboys but not quite delivering the goods. Nothing wrong with that approach, but some of the scenarios are downright shameless - or maybe I’m just getting old. Hero Croix is the stereotypical protagonist, part bumbling guy, part knight, thrust into the spotlight as protector of lead Reyvateils Cloche and Luca, song-magic-wielding maidens.
His duty requires him to install life-extending agents into them, a process that them removing their clothes and exclamations that it hurts at first and that Croix needs to be gentler! He’ll also dive in to the maidens’ cosmospheres (a.k.a. subconscious) to make their song magic stronger and clear up any loose insanity that might be going on. Diving will often result in the women growing more infatuated and will also net new skills and costumes that cater to most male fantasies (at least mine anyway). When Croix isn’t there to smooth talk the ladies, they will take some time to themselves, bathing and growing closer together. Oh why can’t life be like this? The ecchi approach softens a rather serious story about rogue Reyvateil infected with a mysterious virus and a battle for the future of the world. Croix is an errand boy for the Church of Pastalia and it’s his job to detain the infected. Soon though, he begins to question his role and see life differently, mostly due to his interactions with Cloche, Luca, Cocona, and other primary members of the cast.
While Ar Tonelico 2 offers a deeper focus on character interaction than the first, it also completely re-invents the combat system and adds a ton of other distractions, culminating in a huge adventure for hardcore fans. Make no mistake, Ar Tonelico 2 falls into the subset of RPGs that cater to a very specialized audience. Even mainstream RPG fans may find this sequel just too Japanese for their tastes, what with dating elements, item synthesis, a fairly deep combat system tied to the emotions of the Reyvateils, side hunts for the infected, and the dive system both to cure and enhance characters.
Likely due to criticism of the original, Gust re-envisioned the battle system to incorporate a more real-time feel for both the offense and defense phases of combat. When running with a full party, two frontline attackers need to juggle attacking and protecting Reyvateils that aren’t able to defend for themselves. During the attack phase, each frontline fighter is assigned a designated button and must work within a limited time-wheel to damage enemies and feed an emotion gauge that provides enhanced damage and stronger magic, among other benefits. Each direction offers a different attack that can be leveled up and that works in sync with the Reyvateils, so give them what they want and reap the benefits in combat. Eventually, each character will gain a big-damage EX skill that offers more visual punch than the basic attacks.
The Reyvateils goal in all of this is to charge song magic and not get killed; the latter being rather difficult depending on the battle and your timing skills. Instead of simply blocking, it is the frontline’s job to rhythm-block attacks during the defense phase. A very small meter will appear with bars that need to be hit at a specific time. If perfected, no damage. If missed, expect huge damage and a quick demise (and a good chance that the ladies will not be very happy with you). While I didn’t necessarily hate this mechanic, it didn’t always make combat feel more interactive, just more tedious. Perhaps that’s why there is a lower than average encounter rate. Unfortunately, there’s still no way to preset a preferred spell and have it kick on automatically in random battles, so, just like the first, it takes unnecessary time just to start the battle, have the maiden change into a custom costume, and begin her magic.
In comparison, Gust’s approach to combat in Mana Khemia was much more fast-paced, while still offering real-time elements. It also required participation from more of the cast. With only two frontline fighters and everyone sharing experience (besides Reyvateils), there is little impetus for switching out and trying other characters. While some may enjoy the combat changes, I consider them satisfactory but far from the real draw of playing Ar Tonelico 2, which is of course the romance!
Falling in virtual love is a lot of work. It isn’t just the surface actions that come into play, but the subconscious as well. To really get to know the ladies you are protecting, the dive system allows access to areas that they may not even know exist. Croix will need to find or unlock chat topics that he can access at rest points throughout the game. As they grow more accustomed to his presence, they will let him dive deeper and deeper in their subconscious via dive shops. These scenarios aren’t very interactive but provide a lot of insight into the real personalities of the ladies. The further Croix dives, the more powerful the Reyvateils become. Later in the game, Croix will be able to cure infected Reyvateils using the dive system as well. It’s a complicated affair, though the benefit is that frontline attackers can then equip them to augment stats, such as adding fire elements to each attack. As mentioned previously, Reyvateils grow closer together by bathing in special crystals found and bought everywhere; this is also how they level up, so it becomes a vital step as the adventure becomes more difficult.
Do I recommend Ar Tonelico 2? Well it depends on how much the romance aspects of the game interest you. For me, the simplistic dungeons and limited number of battles made it feel exactly like what it is: a teenage-focused dating sim with RPG elements - fine if that fills the void for the fifty hours or so you’ll be embroiled in this adventure. The cut scenes and portraits are gorgeous, but the squat look of the character sprites does little to show off the true beauty of the cast. Fans of item synthesis will be disappointed as it takes a back seat to all the other upgrades. Expect to simply acquire the necessary items and visit specific shops to make new ones. For the hardest of hardcore, there’s plenty more I haven’t mentioned, such as Replekia and dual song magic, both related to song magic. The question is whether you’ll stay with Ar Tonelico 2 long enough to squeeze out all that there is to enjoy. It is indeed rare to find English-translated RPGs that offer such a focus on character development, so if that’s your thing, Ar Tonelico 2 will suffice nicely. I give the developers credit for improving on the faults of the original, though as far as 2D combat goes, you’ll still find better elsewhere, even in the developer’s own catalog of games. A solid and unique adventure that lends itself best to an audience that isn’t embarrassed by a healthy heaping of sexual undertones.