This game is massive. Really massive. This was obvious when I entered the download code given to me by the nice lady from Koei and I tried to download it. It was some 13GB in size and I didn’t have enough space on my PS3’s hard drive. Role-playing games are the kind of games where bigger is better, but even so I found myself wondering exactly what kind of content was taking up all those gigabytes that I could be using for SingStar songs. I’m not sure how much space it needs to install from disc, but if you have the choice, that would seem like the preferable option.
It’s something I still don’t really understand after spending a fair amount of time with the game. There’s nothing that Ar Nosurge really does better than any other RPG, and sometimes it even seems to be quite small in terms of its locations and scope. Ar Nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star follows on from the story in Ciel Nosurge, a life simulation Japanese game that hasn’t yet seen a western release, and is also a prequel to the Ar Tonelico RPG series, which HAVE been localized and brought to the English speaking world.
The game starts with you playing a character called Delta, a young man who fights with his lifelong friend Cass against the threat of a race of alien enemies called the Sharl. Cass and Delta live inside the one safe area that’s left and spend most of their energy protecting the electronic barrier so that the Sharl stay outside where they belong. They fight by using "song magic" and when they find out that an extremely powerful song magic has been stolen, they set off to get it back.
Ar Nosurge is something of an anomaly among RPGs in that you don’t really do any levelling or skill setting. You’ve got no fancy selection of weapons to choose from or upgrade. When your characters level up, they presumably get stronger, but not so that you’d really notice it. You don’t have any control over their stats and you don’t get any points to distribute. That sounds like it would take all the fun out of the whole experience, but Ar Nosurge does somehow still manage to be an enjoyable game. To replace all of the usual RPG mechanics, to become stronger in battles, you will need to strengthen the relationship you have with your fighting partner. You do this by "diving" inside their mind and interacting with the characters you find there. For example, in Cass’s world disaster seems to always be imminent, and it’s your job to calm her down and make her believe that the worst doesn’t always happen. If you do this right, you will earn power-up crystals that you can wear to boost your skills and even unlock new songs to fight with.
It’s an interesting spin on the genre and getting to know the characters really well obviously helps hold interest in the rest of the game. A few hours in, you switch to another duo of characters in a different location – a robot called Earthes and a female mechanic who made him called Ion. They are trapped inside a small world by some strange kind of seal, and naturally, decide that they want to see what lies beyond the limits of their own environment. Once you’ve played a few hours with this pair, you all meet together and, after this point, you can switch between the two couples at will. Aside from your main quests, there are several other things you can do to fatten up your playtime hours – Delta owns a restaurant, so you can pop in and see how things are going as well as help make new items for the menu. Later on in the game, Sarly opens her own shop and you can also put together items to sell there. As you wander around the game world, sometimes an icon will pop up to let you know you’ve found something you wanted to talk to Cass about, which can do later at the purification site, and when the two of you talk about enough different topics, you’ll learn new skills and work together more efficiently.
At some points, Ar Nosurge seems incredibly mature and multi-layered, but then it will go and ruin things by mutating into a schoolboy’s wet dream. For example, as part of the ritual of chaining themselves to each other, Cass and Delta must "purify" themselves. Okay. So what does that mean? Well, basically that they have to both have a bath together, buck naked. At other points in the game, Delta "accidentally" walks in on another character in the bath, and one conversation focuses on the size difference between two of the female characters’ chests. Not to mention that one of the character’s underwear appears to be a pair of knickers that somehow only manages to cover the bottom third of her buttocks.
I know, I know. We expect these kind of things from RPGs, especially the Japanese ones, which is as far as I know, the only place in the world that has a hugely successful "adult games" genre, which mainly consists of games where you play as a male given a selection of females to choose from and try to get into bed. I’ve been playing Japanese RPGs for years, but it just somehow rankles that they don’t seem to have changed in the slightest in all that time. It’s incredibly hard to become "emotionally attached" to characters that have obviously been created by people who don’t have any real-life experience of women, or probably any kind of real-life experiences whatsoever.
If you’re a 13-year-old boy, you’ll probably love this game and not care, but as Gust is trying to make a game that makes people feel a genuine emotional connection with their characters, then they’re going to need to grow up and do a whole lot better than this.