I wonder if NIS America is looking to hire editors...
I initially posted this review at the half-way point of the game, and I have to say that after completing it, none of the points have changed and I still consider it around a 6.5/10 score. The plot remains convoluted throughout, though this is heavily due to a TERRIBLE translation job (there's a site dedicated to a re-translation, even), but even if the translation were perfect, the plot would still make little sense at many points. The music continues to remain solid, with the end-boss score being awesome, especially the third movement.
The Cosmospheres could have been fleshed out more, but they remained one of the most enjoyable parts about the game, even though the translations and spelling/gramar errors there were noticeably worse than the already bad translations -- especially in the "bonus" Cosmosphere -- not a single line of dialogue was without errors. What the hell, NIS America? I haven't seen translating this bad since "All your base are belong to us!"
I'd give a brief introduction to the story, but honestly, if you're willing to give this game a chance, you're going to have to throw away your expectations for a deep, involving story. All you really need to know is that you control a character who's not a main character so much as a bodyguard for the main characters and you get to decide which one you want to protect most.
So moving on, here's a list of things to expect playing Ar Tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica -
Quick aside: You do not need to have played the first Ar Tonelico to play this one. The stories are entirely different, with only one major character reappearing (one minor one, as well), though her role is entirely different in this one compared to the first. People who have played the first will still have a lot of new things to learn, though there will be lots of familiarities as well.
- Awesome musical score. This came as no surprise as the music in the first was great as well. The Hymns are melodic and wonderful and even the overworld and dungeon music is a joy to listen to. Considering the game revolves around characters who sing for a living, it's good that they nailed this.
- A convoluted plot to rival Star Ocean: The Last Hope's. The story makes no sense at some points. At other points characters are making blatantly stupid decisions when you expect them to make the most obvious and smart ones. Many points in the plot feel bloated for the sake of being bloated and derail from the overall story. Yet other points feel like a lot was lost in translation. I found myself glazing over those areas figuring it'd all sort itself out sooner or later.
- One main characters is insanely bi-polar (actually, make that just "insane"), yet people unconditionally love her.. even though she tries to kill them, tell them she hates them, tell them she's been using them, blames everyone else for her problems, and goes insanely emo about how no one understands her. This doesn't really affect how good the game is or not, but it is a significant amount of the plot, so I thought I'd make mention of it and how it strikes me as odd.
- The combat can be a mix between fun and insane. When you get to attack you can decide between a bunch of different attacks and then unleash huge magical spells that negate all the physical damage you did (eg. physical attacks do 100 damage, song attack does 10,000). When enemies attack you have to parry by hitting buttons at the right time and enemy turns drag on foreeeeeever. Many trash fights will have you pressing 20+ parries PER TURN. It's just not very fun, and it can get totally wrecked by fancy spells that cause graphical slowdown and screw your timing up entirely.
- Lots of monotonous dungeons you'll be going back to over and over. Thankfully there's a bar to tell you how many random encounters you have left before there are no more mobs to fight, but often those are only for small sections of the overall dungeon and reset in the new areas, rendering the system somewhat useless. You're always able to flee from trash which is nice and I find myself doing so most of the time because...
- Character level is somewhat irrelevant. You level up like a normal RPG with XP, but your singers don't. Instead, they level up by taking baths with crystals. My singers were still level 4 while my physical attackers were level 20 until I was able to do the bath thing and they gained 20 levels at once. The only difference it really makes is they have a larger mana pool and more HP, but if you block the attacks properly, they don't take damage so HP is somewhat irrelevant. The front characters only really need HP to soak up damage if you don't get "Perfect" blocks -- as mentioned, their damage is negated by the insane song spell damage so they're really just there to act as tanks.
- Alchemy plays a much much smaller role than the first one to the point it feels useless, and has you go to various stores to make things rather than doing it at inns. I've gone through the game without needing any of the items I've made. The conversations while crafting them are cute but get old fast as they all revolve around your Reyvatails (songstresses) being incompetent at crafting/cooking.
- Cosmospheres are back (yay) and if you played the first Ar Tonelico, you'll know how they work, though they've added some interesting twists, and you're told very early in the game you have to pick one of the Revyatails to focus on creating a deep relationship with. The other caps out at Cosmosphere Level 5 (at least that's what's happened up to where I am, not sure if it'll unlock later on, though seems doubtful). I actually like this as it makes the relationship with the one you focus on feel more genuine. In the first, the hero was able to go "All the way" with both and it felt weird that one minute he'd say he loved and would protect one, then jumped over to the other and said the same stuff... Damn polygamists, glad that they seemed to have addressed that in II.
- If you're new, Cosmospheres are basically the "Dating Sim" part of Ar Tonelico II, where you "Dive" into a Reyvatail and learn about her personality, helping her overcome some obstacle. It involves some weird cosplaying, roleplaying, and general craziness, but overall, it's pretty cute and fairly innocent. It's VERY text-heavy, so if you don't like reading you prolly won't like the Cosmosphere at all.
- Items, like alchemy are also pretty useless in Ar Tonelico II. I'm still using accessories I got in the first few hours of the game, and again -- because the physical characters are just there to soak up damage, you don't really need to worry about their stats that much. Defense and HP are the only things that really mater but even then barely. There also weren't very many found in he numerous dungeons you run. Most of the treasures are gold ("leaf") or useless consumables or ingredients. Speaking of the consumables there are wayyyyy too many useless ones. One that heals 20 hp, one that heals 22 hp, one that heals 43 hp, one that heals 67 hp, one that heals 120 hp, and so on. Most of the recipes I've made are these sorts of items -- totally pointless items that just bloat my inventory. Why would I use any of those when I can buy one that heals for 750 hp that can be bought early in the game and isn't very expensive? I have tons of items in my inventory I haven't even bothered to look at, as I rarely use items anyhow -- song magic can heal better and get rid of stats / rez people all at once.
- Graphics, once again, are typical NIS stuff. The character portraits are polished and really nice to look at, but the sprites and dungeons look like they could be from an SNES or a PS1 at best. No surprise here though, as this has always been the way NIS works. And honestly, as long as the game is fun to play, I don't mind the graphics taking a backseat.
- The dialogue and localization is downright embarrassing. They seriously needed an editor as there are so many spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. They managed to overlook multiple elementary school type mistakes like using "there" instead of "their" or "to" instead of "two". Seriously, NIS America -- proofread your dialogue!
- Not a lot of voice acting which is a surprise. At least the Japanese. I haven't played it with the English voices so I'm not sure if more scenes are voiced with that, but I doubt it (and based on some of the dialogue, I'd feel sorry for the English actors trying to read it). I don't really mind as voices are just a nice addition but not necessary for a game like Ar Tonelico II, and honestly, so much of the story is so silly that I can help but wonder if the actors just flat out refused to say the dialogue for some points for fear of breaking out laughing the entire time they were trying to say it.
- Getting new crafting recipes is a chore... you have to go in to the stores and trigger a cut-scene where they'll give you a recipe... then head out and enter again to get another. Then they'll stop till you leave the town entirely and then reenter. It seems they unlock as the story progresses but there's really no indication of when they're unlocked except occasionally the shopkeeper will talk to you when you enter their town and say to visit. But there's no way of knowing you're supposed to walk in and out of their shops multiple times, you have to figure that out through trial and error. As that were the case, I didn't realize this till later in the game, making Alchemy even more useless as I received recipes late in the game that were obviously meant to be crafted earlier. Though I clearly had no use for those items anyhow.
- The Reyvatail's Dualstall bathing/leveling system is weird and poorly thought out.... You place crystals in a pool along with your Revyatails and the Revyatails will randomly move through the pool. If they cross over a crystal they will gain certain abilities from it like more HP, more damage, etc. It's a total crap-shoot and you just have to hope they cross over the crystals. You can place toys to help guide them, but it's still mostly random. Also, they lose any previous abilities they had from crystals in earlier baths, so you could end up losing 8 abilities and only getting 1 if you're unlucky enough to have a Revyatail only cross one crystal in the most recent bath -- and I have had that happen a LOT of times, especially with Luca. It's ridiculous.
- You lose two of your main characters a LOT throughout the game (eg. one goes crazy, one gets sick, they get separated from the group, etc), and since the game focuses heavily on developing relationships with them and between them, it can get really frustrating having to trudge through more dungeons without them, especially if you just want to take a break from dungeon crawling and focus on the Cosmosphere aspect or, heaven forbid, alchemy. You have to choose which one you want to protect early in the game, and the game almost taunts you by making it harder to develop a relationship with them for some time after that point than with the one you didn't pick, let alone the third one that comes late who, honestly, is a weakly developed character with no personality and I couldn't care less about -- and yet I seem to have unlocked more conversations and events with her than the two "main characters" combined!
- The game manages to stay fun despite many flaws, though it's certainly an acquired taste. Dealing crazy damage with song damage -- amplified through a fan-club you build up as you progress is always fun to watch, even if it can make fights trivial. The Cosmosphere has always been a strong point in the series for me and has a ton of potential if they flush it out even further. The romantic relationship aspect of the story has helped make the characters more endearing, even if the plot itself is awkward and convoluted.
So, overall, the game has issues, but it's got enough good points that playing through it doesn't feel like a chore. I wouldn't recommend it to newcomers of NIS-style RPGs, but if you've played Ar Tonelico 1, this might tickle your fancy if you're looking for more of the same. I'd also recommend you steer away from it if you're not into dating-sim type games (not to be confused with Hentai games -- sorry boys, none of that here) or get squeemish around heavy doses of "moe" and Japanese romance humor.