By Tina Hand
Ar Nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star is a difficult game to classify. While it is in many ways clearly an RPG, the unique battle system, oddly limited amount of equipment, and large blocks of story make it something unique. When I first heard about this game, I was excited, because I loved the Ar Tonelico games for their compelling story, interesting battle systems, and unique methods of stat boosting. Your characters are there to protect a singer, who stands behind your battle party and basically “sings” a spell the entire time your party is fighting. Then, whenever you feel the need, you cast the spell and watch the fun ensue. Ar Nosurge carries on that tradition but takes it a bit further since you only have one party member and one singer.
There are so many things to like about this game. Everything you need is at your fingertips, often right from the outset, and there are multiple ways to improve your characters. To make more songs available to your singer, you “dive” into what’s called their Genomsphere. Basically, you take a peek inside their head to learn more about them and encourage them to trust you more. With the Ar Tonelico games, you would dive repeatedly into the same girl, learning more and more about her and unlocking her potential that way. Ar Nosurge went a slightly different and (I feel) more realistic way about it. Yes, you can dive into your singer, but your singer will link herself with other characters, typically close friends or people she’s interacted with in the past, and you dive into them in a way as well. So instead of learning more about her by digging your way deep into her psyche, you learn about her by learning about how she and her friends see each other. This unlocks crystals you can then equip on your characters through a “purification ritual” where the two of them sit in a pool/pond/bath house and chat about things that have happened in the game. Kind of seems like an excuse to get the girls into oddly designed bathing suits, but still has a purpose. You can also synthesize new equipment and items from the drops you get in battle.
I think the battle system is my favorite part of this game. It has been completely changed, and now instead of running around finding groups to fight or waiting for an encounter, there is a meter at the top of your screen that tells you the likelihood of an encounter and how many waves of enemies you’ll fight. Think of it like having the entire dungeon’s contingent of encounters at once. Each “wave” is like an encounter, and with a properly charged song you can clear out the entire batch of them in one fell swoop. Ar Nosurge does an exceptional job of demonstrating just how powerful these singers are that they can clear out entire dungeons with a single song, and the different combinations the main attacker can use provides the player with plenty of variety in battle.
I won’t say battles are easy, because some of them can get quite complex. However, there was never really a point where I felt underpowered, and that was before I fully understood the synthesis system or how to get the most out of my equipment. There is definitely more strategy to a battle than simply mashing buttons, but if you do choose that route you aren’t going to find yourself getting beaten on a regular basis. Of everything in this game, I liked the battle system the best. The ability to control the opponent’s turns (and often outright deny them the ability to damage your singer) was awesome, and in a lot of ways the ability to do all the dungeon’s battles at once made grinding less of a chore and more of a puzzle.
In terms of art style, there have been significant changes since the days of Ar Tonelico. In a lot of ways, the graphics and synthesis system are reminiscent of the Atelier series of games, where you grind in dungeons to gather the items you need to make new stuff. The choice to go with more 3D models wasn’t one I was particularly fond of, though it certainly emphasizes the difference between Ar Nosurge and Ar Tonelico. Perhaps the most obvious thing, though, was the character designs. The majority of the main characters stand out because they all have ridiculously over the top, asymmetrical costumes. Even Cass is subject to this flaw, though her costume is the simplest in design. It seems as though they were trying a little too hard to make these people stand out from the rest, and while it’s good to make your main characters appear different, this seemed over-exaggerated. Locations were all very artfully drawn, though they seemed odd when you actually go and are running around a 3D model instead of seeing the drawing style of the over world. Overall, it wasn’t that compelling, and some of the characters costumes (in particular, Nay the Gale and Prim) are actually off-putting.
Now, however, I have to talk about the actual story. The most important thing to note is that this game is technically a sequel to a game that was never released here in the US. So often the characters will reference things that happened in the previous game and often I didn’t realize that’s what they were talking about until much, much later. Through the game, you have what equates to two separate parties: Delta and Cass, and Earthes and Ion. You start with Delta and Cass, and eventually you gain the ability to switch between them and Eathess and Ion. There are a lot of things that are not fully explained, or the explanations are ones you have to find for yourself, or they expect you to know because you played the previous game. So often I found myself completely confused and wondering just what had happened, or why people were acting the way they were. Helpfully, the game’s creators included an encyclopedia with notes and references, so that the player can figure out what all these strange terms thrown out there actually mean. Unfortunately, the plot is so thick that often I found myself uninterested in actually knowing what was going on. There was never anything about any of the game’s characters that drew me in, or made me feel like I could understand them, their motives, their goals, or their problems. I think this is the first RPG I’ve ever played where I found myself skipping dialogue because I was bored. Or annoyed with the surprising amount of typos.
So, overall, this was a decent game. If you have never played any of the Ar Tonelico-style games, then this isn’t the one that will convince you to. For that, I would strongly recommend the first Ar Tonelico for Playstation 2. The battle system, while unique and innovative, was not enough to overpower the heavy amount of plot, or the indecipherable motives of its characters. This wasn’t a game I felt compelled to continue playing simply because I had to know what happened to these people. I played it because the battle system becomes addictive once you learn how to manipulate it. It’s a fun game to play, but the amount of play time was, for once, limited by the amount of plot time.