Developer: Gust Corporation
Release Date: September 23, 2014
ESRB: T for Teen
â€œYou can say all the pretty things you want, but there“s no way of knowing whether you“re telling the truth.â€ Ar NoSurge: Ode to an Unborn Star is probably one of the most confusing videogames to describe. It is both a sequel to the unlocalized Vita-only dating sim/visual novel title called Ciel NoSurge as well as a prequel/spiritual successor to the RPG series Ar Tonelico. It also has more than enough internal mythos and bizarre gameplay design quirks to help alienate those without exposure to either series. Frankly, it is difficult to pinpoint who this is for in general; yet, despite all of that, I think I“m one of those people, even if it is difficult for me to come to terms as to exactly why.
The initial backdrop of Ar NoSurge takes place on the colony ship called Soreil, which is mankind“s last bastion of hope after having their home planet annihilated and failing their intended voyage to another one. To make living matters worse, a cult organization by the name of Genomirai Church divides the colony residents inhabiting it and is forcibly trying to convert non-members through the use of fairy-like magical beings called Sharl. Rather than idly sitting by in fear from the Sharl, main characters Delta and Casty set off on a covert mission ordered by PLASMA to retrieve one of their former scientists in order to help counter Genomirai Church“s ambitions through the use of song magic.
Ar NoSurge's setting is so hugely predicated on the events that occur in Ciel NoSurge in particular that it is almost unthinkable to me to play it without that context and expect to enjoy the storytelling in this game. Of course, the biggest problem with that is that Ciel NoSurge has not been localized into English and—if you are not fluent in Japanese—your only real chance of catching up on most of the narrative context is through the exhaustive, but nonetheless much-appreciated, fan-made summaries of Ciel NoSurge like I had to. After getting over that massive narrative hurdle, I suppose the next question would be—is Ar NoSurge actually worth the effort? Honestly, the best answer I have for that is yes and no, for a lot of reasons.
For both a narrative and gameplay device, the player alternates between two predefined parties during the course of the game. The childhood friends Delta and Casty serve as the first pair, and the main protagonist of Ciel NoSurge, Ion, and her robotic companion, Earthes, as the second pair. Even if the circumstances are definitely different between Delta and Earthes, both parties will certainly see their share of battles, genometrics diving, purification ceremonies, and, most importantly, synthesis dances.
Combat in Ar NoSurge is turn-based on paper, but it has loose similarities in its semi-active flow like in other games such as Valkyrie Profile, the various Mario RPGs, and even Ar Tonelico 2. You whittle down foes using the four face buttons while trying to initiate Breaks/Combos before unleashing charged up song magic, and on the enemy“s turn try to perfectly time guard presses to mitigate damage. While combat can be fairly fun, it is not balanced particularly well due to a standard difficulty that is far too easy and mechanics that take their time to be introduced. Seriously, if only to respect the battle system and some of the fantastic music, you should bump up the difficulty to hard so bosses and entire enemy mobs don“t very easily die in less than thirty seconds.
Every other gameplay element aside from walking around and picking fights is almost entirely centered around storytelling and the interpersonal relationship between characters. Ar NoSurge is so incredibly dialogue heavy that it is not an overstatement to say that you will spend more time reading than anything else in this game, not unlike previous Ar Tonelico entries. Which is saying a lot for such a big title with multiple endings. I may have a greater patience than most about lengthy exposition, but Ar NoSurge's can be overwhelming for even me at times. Because of this, the storytelling and characters are the title's greatest strength and weakness.
One of the most frustrating things about the main storytelling is its plodding pace. It has a sort of non-commitment approach to its narrative from the amnesiac lead, Delta, to a constant tease of events to come but not actually acting on them until much later. It is all the more disappointing after reading up on Ciel NoSurge, which frankly had better storytelling throughout. That said, the main story does have one of the most fascinating uses of a fourth wall breaking narrative device that I have ever seen. Not in a comedic, knowing-wink way either; the device is presented in an oddly serious way that works surprisingly well in the later half of the storytelling.
Still, Ar NoSurge does pick up the main narrative slack in other ways in regards to its several different approaches to developing its characters. The first approach is Genometrics, which are basically the equivalent to Ar Tonelico's Cosmospheres. Genometrics kind of serve as seemingly goofy dream-like worlds in the heroine's subconscious in which Earthes or Delta "dive" into to learn more about their partner and also gaining new combat song magic and skill increases in the process. For as bizarre as Genometrics may inherently be, they serve as interesting, indirect analogues to the character's past or personality, and not just the heroine's but other characters as well. Some Genometrics levels are definitely handled better than others but I really liked seeing how the characters, in particular Ion, grew as it progressed.
Next are the the purification ceremonies which serve as another means of fleshing out the characters. Admittedly, these ceremonies comes off rather pervy at first (like a few other instances in this game), since the main characters are in swimsuits and talk about how uncomfortable it is to talk to each other like that. But, after enough events the characters bring up interesting discussions during these moments. Delta and Casty benefit from these conversations the most by having the most endearing back & forth.
I know most won't believe me when I say this, but even the shopkeepers in Ar NoSurge have quite a bit of character. In addition to giving context to unimaginably bizarre synthesis items that they create for the lead characters, they even have their own story arcs, which is something I wouldn't expect to say about shopkeepers in any game. These portions are way too long-winded at times, since they start conversations with each new item and recipe (which there are a ton of), but at least many of the conversations are pretty amusing and help flesh out some characters. Also, synthesis dances are the best thing ever... don't question it, they just are.
The presentation is also an area with very divided strengths. While the soundtrack is excellent, the visuals most certainly are not. Aside from key characters, most models animate and look rather poor in motion, and the environments are not only tiny in scope but generally bland as well. In a sharp contrast to the underwhelming visuals, however, is the fantastic music. Some of the vocal compositions, or rather Genometric Concert pieces, really steal the show in Ar NoSurge, which is probably very unsurprising to those exposed to Ar Tonelico and know how narratively important the excellent songs are to the series.
Many of Ar NoSurge: Ode to an Unborn Star's idiosyncrasies will actively alienate possible players as it indirectly forces people to do their due diligence on Ciel NoSurge before even playing it. Those committed enough to get over that significant hurdle are left will an experience that, while fairly flawed in structure, and even more so in its pacing, can be charming in its own right. It hedges its bets on a cast of characters and a setting that develops in intriguing ways, as well as an enjoyable combat system and stellar musical score. It is not very graceful at all about what it tries to achieve, but I am glad I got to see Ar NoSurge's journey to its conclusion.
+ Characters and storytelling develop in fairly interesting ways
+ Fun combat system
+ Stellar vocal compositions and music
+ Huge game with multiple endings
+ Synthesis dances are the best thing ever
- Plodding main narrative pace and exhausting amount of dialogue
- Presentation is extremely inconsistent.
- Ciel NoSurge knowledge is basically required
- Cakewalk difficulty and combat takes time to evolve
Overall Score: 7 (out of 10)
Many are likely to lose their footing in its exclusionary storytelling and very awkward pacing, but those who can overcome such trials will find that Ar NoSurge: Ode to an Unborn Star has many pleasantly unique and hidden characteristics that are worth exploring under its rough surface.
Disclosure: This game was reviewed using downloadable PS3 code provided by the publisher.