After getting my Ar Tonelico II disc repaired back in December, I finally got to play all the way through to the ending and made something of a startling discovery: the game ends on a cliff hanger. One character charges another character with a mission to deliver the Heart of Gaea, an item that was a major plot point through the second game, to a tower beyond the second game’s world, with the fate of the planet itself at stake. Of course, with an ending like that, I needed to play the third game, and the final of the Ar Tonelico trilogy. My accommodating boyfriend got it for me for Christmas, because loves means buying animu moe blob JRPGs for your significant other.

My playthrough on the game got stalled a lot this year due to personal problems, but I finally finished it after seven months. While the game is rightfully called the weakest of the series, it does have an incredibly satisfying ending, particularly if you put the work into getting one of the ‘good’ endings, and truly puts a pin in the series with issues going back to the original game. You can easily play just the third game and understand what’s going on, but by playing the whole trilogy you get the satisfaction of understanding little in-jokes and references, and get more out of the story because you see how things have moved from the first game to the last. And it really is the last. In Japanese the game was just called Ar Tonelico III, but for the translation they chose to use the word ‘Qoga’, from the in-game language Hymnos, and means ‘finale’.

Taking place on the 3rd tower, Sol Cluster, we learn things are very different from the first two towers. In Sol Ciel, the all female race of artificially created magical humanoids were often regarded as property, in Sol Metalfss, they were part of society, but on Sol Cluster, Reyvatails rule, and with an iron fist. While people might regard Ar Tonelico as just another otaku fan service series with its often very fan service-y moments, at its core, the series is actually a very interesting and well built science fantasy universe with interesting ideas, and at a lot of times, very philosophical and political undertones. The relations between the various races: human, the Teru tribe and Reyvatails are often at the heart of the conflict of the games, to the point where they threaten their own existences, since a lot of times the power is held by one very powerful, mistreated and pissed off Reyvatail, and like the other games, it’s up to a human to try to find some peace between the beings by befriending, and ultimately, romancing, one of a number of the all female race. In this game, it’s Aoto, a smartass construction worker who actually starts the game hating Reyvatails, since they are behind the oppression and genocide that affects the towns on the tower. This changes when he meets a very sweet and helpless Reyvatail named Saki who is on the run from the female-led empire, and later a majorly tsundere other Reyvatail named Finnel. He’s a lot more interesting than Croix from the last game, and less of a goody-goody than Lyner from the first game in the series.

The game has some amazing characters and a great story. My absolute favorite character was Mute. Look at my fairy princess:

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She is seriously the best character in the entire game. Alas, you never get to use her because she is an NPC, and that is this game’s greatest weakness: there is a lot of potential that is severely limited in combat. In this game it’s real-time battle, where three vanguards battle while the Reyvatail sings song magic. The combat system is sort of like the Tales Of games, but with a twist, if you coordinate your attacks with the rhythm gauge in the corner, you power up the singer and she is able to commit Purges, fan service-y moves where she strips her clothes (there’s an in-game explanation for this, I promise) and her attacks, as well as your own get more powerful. It’s a seriously cool system that gets squandered since it’s so limited.

You only get three vanguards the entire game. In the first game you got six, and eight in the second. You have no options to alter their combat style and they fight automatically. Thankfully their AI is actually pretty intelligent, but every battle pretty much fights the same: wail on enemy until Purge gauge reaches its final level, then blast it to kingdom come, which leads to the second limit. The Reyvatails only sing one song that gets progressively more powerful with each level. It’s also seriously nerfed because she never runs out of power, when you blast her song, she restarts again automatically a few seconds later. You don’t have to watch her gauge or anything. As long as she doesn’t get physically touched, she’s fine. There are no options to her songs. In the previous games Diving rewarded you not only with more of the character’s back story, but also new songs in various elements and abilities, now you only get Hyumas, little fairies that add status modifiers like higher defense or poison immunity. Instead of multiple songs, you get multiple personae, different characters with different song styles that pretty much only vary in range and amount of hits per attack. While some of the personae are objectively more powerful than others, fundamentally battle is more a matter of preference than strategy. The only thing that changes combat up is Ultimate Supermoves, very powerful and well animated attacks that can be initiated by the vanguard when certain conditions are met. They are hella powerful, and incredibly useful, especially if you want the game’s real ending.

The multiple personae present two other problems as well: one is no alternative costumes for your Reyvatails, and the stories in the Dives get split between multiple characters. In fact, it isn’t until late into the dives that you get more info of interest for the characters that gives you any real sense of their true personalities, and at that point your forced to pick a favorite in order to unlock a specific ending. The characters are likable outside the Dives, but the point is to get closer and develop a report like you would a Dating Sim, which is the series’ main draw.

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Those weaknesses aside, the story was strong enough for me to keep plowing through, especially since the true ending is so good. Unlike most RPGs, the difference between the Good, Bad and True endings are usually a matter of a cut scene. Not so in Ar Tonelico Qoga. Getting the good ending changes the game from being a 25-30 hour JRPG into an 50+ one. While it’s simple to find, it takes quite a bit of work to actually unlock it. I had read a warning in a review about the Bad Ending, and was determined to avoid it, but even with judicious use of save slots I managed to get it, and damn, was it a downer. When I looked up the conditions to get the True Ending I realized how much of a monumental task it was. The difference between the endings is a matter of satisfying two conditions: making a choice at a particular confrontation, and defeating a boss in a dungeon a few hours before. Sounds simple right? The catch is that boss has 600,000hp and you only have ten minutes to beat it. Aside from another boss later down the line and the final True Boss, none of the other fights are anywhere near the same ballpark. The other Ar Tonelico games were good about not being grindy, and this one isn’t per se, but if you don’t have Ultimate Supermoves unlocked before facing that boss, it just makes a far amount of sense to back track and get them before facing that boss. It makes all the difference in the world.

The end boss is an exercise in endurance, but the ending to the game and end to the trilogy really made all the work worth while. It’s satisfying for its own game, and gives some beautiful nods to the first two Ar Tonelico games in the ending credits. I cannot wait to play Ar Nosurge, the prequel game, but alas I cannot until I do something about my TV.