Ar nosurge – Adventures in Singing in Space
Ar nosurge is a strange game, and incredibly difficult to talk about without spoilers which make it so great, so such spoilers are banished from here. Instead, here are some other things which make it a fascinating oddball of a game. It’s also the ‘sequel’ to a Vita sort-of online dating sim, because. This will be long and rambly.
Ar nosurge, (yes, the lack of capitalisation is deliberate, I have no idea why either), is a sort-of spiritual successor to the little strange series Ar Tonelico, which is a trilogy of games where music comes from songs in completely fabricated, but fully-formed, languages. Although that’s one of the few stylistic aspects Ar nosurge actually keeps, as well as the incredibly verbose visual novel sections of going into people’s minds to try help them deal with their personal issues. Instead of being on a planet where many people live on floating continents in the sky, Ar nosurge is much more in the realms of science-fiction, set on a gigantic colony ship containing entire cities, stuck on its journey for thousands of years.
Where everything is going wrong.
It starts very much wading in its own setting, there is so much supporting lore that frequently, especially early on, a technical term will be highlighted in a dialogue box and allow you to pull up a fairly detailed glossary entry there and then, keeping redundant exposition between characters who really should know to a minimum. One of the last major centres of humanity on the ship is under siege from the fairy-like Sharl, who are kidnapping them and taking them to their own religious community on the ship for purposes unknown, while also attempting to get humans to follow them willingly. The only way humanity can fight back is due to the efforts of people capable of weaving song magic whom recently awoke from thousands of years in stasis, fighting in teams so the singers have physical backup and protection while concentrating on their singing. This is the kind of thing the game just confidently throws you at almost immediately, only with much more jargon, thankfully explained. This even extends to main character Delta, whom has been disgraced and kicked out of the fighting force for mysteriously reappearing and endangering the entire city six months ago, an event he cannot explain as he has no memories of it, or anything before it of his entire life, Despite this, his childhood friend and singing partner Cass still supports him, despite the reputation she garners for speaking out for a declared traitor. (Amusingly Delta’s response to losing his job is to set up a restaurant, because he doesn’t know anything else).
Though the character relationships are what make the tale so special, as the cast has a rather diversely expansive set of characters whom mostly all know each other from some point in time and have more tangled relationships between each other than the horror behind my computer desk. It’s thanks to the massive backstory it draws on that everyone have such established feelings towards each other, and all their differing motivations are firmly rooted in their characters. This really gets explored when entering the subconscious levels of character’s minds, leading to the visual novel segments. Although unlike Ar Tonelico’s, which were solely based around the subconsciousnesses of the main singing heroines, and the multitude of different troubled facets of their personalities, Ar nosurge explores multiple different characters and their connections to one another, as various characters ‘chain’ their mental landscapes to each other, so is often as much as about the character themselves as it is about their standing to others. As these are all subconscious levels, and deeper ‘dives’ into them can lead to things get increasingly more abstract, metaphorical, and emotionally charged and complicated. Strange things happen in the depths of the mind, like giant coin-operated electric chairs or worlds where certain emotions are seemingly outlawed by its ruler. Yet it all serves exploring some segment of a character’s feelings or relationships, and attempting to help them get over any personal hurdles. Even if initially all you see are roaming bands of mascots acting like a heroic team, yelling their attack names at their nemeses in the street in the name of upholding the law.
Entire segments are even dedicated to quiet time between the main playable characters talking about things while having a bath (sorry, “Purification ceremony”), which range between random discussions on things that have happened to being incredibly awkward about having to have conversations in a bath. These really help flesh out the core relationships more, even though it initially seems weird having entire sections dedicated to watching characters talk in bathing outfits. You even get to have more of these conversations with other major characters in the form of DLC additions, or included from the get-go with the Vita re-release, which tend to go over what sorts of interactions they have with others and tends to go into more depth without being part of abstract metaphors in their minds.
Then you see the social standings from another perspective because this game has two sets of playable characters. Ion and her robotic protector make up the second duo, and offer a different dynamic from said robotic guardian not having much of a character, and any contribution to conversation is always in the form of a dialogue choice you make. As such it’s very much about Ion’s journey and her interactions with people she hasn’t seen for so long. The story unfolds from both pairs’ perspectives more-or-less simultaneously, and you can often switch between them freely, unless you get too far ahead with one of them and have to switch to get the others to catch up. The game even includes a little recap timeline lining all the events up as you go along, in case you need to look up what happened when.
With the game being so much about characters talking to each other, it even extends to the item crafting, because it wouldn’t be a Gust game without it as they sort of invented such things back with their Atelier series, where every single item made out of an unlikely combination of ingredients has its own dialogue scene between the characters as they discuss what equipment/food/abomination they have created. All the while getting unfolding some varying storylines with the shop owner in question as you keep completing their recipes. Then you can switch sides and get the other pair to create the same item and get a different conversation about that item. They’re often amusing, with bizarre objects such a scale model of the ship they’re in, that replicates anything that happens to the model to the actual ship, somehow, and the recklessness of such an unexplained property is immediately called out (incidentally, its only use is in other recipes, which probably only begs more questions). As well as culinary horrors. Some of which are usable as equipment, the characters have no idea how this works either.
Oh, and synthesis requires a song and dance.
The actual gameplay aside from trapping the cast into endlessly singing and dancing to make you random stuff, is mostly running to and from places making the plot happen, fighting random encounters and sometimes bosses along the way. Though even its normal battles it refuses to do in a conventional way. The closest I can compare the battle system to is Valkyrie Profile, but that’s only insofar each of the four face buttons is a different attack with limited uses per turn, and stringing combos out of them. Enemies show up arranged some way into a 3×3 grid, where anything standing behind its compatriots is safe from direct attack. It’s turned-based, but in a strange way, in that you have a limited number of turns in a normal battle, but if you stop all the enemies which are labelled to attack you next turn, you immediately get another free turn, often by filling a ‘break’ bar, although bosses and some stronger enemies still get at least one attack. Therefore you’re constantly zipping all over the battle hitting every enemy wielding an exclamation mark threateningly, trying not to run out of attacks. As you have to actively block attacks so they don’t damage your partner’s segmented health bar so much, but you only have limited guard actions per turn, this is important. In a regular battle, once you clear a block of enemies, the next one rolls in, and you can continue pounding on them until either you run out of turns, enemies, or decide to blow up several waves at once with the song the supporting singer has been building as you’ve been slapping things around. If you destroy all the waves, you won’t be bothered by battles for the duration of your stay in that area, even if that takes multiple battles to do. As well as getting more rewards for doing well as it has an arcane ranking system for those battles.
Even more to this you can also call in support from a friendly character once per battle, and they mostly serve just to have inexplicable attacks. Like calling in a missile barrage, or using a stage dance to damage enemies… somehow. Fights the plot puts you into are against single blocks of enemies with infinite turns, becoming more about controlling the number of attacks coming at you so you can block them while whittling away at the boss and their lackeys. Often to nifty songs.
Speaking of songs, the musical magic aspect of the setting is not just something you blow away lines of foes with, pretty much everything on the colony ship is controlled by song magic, that song before? Used to control some of the ship’s defence mechanisms and fought over as a plot point. There’s many other ones with significance, and like Ar Tonelico before, most of them are written in their own, fully-constructed, languages, different from the five or so Ar Tonelico had (someone really likes languages). Several are in the almost coding-like language, befitting of songs used to control parts of the ship itself, and there’s a few which are just in real-world languages instead, at least a couple are in Russian. There’s so many, they filed two discs with the vocal tracks alone. The rest of it refuses to be outdone, complete with a track mixing electric guitar and violin, because why not?
Maybe because the style of the technology running is tinged with retro stylings, there may be futuristic robots, but they’re not super-sleek things, their metal wires and joints are exposed beneath their sections of casing. Metal tends to be a dull brassy brown, even extending to the UI, which itself is designed to be a bit like an actual interface, with messages like “booting Ar nosurge OS”. Plus everything runs off vacuum tubes of varying size. Need something bigger? Larger tubes! Which does mean some large installations look like they’re riddled with Christmas lights for giants. Even the equipment, which are all non-visible upgrades, use things like cathodes and large circuit boards heavily in their design. It does appropriately in making things look aged, giving a real sense the entire ship has been around for much longer than intended. Plus the fact you’ll be running through the same areas repeatedly as the plot progresses, one of the signs of its cut corners.
It was very clearly a game built beyond the scope of the budget they had, the gameplay clearly came second to the story they wanted to tell. Enemy variety rather quickly dries up, especially towards the end of the game where enemy types get increasingly out of place to the point of absurdity, even though older areas get their battles tuned up as you progress. Thankfully you can run away pretty much without penalty whenever you want, so you don’t have to bother if you really don’t want to. Even visually, there’s some obvious shortcuts, like all crowds clearly being the same blurry cardboard cut-out pasted into areas, and selection of only about half a dozen character models for the non-important NPCs, and even the odd important one. It’s easy to see why the paper crowds exist though, as the framerate sometimes struggles with too many NPCs on screen at once, like when there’s about eight characters around a table during a cutscene it just slows to a crawl, even though about half of those are just copies of another’s models, and it only gets worse as it reaches its conclusion. Battles mostly remain smooth though, even if there’s several different enemies present.
The difficulty levels are even tuned with the story in mind, the default setting of Normal is rather easy to just mash through the whole game, Hard requires some thought and have some decent equipment, while Veteran is the highest it goes and forces you to have all the items currently unlocked, and makes you employ all the tools in your kit to be able to survive, though can often drag out battles too much (like the final boss, don’t do that on Veteran, good grief, it becomes dismantling a brick house with a tiny hammer). But it’s tuned so that grinding doesn’t really help, as numerical increases from levels are minimal. Later game also has very little actual required fighting, due there to being no story reason for a fight to break out, so it just doesn’t. It doesn’t spring large monsters from nowhere simply because there hasn’t been a boss fight for a while like many other JRPGs might do; there’s always something major at stake in every boss battle.
Doesn’t stop it from being slightly obtuse though, like gameplay terms which aren’t wholly explained, even though it employs egregious giant tutorial windows to try and explain things (sometimes with images which spoil future plot developments, great work there), and you’ll have to delve several menu screens away to the encyclopaedia of item effects to actually comprehend what your new stuff actually does. Other times it’s easy to miss vital subtleties, like enemies are twice as hard to break if they were broken last turn.
Regardless of a lot of this, and other things I’ve not mentioned like some ridiculous costuming (which at least people tend to make fun of repeatedly), no subtitles during animated cutscenes (good luck if you’re not on English voices, which aren’t half bad by the way), rare eye-rolling anime tangents into discussing breast size, or the English voice track not pulling the synthesis songs from the Japanese track and leaving them oddly wordless, or the localisation sometimes not deciding how precisely to spell things, it still manages to be an interesting ride. Especially in the plot department with the route it takes, and the fact you’ll do some banal things like help incompetently run a shop with some of the cast does wonders for making you care about them, so you are invested in their plights. Even some of it flaws have silver linings, even if they’re unintentional. Like the constant backtracking through areas tends to make it feel a bit claustrophobic for something which is supposedly huge, and seeing as most people live in comparatively small areas, it sort of fits. Although you will have to do a lot of reading regardless.
So much reading.
Thankfully in more palatable chunks than this though. That dialogue box is pretty small.