Before the PlayStation 2 era, developer Gust, responsible for the diverse Atelier series, was virtually unheard of outside Japan. It was not until Nippon Ichi Software's North American branch Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana that the developer gained some recognition, with Gust ultimately focusing on a new franchise, Ar tonelico, whose first installment on the PlayStation 2 saw foreign release in 2007. A sequel came two years later on the PS2, followed by a third installment, Ar tonelico Qoga: Knell of Ar Ciel, for the PlayStation 3, which just might be Gust's best game yet.
Like its predecessors, Qoga features an indicating in dungeons that changes color to indicate how close the player is to encountering enemies, with this gauge gradually emptying foe each victory, ultimately running out of bars to indicate no more encounters remain in the dungeon; however, if the player exits and reenters the dungeon, the gauge will refill. The first installment of the Ar tonelico series featured a fully turn-based battle system similar to the Atelier franchise, whereas the second featured an updated battle system fusing turn-based and real-time elements.
Qoga once again shifts battle systems, this time to a fully real-time system where one Reyvateil and three vanguards are present, a change from the two-Vanguard, two-Reyvateil setup in Melody of Metafalica. As in prior installments, the Reyvateil charges Song Magic, and enemies are able to enter her "zone" and attack her, in which situation the player needs to press the O button to repel the enemy, although the player will need to wait a few seconds before being able to repel the enemy from the Reyvateil's zone again. The player manually controls one of the Vanguards, while the A.I. controls the other two, although the player can change the controlled Vanguard.
Attacking the enemy is simply a matter of moving near an enemy and pressing the Square button, with the player able to chain three standard attacks. If the player times attacks in sync with the Harmograph at the bottom of the screen, they'll deal more damage, and the Heart right next to the gauge will grow larger. When the heart says "Purge" ready, the player can hold the L1, L2, R1, or R2 button to have the Reyvateil strip some clothes, and the power of the Song Magic will rise faster. Depending upon how much the player has advanced in the Reyvateil's Cosmosphere, the Reyvateil can purge up to four levels, after which a sequence begins where the player needs to time presses of the X button right for even more Song Magic power, afterward resetting the Song Magic to 0%.
Outside battle, the player can, as in previous Ar tonelico games, dive into a Reyvateil's Cosmosphere to advance several mini-story events at the cost of Dive Points, necessary to unlock upper levels of Song Magic as well as Hyumas the player assigns to the L1, L2, R1, and R2 buttons for added effects when purging such as increased defense. The player can also unlock alternate forms for Reyvateils with different stats from their normal forms. Furthermore, the player can synthesize Images, essentially items, some of them being necessary to unlock HP-consuming skills (there is no MP) for Vanguards they can execute when the player presses a directional button with the attack button.
Ultimately, the battle system works nicely, with adjustable difficulty levels and most fights moving at a steady pace and not taking a terribly long time, although being able to skip spell animations would have quickened the pace even more. Exploring each Reyvateil's Cosmosphere is, as with before, a nice diversion from the plot, and while the battle system might be simplistic overall, what particularly with the absence of MP, it works well nonetheless.
Controls are also mostly solid, with an easy menu system, easy town and dungeon navigation, and the ability to get a reminder on the current objective at inns, though it isn't always foolproof, and the player might be left scratching their head a few times. There are also no automaps in dungeons, which can somewhat hurt given the complexity of one dungeon, and players can't tell how equipment increases or decreases stats before buying it, although this isn't a terribly big flaw since money isn't too bad a problem. Ultimately, control is decent.
Although the story doesn't have a lot of links to prior Ar tonelico games, it's still decent, with perhaps one major plot twist and multiple endings depending upon actions taken during the game. The localization definitely gives the game a mature sense of humor, despite some errors and oddities at times such as Aki referring to herself in the third person. Overall, a decent plot.
As is expectant of a game about Song Magic, the soundtrack definitely excels, with plenty of pleasant diverse tracks and even some remixes, including some 8-bit tracks in one Cosmosphere level. The voice acting is alright, although if players can't tolerate the English voicework, they can simply switch to the Japanese voices. All in all, a superb-sounding game.
The visual style of Qoga is interesting, combining occasional prerendered anime-style environments with three-dimensional character models and three-dimensional scenery, a combination that looks mostly pleasant. However, the game makes the odd decision at times of fuzzing out the game graphics to have static character portraits narrate story scenes. Still, the game is pleasant on the eyes.
Finally, finishing the third installment can take as little as fifteen hours, if the player gets the premature Bad Ending, although it can take up to thirty to get a normal ending or the best ending, with a New Game+ allowing the player to restart the game at certain points with levels retained. Ultimately, Ar tonelico Qoga is a solid sequel that hits most of the right notes while only leaving minor room for improvement, particularly with regard to the lack of automaps in dungeons, which only really hurts at one point. Like subsequent installments of the Final Fantasy franchise, it mixes up things drastically, and does so successfully.
+Enjoyable battle system.
+Mostly solid control.
+Good localization and plot with multiple endings.
+Great music and graphics.
+Plenty replay value.
-No automaps in dungeons.
The Bottom Line:
Probably the best Ar tonelico and Gust game yet.
Platform: PlayStation 3
Game Mechanics: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Playing Time: 15-30 Hours