Swords & Zippers: Layers Upon Layers

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One interesting contrast between Western and Eastern role-playing games is the way they each handle their core “rulesets.” Western RPGs tend to follow a model that is somewhat closer to tabletop roleplaying, whereby all the rules are set out clearly in front of you from the outset. You generally spend the entire game applying these rules in different ways, gradually growing in effectiveness as you proceed. This is perhaps a side-effect of the fact that Western RPGs have their roots very much in Dungeons & Dragons — in fact, many early Western RPGs quite simply were Dungeons & Dragons games, but even today with franchises like The Elder Scrolls, we see what are often some relatively straightforward rules being applied consistently throughout the entirety of a game.

Japanese role-playing games, on the other hand, have absolutely no qualms about gradually increasing in complexity as the game progresses, and nor do they have any issue whatsoever about incorporating special mechanics just for a single scene or a particular context. Consider, if you will, something like Final Fantasy VII. In that game, you spent a lot of time wandering around and engaging in combat, sure, but you could also breed Chocobos, race Chocobos, go snowboarding (pictured below… ahh, simpler times), pilot a submarine, ride a motorbike and participate in numerous other activities. If you followed the story straight through from start to finish without stopping for sidequests, you’d encounter each of these activities precisely once over the course of the whole game and then never see them again — and yet somehow they didn’t feel massively out of place at the time.

As everyone knows, the correct response to "the only way down is to snowboard!" is "Of course it is!" rather than "Are you KIDDING me?"

As everyone knows, the correct response to “the only way down is to snowboard!” is “Of course it is!” rather than “Are you KIDDING me?”

Why this huge disparity in games that are ostensibly part of the same “genre” then? Well, it’s probably something to do with the way they were designed — we mentioned above that Western RPGs very much have their feet firmly planted in tabletop roleplaying for the most part, while Japanese role-playing games tend to be designed as video games first and foremost, which means they don’t have to be tied down to an established ruleset quite so much. That’s something of a simplification, of course, but I think it might account for a lot.

As you’ll know if you’ve been following this column, I’ve been playing Gust’s Ar Tonelico series recently, and am currently partway through the second game. The first game did some really interesting things, particularly with its battle system and its “cosmosphere” mechanics, but was, for the most part, a relatively straightforward JRPG at its core. The second game, meanwhile, keeps piling new mechanic after new mechanic on top of each other to make a game which, while complex, somehow manages to not be completely overwhelming.

Let’s explore some of these interesting mechanics.

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The first one you’ll encounter is the game’s battle system. Rather than the turn-based system of the original game, Ar Tonelico II’s combat system is a curious combination between real-time and turn-based. Battles alternate between two “phases” — an Attack Phase, in which the player’s front-line fighters have the opportunity to unleash various attacks on the enemy while the back-line Reyvateil casters charge up their magic, and a Defense Phase, in which the player must carefully time button presses to make their front-line fighters shield the back-line casters from damage. It’s far from being a button-masher, though — in the Attack Phase, a little meter in the corner of the screen shows the Reyvateil’s “emotions” and suggests the specific moves (triggered with a directional key and the button according to the character doing the attack) the front line should perform, and fulfilling these desires has various effects. Filling the meter if it’s pointing to the left, for example, increases the “burst” gauge, which makes the Reyvateils’ spell more effective, while filling it upwards increases the “harmonics” level, allowing access to more powerful attacks that take a little longer to charge up.

This combat system is initially completely bewildering and confusing, but after a few battles, you start to get the feel for it surprisingly naturally. It’s actually relatively straightforward at its core, but the fact you always have to concentrate on carefully timing your button presses rather than mashing the “attack” button repeatedly means that every combat is interesting and fun, which helps make the fact the game still incorporates random encounters somewhat easier to swallow.

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Beyond the battle system, the “Dive” system is back, allowing the protagonist Croix to enter the “cosmospheres” of his female companions and help them come to terms with various anxieties and problems. Unlike the first game, however, where these mini-stories largely solved themselves, there are a number of situations in the cosmospheres where the player has to make a choice in order to proceed. This is then taken one step further by another system called the “Infelsphere” a little later in the game, in which choices made not only affect how the mini-stories unfolding in the girls’ minds progress, but also literally affect the world itself. It’s relatively unusual for a JRPG to feature any sort of “consequence” for choices, as most of them feature plots that are rigidly on rails, but Ar Tonelico, as we’ve seen a number of times up until now, likes to do things a little differently.

And then we start getting into strange territory. Early in the game, you’re introduced to the phenomenon of “I.P.D. Reyvateils” — Reyvateils who have gone berserk and need to be contained. These are randomly scattered around the various dungeon maps and must be located using a “hot and cold” radar system. When they’ve been defeated and contained, one of the two heroines is able to perform “Dive Therapy” on them and cure their mental instability, which in turn allows them to be “equipped” in the “Girl Power” slot of each character and apply various bonuses, and also, if they happen to see the other heroine Cloche performing various cool actions, may join her fan club. If they’ve joined her fan club, their power can be harnessed in a special attack called “Replakia,” in which the Reyvateils’ burst gauge fills up more quickly the more fan club members Cloche has.

And let’s not even get into the fact that the only way to level up Reyvateils is for them to have a bath together.

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It sounds utterly insane on paper, but somehow, all of these systems intermingle with one another to produce a surprisingly coherent whole. As the game progresses, more and more mechanics are introduced at a sensible rate, meaning you’ll never find yourself overwhelmed with too much new stuff to deal with at any one time. You’re always given a decent period of time in which to familiarize yourself with the new mechanics before something new is added, and this means that the game can continue growing in complexity as it progresses without ever feeling like it’s “too much.” It’s a fine example of how to keep game mechanics feeling fresh over the course of a lengthy game — and something that a lot of other JRPG developers could certainly learn something from.

We haven’t really talked about Final Fantasy XIII in this column yet, for example, but a common criticism of that game was that it had a “20-hour tutorial.” Ar Tonelico II actually does some very similar things to Final Fantasy XIII in this respect by spreading out the introduction of all its mechanics over a lengthy period of time, but the difference between the two is that Final Fantasy XIII’s mechanics were arguably relatively straightforward and didn’t really need that amount of time to be explained to the player; Ar Tonelico II, meanwhile, is constantly introducing new, wildly different things to the player and then allowing them a bit of time to play around with them before moving on. It’s a subtle but noticeable difference, and in my experience with the game so far it’s absolutely one of the best, most interesting things about it.

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Swords and Zippers is our weekly JRPG column in which we explore the best, worst and most interesting of this diverse and long-standing genre that has fallen somewhat from grace in recent years. Pete, this post’s author, is Games Are Evil’s Managing Editor.

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