Folks, I want to talk about Ar Tonelico. It's a somewhat niche JRPG series that is perhaps most well known for its risque material. The 3rd in particular (I have not played it yet) exaggerates the already ridiculous outfits and innuendo to the extreme, I am led to believe.
Yes, Ar Tonelico: Melody of Elemia (the first game in said series) is a borderline harem - although as of now it's "only" two girls. Yes, you install crystals into their bodies and it's made out like a sex scene - "be gentle when you put it in, it's my first time!" "it's bigger than I thought!" and other statements like that (and I am paraphrasing a bit). Yes, you dive into the girl's mind and look into their subconscious to power them up and get them costumes that enhance their magic. And yes, some of these costumes are revealing; one is a bath towel. That's it.
So on its face, I should not like this game. But, in all honesty, it is one of the more enjoyable games I have had in awhile.
Perhaps the most crucial thing this game does, considering its subject matter, is never take itself too seriously. It pokes fun at the various, sometimes seemingly Japanese, tropes that it revels in. It's never super serious, dark, or gritty, and there's a sense of comedy and light-heartedness that let's you know that this game should not be taken seriously, as the creators probably didn't either. It feels like one big guilty pleasure they made, and we get to enjoy it. When one character leaves the party for a bit and is replaced by a much more buxom, yet totally different looking gal, another party member, not aware of the change, simply believes that the first gal grew tits - and yells outloud asmuch. Nobody in real life would confuse the two women, but hey, let's get the word "tits" in here somehow, right? But for all the borderline objectification of women here, mostly by way of their clothing and pandering to our main, male protagonist, they are far from weak and helpless. Many of them have survived in roles of leadership, individual living, dangerous conditions, and/or other such perilous terms. And the main character females, the Reyatails who augment your party with song magic, are the most powerful characters in the game- no contest.
It's this sort of give-and-take that goes so well. The main protagonist is a bit of a naive guy; pleading innocence at the overt sexual dialogue that occurs. He's also a bit of a social klutz. But not so much that he becomes a caricature or a trope; indeed, I hesitate to use that phrase because he is also, quite simply, a very nice and caring guy, too. And yes, he has a big sword and somewhat spiky hair.
What really sets this game apart though is that on the rare occasions that it does get serious, it does so strikingly well. In one scene, our female Reyatail Misha is divulging some personal information. Throughout life, she appeared boisterous and confident, and exuded a sort of cocky and self-assured charm. However, it was all a projection of sorts to try to bury her inner-fears and self-doubt from a demanding past. No, this is not literary revolution. But it's handled well, and without melodrama or overwhelming angst in-game, which is more than about 90% of video games can say.
The battle system itself is very complex, potentially, but it does not utilize itself fully because the battles themselves are relatively easy. Between attacks, song magic, skills, blocking, harmonics, and various gauges to fill, there's a lot to do, but most battles boil down to; attack with frontline characters, wait for Reyatail to charge up Song Magic, and once charged, use powerful magic to one-hit the opposing team. Only in the elongated boss battles can things get a bit more complex, but even still, I am now about 18 hours into the game and on segment 2 of the story, and I have yet to have a party wipe.
There is, though, a metric ton of customization to do. There are weapons; all of which can be augmented, and the same can be done with armor. Magic can be augmented, as well as the song magic; as with the weapons, it is done through the use of crystals that can change their effects and such. Items of all kinds; from consumables to equipment and everything in between, can be created/crafted. Old items can be broken down into crystals to use for all of the augmentation. There is a lot of tweaking and customizing of characters to be had.
Another thing that Ar Tonelico gets some props for is the music. And it is absolutely deserved. The haunting, Ghost in the Shell reminiscent opening is wonderful, and the music runs the gamut from serene and peaceful, to fast-paced rap for battles. It's a wonderful soundtrack. The voice acting, too, is respectable, although some of the creature characters are a bit annoying. The main characters feature the likes of Vic Mignogna and other well-traveled VAs.
I still have a ways to go in the first game in the series, and we'll see how far I get into games two and three. But so far, the overt sexism is minimal, the humour and self-awareness the game displays in regards to its level of ridiculousness is great, and the actual gameplay elements are quite enjoyable. Colour me surprised for now, but pleasantly so, as I have put more time into this game than I have into a video game in quite awhile.