Ar Tonelico and other Gustiness

For a long time, I avoided Studio Gust.  It’s not that I expected their games to be bad, merely that I expected them to feel wrong in some way.  Unlike other studios, they seem to embrace the quirkiness and stereotypes of anime, lending them an even more bubblegum feel than the Persona games.  Such fears were, of course, not wholly unmerited – having played the first Ar Tonelico and the recent Atelier Totori, while not making me an expert in the subject of Gust games, at least tells me that much.

So, you (the hypothetical and likely nonexistent reader) may ask – why now?  Ultimately, the answer becomes “I had no choice, aside from replaying old games forever, and even I don’t want to do that”.  One must keep with the times.  Since Atlus has largely been producing remakes or non-RPGs for the past couple of years, and Konami refused (until recently) to release another Suikoden, I had no significant prospects.  Since Arc Rise Fantasia – which seemed promising at first – turned into a grindfest, and even Rune Factory games bore me half to death, I decided to finally try out Ar Tonelico when I saw it for sale at PAX.

While it may not be the best game I’ve played recently, it’s certainly a breath (a gust, if you will) of fresh air.  While Radiant Historia seemed to be trying everything in its power to seem different – while, ultimately, transitioning into a cliche-filled finale, Ar Tonelico makes no effort in the first place.  One is not surprised when a character that looks elaborately evil turns out to be – surprise, surprise – evil.  When the game appears to practically sell its innuendo on the back of the box, it’s hard to complain when there turns out to be an entire scene filled with it.  I assure you it was most accurately translated, and I have no doubt it’s incredibly uncomfortable in Japanese even for non-speakers.

And yet – in terms of anime stereotypes – Ar Tonelico is surprisingly different.  Not only is the main character’s father alive, he survives the entire set of proceedings (oops, spoilers).  The two female leads are not simply different aspects of superhuman, but neither are they endlessly weak and useless characters – they grow significantly throughout the game (partially due to one of the creepier aspects of the game, “Diving”).  The church-knight character, Radolf, is not forced through a crisis of faith as nearly every other religious character is – to the contrary, he rises to the occasion in a situation where other such characters would be left helpless.  The tendency to call a 21-year-old character “old” is a little disheartening, but otherwise Ar Tonelico manages to be surprisingly mature in its storytelling.

On the other end of the Gusty spectrum is the Atelier series.  Also unabashedly anime-themed, but much less standard – the focus in the game is not on combat, but on achieving one’s goals, whatever they may be.  Adventuring is merely one aspect of a game focused on alchemy and interactions with other characters.  I’m not finished with Atelier Totori, so I can’t say a whole lot about it – but it’s very clear that the Atelier series was a huge inspiration for the Doujin game Recettear.  That alone is enough reason to consider the series, to me.

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