To the Songless Hill – Harmonics Pre=Ciel – by Akiko Shikata
Lyrics are in two fictional languages in addition to Japanese. A translation and a summary of the translation can be found here.
It’s time for Under Your Radar! Today, we’ll be covering a PS3 game named Ar nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star, released in Japan as Surge Concerto: Ar nosurge ~A Song that Prays for a Planet Being Born~ (~Umareizuru Hoshi e Inoru Uta~). This game has an updated Vita port in Japan.
It is the second part of the Surge Concerto duology, the previous game being the Japan-only Vita game Surge Concerto: Ciel nosurge. Furthermore, this game is a distant prequel to the Ar tonelico series, taking place 1000 years prior to the PS2 game Ar tonelico: Melody of Elemia. It was developed by Gust and published by Koei-Tecmo in all regions.
As a side-note, this game launched with a terrible translation that had conversations split between NPCs, young ladies referring to themselves as old men, and most proper nouns having 2-3 spellings used consecutively. This was all fixed in a patch a few months later.
Spoiler warning for all of Ciel nosurge by necessity. I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the game itself, but it’ll be really hard. I actually had to do some heavy editing to stop myself from spoiling Ion’s interesting backstory too much.
Also of note, this game features connectivity with Ciel nosurge. This was removed in the English release because we never got the game. The game, therefore, defaults to what happens if you haven’t connected it. Keep that in mind. All of the connectivity stuff is mentioned under the Story subheading with one exception: There was a bonus boss you had to defeat to unlock the ability to change costumes. Since the boss’ health is based on the actions of all the players of Ciel nosurge, this was removed, but the menu to change costumes is still there (you just can’t actually change them – the plot will pick the costume for you).
Due to their sun’s imminent expansion, Ra Ciela was a planet slated for destruction, so the people of the planet forcibly summoned two girls other dimensions for their special powers. These girls are girls the game will refer to as “Ion” and “Nelo”. A plan was hatched to convert the planet into energy to power a colony ship, which would try to find a new world to call home. Sadly, things didn’t quite work out.
After 5000 years of cold sleep, the inhabitants of this colony ship, the Soreil, awaken under attack from… well, to summarize, essentially reborn incarnations of nature and magic. On Ra Ciela, these were known as Genom, but the reborn versions are called Sharl.
We are given control of an amnesiac man by the name of Delta, whose childhood friend Casty (or “Cass”) is watching over. He apparently went insane one day and opened the gates to humanity’s final stronghold against the Sharl, all while saying contradictory things. As such, he was kicked out of the army and runs a terrible restaurant alone. One day, he’s brought back in as a contractor for a rescue mission. After succeding at that, things go wrong in other ways. Delta, Cass and the person they were rescuing end up asleep for two years, during which the events of Ciel nosurge takes place.
Not five minutes after the events of Ciel nosurge, Ion has mounted the transceiver she was using to speak to the player in that game onto a large combat robot everyone refers to as Earthes. Depending on whether or not you’ve linked a save file of Ciel nosurge, your (Earthes’) in-game identity changes. You’re either the same person who helped Ion piece her memory back together during Ciel nosurge after they were deliberately shattered by a third party, or you’re someone completely different. Ion’s story doesn’t really make sense for either, as she’s too distant to a Ciel nosurge player while being a bit too loving almost immediately to a new player.
In any event, long story short, Ion was being forced to create Sharl in her sleep. She stops this and tries to create peace between the humans and Sharl, but this goes awry.
This all culminates into a 50-hour RPG where you jump between two parallel stories (Delta’s and Earthes’) in a rather enforced fashion to make sure each story is at approximately the same place. If the two pairs meet, for example, then you’re told to stop what you’re doing when you get to the location with one pair of characters and told to progress the story until you get there with the other pair.
This isn’t just for storytelling, either. The game acknowledges the fourth wall as a part of itself. The game implies that it’s powered by the PS3 it’s being played on (as the power source for the colony ship), and you, the player, are as much a character in the story as the characters you’re controlling. Simply put, you’re an extradimensional being looking into the world through a screen, controlling the bodies of Delta and Earthes with more spatial knowledge of the world than they can perceive with their own senses (referring to the game’s top-down camera angle in battle). Delta even rebels and disconnects from you at one point.
The story also acknowledges that your ability to see things from the perspectives of Delta and Earthes allows you to gain knowledge from one pair that they don’t have a chance to tell the other pair, but it’s the other pair that uses the info. For example, at one point in the game, Cass needs to disguise herself as a Sharl, but you don’t know how to do this. If you visit a certain character’s store as Earthes, you will be told the password to access the store’s secret selection of items, including transformation pills. You then have to visit that store as Delta and say the password, shocking the storekeeper as to how you even know it.
There are a few more story things worth noting. You visit the tower from the first Ar tonelico game towards the end of the game for a few plot-pivotal scenes. Shurelia also appears. In addition, there’s a lot of optional content from diving into the characters’ subconsciouses, including Ion’s aforementioned backstory. Going here is how you get more powerful song magic for Ion and Cass to cast, so it’s highly-recommended.
You can also have a chat with the characters at major bodies of water, discussing minor details like the animation used for the Harmoburst gameplay system. Furthermore, there are short story bits at four shops in the game (two for each pair of characters) as you synthesize items. Completing all of the recipes at least once is how you get the true ending of the game. However, all of this side stuff has little or no voicing (depending on which voice track you’re using), which makes it feel like it drags on forever.
The game features five endings, and all of them can be obtained in a single run by creating a save file at the right time, but there’s no new game plus and only one ending’s worth watching. Shurelia’s ending, the bad ending to the game, can be obtained by having Delta break character and get together with Shurelia at the end of the game. After rejecting Shurelia, you receive 5 recipes. Synthsizing the recipe labelled “?A miracle?”, which requires creating the other four, which in turn requires finishing all of the recipes for all of the shops that let you synthesize, will give you an item named “Reincarnation”. This will put you on the true ending path.
The final boss is faced in three phases (the latter two of which have three phases of their own), but you get to pick which set of characters will fight against the first phase. You receive the ending for that pair of characters, normal if you didn’t make the Reincarnation, true if you have it. However, for Ion’s true ending, you need to make Earthes speak up in a certain scene that plays before the credits (the other option is staying silent, which will give you the normal ending regardless).
Ion’s true ending is the canon ending of the game, and the only one worth watching. Said ending results in a static-ridden transmission from Ion, but she has to cut off the transmission before we can see what happens. If you linked a save file from Ciel nosurge in which you married Ion, your copy of Ciel nosurge will receive a special CG and a 13-minute voice message from her, providing closure to her character’s story.
Gameplay is, surprisngly, based on Ar tonelico II: Melody of Metafalica.
Combat is very simple. You have a limited selection of attacks, items, and friend abilities (which are limited to one use per fight). Your enemies are on a 3×3 grid and come in waves all in a row. You have limited turns per encounter to defeat the waves, and you get an extra turn each time a wave is taken out.
At the start of each fight, you get to pick a song for your partner to sing behind you. This song gains power throughout the fight, providing you with cover fire if it charges enough. After a certain level of charge, you may release the stored song magic to defeat several waves at once, but this instantly ends the encounter (the only way aside from fleeing or running out of turns). I should note, you have to protect this partner from enemy attacks using limited, time-sensitive barriers. You have to time the barriers to a bit before the attacks hit, but not too early that the barrier disappears before it actually does.
These waves are all of the encounters for that particular visit of that in-game area, so you could finish off all of the enemies until you leave the area in one long encounter, or in several shorter encounters (the game will remember and display how many waves are left in the area). Of course, if you leave and return, it’s reset. It’s actually a rather elegant way to handle random encounters in this day and age. Not to mention that the combat is fun, albeit button-mashy at lower difficulty settings, so I didn’t mind it at all.
If I have any criticisms, it lies in song magic variety. All of them are visibly different, but they don’t feel different in terms of effects, like the first two Ar tonelico games (although I haven’t played my copy of Ar tonelico II, so that part of the info is second-hand). The original games had a song dedicated to healing, a song dedicated to certain elemental damage, etc, but there’s none of that here.
Also, the personality system (letting the characters swing from introvert to outgoing and sadist to masochist) is so minor for its use to not be very obvious at all – a player will only notice its effects once they notice that the partner character’s battle voice clips have changed. (For example, depending on Ion’s position on the personality chart, she can start the battle by saying “Hard and fast, right?” or “GOOOOO!!”, among other things. A sadist Ion will also sarcastically say you need help when you defeat a wave, while a masochist Ion will enthusiastically tell you to “Keep beating them up!”.)
On the lowest difficulty, the game only provides a challenge for one mid-game boss fight, not even a major boss, which is odd. But that’s the lowest difficulty, so what else should I expect? Sadly, however, I played through with that setting because it was labelled the “normal” difficulty. I recommend playing it on a higher difficulty setting.
Oh, and the two normal battle themes are both excellent:
The gameplay is simple and fun, not wearing out its welcome. The story is very interesting, too. What’s there not to love? Well, aside from the optional content dragging on.
Ar nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star is just a good game.