"Though it may not excel as an RPG, Ar nosurge's strengths lie in its more traditional visual novel elements."
Before beginning this review in earnest, it's worth noting that Ar nosurge is the sequel to Ciel nosurge, a Japan-only visual novel released on Vita. While Gust has assured English-speaking players that no knowledge of the first game is necessary to enjoy Ar nosurge, I disagree. Almost every main character returns from Ciel, and the story continues roughly from where it left off. There is a limited in-game encyclopaedia that sheds some insight on the events of the first game, but I'd recommend Googling a story summary online before playing.
Ar nosurge takes place on an almost laughably absurd scale. There's space travel, destroying and creating planets, summoning beings from different dimensions, and diving inside souls. During the game, you take control of two pairs of characters: Delta and Cass, and Earthes and Ion, and you can swap between them at save points. There's no traditional JRPG party and you never welcome any more characters to either group. Perhaps Ar nosurge's most clever mechanic is the inclusion of you, the player, as a main character. Earthes is a robot designed to be used as an avatar for a being from another dimension: you. As a result, the other characters are aware there is someone behind the screen "pressing buttons," as Ion puts it. There's other subtle ways the game uses the player too, but I can't say more without spoiling some of the story.
At approximately 30 to 40 hours to see everything, most of your time with Ar nosurge will be spent reading. There is a basic item synthesis, equipment, and battle system, but all are bare-bones and the game feels more like a visual novel with tacked on RPG elements at times. Battles are a simple affair where each area contains a number of enemy waves and, once all are defeated, there are no more random encounters for that area. You can't control either Ion or Cass in battle, instead they stand behind their male/robot counterpart and occasionally assist with song magic. Earthes and Delta have a variety of attacks that can be executed a certain number of times each turn by pressing the corresponding button. After building up a high enough level of harmonics by dealing damage and protecting Cass/Ion, they can unleash fully powered song magic to wipe out remaining foes. Sadly, both pairs fight in exactly the same way, so there's no variety at all when you switch. All overworld locations can only be moved to by selecting them from a menu, and while you can walk around most locations, they're exceedingly bland to look at and devoid of any interesting content.
Though it may not excel as an RPG, Ar nosurge's strengths lie in its more traditional visual novel elements. Like in Ar Tonelico, Delta and Earthes can dive inside the minds of other characters, known as their genometrics. Each character has their own bizarre world that reflects their thoughts, fears, and desires. These are text-based adventures where you make dialogue decisions, sometimes by trial and error, and can unlock new song magic to use in battle. Some of the worlds are completely bizarre, such as one where characters transform into mascot creatures to fight, or another where one character forces another to lick their feet, while others are genuinely heartfelt and touching. It's inside these worlds you'll more deeply connect with each character, and most are optional expeditions.
Aside from mind-diving, purification ceremonies are the other hotspot for character development. Don't be fooled though, the fancy 'purification ceremony' title really means 'let's get almost naked and take a bath together, teehee.' If you can get past the extreme amount of skin shown during these segments (not by Delta, of course), you can sit down and chat with most of the main female characters of the game about all sorts of things. By talking with Ion and Cass you can also unlock purification points so you can equip them with gems earned in genometrics to enhance their battle power. Chatting with the other girls is new to the Plus version and, while there are no in-game bonuses for doing so, it's fun to learn more about them. You can now also use the touchscreen to install gems so, if you really want, you can poke the girls in their breasts.
While the story is enjoyable, the first half or so is occasionally interrupted with tiring anime tropes and dialogue so predictable I was guessing it word-for-word. Fortunately, in the second half the writers calm down and the small breast jokes and almost-but-not-quite love confessions are relegated to side-quests. What surprised and pleased me though was that Ar nosurge wasn't afraid to fully flesh out main character relationships. Those awkward 'confession' moments arenít the stopping point, instead the characters take their relationships further and it makes their bonds feel real. There's some inconsistency though, since most of the relationship building occurs inside a character's genometrics or their purification ceremony and then is not reflected in main story dialogue.
Perhaps Ar nosurge's biggest downfall is its budget appearance. Most environments that can be explored are incredibly ugly or lacking in detail and the same handful of enemy models are used over and over again in battle. I laughed out loud on a number of occasions when a crowd of 100 NPCs only used 3 or 4 models over and over again, and 2D versions of them, I might add. Main character models look far better, it's just a shame the same amount of care wasn't given to the whole game. That said, some of the design choices are odd: you can literally see Empress Nay's butt (not very regal, I don't think), Delta has weird flapping material on his clothes, and Sarly wears cat ears for no apparent reason.
Music is an important part of the game, as you might have guessed, and the score does it justice. There's a great variety of music for each location in the game, not to mention the couple of dozen in- and out-of-battle song magics. Song magic is supposed to sound like what the user is trying to accomplish through the casting, and the game's music absolutely reflects that. When one of the villains tries to bring about a calamity, her song is violent, almost static sounding, for example. There's some voice acting, but no real consistency as to when it's used. The English actors do a good job with the lines they're given, and the voices are never jarring. You can also swap to Japanese audio at any time through the options menu.
If you enjoy visual novels or Gust RPGs, then Ar nosurge is a must play. It's rough in many areas, but it has an undeniable charm and some terrific characters that make the adventure worth it. The RPG elements feel forced at times, but they do break up the massive amount of text you'll read throughout the game. I spent about 35 hours with the game to get the platinum trophy, and I hope that speaks as to how much I enjoyed it, even with its many faults. I also had the flu while I played it though, so I can't promise I wasn't slightly delirious.