Gust have a reputation for taking what are considered JRPG conventions and spinning them, just a little each time, into something new. Their long-running Atelier series constantly plays with the rules of the genre, sometimes focusing on combat, sometimes on exploration, sometimes on relationships – but always deviating from the norm.
Their latest venture, Ar Nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star – released in Japan in the Spring – continues the trend, mixing light exploration with a deep, complex battle system to deliver an experience that manages to be simultaneously hardcore and accessible. A continuation of Vita-exclusive Ciel Nosurge, Ode to an unborn star puts you in control of four protagonists: Delta, Casty, Ion and Earthes. They work in pairs, since the bond between two humans is a recurring theme that gives the battle system its unique dynamic.
The story takes place in a futuristic setting, wherein an itinerant, space-faring society fled their dying world in huge ships. Once away from their home, they were attacked by an alien species called the Sharl. Although initially helpless against them, the humans eventually discovered the “Ancient Ones”, who are able to use Song Magic to combat the Sharl. As a result of the ensuing war, the humans splintered into two factions, one who oppose the attackers, and one who has come to worship them.
Former elite soldier Delta and agent Cas (a returning character from Ciel Nosurge) form the first pair of protagonists, with mechanic Ion and her robot Earthes forming the second. The bond between characters is essential in Ar Nosurge, as they will grow stronger as they grow closer – and everything is done in pairs. During combat, one character – the male, for some reason – does the dirty work, while the other provides the Song Magic. Attacks are carried out via the four face buttons, and each one builds the Burst Meter, which determines the power of the heroine’s steadily-building Song Magic. The longer you can maintain the momentum by using varied, successful attacks, the stronger the Song Magic will be when you finally unleash it.
It sounds simple in black and white, but it’s actually an incredibly complex system that will take a fair few battles to understand at even a basic level – but it’s also very satisfying and a lot of fun. Once you factor in the importance of the HarmoLevel (which determines the speed at which the Burst Meter fills) and using Song Magic at the right time, it becomes a lot easier to read a battle and act according to what’s required. And that bond I mentioned? That allows you to use Friend Skills, special abilities that can turn the tide in your favour but can only be activated if you have the right kind of relationship.
A competent, equally complex crafting system, called “Synthesis” is available in certain locations, allowing you to create items and gear to help you in the field. It is heavily influenced by the various systems in the Atelier series, and relies on you having the right number of reagents and effect boosters to make the most potent creations. You can also take part in a set of visual novel-style mini-games (if that’s the right term), called Genometrics, in which you move from location to location based on decisions thrown at you, but in which you’ll indulge in no direct action such as combat. They’re a nice aside to the main game, but would probably be considered out of place in many other titles.
Ar Nosurge proves once again just how unafraid Gust are of dropping players in at the deep end, and just how reliant they are that their fans will expect and welcome complexity. If you’re a genre fan, the fast-paced, turn-based combat and deep story will certainly thrill you, but newcomers either to JRPGs or Gust may struggle with the intricate systems. As it is, Ode to an Unborn Star is likely to be a compelling, unique adventure – just don’t expect it to hold your hand when it finally releases here in September.