In this updated release for the PlayStation Vita, Ar No Surge Plus is the newly released port of the original Ar No Surge: Ode to an Unborn Star, which was released for PS3 back in 2014. Developed by Gust, it’s the prequel to sister series Ar Tonelico and it’s also a direct sequel to another Vita game, Ciel Nosurge which only came out in Japan.
Set in the far distant future, Ar No Surge Plus follows the stories of Cass & Delta, and Ion & Earthes, as they struggle to save the aging colony ship which they inhabit. Humanity and a mysterious species known as the Sharl cohabit on this ship, which has been floating through space for centuries, powered by a mysterious force known as song magic. In the world of Ar No Surge Plus, song magic is precious and can only be used by a select few humans known as the ‘Ancients’. Cass and Ion are two of these ancients, and are protected by Delta and Earthes as they work to grow stronger and protect their home. As such, battle gameplay in Ar No Surge Plus is a little different from the standard turn based RPG in that you control either Delta or Earthes only to protect Cass or Ion as they charge up their song magic.
In battle, there’s no HP bar for your character, but you have to watch the HP of the girl you’re protecting as you defend them against attacks from enemies. Attacking enemies during your turns is surprisingly fun, with different attacks assigned to each button, allowing you to customise your style of play as you build up satisfying combos. Battles are ranked according to combos built up and waves defeated, so after the initial learning curve it becomes much more fun as you experiment with playing styles to create the best combos and take your enemies out in style. Once the bar has filled up, you can then unleash devastating song magic to cut through waves of enemies. Each character starts with only one type of song magic, but more can be unlocked Genometrics, which is where the Visual Novel aspects of Ar No Surge Plus kick in.
Ar No Surge Plus’ Genometrics is a fun, Visual Novel based approach to leveling up skills in a role playing game. A bond of mutual trust and respect is necessary for Cass and Ion to use more powerful song magic, so using the Bios shops, you can dive into the mental landscapes of characters and are tasked with solving their mental blocks to unlock a deeper bond with them. Often these worlds will be wacky, and often feel like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole as you navigate your way through twisted theme parks and scenarios to help characters resolve their ‘issues’. I often found myself playing through the same area multiple times just to see what would happen if I were to pick another option in each area and had fun trying out different routes. Be warned however, that some of these can get a little fan service-y so this may not be a game to play on public transport. I was particularly grateful to be playing somewhere private when a light-hearted bdsm skit appeared.
As well as Genometrics, you can also upgrade your characters by creating new weapons and accessories for the using Synthesis shops. After a brief introduction, you can collect items across the field maps and shops and take them to Nay or other shopkeepers to be synthesised into powerful items. Unlike another popular Gust series ‘Atelier’, synthesis is simply a case of collecting the items and paying for them to be synthesised, during which a goofy mini song appears. It’s not immediately clear what you have to do to unlock further recipes, so I found myself forgetting about this for quite some time and then having to spend an hour unlocking all the recipes I had collected via Nay later on in the game. Whilst this was usually fun, it did get a little tiring having to sit through so many long winded events to get each upgrade.
Ar No Surge Plus begins with Cass and Delta’s route before moving onto the story of Ion and Eathes. After a short while, you unlock the ‘zapping’ function at save points to switch between the storylines of both teams. This was an interesting mechanic as I felt I had more freedom to switch and learn where to go myself without being spoonfed the usual RPG mechanic of ‘do x to unlock y’. When stuck, I often found myself switching and exploring new areas to get further on, rather than a painful session of level grinding. The storyline was interesting and felt enough to prop the game up, but often I found myself wishing I could skip cut scenes to return to the gameplay as although the game tried, it rarely had enough emotional depth to make me care much for the fate of my characters apart from Ion, who was clumsy and adorable.