Ar Nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star is confusing. It’s a story within a story about a world within a world, borrowing more than a whisper of its philosophy from the wackiest slices of science fiction and wearing its absurdity like a badge of honor.
Without spoiling any major happenings, the story is as follows: most remaining humans are barricaded within the confines of increasingly unreliable city walls and a religious cult bent on downloading a deity is kidnapping the stragglers. There’s an empirical struggle between man and extra-dimensional preteen pixies, a supposed act of treason, the ineluctable amnesia-having protagonist, friendship and, finally, the brightening sparks of some uncomfortably honest relationships. If it all sounds a bit crazy, that’s because it is. And it’s only the surface of Ar Nosurge’s often enigmatic, impermeable montage of suggestive and evocative elements.
It’s very much the Inception of video games, particularly for those who haven’t played its prequel, Ciel Nosurge (which happens to be a Japan-exclusive PS Vita life simulator — go figure). Moreover, the game assumes that you’re familiar with its roots and dumps you directly in the middle of a conflict you’re expected to understand and resolve.
With its multifaceted design and branching paths, a clutch of characters nabbed directly from Japan’s vault of ridiculousness, tons of dialogue that was, presumably, processed by a Mad Libs generator and some awkward prom-night romance, Ar Nosurge is a veritable circus tent of funhouse mirrors and peculiar performances that culminate in a enjoyably complex and downright hilarious meshing of tales — even as it chips away at the fourth-wall.
The first of these tales begins with protagonists Delta and Cass, childhood friends turned addled partners. After being recruited by the super-secret government agency, PLASMA, the duo is tasked with retrieving an old friend by a bare-butted child-sized empress. Naturally, and since JRPG stories aren’t fun without some world shattering consequences, the plot thickens considerably and the human race rests in the palms of the unlikely couple.
The second story isn’t as immediately complicated, following Ion and her robot companion as they attempt to return to earth, but it offers a refreshing perspective in contrast to the story’s otherwise pounding immediacy. Once both parties are established, however, they become interchangeable, with only a handful of segments demanding any single team be utilized through its entirety.
There are thousands of words and hours of uncertainty to dig through in Ar Nosruge, always under the blade of an archaic save system. It can be a tough chew, but once the stories intertwine and a few startling revelations come to light, the script doesn’t seem quite as bonkers. Characters you’ll grow to love change alongside your own, and a multitude of communicative sources (field discussions, cut-scenes, character events, chatty Genometrics sessions, etc.) make it easy to become invested. The pacing throughout remains elegant, and while it doesn’t break the glass ceiling of video game narrative design, it certainly leaves its hand prints across the stretch.
Friendly suggestion: read the breakdown of Ciel Nosurge’s happenings or study Japanese extensively and import a copy before exploring an inch of Ar Nosurge. It’s worth it — trust me, I write about video games for a living sometimes.
Combat in Ar Nosruge doesn’t fly by any paradigmatic conventions. Instead, it prevails any preconceived fashions by sewing a tapestry of breakneck button-mashing and engrossing tactics. Exploration is basic; corridors are short and fractured, wildly reminiscent of Final Fantasy X and littered with glowing goodie orbs. Battle frequency isn’t measured by reflex, nor is it determined by the spawning of skittish mobs or placeholder monsters. There’s a gauge; something of a switchboard mechanic, alerting curious players via percentages in place of any obvious markers.
Encounters, too, are an oddity. Waves of enemies attack in succession, often at the mercy of a turn counter. Battles are fast-paced, with basic attacks assigned to controller inputs and a timing-based block function. You choose an enemy from the lineup (of which priority targets are clearly marked), throw some blows, protect your companion from incoming attacks (in combat, they fit the role of girl-shaped life bars), rinse and repeat. Breaking attacks earns you additional turns, and stringing combos charges your Burst meter — a requirement in performing capable ‘Songs,’ the game’s take on magic. It’s both a strategically satisfying and numbingly simple setup that couples harmoniously with the games unconventional progression.
Special attacks, or Songs, can be executed by pausing the action during any encounter and selecting a move from the rotating menu. Songs are typically battle-ending, massively powerful medleys of various instruments and cutesy vocals that’ll either stiffen or tickle a listeners spine. Tunes range from epic dings and clangs to bouncy J-Popping dancables and, like the game’s entire soundtrack, are absolutely fantastic. The higher your Burst percentage the more effective the Song, and unleashing a special depletes the meter entirely.
It’s a brand of magic, acquired throughout the story by triggering events or diving into companion’s hearts (more on that shortly) that is, at times, more fun than useful. Combat isn’t especially challenging (even at later stages), so reserves of musical murder should be, in my experience, expended for their garish, lively displays rather than any immediate reinforcement. Complimenting the flashy Song powers are friend-assisted attacks which become available after certain events early on, and expand as the game progresses.
Strangely, grinding — a long established Japanese RPG staple — isn’t a spinning gear in Ar Nosurge’s machine. Leveling, item collecting, earning of an honest wage; these are certainly the results of battle, but never the cogent focus. Progression, character development, improving of ongoing relationships and, conjunctively, the upgrading of abilities are performed and conquered in the games visual novel-like Genometrics system; a fundamentally orthodox storybook depiction of the typically claustrophobic, menu-driven design we’ve come to expect of the genre.
While narrative and combat are most certainly the spices of Ar Nosurge, it’s the Genometrics system that simmers its stew — a euphemism you’ll appreciate soon enough. Diving into and exploring the emotional mindstates of your dysfunctional companions plays to the tune of a visual novel, multi-tired and as engaging as multiple-choice adventures can be. The conflicts you’ll be tasked with resolving aren’t the most compelling slices of the story, but they’re always entertaining and clever reflections of the different personalities with which you’ll tackle the world.
Tales of war, friendship and emotional blockades of stuffed animals make for, at the very least, interesting reads, and every major turning-point rewards your patience with a gemstone required for upgrading your character and companions. Digging through your friends’ subconscious in hopes of restoring some emotional stability and, in the process, increasing your chances of inserting acquired crystals into their tiny bodies (I’m not kidding) may sound like a wild get-together at Spahn Ranch, it’s all in the name of improving skills.
And then comes the purification ceremony. Don’t let the title confuse you, though. There’s nothing pure about this ritual.
The first time my companion stripped into her training bra and panties, I didn’t know whether to hand her a Japanatomically correct court room doll or grab a bottle of Jergens. It is, in the world of Ar Nosurge, a normality; strengthening the bond between partners who’ll better engage as a team on the field. And it’s done by undressing, boiling gently in a pool, hot spring, puddle or whatever the f*** source of water you can find so long as the preteen you’re grooming drops her garments. Crystals can then be inserted into multiple body parts (again, I’m not kidding), which provide stat boosts among other improvements. New slots are unlocked by coercing your victi–companion with tidbits of conversation you’ll discover during your journey together.
If ever there was a line between acceptable and inappropriate, Ar Nosurge has it wrapped around some bear-san panties near a bathtub of naked choir girls. Calling the game perverted would be an insult to thousands of parolees with statutory charges. Implying that it sexualizes children would be offensive to many proprietors within the global sex tourism industry. It’s rude, playful and flashes more buttcheeks than a plumbers convention. And while its brand of fanservice is nothing new, and its proclaiming of legal aged characters on multiple accounts is silly (it clearly does so to justify the blatant prepubescent semblances), the gratuitous images of near-nude girlies are artfully drawn.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the rest of the game’s visuals. Although the art direction is occasionally stunning, the utilitarian menus and PS2-era character models don’t do the content much justice. Most female characters sound like they’ve inhaled just enough helium to ward off the sounds of puberty, and the voice acting is about on par with your typical JRPG.
Crafting, or ‘Synthesis’ exists too, though it’s relatively bare-bones and, outside of a few unique instances, can be ignored entirely. You won’t find yourself in need of any items that can’t be found or purchased elsewhere, so the only reason to bother with it is the silly dance performed by the cast which is, by all means, adorable.
It should be noted that, for all its missteps, Ar Nosurge has one of the genre’s strongest assortments of tunes. Music ranges from catchy, upbeat battle tracks to sensual 80’s porno vibes. Bells, whistles, brass instruments and what sounds a lot like a xylophone compliment some magnificently insane scenarios. It’s a varied, ever-changing and often epic soundtrack that pours some (much needed) sensible validity over the actions on screen.
Ar Nosurge is a confounding and constantly unfolding theater of romantic ideas and sci-fi absurdity. Although some of its mechanics can be dodgier than Cambodian child labor laws, and much of its content will detour some reverent moralists, it’s an engaging, frequently touching adventure about love, ambition and overcoming uncertainty. Sure, you’ll find a clutch of content that wouldn’t be out of place on the confiscated laptops of registered sex offenders, but beneath its roughly textured surface hides something beautiful; an impressively crafted, surreal exposition of human connection. It’s as messy, disjointed and confusing as it is brilliant, cavernously deep and emotionally charging. Forgive its flaws, though, and there’s a lengthy — albeit dialogue heavy — adventure worth its weight in nuts and bolts.
Platform: PlayStation 3