Hear me out.
Nippon Ichi is smart; they didn't release Ar tonelico on Valentine's Day, but the week before. It would be too sad and embarrassing to buy a game like this on the day itself. But seven days is some time for the game to sit on the shelf. Then, a few days later, you think "oh hey, Valentine's Day is coming up." Then you look at Ar tonelico with it's goddamn pink box and the pieces all fall together. The game hits you with the sobering realization that you were exactly who they were going for, and you think:
And so, being unloved, I gave Ar tonelico a little bit of my weekend.
Ar tonelico is unusual among console games in that its play revolves around a sexual relationship. Now most console manufacturers have guidelines that are supposed to prevent this kind of thing: for example, when a PC porn game gets released on a home console in Japan, the sex scenes are almost invariably removed. The games do fine, because what you have left is raw moe, and that sells about as well as sex does.
Ar tonelico is a game of principle; it refuses to remove the sex. It rewrites sex to make it more relevant to the JRPG formula, and thus, to the life of J. Average Otaku. Because yeah, sex feels good, but what's it going to do for my stats? Ar tonelico creates a world where the preceding is actually a valid question. This is its genius.
In the future, people have forgotten how to sing. This is unfortunate, because just like Macross, singing is the best special move. And so the people, still needing special moves in their lives, start making Reyvateils. These are artificial girls built to sing, sing, sing. Listen to my song, indeed!
The catch is that Reyvateils are (stop me if you've heard this one before) weak and submissive little things who need a big, strong knight to protect them. You see where we're going with this? Never mind the actual plot: what this game revolves around is the relationship between the player, represented by standard-issue hot-blooded youth Lyner, and his Reyvateil.
In standard RPG terms, the Reyvateil is the magic user and you're the fighter. The Reyvateil sits in the back and sings while you fight; the longer she sings, the stronger her spells get. Fights consist of holding down the fort for as long as you can until the Reyvateil can nuke all the bad guys with the power of song.
None of this is too far off from the norm: where the game is not standard is its interaction element. Many people in the world of Ar tonelico have Reyvatiels; they're essential for fighting. Being girlbots, though, they are treated as disposable weapons. But our hero knows better. He knows that to get a Reyvateil to sing real purty, you have to love her.
They start you off on the light stuff; when you sleep at an inn, your Reyvateil will come to your room in the middle of the night and want to talk. The game actually keeps a checklist of what you've talked about; fill it out and I guess that means you love the girl to the max.
This is all pretty innocuous dating-sim stuff, until the Reyvatiel cracks from frustration:
"I WANT YOU TO DIVE INTO ME."
She's upset that you didn't ask first. Guys are supposed to initiate! What kind of man are you, Lyner? The first time we hear about diving, we learn that most guys don't even ask permission, and that Reyvateils, for the most part, just can't say no.
And so we enter the Dive system. This is Ar tonelico's brilliant, evil scheme: the means by which it transforms sex into a game mechanic. See, leveling up and chatting about the weather only goes so far: in order to learn new Song Magic, somebody's got to go into her subconscious and help her pull it out. This is diving. The first time we have to dive it's because we need a new spell in order to bust through a wall; this is kind of like going into somebody's head to retrieve Blue Key.
Of course, this metaphor gets extended; diving takes place in the dive shop and the dive shop is a cheap motel. The first one of these is conspicuously purple and pink in an otherwise inconspicuous town: a sign up top reads "DIVE" in big ol' letters. I could pull my pink Cadillac up to the place, take off my feathered hat, and feel right at home. The organic women in town speak disapprovingly of it; of how the men are in and out of the place at all hours with their Reyvatiels and what's going on in there anyway.
Inside the Dive shop are a tech who resembles Tochiro from Captain Harlock, and a rather large mechanical assembly built around a pair of giant, mechanical cocoons. This is sex the Demolition Man way. You give Tochiro your money, you hop in, and all of a sudden you're in this girl's machine brain.
The inside of your lady's brain is, of course, a Super Mario World map, except the places have names like "Wharf of Endless Calm", and spots marked with stars have abstract neuroses in them that you need to deal with my encouraging the ice fairy to do his best and make it snow really hard, which gives you an ice spell. If you deal with enough of these things, a pillar of light shows up at the start of the map. Lead the girl in and her emotional well-being levels up. This gets you.... a new costume. Perfect! Sex makes magical girl costumes! Magical girl costumes make for progress!
Admittedly, pulling spells out of people's brains by helping them with their deep-seated neuroses is kind of a nice concept; I want them to go somewhere with it but judging from the first few levels and the inherently goofy way the sexual angle is played, I don't think that's really going to happen in any meaningful way.
The conclusion to this story is that the after the second night I played Ar tonelico, I woke up sicker than I'd ever been and remained that way for a solid week. I blame excessive diving. Haven't played the game for a week. Part of this is not having the time (certainly you've noticed); the rest of it is fear. I'd just met the second Reyvateil. What if this other girl gets me sick too?
To round this post out, here's the game's trailer. Note the section about Installing Crystals; there is nothing I can say about this system that the video doesn't already tell you.