In a world where songs can kill and chatting with semi-naked girls in bathtubs is part of a sacred ceremony, a religious war has split two factions in half. Propaganda and aggression have kept these two groups separate for long enough that neither realises one simple truth: that there are real people on both sides.
Ar Nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star is a huge story about individual people. While the universe falls apart because of an evil, all-powerful song, protagonists Delta and Cass bicker and flirt – and ultimately opt to ward off the bad because of ‘reasons’. Delta’s amnesia, which came about after he mysteriously dropped a protective barrier surrounding the city, letting in the enemy, is one of the main justifications manufactured to keep the couple apart – and to make their getting closer all the more important.
The word manufactured is perfect, because it feels tacked on, like it was speedily put together as a means to an end. Not properly explained if you’re not into doing side quests, you probably won’t even recognise some of the references made to both the amnesia and other important plot elements in the first few hours of the game, because those ideas just aren’t given enough time.
Sure, there are nice character building moments where the duo chat about toilet paper or nail varnish, but naturally these conversations do little to build the overarching story. They make the pair extremely likeable – if you’re not put off by the one-note anime personalities – but are not especially deep.
What’s odd about the decision is that the plot itself isn’t terribly complicated, at least not as far as sci-fi goes. It’s unusual, and you have to pay attention and suspend your disbelief, but it’s definitely not difficult to follow – except, of course, for those moments where the writers decide to just stop explaining what it is that’s actually going on.
Playing the side quests definitely helps you to understand the world a little better, although there are also times where they can get ahead of you somewhat. We encountered multiple occasions where future events were spoiled due to the fact that we hadn’t progressed further in the main story, which makes for an impossible balance of the side quests being both necessary from the beginning and probably worth holding off on.
What a depth of content there is, though. Characters you come into contact with can be connected to you, meaning that you’re allowed to sink into their subconscious. Here, miniature stories are played out as the person who you’ve connected with attempts to battle their emotional issues. This is a great way of getting to know the people that you come across on a level entirely unsurpassed by other JRPGs, although the characters themselves aren’t deep enough for it to feel like an opportunity fully explored.
As the game progresses, you find another set of protagonists, who can interact with the world in a slightly different way to Delta and Cass. By swapping between the two groups, you can explore the world and unlock doors, helping the other pair to progress. It’s a clever way of rotating heroes – a problem that exists in almost all JRPGs. That it’s a practical solution that gives you good reason to switch beyond just levelling is just the icing on the cake.
The gameplay as a whole is a little slow, though. There’s a huge amount of text, to the point where some stores are labelling it as an interactive novel, and not all of it is especially interesting. The battle system isn’t particularly deep either, and the fun of having such an active part in proceedings quickly wears off after your third or fourth 25-wave battle. The difficulty spikes are slightly uneven as well, especially if you travel a lot.
But despite it not always hitting its mark, Ar Nosurge has some nice ideas. Things like the purification ceremony, in which you and your companion stand in a glorified hot tub with just your swimming gear, offers a new way of getting to know your allies – courtesy of unlockable conversations, and not just gratuitous on-screen skin. These moments give you a second to take stock on events, and on the world, but also offer stat bonuses. In that regard, this game definitely borrows from the life simulation genre.
It almost even looks the part, but the character design isn’t especially interesting, and some of the main cast look incredibly out of place among their counterparts. It doesn’t hurt the story all that much – not when it’s already so unbalanced in its own right – but it might throw off those that were already not entirely taken with the extremely Eastern style. Indeed, it might have stood a little sturdier if the graphics overall were slightly better, but the game was obviously made on a budget, and the animations and environments can feel underwhelming as well.
Thankfully, the music is far better, even approaching memorable in places. The score sets the tone and helps blend the very Japanese locations with the futuristic world that the game takes place in. It’s not the sort of thing that you’d want to listen to daily, but it’s sweet enough on its own, and those that play will have very few complaints.
Even though it’s probably not going to be winning any awards, Ar Nosurge: Ode to an Unborn Star is a unique title that tries to do something new. JRPG fans should definitely check it out at some point, if only as a filler between bigger things. Anybody else would be right to be hesitant, although if getting to know characters inside-out is something that you’re constantly looking for, then this might be one to consider. After all, there aren’t many games that take that idea literally.