I mostly agree with you, OP. I like At1 but if I were to evaluate it, I'd say it's just "okay". It has a certain charm, a great soundtrack and some good ideas, but it doesn't execute them well and/or bring out their full potential. Also, Lyner.
I think it's the most generic of the games, but a good time nonetheless if you can look past its flaws.
The second game is my favorite. It takes the first game's good ideas and (generally) builds on them in good ways. The story is nothing amazing (like the other games'), but it does a good job of engaging the player early on. The setting expands upon the interesting aspects of the first game's, making it feel less generic. The heroines are easily the most interesting in the series (Cloche is the best, come at me Ar tonelibros) (no dont plz)
and their greater depth relative to the other games' makes better use of the Cosmosphere and Song Magic concepts. Croix is my favorite of the protagonists as well, though I guess that's not saying much since I can't stand Lyner and found Aoto to be similar to him in some ways (though not as bad). At2's battle system is the best in the series as well, but I also wish it was more difficult or at least had a Hard mode. I could go on, but overall I think At2 has the best of everything in the series save non-Hymnnos music and item synthesis. It's the only game in the series I'd call "good," horrible localization aside.
At3 thoughts, spoiler-tagged just in case:
- Spoiler: [ Open ]
As you can see, I felt the developers had hit their stride with its At2, so I was disappointed to see that the developers dropped many of the things that made it good in making At3. I don't mind the innuendo and such in the games, but I also felt that they went overboard with Purging. I guess its closest equivalent in the other games is the bathing system from At2, but I thought that was more silly than anything and it at least adds something to the game (a different way of leveling and customizing the heroines, more conversations to trigger) whereas Purging is titillation and little else. Honestly though, I doubt it would have bothered me as much if the heroines didn't look so young. I think you said all there is to say about the battle system itself, though. =p
I think At3's heroines were the weakest in the series as well. I guess Tyria is okay, but Saki and Finnel suffer as a result of having to share screentime with their shallow Personas and Saki in particular lacks depth period (I think Sakia Lumei was a little more interesting, even). Speaking of which, one of my big gripes with the first game is that Lyner can max out all of the girls' Cosmospheres, so I was disappointed to see that Aoto can almost do the same thing. Diving is made out to be a deeply intimate thing, so it seems wrong to me that the protagonists can go so far into them before putting a heroine in the friend zone. I thought At2's limit of Level 5 was also a bit high, but it's better than Level 8.
I thought At3 was weak as a finale to the series as well; the game takes forever to get to the point -- revitalizing the planet -- and when it does, the cast of the other games has very little to do with it. I believe the line of thinking regarding this is that if Lyner's group hadn't done X and Croix's hadn't done Y, At3's Z would never have occurred...but I just can't get behind that way of thinking. While it's true, I think the actions of the other game's casts are too far removed from At3 to look at it that way. It's kinda hard to explain what I mean, but I could provide an example if prodded, lol. Anyway, I went
when the opening theme medley played during the credits, but at the same time it felt kind of cheap, like the game didn't "earn" that moment. I didn't think, "Wow, I can't believe Ar tonelico is over
" the way I did when I finished the last Xenosaga game or what have you.
Sorry if this went on too long/is difficult to read. ^^; I have a little trouble articulating my thoughts sometimes, heh.