Arcana Heart 3 Review
Game: Arcana Heart 3
Publisher: Zen United
Available on: Xbox 360 & PlayStation 3 (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
European fans of 2D fighting games have never had it better, really. In the past few years we have been lucky enough to receive a plethora of quality titles for the current gaming platforms. Capcom have delivered the goods with reboots of its Street Fighter and Vs. franchises, whilst also bringing out excellently revamped downloadable versions of older games for our delectation. Even Western Nintendo Wii owners were granted their own AAA fighter with the only console port of the wonderful Tatsunoko Vs Capcom.
SNK Playmore continue to give us King of Fighters instalments, retro compilations and marketplace downloads. Both firms have a ton of games lined up – including long awaited crossover titles with Namco’s Tekken, and a PAL console release for the superb King Of Fighters XIII.
Arc System Works may be the less well known out of the current triumvirate of fighting game experts, but they are also responsible for some prime scrapping action reaching our shores. Numerous Guilty Gear sequels, the excellent BlazBlue series, and the beautifully designed Battle Fantasia have all done time on UK shelves and been snapped up by people like myself who would have once had to import such delights. But Arc aren’t just about developing their own games – they also publish titles for other developers, such as Examu, a Japanese studio previously known as Yuki Enterprises, who were responsible for a couple of Samurai Shodown sequels, before striking out with a franchise of their own.
That franchise was Arcana Heart, and its curious all-female cast arrived in Japanese arcades in 2006. Truly a product of its homeland, with an outlandish plot and aesthetics, we take out hat off to European publisher Zen United for giving us the opportunity to sample this remarkable confection on these shores for the first time. The question is: how does it stack up against some of the other big hitters currently available for the format?
STORY: Maybe it is just me, but when I am enjoying some fighting action, whether that is on my own, with some pals or across the internets, I don’t really give two hoots about a plot. Being a fantastical, anime-inspired Japanese release however, Arcana Heart 3 comes laden with plot, a shed-load of dialogue, and cutscenes that will go straight over most peoples heads.
To summarise, the story picks up where Arcana Heart 2 left off. There has been some sort of crazy incident in a semi-futuristic, fantastical alternate-reality version of Japan, which has caused rifts in the time/space continuum, and “dimensional distortion”. There are a bunch of magical ladies, some mystical stones, and someone threatening to destroy Japan in six days. Your job in story mode, is to defeat the baddies and ultimately decide the fate of Japan. This catastrophic situation is presented to the player using Japanese voice acted cutscenes, that are helpfully translated.
What this means is that you get a bumper crop of 23 young ladies, including main protagonist Weiss, with which to enter into combat. The combatants each get the choice of one of 23 Arcana – the elemental, celestial beings based upon stuff like the Tarot deck, Norse mythology and all manner of other gubbins – that radically affect the moves and abilities of your character (more of which later). The story is completely insane, but would you want it any other way?
GRAPHICS: What we have here is a resolutely old school 2D fighting game. The graphics, whilst colourful and well animated, have not really evolved the series much from its 2006 roots. Other developers are creating far more impressive, sumptuous, HD crafted brawlers – and by comparison the somewhat pixellated, lower resolution Arcana Heart 3, with its huge borders on either side of the 4:3 screen – looks dated. You can stretch the display, but this makes it look worse. The borders, when kept in play, have animated versions of each selected character within them, and their movement correlates with what is going on in the main fighting arena. I found this annoying and somewhat distracting, and I am sure this won’t be to everyone’s taste.
Having said this, the cast of characters are wonderful to behold. Sure, it is a bit creepy that at the age of 31 I am sat playing a game populated by wailing, crying teenage girls, some of which are not wearing a massive amount of clothing. But I am blessed with an ability to look beyond the inherent perviness and appreciate the artistic value of the whole affair. With such a varied roster of gals, all shapes and sizes, and the many Arcana beasties that augment their powers, a great deal of imagination has gone into the designs. My particular favourite is Eko, a little girl who is accompanied by a large, shapeshifting representation of a child’s chalk illustration. The hand-drawn backgrounds also look superb, with some mental settings that actually change depending on which Arcana you happen to employ. I was particularly taken by the giant spider crab that forms part of one backdrop – I need more tasty seafood in our games. The cutscenes that intertwine with the action are all rendered in stunning HD too, even those that take place when you unleash a super move during a bout.
Don’t buy Arcana Heart 3 expecting a graphical tour de force though, it is pretty and does the job effectively for the genre, but doesn’t push the envelope.
SOUND: With some crunching sound effects during battle, a huge amount of squealing, screaming, shouting and talking (all in Japanese) and a high-octane slew of entertaining ditties, this is a decent sounding game. Turn your telly up and play it for a bit and before long your front room will sound like a Japanese amusement arcade. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing.
GAMEPLAY: A one on one fighting game can look and sound pretty and have all the selectable characters in the world but at the end of the day it stands or falls on its game mechanics and fighting system.
The biggest success here is the depth and variety on offer. 23 characters to master is decent enough by any stretch of the imagination, but when you fathom that any of the 23 available Arcana types can be married to any character, you realise that there are over 500 different combinations to tinker with. Finding the best combination of character and Arcana is a challenge in itself, with each having its own effect on your character and allowing a different moveset to be accessed. Some Arcana types improve defence, others improve attack, but all of them come with a bunch of unique attacks.
The speed of the game is somewhat slower that the likes of Marvel Vs Capcom 3 or BlazBlue, but there are a wealth of tactical options available in addition to the myriad Arcana/kick-ass girly combos. Some of these are new to the series, such as the Force Gauge – fill this up and you can enter into the near-invulnerable Extend Force mode. Present from earlier instalments is the “homing” air-dash mechanic – each of the characters has an air-dash attack that will attack your opponent wherever they are on the screen. Of course there are also the requisite super moves, and each of the characters can access mega-hit combos that are very satisfying to pull off.
Like all hardcore fighting games, it can be quite intimidating at first. Story mode eases you in with some winnable early bouts, before throwing some tough mid-bosses at you and a typically cheap, incredibly difficult final boss – the huge, screen-filling mecha that is Ragnarok. Luckily then for the novice is the inclusion of the “Simple” mode which condenses the tricky-at-first control scheme for one that allocates one button for each of the available attack types (special moves, homing dash, Arcana moves and ordinary attacks). This mode allows you to become familiar with what each character is capable of, before you have a crack at using the standard control set up and performing all kinds of crazy combos. I heartily recommend an arcade stick for this.
LONGEVITY: With a Story mode that allows you to choose your path through the game, and which features an incredibly tough boss to contend with, playing through Arcana Heart 3 with all of the available characters is a big challenge and will take you a fair old while. Like all fighters, this bad-boy comes into its own in versus mode, which is duly included along with other fighting game mainstays (score attack, training, unlockable gallery pics).
There is an online mode which allows you to battle like minded individuals around the globe, and this appears to work well with minimal lag. Just be prepared to get your ass handed to you royally if you come underprepared, there are some downright brutal masters of the game out there. The only gripe with the online mode was that during the character select screen, you cannot see the names of the characters, which when you consider they are all female headshots, some of which may appear quite interchangeable, can lead to confusing selection headaches.
Like any fighting game, the longevity of this title depends really on whether you have anyone else to fight against. It is always going to have appeal in multiplayer mode, just don’t expect to be ploughing through the single player options in six months time.
VERDICT: This game is never going to have the potential crossover appeal of a Street Fighter IV. It screams “JAPANESE NICHE TITLE!” from the rooftops, for goodness sake. But it is a highly entertaining and original fighter that deserves a look if you like that sort of thing. I think it is wonderful that publishers are still prepared to bring unusual things like this to the PAL territories, and long may it continue.