Arcana Heart 3
The fighting genre is on the rise. This year has seen the release of quite a few titles; the Marvel vs. Capcom, Dead or Alive, and Mortal Kombat series made their triumphant returns, and Capcom got a little more mileage out of Street Fighter IV with the Arcade and 3D editions. Even The King of Fighters is slated for another installment in a few months. With all these big titles coming out, it’s easy to miss some of the lesser-known franchises. The third Arcana Heart game was recently made available online, but its release coincided with the rash of hackings that plagued Sony’s services. Thus the game was forgotten, a victim of bad timing and a lack of publicity. If you’re into fighters, however, you might want to save it from falling into obscurity.
It doesn’t look like a fighting game. There are no karate bums, burly wrestlers, or soldiers with gravity-defying haircuts. Instead, the majority of the competitors are Japanese schoolgirls. The heroines include a cheerful, bubbly teenage girl with ribbons tied around her fists, a gothic lolita assassin, a couple of militarized nuns, an overly busty android, a puppy ninja, giant mecha, a vampire on roller skates, and a maid wielding a sword twice her size. Despite having unique looks and designs, however, the playable characters lack personality. Aside from the high-pitched voices and cute mannerisms, there’s little else in terms of depth or motivation. That wouldn’t be a problem if the game didn’t try to shove its bland story down your throat. There’s supposedly a corrupt corporation pulling the strings, along with a connection to some kind of spiritual alternate dimension. Nothing is ever fully explained beyond the fact that the girls have to collect magical stones by attacking each other for no logical reason. When compared to the stories of fighters like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, the idiotic excuse of a plot is disappointing.
The girls make up for their personal shortcomings with a decent array of punches, kicks, and special attacks. They emulate some of the best the fighting genre has to offer; savvy fans will quickly notice similarities to Ryu, Rugal, Terry Bogard, Hazama, and several others. The game places a heavy emphasis on offensive tactics. On the easier difficulty settings, strategy usually boils down to getting close to your opponent and mashing buttons until someone keels over. The higher-end gameplay, however, requires much more finesse and better timing; many of the characters’ move sets are designed with combos in mind. Characters like Zenia and Angelia are all about close-range attacks, while Mei-Fang and Fiona rely on heavy-hitting moves to offset their relatively slow speeds. Depending on whom you’re using, chaining attacks and racking up multiple hits is a simple matter of practice. You can even launch your enemies skyward and annihilate them with all kinds of Guilty Gear-esque acrobatics. It’s all balanced out by a healthy dose of defensive options, ranging from air dashes and homing attacks to parries and movement canceling. While the gameplay mechanics are nowhere near as demanding or fast-paced as other fighters, there’s still enough depth to keep things interesting.
What make the real difference, however, are the Arcana. The girls can augment their strategies by summoning a spirit in the middle of combat. Their abilities are just as varied as the character in question. Some let you spam projectiles and unblockable attacks, while others regenerate your health and boost your maneuverability. The default pairings underscore each of the fighters’ strengths and weaknesses. Lilica’s move set revolves around aerial combos, and her team-up with Tempestas grants her more jumping and move-canceling options. Dieu Mort’s poison and warping abilities make Yoriko a surprisingly formidable opponent. If you switch things around a bit, you’ll probably find other combinations that better fit your playing style. Elsa’s already strong combos are made even deadlier with Lang-Gong’s damage output, and Kayatusuhime’s long reach lends itself well to Maori’s long-range tactics. With a little experimentation and practice, you’ll become unstoppable in no time.
You won’t have much of a chance to show off, though. Aside from the usual Story, Practice, Score Attack, and Versus Modes, the only other feature is the online multiplayer. There’s nothing particularly fascinating or original about it. You can fight random gamers from around the world and steadily rack up points for whichever characters you use. That’s assuming you can get that far; the gameplay is noticeably laggy on anything less than perfect settings. Commands aren’t always read properly, animations become slightly choppy, and the pacing of the fights is a fraction of what it should be. If you’ve spent hours getting used to the speed and precision of the regular combat, the sudden dip in quality is incredibly jarring. It’s even worse when you consider Aksys’s history; their BlazBlue titles offer some of the slickest online multiplayers in the fighting genre. While the gameplay is nowhere near as bad as The King of Fighters XII, it’s nowhere near as good as it should be.
The game tries to distract you by providing tons of eye candy. There are dozens of unlockable artwork, including Story Mode endings, individual character and Arcana portraits, and bonus drawings. If you watch the animated segments decorating the edges of the screen, you can see the fighters’ reacting to the tide of the battles with specific animations. Every girl is animated with a decent amount of detail; you can see the way Petra’s skirt sways with every step, or how Yoriko is literally dragged around the battleground by her evil staff. Scharlarot’s magical chains and proximity mines are some of the most stylish attacks in the game. Despite all the things happening on the screen, however, the majority of it seems dated and unsatisfying. Aside from the stunning super move animations, the rest of the graphics are built around their PS2 incarnations. If you’ve played any recent 2D fighter, the visuals won’t be nearly as fluid or fleshed-out as you might expect. The unpolished graphics don’t hinder the combat in the slightest, but it’s still a little disappointing.
That can be said for Arcana Heart 3 as a whole. Hardcore fighting game fanatics have been looking forward to another installment for quite a while, but it’s hard to say if it was worth the wait. Thanks to the laughable plot and poor characterization, the story is boring and shallow. There are over twenty playable characters, each with their own playing styles and Arcana summons. The combat mechanics are decently complex and fluid, but they’re rarely demanding aside from the higher difficulty settings. There’s plenty to learn in terms of strategy and tactics, but it feels less focused and precise than the stuff you’d find in other contemporary 2D fighters. The online multiplayer – the only thing that will keep you coming back long after you’ve unlocked every last shred of fan service-laden artwork – can be a horribly laggy and bland experience. Even with the fancy super moves and animations, the graphics are nowhere near as crisp and detailed as they could have been. Arcana Heart 3 is fun for what it offers, but it falls short of its real potential. These girls need to train more.