Visual Novels are taking up a lot of my time lately. I’ve recently reviewed the excellent Song of Memories and I have four more still being worked on for reviewing very soon. However, the common theme among all of the ones I’m working on is young Japanese girls with big breasts and rather questionable antics. That’s why I was happy when PQube sent me a copy of Fiction Factory Games’ Arcade Spirits to review, as it’s about as far from the usual games within the genre as you can get.
Arcade Spirits is an Otome-style Visual Novel, in that the main purpose is to ultimately work on your relationships with the people you meet to the point of becoming a partner with one of them. The main difference here is that the game allows you to be who you want and also date whoever you wish as well. It’s very LGBT friendly, yet you’re never forced to do anything that you, the player, don’t want to do. So, don’t get your panties in a twist and instantly think this game is out there to change your views on things, it really isn’t, it’s there to be more inclusive and adaptive to the player’s desires.
Let’s just jump in and take a look as there’s a lot going on within Arcade Spirits…
Arcade Spirits takes place within an alternate timeline from our own, a timeline which branched off in 1983. Whereas in our world, the video game crash occurred which led to a lot of arcades going out of business and people beginning to lose interest in gaming, until the NES came along; In this new timeline, this never happened and the Arcade centres remained the most popular place to play your games and socialise. Think of it as a ‘what if’ timeline which makes the western world look a lot like modern day Japan (as they are still crazy about Arcade centres over there).
Our protagonist, who I’ll be calling Ben, is a hopeless 20-something who can’t seem to hold down a job. Every single one he’s taken on has resulted in early termination through being fired or the company shutting down. You’re sad, depressed, and just about given up on life at this point. In comes Juniper, your perky, yet slightly dopey, roommate. She seems to always be there for you in order to cheer you up and help you bounce back. On this occasion, she recommends you download a new app on your phone, an app which will find your perfect job and act as a life coach in terms of your relationships and social life. What’s the old saying? “There’s an app for that…”
You agree to give it a go and you find yourself working within a local Funplex along with a cast of very different individuals. The app doesn’t stop there though, it’s always on hand to help you out and push you in the right direction as you play through the next ten hours of ‘who should I get to know better’. Oh, it also supplies you with plenty of Pizza facts and a lifetime supply of Pizza Bagels!
This is where the story starts and how it progresses is up to you. It’s really refreshing to play a Visual Novel with isn’t all about the boobs and questionable ages, there were some really nostalgic moments with Arcade Spirits as well, which I’ll touch on later. For, what appears to be, Fiction Factory Games‘ first game, it’s a solid VN with a great story.
Okay, so let’s talk about the core mechanic of Arcade Spirits – the dating. You don’t actually have to do this if you don’t want to and still get a decent ending as a friend to the people you’ll meet. You see, when you first open up the app, you’re asked what you’re looking for and you can tell IRIS (that’s the name of the AI who lives within the app) that you’re not looking for a relationship – the game doesn’t force you to say yes by repeating the option, it just continues and lets you make your own mind up as you play.
This brings me to the other point, I said previously that the game is very LGBT friendly as it lets you be whoever you want to be. Again, this isn’t forced. Upon creating your very ambiguous-looking avatar, you can choose if you go by He, She or They. Then, once you do encounter each of the characters initially, you have three options to tell IRIS a bit of information – these were mainly two casual comments on the person’s job or what they’re working on, and the final one is pretty much “cor blimey, I like them!”. So, you have full control over who your character likes, be it a male or female, and there is no limit on how many characters you can pick option three for – think Mass Effect Andromeda!
So, if you’re like me and you’re a cis white male who mainly dates and is attracted to female white girls, then that’s fine, you’re not forced to have a threesome with Percy or Teo…
I just wanted to briefly talk about the characters, as they are all so different yet almost stereotypical. We have the aforementioned IRIS (The Identity Identifier System) who is always listening to your conversations, just like your Android phone if you haven’t disabled that feature, and always on hand to help with almost any situation you may find yourself in. Similarly, Juniper is your roommate yet pops up every now and again to offer advice and a push in the right direction. These two are basically your moral support and guidance throughout Arcade Spirits, but the main interactions will be with the cast you meet whilst working at the Funplex…
Francine is the first person you’ll meet, she’s the old lady in charge of the Funplex. Unfortunately, you can’t opt to woo her, so those out there who are into older ladies, I’m afraid you’re out of luck this time! Then you meet up with my Bae, Naomi, the tech geek who sits in the back room repairing all the machines the terrible little brats keep shoving chewing gum into and breaking. Gavin is your usual uptight accountant who always carries a clipboard, think Arnold Rimmer from Red Dwarf. He can have fun, but he likes to ensure everything is running smooth and within budget. On the opposite side of the scale is Ashley, she’s the resident cosplayer who loves to dress in her own creations for work and conventions. She even manages to rope you into dressing up in one (as above).
However, the staff aren’t your own interactions, you’ll have Teo, Queenbee and Percy, three regulars to the Arcade who you can opt to become closer with if you choose. These are all similar, yet different. Teo is a dancer who trains his students via the assistance of DDR, Queenbee is always challenging people within the Arcade as she knows she’ll win, and Percy is a rich boy who loves playing the same machine to keep his top score. As the game unfolds, friendships are made, relationships are started, and pathways are opened up, all depending on how you interact with people – so choose wisely!
This brings me onto the choices within Arcade Spirits, as it’s such a cool and fun mechanic. Just like the above three relationship questions, each time you’re given a predicament during the narrative, you will have the chance to choose one of a number of answers. Now, each of these answers relates to what type of personality you have. There’s your basic neutral answer, which is in every set of answers, but you also get ones like goofy, smart, and romantic. By default, the game shows you which answer relates to each trait, so you can mould your perfect protagonist, but I chose the option to hide the relationship it has – that way, I picked the answers I felt were more me and the game proceeded to build up an image of my traits more accurately within the game.
I thought this was quite clever as I’ve not really seen games do this recently. Sure, you usually have the option of multiple answers to choose from, but you don’t usually get a visual representation of what difference they will make to your character. This mechanic isn’t just for show either, after a few chapters certain options will become greyed out if your character isn’t that kind of person. This is similar to things I’ve seen in The Council and Call of Cthulhu! So, choose your responses carefully as you may end up being a serious fuddy-duddy or the joke of the Arcade.
Also, the developers have done a great job by taking this one step further. Not only will certain actions affect your own characters personality and overall compatibility with certain characters, but they will also affect other peoples moods or feelings towards you should you choose a negative response. For example, at one point I found out Juniper didn’t bother telling me about a job going at her work – I basically shouted at her and told her she should have told me and I don’t consider her a friend anymore. This led to her getting depressed and being less talkative than usual until we made up.
Speaking of choices that matter outside of dating, the game loves to throw you curveballs. Throughout my playthrough, I was given quite a few chances to give up on working at the Funplex and do something else. I thought this was a joke and the game would force me to stay on the path as the game is about working in the Arcade. I was wrong. The first chance the game gave me to give up on the job, I did just that. It resulted in a game over!
Let’s take a step back now and actually look at the game itself, even though it’s based in the year 20XX (I really don’t like games that use XX in their dating), the game is oozing with 80’s charm and nostalgia. From the random name-dropping of popular arcade games to the inclusion of the fabled game Polybius. I’m not going to talk about that one much, but if you’ve seen the Angry Video Game Nerd‘s video on that game then you’ll know what it’s all about. I was born in the ’80s so I didn’t really experience the arcades until the ’90s, yet the look of the arcade, the passion Naomi has for restoring old machines, and the way the game shows various tournaments and events happening within the Funplex, really brought back a lot of memories and nostalgia for me.
The references don’t stop at video games either, your van which you use to go to locations within Arcade Spirits is the spitting image of the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo and there are a few other references to pop culture and parodies on well-known people and events. I found the whole game very charming and, as I said before, a breath of fresh air from the visual novels we currently get over on consoles. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking the VNs I’ve been playing recently, as some of them are absolutely amazing, it’s just nice to see a developer take a known genre and create a game which is familiar yet very different at the same time.
The whole game is a ‘feel good’ experience which everyone can relate to. We’ve all felt down at times like the world is against us and we don’t know where to turn for help and advice. Arcade Spirits portrays all these emotions through our protagonist’s inner monologue as they go from being a depressed and goal-less individual to being part of a great team. This is by meeting some amazing people who will always back you up and becoming so much more by simply being yourself and focusing on the things you’re good at.
What would a Visual Novel be without extra items for you to unlock as you progress? In this case, they are listed under ‘prizes’, as in the prizes you get from an Arcade when you trade in tokens… There are 22 unlockable pieces of art, along with hints on how to unlock them. These are cool and are much more than just the CGs used within the game (like most Visual Novels). For example, at one point you can pick what machine you want to put in the Arcade. I chose Phrase Invaders, a rip-off of Space invaders and Typing of the Dead, where you type words to destroy the space invaders. The art you unlock is a concept art explaining what the game is and how it would work!
There’s even the infamous winning screen from Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing within this section as well!
At the bottom of the bonus features, there’s a DIP switch, as you’d see in arcades. By messing about with the various switches, I’ve managed to get it to make a noise as if I’d done it right, but I can’t tell what it’s unlocked – if anything. Finally, the developers have added, for fun, a mini-chapter where Naomi, the resident technician, guides you through what a home arcade cabinet is (a MAME machine) and how to build your own. That’s right, there is a tutorial of sorts which the in-game character tells you the basics of what you’ll need to do to create your own along with links to useful sites and information on the internet.
This is a neat extra and was added in post-launch.
Visually, Arcade Spirits looks very good – the characters are all very different from one another and are drawn very nicely in a variety of poses. However, unlike Songs of Memories, all the avatars within the game are static images, as we would usually see within Visual Novels of this type. The locations are all well detailed and unique, with no two places looking alike. I would have liked a little more animation, but if we’re judging the game on the genre it’s in, then it fits the common criteria perfectly
Audio wise, I initially thought the game was great. Everything, bar the protagonist, was fully voiced and recorded in a very professional and believable way. Then, as the game progressed, I noticed more and more of the game was being delivered without voices. I know that, for a small indie team, they most likely couldn’t have got the entire script to be voiced, but based on the first chapter or so, I presumed it was going to be entirely voiced. Again, this isn’t a bad thing as many other VNs do this, at least this is voiced in English for us. Although, if the character isn’t going to be reading out the text, they will occasionally have a one-liner they will say instead, as you read the actual dialogue.
As an overall product though, the voice acting did have a few slips in quality every now and again, nothing major but the emotion wasn’t really portrayed as much as I would have thought it would have been. It’s far from a show stopper, but it pulled you out of the immersion a little. The narrative of the game was also well written, with its many references, puns, and parodies. I actually enjoyed Arcade Spirits and its overall story much more than I thought I would for a non-Japanese VN.
Also, and this is something I thought was unusual yet rather intuitive at the same time, you can turn on text-to-speech! Okay, this feature wasn’t advertised anywhere within the game, from what I can see, but the ‘Help’ screen had a curious command – press V to toggle ‘self-voicing’. I’m like a cat, I HAD to try this out. Basically, if you’re having trouble seeing the text, or if you’re just lazy like me, turning on this toggle basically makes the computer read out the text by using the windows text-to-speech process. It’s obviously not the same as having voice actors, but it’s like your PC narrating what’s going on for you. I’ve never seen this before and I’m not sure why the game never told me it was an option at some point.
Arcade Spirits is a very inclusive and adaptive Visual Novel which gives the player a lot of freedom to be who they want to be. At its core, it’s a dating Visual Novel but without the forced necessity to actually date anyone if that isn’t what you’re looking for. If you’re not getting to know one of the friendly and unique characters, then you’ll be talking to IRIS, the AI who offers you Pizza facts and life-tips, or living out a unique day within the Funplex. There’s always something going on in the Arcade as the game has great pacing and lots of creative events. Also, the game allows you to pick your gender and sexual orientation without being forced down any paths you don’t wish to wander.
If you’re looking for a new Visual Novel to play and you want to play something different to the usual fan service games, Arcade Spirits offers an interesting story coupled with interesting mechanics and a nice feel-good experience.
Also, if you want to try before you buy, the Steam Page has a demo you can download and try out now!
- - Very inclusive without being pushy or forced to do things you don't want to
- - Really good voice acting with only a few issues here and there
- - The narrative is funny and full of references/parodies
- - A decent length, at over 10 hours of story per play
- - Multiple endings based on how you progress in the story
- - Not 100% voiced
- - There are some disconnects between the voice, the narrative and the story. Not many, but I noticed a few
- - Playing the game made me crave Pizza Bagels... and now I'm hungry again!