Finally after an eagerly anticipated wait, the Arcana Heart series hits the UK with its latest incarnation, Arcana Heart 3. There have of course been two games in the series which the UK has never had the pleasure of seeing, but this release, courtesy of Zen United will finally introduce gamers to what could be considered the ultimate anime fandom fighting game. The game goes one step further towards satisfying its target audience than any of its mainstream brethren by being an exclusively all-girl fighter. Virtually every anime archetype has been catered for, ranging from the overly serious but emotionally vulnerable Tsundere type Weiss, to the stuck-up Hime-sama with guns Petra, to the Elementary-schoolbag-packing school-swimsuit-wearing Kira, to make for what could be possibly described as a varied cast, but more accurately as the ultimate anime fan's fighting game.
The first thing that any seasoned fighting game fan will do with a new game is look for a familiar type of character to start with. This will mean either finding one that conforms to a fighting style that you are familiar with or simply choosing one who fits your tastes well. Go on, pick your favourite kind of girl. Considering the cast, no matter what your type, there is sure to be something for everyone. Moe, tsundere, yandere, busty types, schoolgirl and many more, every type is pretty much covered.
With the important decision of character selection covered, you are presented with the Arcana selection screen, this one being quite different to any you may have seen in other fighting games. This is the second unique selling point of Arcana Heart (after the all-girl cast) and it is here where personal fighting styles come into their own. The Arcana which you choose augments your character, by adding special moves or imbuing unique abilities upon your character. Each member of the cast has a default Arcana, but you are free to choose any of the 23 available making for a staggering combination of Arcana and character selections.
The game-play itself will feel familiar to fans of Guilty Gear and Blazblue as far as pace goes, though the movement of the characters differs somewhat due to a unique homing system replacing the dashing movements in these games. This system is mapped to the D button, which effectively gives you control over your faster movements with a single press, its use being vital to success in the game. Without effective use of the homing system, your progress in Arcana Heart will be short-lived.
Out of the game-play modes available, the Arcade/Story mode is one of the parts where a lot of effort clearly has been spent. The story is fairly wide and is set over the country of Japan. The cut-scene CG characters look great in high resolution and the backgrounds are vibrant and are certainly evocative of their real life counterparts. Though for all its strengths, this mode inevitably has to be compared to its counterpart from Blazblue, which has set the bar for a story mode extraordinarily high. With that said, the format is good, with multiple character paths available to mix up what might be a stale experience playing through with the same character more than once. The story mode has a lot to offer to those who are looking for more than just multi-player action from their fighting games.
Other modes available are the ubiquitous versus mode, a standard training mode against a static programmable CPU opponent, score attack, and a heavily customisable options menu where everything from the screen layout to the written language of the entire game can be changed for purists who demand everything as it is in the original release. Depending on your personal tastes for dubs, the lack of English language voices will come as a welcome omission or as a constant annoyance. Looking at the target demographic, an English dub would be superfluous in any case.
The gallery mode is a welcome addition from Arc, as a reward for progressing further in in the game, most CGs and many other graphical extras are available for your viewing pleasure. This will surely provide an additional incentive to delve further into the depths of the game that most gamers may otherwise ignore.
Contrasting interestingly with the slick high-resolution story CGs, the in-game fighting has rigidly stuck to its arcade format, with lower resolution sprites looking rather awkward in front of the lush high definition backgrounds and animated characters bordering each side of the 4:3 playable area, stretchable to widescreen in the options menu should you prefer. The graphical mix actually works well on a 640x480 arcade CRT monitor, but the vast majority of players will be using a 720p or higher HDTV, where the difference in resolution will be far more obvious.
While fans of exact arcade conversions will sing the praises of Arc System Works for porting the game this way, choosing not to redraw the sprites may dissuade potential buyers who have previously been wowed by the slick 3D renderings of Street Fighter 4 and the super high detail sprites of Blazblue. Companies such as Cave have shown before that high detail graphics can be placed into 2D games and not only look as good as the original low resolution sprites on their native monitors, but even better on the newer hardware.
My only real criticism of Arcana Heart 3 is the final boss of the story mode. Not to be outdone by the powered-up bosses of other fighting games before it, the game introduces what has to be one of the most peculiar 2D fighting experiences ever, pitting the player against what can only be described as a bullet-hell platforming boss, the giant mecha, Ragnarok. This boss, while certainly unique, provides a rather odd twist to the fights that have come before it. The player must destroy 5 separate cores mounted on the body of the mecha, climbing on gantry platforms and parts of the armour to reach them, while simultaneously defending against and disabling a pair of satellite drones flying around attacking with their lasers and bullets.
The individual concepts of platforming, dodging bullets and beat-em-up fighting mix very strangely in this final battle, and provide an interesting change from the standard fighting system. While players may get used to this if trying to chase the achievements in the game, the strategies used to fight this boss won't be too useful in normal play.
The real test of a fighting game has to be in its ability to work as a two player experience. My main fighting game rival is my brother with whom I usually duel with on Blazblue Continuum Shift. Very quickly we both found fighters who suited our individual fighting styles, myself choosing Weiss (being my favoured kind rushdown character), and my brother opting to use Fiona for her ability to negate many attacks with the thwack of her huge sword. Happily we both found that our previous fighting game experiences carried over nicely to Arcana Heart, the game seeming to be well balanced with most characters having at least a fighting chance against the rest of the cast, with individual character weaknesses overcome by clever use of the Arcana system. We were both in agreement that with a bit more practice, Arcana Heart 3 would definitely be a candidate for our weekly face-offs.
At the time of writing the only net-play I was able to get was of course against foreign players, and being on a fairly reliable connection I was able to fight some matches without too much lag. Some matches were unplayably laggy, though I put this down to long distance issues rather than any particular problems with the net-play code used. Indeed Arc System Works have shown us with Blazblue that they are more than competent when it comes to providing a good online fighting experience and I expect Arcana Heart to be no different when it comes to fighting against domestic players.
In summary, Arcana Heart 3 has a lot to offer both the casual anime fan and fighting game fanatics, if you fall into either of these categories or both of them, you are sure to have a good time out of Arcana Heart. Whether it will break into the tournament fighting game scene as much as the likes of Street Fighter, Tekken or Blazblue have remains to be seen, but with the availability of the game becoming more widespread the amount of players will surely increase, and its longevity more than likely resting on how well online play works. If you are a fan of either fighting games or anime, there is surely something here which will whet your appetite.
A Limited edition is also available, featuring the original Japanese Arcana Heart Artbook, soundtrack CD and 23 character cards. Which is awesome.