Arc System Works are known for their eccentric beat-‘em-up design, from the long-running Guilty Gear series to the recent success of the critically acclaimed BlazBlue series. However, bringing the Arcana Heart series to the European audience for the first time may have just upped-the-ante considerably, as Arcana Heart 3 is a game featuring almost exclusively female characters: the entire design is built around girl-on-girl fighting action, but it’s not as sordid as it may sound. Not quite, anyway,
Arcana Heart 3 features twenty three playable characters, all of which depict a different culture or fantasy female personality. Witches, demons, secret agents, orphans, ninjas and robots all feature, and are accompanied by twenty three Arcana, a spiritual energy that greatly alters the way the characters play in-game. To suggest that the aesthetic design of Arcana Heart 3 is unique is nothing less than an understatement, but the same could be said of the all-important combat system.
Both ‘simple’ and ‘normal’ control schemes, as previously seen in The King of Fighters series. However, here in Arcana Heart 3 there’s certain to be much greater demand for the simple system, as most characters don’t offer basic forward punches and kicks, instead each command executes an elaborate combo opener which must then be followed with subsequent inputs to maximise its effectiveness. Button bashing is truly ineffective in Arcana Heart 3, as it will simple see small slices of energy taken off the opposition’s energy bar, rather than chunks.
For skilled beat-‘em-up gamers it will only be a matter of ten-or-so fights before the basics have been learnt, and elaborate thirty-hit combos are being initiated. These are of course capitalised on with the Force Gauge, which allows players to call in their chosen Arcana to augment their abilities. The Extended Force moves that are called upon here have a wide ranging series of possible effects, from manoeuvring to creating a link to extend combos, to creating a giant being capable of incredible amounts of damage. Choosing the right Arcana for your play style is just as important as choosing the correct character, and learning the resulting combination of each of the characters with each different Arcana is easily one of the most engrossing aspects of Arcana Heart 3.
The game features a training mode which is surprisingly comprehensive, and for beat-‘em-up aficionados is a welcome resource. The meat of the single-player game is of course the Story Mode, which is an interesting proposition in that I gives players the opportunity to choose their opposition, giving them the opportunity of reaching one of two different endings depending on the path they take. The end boss is particularly interesting also: though such a character might seem more at home in a scrolling beat-‘em-up than a one-on-one game, it somehow works here in Arcana Heart 3.
In addition to the Story Mode is the Score Attack game, which is effectively another run through a predetermined series of characters where the aim is to score highly, rather than simply win. It’s not much of an alternative to the casual observer, but for fighting game fanatics it does provide another challenge, and therefore an extended lifespan for the single-player game; a good thing undoubtedly, as the multiplayer options are unfortunately limited.
After the success of the online gameplay modes seen in the BlazBlue series, Arcana Heart 3’s online competition is somewhat of a disappointment. The stucture’s all there – a fantastically comprehensive selection of statistics is met with the typical winner-stays-on game rooms, private matches and much more – but the excessive lag crushes the experience. On par with the likes of Dead or Alive 4, a game released more than five years ago, if you find that one-out-of-five matches is playable as intended by the developers, you’ve been very lucky with the connection speed of the players you’re going up against.
The art style of Arcana Heart 3 is undoubtedly its strongest aspect. The console version features the addition of a somewhat nonsensical plot told by stills and cut-out animations: a pleasant accompaniment to the fighting action but just as equally ignorable. The star of the show are the hand-drawn sprites which are perhaps less fluid than those of the BlazBlue series, but the thick outlines and unique design make for some interesting and lively scenes throughout.
Beat-‘em-up games have benefited from a resurgence of late, with the likes of Street Fighter IV and Mortal Kombat once again bringing the genre to the forefront of the modern videogame market. However, that’s not the same audience Arcana Heart 3 is pursuing. It’s a game designed for the tournament players, a ‘hardcore’ presentation that will confound many less experienced players to the point where it’s deemed almost unplayable. That being said, it doesn’t have the balance and welcoming structure of Arc System Works’ own BlazBlue series, and so seeing where the game fits into the marketplace is almost as difficult as memorising the strengths and weaknesses of every character-Arcana combination. Arcana Heart 3 is a perfectly enjoyable game, but perhaps only for a very niche audience.