Arcana Heart Review
When you see a box sitting on the store shelf and the name Atlus is on it, what typically runs through your head? Well, one would probably think of words like Japanese, depth, and of course, RPG. Publisher of some of the most intricate role-playing and strategy games in the past generation they often team up with Nippon Ichi, which creates the Disgaea franchise titles Atlus isnt a company most gamers normally equate with the fighting genre. But Arcana Heart is indeed a two-dimensional fighting game with a few very interesting twists, and the depth of some of those RPG games shines through nicely in the gameplay. The fighting category isnt anywhere near as healthy as it was a decade ago, but fans always enjoy a nostalgia trip with a game that casts a rosy hue on the glory days of yesteryear. Furthermore, Atlus is also known for originality and innovation, so its not surprising to see that Arcana Heart includes some nifty never-before-seen gameplay features.
The graphics are actually one of the highlights of the game, as the attractive animation makes it one of the better-looking PS2 titles out there. Yeah, were limited to the two-dimensional realm, but that doesnt mean designers have to limit themselves in terms of color, shading, and character and environment creation. These characters come from a creative mind and are drawn with an artistic flair, and the special moves and abilities leap right off the screen. Theres a great deal of 2D visual diversity, without a doubt. This is one game that probably lit up the arcades over there in Japan, and although there arent a lot of characters and the cut-scenes are severely lacking, the overall presentation is quite impressive. We dont need polished CGI or flashy, in-your-face battle sequences with heavy non-interactive choreography; we just want a pretty 2D battlefield. And thats exactly what we get with Arcana Heart: its prettiest when youre in the midst of one of those one-on-one duels, thereby enhancing the experience for the player. Its not amazing, but its probably better than you might expect.
The sound isnt quite as good, though, primarily due to the extremely repetitive soundtrack that grows tiring within the first hour of play. While the entire package is heavily Japanese-centric, in that both the design and sound clearly target the Eastern sense of taste, we shouldve at least had a few more tracks during the course of Story Mode. Outside of that, though, the battle effects are excellent and resonate with clarity and general quality. The big impacts can sound a mite tinny, but the rest of it ranging from the simplest jab to the most elaborate special attack offers combat effects that make every fight reminiscent of the good ol days. Well, the good ol days with a new, distinct level of quality that some of those old fighters could never manage. Its just too bad that the music contrasts so sharply with the effects; there were many times when playing that we wanted to turn off the music completely and enjoy the effects. Again, though, EXAMU puts their best foot forward with the gameplay (theres no voice acting and not much happens outside combat), so the effort is appreciated. There are some girly exclamations during battle and while theyre far too frequent, they do flesh out the sound even further.
We just said girly exclamations because, if you didnt already know, every character in Arcana Heart is female. One may think this inhibits the variety, and even though we could easily complain about the lack of total contestants, the difference between each girl is quite significant. On top of which, because you can always select a specific Arcana to take into battle, there are two aspects of preparation that significantly impact the combat. As we said before, this title appeals mostly to the Japanese preference, and there are several clichs when examining the all-woman cast of fighters. But at the same time, there is a heavy distinction between the samurai sword-wielder, the prototype cyborg (similar to a KOS-MOS idea), the little witch possessed by her broom, and the cocky high school athlete. But beyond the character differences, lets talk about the primary bit of originality that remains the driving force behind this particular fighter. Its the aforementioned Arcana, and its akin to selecting a combination of a fighting style and a separate ally before heading into combat.
Arcanas are elemental Gods of sorts that you can harness after selecting a character. For example, you can bring in the Fire Arcana or the Love Arcana, thereby granting you a series of new moves and skills for your impending battle. Depending on which Arcana you choose, you will have a brand new set of abilities at your disposal, which can completely change the battle dynamic. First of all, after playing for a while, youll notice that certain Arcanas tend to override others, almost regardless of the character you chose. Secondly, youll also realize that youll develop certain fighter/Arcana combination preferences, especially because you wont want to memorize a bunch of different moves. Thirdly and finally, experimentation is the key to ultimate fulfillment with Arcana Heart, so even though the Story Mode isnt very long, you can always fiddle around with characters and Arcanas for quite a long time. Oh, and if youre worried about the constantly changing skills, just know that you can always examine the moves list during battle. Its a very handy feature; good thing they didnt leave it out.
The control is tight, despite the fact we had a small issue with responsiveness every now and then. It almost seems as if the game automatically gives the upper hand to the character on the defensive (dont play this game like Virtua Fighter; youll get annihilated), but then again, thats a trait commonly associated with old-school fighters. We just wish we didnt feel overmatched when we had to go on the defensive; it can be very difficult to turn the tide in your favor when your opponent is on a roll. Furthermore, the accessibility level is too low for our tastes, as novice gamer will have a hell of a time getting accustomed to the more complex structure. But once again, if we consider the target audience, perhaps this isnt such a big issueonly those who are big fans of the 2D fighter will be in the market for this one, right? Theres no use in extending a warning to the casual gamer who has probably never heard of Arcana Heart, but as we believe in a full review, we gotta mention it. And even the most hardcore gamers might find the initial challenge to be higher than normal, so unless youre willing to wrap your brain around this new fighting foundation, you could get frustrated.
The other problem is that despite the sheer amount of experimentation available, the game simply doesnt offer much in the way of longevity. Theres a Story Mode, Arcade Mode, Versus Mode and Gallery, but thats about it. None of these need much in the way of elaboration, but we will say the Story Mode is unsurprisingly the meat and potatoes of the game. Furthermore, you will have the option of selecting your next battle throughout much of that campaign; you have 8 days (about 200 hours) until something very, very bad happens, and you can choose your opponents right from the start. Theres a mini-map and you can select your next target up to a certain point. But other than that, there isnt much to talk about. Almost the entire appeal of the game centers on the character/Arcana combo (there is no tag-team option or anything like that), and although that should be plenty for fans, it leaves the production slightly lacking. On the flip side, this title only retails for $29.99, so that makes it a lot more attractive. If you have a friend that loves these types of games, thats even more incentive to pick it up for a rainy day.
Arcana Heart is a solid 2D fighter with a unique style that sets it apart from any other fighter you may have played. The controls can be a little iffy at times, but theres a good amount of depth involved in the battles even beyond the Arcana addition. You can counter, throw, block, release, and toss your enemy around like a rag doll once youre familiar with the structure. Theres a surprisingly high vertical range in this game, for example, and if youre flung upwards, you have time to release free of the barrage by pressing the X button. You can even bring in the Arcana to do some serious damage once youve accumulated a full 3 gems of energy, and in general, theres a great deal of intricacy. Sadly, the game just doesnt offer enough incentive to keep the average player playing, the target audience consists almost exclusively of hardcore 2D fighting fans due to low accessibility, and the balance can seem off at times. In the end, though, the general quality is quite high and probably well worth a look if youre one of those people who miss the days when fighters reigned in the industry.
6/16/2008 Ben Dutka