The year is 20XX (nice) and things are, well kind of the same but with more neon! That and the fact that this alternate timeline is one where the arcade gaming scene never died. OK, Arcade Spirits, you have my attention.
Why, AI Oughta
The character creation kicks off the experience with a modest selection, nothing in-depth, likely owing to art integration, but the options available are the vitals. You’re welcomed by the news that your character has just lost their job, which adds to a growing list of low paid work you’ve been forced out of. You’re concerned only with making ends meet and that’s just fine, right? Your flatmate, Juniper is on hand to perk you up and help you find some new work, offering up a referral to a ‘life coach’ app, eventually leading to your dream job. You get to work in an arcade! Turns out, the environment offers a lot of opportunity for love interests, too.
What we have here is a romantic visual novel that’s grounded in the twenty-something-plus internet-driven-culture. The humour is of general conversational level, which to say it’s a lot of light, friendly banter, sarcasm and irony, making Arcade Spirits feel pretty close to home, though a little too on-the-nose some of the time. The dialogue can be cringey but it’s intentional and the brand of cringe is the equivalent of social media meme-posting. In fact, the writing manages to retain flow and, crucially, interest. If you’re of an open mind and take it for what it is, the light-hearted feel gives rise to a nice, fulfilling bit of escapism.
The arcade theme and warm glow of neon against the dingy backdrop pays off, with the scene artwork a highlight here. The characters’ comic book look is mostly consistent and quickly grew on me, but is unfortunately held back by one flaw; the characters are straight-up plastered over the top of the backdrops most of time, which, in itself, is commonplace, but the tone, shading, lighting and never quite matches the general feel of the background images, which can be a little jarring. Characters are mostly static during dialogue, with limited facial expressions and the minimal physical articulation being the only signs of life, though I wouldn’t put too much weight into this if you’re familiar with the genre; you’ll no doubt be used to it.
It’s not about Personality Matrixels and Charts, it’s all about the Bu-Bumps in your Heart
Gameplay, as with most VNs, is a choice-driven affair with multiple routes and, though the romance sub-genre is one largely untapped for me, the premise is what I had expected. IRIS, your AI coach will help you build a profile, mapping your responses and decisions to personality categories. Interestingly, you’re given the ability to track changes between the defined categories or you can opt to ‘go-with-the-flow’, rendering you blind to any changes to this weirdo app’s human-bar-chart-project.
I picked visibility. Hey, I play RPGs, I like the stats! For my first run, I paid the ‘Identity Identifier System’ plenty of attention. It’s very straightforward in marking the dialogue choices and decisions with icons to indicate which direction your personality type is heading towards.
So, we’re chasing romance. Who’s on the menu, and will these peeps dig my sarcasm? Well, basically it’s seemingly everyone you come across! Your MC has love on the brain, even if they’re partially hiding it from themselves.
The friendships I built started to make the prospect of the dating element really shaky in early game. These people all seem to genuinely care about you but none of them feel like they’re ever giving you any major signs as such. That being the case, it made my character seem like a bit of a sleezeball oftentimes, fortunately, it isn’t long before your character’s inner monologue and later, your options, broaden substantially. I felt far more attached the arcade job itself, the friendship building and keeping aspirations alive, so, for my first playthrough, that’s the angle I started to take.
The strongest quality of the writing is how it slowly works you into wanting to see what happens next in your job role, by getting involved in business decisions and interacting with new people, pushing your outgoing side to forefront. In fact, it’s like playing the role of the opposite of me, which is perfect for role-playing! And that’s also what struck me; Arcade Spirits truly is a role-playing game in a literal sense.
Journeying with business-minded Gavin to bid on some old machines felt like the right thing to do. Got to get a feel for all aspects of the job if I’m going to throw myself at it. Ashley’s really talented in her cosplaying, I mean sure, what’s to stop me dressing as cat maid, if she’s dressing as a dude? Two birds, one stone; this will prop up my friendship with Ashley and drive enough hits for my social media campaign, making our next event mega popular, too. Hopefully. Great things await this arcade…
Some of the character building is handled deftly by throwing clues via situation but, again, suffers from being too obvious on occasion. However, characters are suitably fleshed out and each has an impressive level of substance and identity. Even the AI phone assistant begins to build its presence, seemingly evolving as you play. Yes, you will care for the AI, too. There’s also an e-sports star struggling with the problems of being female in yet another male-oriented culture. Topical, relevant and well-integrated.
Wait a minute, I’ve been sucked in. These people are being really nice to me with pure friendship in mind. Frankly I don’t want to ruin the friendships with the other kind of intimacy. Keep me wholesome! At one point I had completely forgotten the love side of the game, mirroring how I play Stardew Valley (‘screw marriage, I want a new barn!’), waiting for the moment when a fortune-teller tells me that I’ll die alone or something. The best bit? That’s fine. There’s enough commentary on society’s twisted ideals to remind you that it’s OK to be you; a simple message but one exceptionally realised in a positive way.
Some of the consequences to your choices come in to play quickly but most are felt towards the end-game. Without going into spoiler territory, let me simply say those business decisions I was making? Some were 100% necessary.
I Named the Event ‘Funplex Flex’; I Regret Nothing!
But yes, there was some genuine investment put in my character’s situation, making this journey pleasantly surprising. The diversity angle is shoved in your face; that is to say, by acceptance simply being part of everyday life in-game (completely at odds with the current real-life climate of mass intolerance). It’s refreshingly brilliant and I love that Fiction Factory Games were brave enough to go whole-hog in pursuit of their vision. It can be clumsy, but Arcade Spirits rolls out of any stumble, gets back on its feet, does a breakdance and retains its charm.
What’s dubbed their ‘synthwave soundtrack’ is a snug fit. There are simple 80s-sounding electronic ambient accompanying tunes that fit the environments and are as relaxing as the gameplay, though are somewhat prone to repetition for a text heavy game. Equally, there are some fun pieces for sillier moments (your AI plays you some funky lift/hold music while hacking at one point). The good news is none of it’s forgettable, which speaks to its quality.
Overflowing with charm, giving back some faith in humanity through strong writing and generally providing quality entertainment, Arcade Spirits is a triumph in experimentation. Just thought; why don’t arcade machines take card payments?
Overall Score: 8/10
Arcade Spirit’s core theme of acceptance is an important one and makes for a pleasant and refreshing take on the genre. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a new machine to unveil.
Developer: Fiction Factory Games
Age Rating: PEGI
Release Date: 12/02/2019 (Steam)
Review copy provided by publisher