Review: Arcana Heart 3 (Sony Playstation 3)

Arcana Heart 3
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Examu
Publisher: Aksys
Release Date: 04/19/11

Three years ago, Atlus released Arcana Heart into the market, and I reviewed it. Three years later, almost to the day, Aksys has chosen to release Arcana Heart 3 into the market, and I’m reviewing it. One could call it fate or something similar, perhaps, but the motivations are different. When I reviewed Arcana Heart, it was because I had imported the game on PS2, found it wanting, and wanted to express this fact, since literally no one else on staff wanted to touch the game. Arcana Heart 3, however, was more of a matter of personal hope for me. See, Arcana Heart was the sort of game that exactly one group of people could enjoy, as you had to be both an incredibly hardcore fighting game fan AND the sort of person who could overlook the fact that the roster consists almost exclusively of fifteen year old or younger girls in semi-fetish oriented outfits. The problem, however, is that as someone who is somewhat of a fringe member of the former group and has watched enough Sailor Moon and played enough Deathsmiles to be tolerant of the latter group, I still wasn’t impressed. The game felt low budget, with a limited roster and a lack of attention to detail, and the fighting mechanics were overly involved and felt stiff. But buried somewhere in all of that was what I felt had the potential to be a good game. With two sequels and a few years of time in development to really work the kinks out, I figured Arcana Heart 3 might be that good game the first one wanted to be in the first place.

As it turns out, not quite.

So the story, according to the manual and the game, is as such: At some point after the events of the first game and Mildred Avalon’s attempts to merge our world and the Elemental World where the various Arcana in the game live, something called “The Kanto Event” takes place (presumably the events of the second game), and we’re two months removed from that. Well, the Drexler Institute was behind the events of that storyline, and by all indications, they’re behind the events of this game (After the fact, however, as the group has since been put out to pasture apparently.), as dimensional portals are opening up all over Japan. The plot makes no secret about what these portals might mean, mind you. In six days from the beginning of the game, if their source isn’t put down, rocks fall, everyone dies. The various members of the character roster have different reasons for getting involved in the events of this plot, in large part because the Arcana of the Elemental World basically advise them that it would be a good idea to do so, and boom, there’s our, “overwhelming reason everyone feels the need to punch each other in the face” for this game. As it is, the plot is largely fine, and the story mode offers up enough development of the plot to make plowing through the Story Mode entertaining, if nothing else, but nothing here is special or anything. The game still has the same absurd Guilty Gear-itis of the first game, of course, meaning that you’ve got a couple “normal” characters alongside fully armored teenagers, dog gods, canine ninjas, girls in mecha and slime blobs and all sorts of other weird stuff, and again, it still comes off as, “throwing everything we can think of against the wall” instead of a world with its own internal consistency. Game mode-wise, you’ve got a Story Mode, a local Versus Mode, a Training Mode, a Score Attack Mode, and online play in ranked and player matches, as well as a gallery that allows you to look over unlocked character images and movies as well as listen to voice work and music. As such, there’s enough to do with the game to make it worthwhile, though there’s nothing interesting or exotic included, mind you.

Arcana Heart 3 is, as was its predecessor, rather pretty and well animated, though like its predecessor, it’s also not without issues. The characters are all very colorful and feature lots of frames of animation, and the special effects from the crazy special attacks are very visually impressive, all told. However, much like before, while the backgrounds are colorful and do change when Arcana are summoned, they also feature little to no animation and are essentially static images moreso than actual backgrounds, which is, given the capabilities of the console this appears on, ridiculous at this point. The game also offers you the option to either have an animated frame featuring the characters you’ve chosen, a non-animated frame, or full-screen display, depending on your preferences, and all of them work as well as any other. Aurally, Arcana Heart 3 fares somewhat better all around. The in-game music is mostly upbeat electronic rock that fits the fighting game genre, if not specifically the tone of the game, perfectly and is fun to listen to while obliterating opponents. The voice acting is strictly Japanese, and for the most part is perfectly fine all around. The sound effects are also pretty fine, and the various combat effects sound as they should with no oddities or problems.

At its core, Arcana Heart 3 features many of the same fundamentals that have been a part of 2D fighting games for years, though as with its predecessor, it has some unique elements that make the game its own thing. You can move the character around with the left stick or D-Pad, and there are three attack buttons, in weak, medium and strong flavors. By using them in conjunction with various directional motions, special and super moves are generated, and the motions themselves should be familiar to fans of Capcom and SNK fighting games. The majority of the characters, as before, fit into neat stereotypes, IE Heart Aino (literally, Heart of Love) has a Ryu/Ken feel, Saki Tsuzura is more of a Guile character, Mei-Fang has something of an Iori/Terry Bogard bent, Kira Daidohji and Catherine Kyohbashi can be described as “block of meat” Hulk/Zangief characters, and so on, so you should be able to slip right into playing as one that looks right for you without much problems. Indeed, those who have spent a decent amount of time with something like Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 should find this familiar, at first, as it also uses things like double tap dashes (though only for short distances), super jumps, and so on, and the three button layout combined with the base mechanics, allowing for cancels into combination attacks and such, are all fairly standard concepts in fighting games at this point, though some games use these elements moreso than others.

Arcana Heart 3 is more than just its base mechanics, and thanks to a couple of interesting elements, it stands out from a gameplay front. The first major addition to the game is the Arcana system. Basically, when you pick a character to play as, you also pick an Arcana for them to use as well. Now, the obvious benefits of the Arcana are that they add a couple of additional attacks to the character, as well as the ability to use “Extend Force”, which is basically a power-up for the character for as long as the Force Gauge has power, and “Arcana Blaze”, which is a highly powerful super move you can use from Extend Force that can hit an opponent hard, at the cost of reducing the recharge speed of the Force Gauge. But the less obvious benefits come in behind the scenes, as the Arcana you choose also impacts how much damage you give and receive. Basically, each Arcana has a Power and Defense rating, from one to five stars, that impacts exactly what it sounds like: Power impacts how much more damage opponents take from your attacks, while Defense impacts how much less damage you take from theirs. Now, every character has the same base level of hit points, of course, but characters have different health modifier ratings that determine how much more or less damage they take than others by default, so, in essence, further modifying that can also have a big impact on how a battle goes. As such, you can pick a character with a high health modifier and an Arcana with high Defense, if you want to turtle your way to victory, though that’s only one example of how the character and Arcana choices you make can influence battle. As such, there’s a lot of depth to the concept, allowing for two people to play the same character with different Arcana and feel somewhat different in their effectiveness.

Then there’s the matter of the Homing Dash. In Arcana Heart this worked more or less the same as it does now: you can press the X button to initiate a dash that homes in on your opponent, or press X with a direction to manipulate where the character ends up from the initial starting point, depending on how you want to cross things up. The difference this time around, though, is that Homing Dashes don’t cost anything to perform, so you can abuse them as you deem appropriate. They’re not, in and of themselves, safe, however, so you can’t just dash in and start abusing someone if they’re on their game. Now, as the Homing Meters that powered this tech were eliminated as a result, many things have also been simplified somewhat as a direct result of this. “Teching”, IE recovering from hits against the wall, on the ground, and in the air, cost nothing to perform, while Guard Cancels (quick recovery after blocking a hit with a brief invincibility period and immediate homing effect) and Homing Cancels (cancel a move into homing to pursue an opponent) and such instead pull one level of power from your Arcana Gauge. This is the same gauge that powers supers and Arcana supers and such, meaning you’ll have to appropriately weigh what is the best option at the time to see if burning that bar to cancel out of a combo is the best option or if saving the bar for later is a better choice, for instance.

Now, Arcana Heart 3 has a lot of other mechanics built into it, such as Clashing, IE two moves connecting simultaneously allowing someone to react to capitalize appropriately, and Extend Force Cancels, which basically amount to using Extend Force as a cancel in offensive combos or defensive situations, and make no mistake, there are A LOT of advanced mechanical considerations to make when playing the game. In fact, that’s essentially the reason why Arcana Heart 3 is a game that appeals to diehard fighting game fans, as it’s incredibly involved in its mechanics. On a basic level, one can say, as I have previously, “If you’ve played any of the more recent Guilty Gear or BlazBlue games, Melty Blood, and Psychic Force, you’ve seen everything this game does, just about,” and make a pretty fair summation of how the game works, but it’s the fact that there is so much depth that makes the game appealing, especially for players who really want a challenge in their fighting game experience.

The Story Mode in Arcana Heart 3 can be blown through in about half an hour per character, and with twenty three characters, that’s likely to take a while, if nothing else. You can also take on friends locally through the local Versus mode, or take it to friends and strangers online in Ranked or Player matches. Ranked matches use standard rules every time and only allow you to change your character, while Player matches allow for up to six people in one room, and allow you to choose how players switch out, how much time and how many rounds there are, and your ideal player skill levels and latency. There’s also the CHARM (Contract of Holy ARcana Maiden, no, really) system, that allows for characters to appreciate you more based on your Relationship Points with the character, in turn allowing you to unlock more color palettes for them, as well as the gallery that allows you to review character stills, the side-screen animations that appear during battle and endings, as well as listen to voices and music, if you’re interested in such things. You can also save replays of your battles against other players to review or share for those who enjoy looking over their mistakes or basking in their wins. The game also has a fully featured Trophy list for those who appreciate unlocking them, so even if you’re more of a fan of local play there’s plenty to clear out in the game to keep you coming back if you so choose, and, again, with twenty three characters and Arcana, players of all types will find plenty of variety to work with.

That said…

The single biggest issue one can argue against Arcana Heart 3 is essentially the same issue one can argue against the first game: it’s essentially a mish-mash of concepts from other fighting games crammed together into a fighting game full of occasionally sexualized fourteen year old girls. Most of its concepts have been in fighting games for years, the wacky characters can be attributed to Guilty Gear and its ilk, and the Homing Dash mechanics are somewhat cribbed from Psychic Force, among others. The only really unique system the game brings to the table is the Arcana system, and while it’s nice enough, as with its predecessor, this does not immediately make for a game-changing experience. Switching around Arcana changes a couple of your special moves, slightly modifies your health and damage output, and may add a couple of additional affects to the character of choice, but it doesn’t drastically swing the battle in your favor depending on your choice; all it does is mildly influence the flow of battle one way or the other. Changing your Arcana, in other words, isn’t going to have as significant an impact in battle as changing your character would, and while it might be something of a neat mechanic, and while it’s a good bit more fleshed out from the prior game, it’s still not so amazing a mechanic as to forgive the fact that the game is essentially unoriginal, to be blunt.

But, fine. Many fighting games borrow from one another at this point; it’s about the refining of the mechanics, not so much the originality, yeah? Right, well, Arcana Heart 3 does a bunch of stuff better than its predecessor, but it still suffers from being a game that’s only meant for diehard fighting game fans and, essentially, no one else. The battle mechanics are fairly stiff a lot of the time and, outside of the basics, have a noticeable learning curve, and as the game is essentially willing to teach you nothing, it’s an uphill climb from “Go” to learn how anything works unless you spend some time on the game wiki. The Arcana system isn’t going to make a significant difference to anyone who isn’t versed in terms like “poke” and “frame advantage”, half of the important stats you’d need to know to understand the systems aren’t even available in the game, and while the characters are somewhat reasonably balanced, playing against the CPU sucks. The final boss of Story mode isn’t even hard so much as it is exceptionally annoying, and on any difficulty beyond Level 3 the game has a habit of massively jacking out the difficulty, relatively speaking, once you hit the halfway point. In other words, the first few battles will be (relatively) easy compared to the difficulty level, and then, out of nowhere, the CPU will unleash hell upon you, with no real lead-in, instead of building up to this. Bringing the game online is somewhat better if you can find players at your skill level, but this is a game where the skill level differences are obvious because it’s really a game built for diehard fighting game players above all else, and will require a good amount of practice to really understand, beyond that of most standard games. Even then, if you’re looking for a high-level fighting game, you’ll have to get past the “squick” factor, as the game has a habit of sexualizing its characters. Look, fine, showing the characters on the side screens in a defeated state is okay, but why do we have to see Maori’s cleavage when she’s beaten? SHE’S FOURTEEN. Something like Deathsmiles relegates this sort of weirdness to the endings, where it’s only occasionally off-putting, but here, the squick factor is set off frequently enough that, again, the player will be expected to be able to not be weirded out by this sort of thing before they can even pick up the controller. As noted prior, if you’ve spent some time watching Sailor Moon or something similar you’ll most likely be able to take it, but for anyone of a less Japan-friendly bent, this game is going to weird you out a bit.

As it stands, Arcana Heart 3 is a much better game than its predecessor, but still only makes a convincing argument for ownership to people who are both tolerant of its aesthetic and interested in a fighting game that is designed to appeal to diehard fighting game fans. The story is largely inoffensive, if not especially good, and there are enough modes of play to keep the game interesting for a while. The game is mostly easy on the eyes and well animated, save for the backgrounds, and the audio is mostly enjoyable to listen to overall. The gameplay features familiar mechanics that should be simple to pick up on for casual fighting game fans, but also features a few additions, like Homing Dash and Arcana switching, that make for some added depth. With on and offline versus, Story Mode play, a gallery to fill out, and a sizable amount of unlockables and Trophies, someone who finds the game appealing will have a lot of fun with the product. However, the game is noticeably unoriginal, as all of the mechanics in the game are borrowed from others save the Arcana system, which isn’t such a game-changer as to make it fantastic on its own. Further, the gameplay mechanics are stiff, the game isn’t newbie friendly in the least, fighting against the CPU can be unbalanced, the final boss is annoying, and the game is going to be unappealing to anyone who isn’t able to deal with somewhat sexualized teenage girls lumping up on one another. Bully for Aksys wanting to try something new by bringing Arcana Heart 3 stateside, and if you’re a diehard fighting game fan who can look past the aesthetics and mechanics of the experience and jump in, it’s absolutely worth your time, but this is firmly a niche experience that’s only going to appeal to a very small subset of fighting game fans, and anyone who doesn’t fall into that category would be best served looking elsewhere.

The Scores:
Story/Game Modes: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: ABOVE AVERAGE
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
Arcana Heart 3 is a noticeable improvement over its predecessor, featuring a more robust character roster and online play, but it’s still a game that’s only going to appeal to a specific subset of fighting game fans and no one else. The story is generally fine enough to carry the experience along and there are enough gameplay modes to keep things interesting, if not exciting. While the backgrounds still aren’t animated, the game looks fine otherwise, and the audio is generally pretty good across the board. The game contains enough familiar mechanics to allow less skilled players the chance to get their feet wet while also employing some more advanced and interesting mechanics to really appeal to the diehard crowd, and with on and offline versus play, a fair amount of unlockables and Trophies, and some other novelties to play around, Arcana Heart 3 offers a good amount of content for those who can get into the game. That said, the game offers few original ideas or executions of said ideas, and the only obvious one, the Arcana system, isn’t a major game changer in and of itself. Additionally, the stiff gameplay, newbie-repellant design, occasionally unbalanced CPU, frustratingly poorly designed final boss, and somewhat sexualized teenage girls combine into an experience that’s, frankly, not going to appeal to most players unless they can look past these issues. It’s not that Arcana Heart 3 is a bad game so much as it is that it’s a game that’s incredibly niche, appealing almost exclusively to diehard fighting game players who can look past, or even enjoy, its aesthetic, and as such, it’s hard to recommend to anyone outside of this niche.

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