Inside Pulse 12

Review: Arcana Heart 3: LOVEMAX!!! (PC)

Arcana Heart 3: LOVEMAX!!!
Genre: Fighting
Developer: Examu
Publisher: Arc System Works
Release Date: 9/29/15

Well, here we are with what will be the third review in seven and a half years of the Arcana Hearts franchise, with the game Arcana Hearts 3: LOVEMAX!!!. I’ll be the first to admit that, despite a general love of 2D fighting games, I’m generally ambivalent towards this franchise, but every time we get a review copy I review it, partly because no one else wants to (for various reasons) and partly because I keep hoping something about it will change my mind. There are a lot of interesting mechanical elements to the series, and after three sequels and an updated release, in the LOVEMAX revision, the franchise is more or less probably about as tuned and developed as it’s going to be. The LOVEMAX version of the game does feature a significant amount of rebalancing when compared to the original game, as well as a few new play modes. There are even some stages added in from the prior two games for the sake of visual variety, so really, this is probably the most complete version of the game on the market. That said, it is generally a bit of an identical revision to its predecessor, so a lot of the mechanics and functions from that game are basically the same as they were here, and as such, a lot of what I said about the game in 2011 more or less applies to the game now, to be frank.

On weird worlds and stuff to do therein

So the story, according to 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.

On the other hand, the game has received an upgrade mode-wise, so you’ll find that even if plot isn’t a big motivator for you, there’s lots to love in terms of stuff to do. The game still features the 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. This version of the game also comes with an After Story mode, which is a bit more visual novel styled (in that there’s lots of plot and minimal combat) and fleshes out the game world a lot, if that’s a thing you’re looking to do. Trials have also been added to the game, which give you set matches against the CPU along with specific goals to accomplish while playing them, to improve your mechanical skills with the game. There’s also a new Time Attack mode and a Replay Theater, which both work more or less as you’d expect, and these work to flesh out the experience a bit beyond its original form, if nothing else. This has the effect of making the core game feel a bit more robust than it originally was on release, and gives it a feeling of completeness; to put it another way, LOVEMAX feels like it’s a real upgrade over its original release, and even if you have the original, this feels like an actual upgrade rather than just a simple update.

LOVEMAX 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 technology behind it, ridiculous at this point. As a PC release, it’s also worth noting that the visuals are several years out of date at this point and show no signs of having been improved for the PC release. Also, the game utilizes a frame, as the game isn’t optimized to take advantage of widescreen visuals, which looked mildly out of place four and a half years ago, but simply looks lazy now. Aurally, the game 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.

On Arcana and those who wield them

At its core, LOVEMAX 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. The game supports both keyboard and gamepad play (though you’d be crazy to play with a keyboard), and the mechanics work more or less as you’d expect. You can move the character around with the D-Pad or the keys you map, 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 BlazBlue or one of the recent Ecole fighters 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.

LOVEMAX 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, for example, 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, LOVEMAX 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, in general, 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, Dengeki Bunko, 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 fact that LOVEMAX is essentially a more finely tuned and balanced version of that same experience, as such, is a pretty big thing, and it’s honestly the best possible version of the game one could hope for at this point.

On the long game and the target marker

The Story Mode in LOVEMAX can be blown through in about half an hour per character, and with twenty three characters, that’s likely to take a while, not to mention the five hours or so it’ll take to clear out After Story, so in that alone you’ve got a lot of content. You can also take on friends locally through the local Versus mode if you have two controllers (or hate your friends enough to make them use the keyboard), 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 are also a bunch of new and interesting single player modes to experiment with, 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 Achievement 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 LOVEMAX is essentially the same issue one can argue against the franchise as a whole: 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. If you’ve played a 2D fighting game in the past two decades you’ve seen everything the game has to offer outside of Homing Dash (which Psychic Force did) and the Arcana system, which is fine, but hardly a game changer. Arcana work like more involved Strikers, and while their character modifications are interesting, they don’t really change how you play a character so much as they just mildly influence battle flow, and they aren’t a big enough feature to make the game a must-play. Outside of this, the other significant issue is that it’s a game that’s only really meant for diehard fighting game fans. While the game offers Training and Trials to help you bone up on your basics, the battle mechanics are fairly stiff a lot of the time and, outside of the basics, have a noticeable learning curve, such that it’s an uphill climb to learn how anything works unless you spend some time on the game wiki. A lot of the mechanics are made for people who are very advanced in their understanding of fighting games, 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, as even now the final Story Mode boss is annoying and the AI ramps up in difficulty from one difficulty level to the next. Online play theoretically mitigates this somewhat, but at this point anyone who’s playing the PC game online is almost certainly a part of the community, and you’ll need to get good fast to compete, assuming you can find a session, which I could only do about fifty percent of the time.

In short, if you’re a big fan of the Arcana Heart series, Arcana Heart 3: LOVEMAX !!! might be worth your time if you don’t already own it for PS3, but even with the new modes, it’s still really only going to appeal to the most diehard fighting game fans, as for the price it’s just too out of date and too limited otherwise. The story is largely inoffensive, if not especially good, and there are a good amount of play modes to keep fans coming back for more. 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 Achievements, 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 several years out of date at this point and shows its age noticably. If you’re a diehard fighting game fan who loves their games to be on the PC, LOVEMAX might be up your alley, but otherwise, 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.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Arcana Heart 3: LOVEMAX!!! is a fine enough attempt to bring the franchise to the PC, and any diehard fighting game lovers with a PC bent will have fun with it, but for the price 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 plenty of gameplay modes to keep things interesting. While the backgrounds still aren’t animated and the visual tech is outdated, 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 Achievements, and some other novelties to play around, LOVEMAX 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, somewhat sexualized teenage girls and out of date presentation 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 LOVEMAX 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.