Review: Arcana Heart (PS2)

Arcana Heart
Genre: 2D Fighting Game
Developer: Examu
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 04/11/08

I need to explain something right off the bat before we get down to reviewing Arcana Heart.

I don’t normally like to break into using “I” in reviews, mostly because I like to try and be mildly (and I stress that word) professional; as such, I like to maintain “professional disconnect” from the products I review. Any (and I do mean ANY) review you read, EVER, is going to be 100% opinion, because one reviewer’s meat is another reviewer’s poison. But I feel that I need to stress something before we begin, and it is this:

The Diehard Gamefan staff is, quite literally, full to bursting with 2D fighting game fans. If I had to sit down and actively count all of the staffers who like/love 2D fighters on-staff, I’d have to take off my shoes. Obviously, everyone on staff has their own favorite franchises, but a VAST majority of our staff love the genre like a long-lost son.

I am telling you that so you understand what this means: I volunteered to review Arcana Heart because no one else would.

Now, here’s the thing: Arcana Heart is “moe”; essentially, it’s a cute fighting game that deals with teenage girls beating each other up. Generally speaking, anime has done this genre to death, but “hardcore fighting game fans” and “people who like Cardcaptor Sakura and Di Gi Charat” are, by and large, mutually exclusive fandoms. This becomes a problem when one is presented with a character like, as an example, Maori Kasuga:

Maori, for those who are curious, is one of the characters in Arcana Heart, and despite her adorable design and huge knockers, is FOURTEEN YEARS OLD. So I hope you won’t be surprised when I tell you that resident 2D fighting fan Alex Lucard, upon seeing Arcana Heart, could only respond with “eww”, or that another staffer described himself as feeling “like one of those creepy guys you see riding the subway in anime that likes to feel under girls skirts” just for looking at the game. Now, personally, I don’t care about the content of the product as it’s not especially gross so to say, but it needs to be understood up front: right off the bat, you are going to NEED to be able to get past the fact that this is a game featuring adorable teen-and-pre-teen girls beating each other up. The oldest character in the game is still underage, and most characters hover in the vicinity of fourteen. And again, this wouldn’t be so bad except, you know, for the part where it’s schoolgirl skirts and cleavage and the occasional panty shots and an eleven-year-old in a bathing suit. So you are aware: you are either going to have to be able to disassociate yourself from the presentation or be a fan of it in order to enjoy this.

So we’re all on the same page, if you find that concept difficult, that’s fine, I understand. If you’ve seen Sailor Moon and it didn’t wig you out, though, you’ll be alright, so let’s keep going.

The “overwhelming reason everyone feels the need to punch each other in the face” in Arcana Heart revolves around Mildred Avalon, the head of the British division of the “Ministry of Elemental Affairs” (at seventeen years old, no less) who has a habit of showing off her underage cleavage (in outfits that rip apart upon her defeat, thus successfully making me feel vaguely weirded out for the first time in years, THANKS GUYS), which apparently is a worldwide organization devoted to monitoring Arcane activities, and her attempt to merge our world and the Elemental World (thus betraying her associates, apparently). This would, as one might imagine, end all life on Earth, so the various Arcanum (basically Elemental spirits of sorts) seek to guide The Maidens (the various girls on Earth who can communicate with them) to put a stop to this. As stories go you could certainly do a whole lot worse, and while it’s not “good” by any possible definition of the word, it’s really only meant to establish a reason for all of the girls to want to beat the hell out of each other, so we’ll call it a wash and move on.

Mostly, there are about two characters who can be considered normal by the standards of our reality, with the remainder of the characters being canine ninjas or ten year old assassins wanted in every country with puppets living in suitcases or eleven year olds who own living gelatinous blobs and are mad scientists or whatever. Basically, on the sliding scale of reasonable versus ridiculous, Arcana Heart has its needle FIRMLY buried somewhere between “Excel Saga” and “Family Guy”, which, while it’s certainly reasonable considering the style of the game (thousand-foot jumps and giant flaming explosions and whatnot are highly prevalent), it mostly seems like it’s just throwing everything at a wall and being silly for the sake of being silly with no rhyme or reason associated to it, which is not really a winning formula for creating memorable characters. The character interplay in the Story Mode of the game is cute for what it is, and while it’s nothing you haven’t seen before, it at least attempts to make sense of why things are the way that they are; it doesn’t make the whole situation any more ridiculous and absurd, but it’s at least an attempt to handwave the silliness, even if it’s entirely predicated on an absurd foundation to begin with.

Visually, Arcana Heart is mostly good. The character models are bright and colorful and animate very well, and the various special attacks and such are all well rendered and flashy. But while the backgrounds are also quite colorful (and change when Arcanum are summoned), they don’t DO anything noticeable, and most simply look like, well, pictures. Since we’ve been seeing animated backgrounds since Street Fighter 2 (if not earlier), that is shamefully disappointing and there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever that this should be considered tolerable in 2008. The in-game music is cute, cartoony fare that sounds, well, like anime music; it works conceptually but it’s nothing exciting or special. The sound effects sound as good as they possibly can given the subject matter, and the voices are all in Japanese, and as such sound acceptable.

Now, if you’ve played a 2D fighting game from a popular franchise in the past, oh, ever, you’ll have a decent idea of how to play Arcana Heart, though it does have enough of its own novelties to keep things interesting. The closest game I can compare it to in terms of play style is Melty Blood: Act Cadenza, but the odds of you actually having played that are about the same as your odds of having played Arcana Heart prior to its US release, so let’s describe it as “playing like a three-button Street Fighter with a fourth button that does something special” and leave it at that for the moment. There are three attack buttons, in weak, medium and strong flavors, and by using them in conjunction with various directional motions special and super moves are generated. The majority of the characters fit into neat stereotypes, IE Heart Aino (literally, Heart of Love) has a Ryu/Ken feel, Saki Tsuzura has a Guile flavor, Mei-Fang has something of an Iori/Terry Bogard bent, Kira Daidohji is something of a “block of meat” Hulk/Zangief character, and so on, so you should be able to slip right into playing Arcana Heart without much problems.

What Arcana Heart does similar to its predecessors helps to make it familiar, but what it does different is what’s most important in this case, and all of the differences can effectively be boiled down to two things: Arcana and Homing Meters. The Arcana are essentially spiritual beings who impart their powers upon your characters; in layman’s terms, they give your characters additional special and super moves, with each move depending on the Arcana, though most work as you would expect (fireball motions, Dragon Punches, charges, etc), only you use the fourth button (the Special button) to do the attacks. Since most of the characters themselves don’t have built-in projectile attacks (though one or two do), pretty much all of the Arcana have long-range projectile-esque attacks of some type or another to compensate, though each also contributes a few other attacks or moves, which can range from additional projectiles to extra strikes to modifying your jump or charge and so on. Each character has an Arcana they default to using, but you can select whatever Arcana you like for whatever character, so you can have a character who better matches your playstyle. All of the characters can also go into “Arcana Force” mode, which essentially powers up your character in accordance with the abilities of the Arcana; by default, your Homing Meters (more in a bit) will refill, and your character may heal damage or do more damage or have higher defense or what have you. You can also summon your Arcana from this mode in order to unleash a massive, screen filling effect (which again, depends on the Arcana).

Homing Meters are a little more complicated. Basically, your characters cannot “dash” on their own; they can make short little hops backwards and forwards, but actual dashing isn’t in their direct repertoire without a little more effort. By using the S button alone, your character will execute a “Homing Dash”, which allows them to go flying full-speed at their foe; this is both useful for closing the gap on a foe who’s projectile spamming as well as allowing you to continue the assault on a foe, as unlike most common 2D fighters, you can continue your assault on your opponent even when they’re in their downed animations; this also means you can launch foes to great heights and follow them up easily for more damage, meaning you can pretty much pull out the classic Marvel Vs. Capcom and Guilty Gear air combos and such. The thing is, this uses up one of your Homing Meters each time you do it. Now, the meters WILL refill, but this means you can’t abuse Homing Dash, especially since you also use these meters for things like Guard Cancels (cancel a guard and counterattack), Homing Cancels (connect with a move then move in with Homing), Wall Techs (you can grab the wall after being launched at it) and other recovery/cancel actions.

In all fairness, the above really doesn’t go into the full amount of depth one would need to go into to explain everything that this game does, but thankfully, I really don’t need to, because anyone who is interested in this sort of a product can read the following sentence:

“If you’ve played any of the more recent Guilty Gear games, Melty Blood, and Psychic Force, you’ve seen everything this game does, just about”

and know if Arcana Heart is for you.

Now, that doesn’t mean that Arcana Heart doesn’t have its own little flashes of brilliance here and there, because it does, certainly. Changing Arcana from one match to the next gives the game a little variety, and it certainly has enough to it that it’s playable. Arcana Heart is by no means a bad game by any stretch of the imagination; it plays well enough to make do, it’s entertaining and original enough to justify its own existence, and it combines enough elements to make it worth playing around with.

But unless you are a hard HARD HARD hardcore fighting game fan, unless you have a full understanding of what words like “priority” and “frame advantage” mean and you actually incorporate these things into game strategies, there is absolutely no reason to play it.

See, if we could boil the game down from many little problems into one big problem, it is this: Arcana Heart does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING that makes it worth owning if you’re just someone who likes fighting games. Air juggles? Seen it. Wall bounding? Seen it. Guard Cancels? Seen it. Screen-filling supers? Seen it. Wacky characters? Seen it. Everything Arcana Heart does has been done, and in most cases, done better. The only thing Arcana Heart does that MIGHT be kind of truly unique is the Homing Dash, and that’s a damn good thing because without it, the game is slow (or as Jim Ross would say, “methodical”) in its pacing, which you will either love or hate, and does nothing else to make it a special little snowflake.

This is further compounded by the fact that there are a whopping ELEVEN characters in an era where twenty characters is considered a decent roster. And switching Arcana, while a way to change up a few moves and supers, does not instantly render a character wholly reborn as a brand new entity. Konami tried that with Rumble Roses, and everyone bitched that it was padding to make a few characters stretch over an entire game, and guess what? That’s the same problem here. Is the mechanic neat? To a point, yes, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a dearth of characters in the game, and it doesn’t mean you won’t get bored of playing the same two characters over and over just by changing their Arcana.

On top of that, let’s talk replay value. The only unlockable items in the game are artwork, period; whether or not unlocking artwork of teenage girls appeals to you is really up to you, but the fact that there isn’t anything else to unlock beyond pictures you could find on the internet that don’t involve spending hours with the game hits the replay hard. There’s also no online play, which isn’t surprising given the dearth of online fighting games, but this still doesn’t make it any easier to swallow. And playing against the CPU is about what you’d expect; the normal enemies present a reasonable challenge on whatever difficulty you can handle, while the final boss is SNK Hard, to the point that her normal attacks do more damage than your super moves, her super bar is essentially always full (unless you beat her first version, which essentially is using Super Armor and throws direction-changing projectiles constantly that make projectile spamming less “a viable option” and more “a necessity if one values winning”), and you pretty much need to cheap her out to beat her… which essentially, again, makes this a game for the hardcore player above all else.

And in all honesty, even at the $30 price tag, Arcana Heart is a rather meager game. There are a dearth of characters to choose from, and while I feel I should mention that the Arcana Heart and Arcana Heart FULL versions of the characters are present (FULL being an arcade patch to balance out issues between characters), it doesn’t matter very much because this isn’t the same as, say, something like the Matching Service-esque Darkstalkers release on PSP where each version of the characters had different special moves and such; this is literally a case of playing as balanced characters or unbalanced characters, and unless you’re the sort of person who actively studies the differences of characters (see the above hardcore note) you’re not going to give a damn. Between the dearth of characters, the dearth of Arcana, the dearth of unlockables, and the amount of also-ran ideas, Arcana Heart is essentially left as a less than satisfying experience.

(As an aside: I have developed a habit of popping game discs into my DVD-ROM drive to see how much space the developer actually used on the disc, since we’ve been hearing so many complaints about disc space being at a premium and all. In case you weren’t aware, DVD based games can be read by a standard DVD-ROM and you can use this to see how “full” a disc is, with the standard “maximum” size being around 4.7 GB or so; very few games hit this upper limit of disc space, with God of War 2 being the only one I can think of off the top of my head, so at least someone is using the space. Anyway, the point is this: Arcana Heart occupies just shy of two gigabytes, which is a little less than half of a DVD. So when I’m saying “this game is meager”, I’m saying it with good reason.)

In the end, though, Arcana Heart is not by any means a BAD game; it’s simply a game that has absolutely nothing to offer someone who isn’t practicing for tournament level play on a daily basis. It does nothing exceptional, interesting, or exciting, and at a base level it’s lacking in diversity, and the presentation is based solely around pitching the game on its wacky characters (like Guilty Gear hasn’t made a cottage industry out of that) and its amazing visuals (and non-animated backgrounds). Atlus did a good job localizing it, and it’s about as well-translated as a game can be, but it’s really the sort of product that leaves one scratching one’s head wondering WHY, exactly, they felt the need, especially with other, more interesting fighting games available for them to translate and bring over (besides Melty Blood, Spectral Vs. Generation would have also been a good choice especially since the actual RPG’s the fighting game is based on are actually coming out in the States and all). But it’s not a bad game at all, and anyone with hardcore fighting game urges and the ability to appreciate or ignore the subject matter will find a sufficient amount to appreciate here.

The Scores:
Graphics: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: POOR
Originality: BAD
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: BAD
Miscellaneous: POOR

Final Score: MEDIOCRE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Arcana Heart is a stiff and slow fighting game with eleven playable characters who are all, at most, about fourteen to sixteen years old. The only positive things that can be said for it are that the sprites are bright, colorful, and well-animated (which is good if, you know, you’re Pedo-Bear), the game rips off Street Fighter and Guilty Gear enough to be playable (if slow), and the one major selling point (the Arcana, which allow your character additional special moves) effectively amounts to giving the character two or three extra moves that are fairly generic and not wholly special. It’s not BAD; it plays fairly well all in all and it’s certainly functional and challenging… it’s simply lacking in any sort of variety, longevity, or interesting features for the average player, and the subject matter is fairly awkward for anyone who’s not comfortable with the idea of teenage girls beating each other up.



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