Review by Priscilla M.
Arcade Spirits, developed by Fiction Factory Games and published by PQube, is a romantic visual novel set in the year 20XX that follows an alternate timeline where the well-known crash of the video game industry did not occur. The story follows the main character whom after a never-ending run of bad luck finds employment at a quaint arcade called the Funplex with the help of an apparently very sentient AI helper known as IRIS. This IRIS sets out to not only help the main character discover their dream job, but also romance, and a whole lot of pizza bagels.
As is standard for visual novels, there are a range of choices that players can make throughout the story, and those had me on the edge of my seat and entirely unable to decide what option to select next. Arcade Spirits really knows how to grab at your heart strings, as it often makes you choose between following the character’s dreams – both the main character or the other characters – or taking a more logical approach which often results in disappointing said characters. Not all of the storylines left me so heavy hearted though as between intense moments, Arcade Spirits always seemed to know just when to include the right level of humour to lift the player’s spirit, which in turn helps to keep them engaged and wanting to actively continue to better the lives of those around the player character for the six hour duration of the game.
Arcade Spirits claims to be an inclusive visual novel, and this is clear right from the character creation screen. You can choose your preferred pronoun and customise your clothing colour, skin tone, hair and eye colour which is reflected throughout all the character illustrations in the game. The ability to choose a pronoun is particularly noteworthy as it seems to be such a simple inclusion that would be quite meaningful for a subset of players that is often not thought about by other developers.
The characters in Arcade Spirits are so diverse and incredibly lifelike; it is a breath of fresh air. The cast includes characters of numerous body types, sexualities and ethnicities. None of these things are ever specifically mentioned because they don’t have to be. Take Juniper for instance. Juniper has a larger build than the other female characters, but it’s never once mentioned. She is without a doubt one of the most fashionable characters in the game, with her finger on the pulse of all things trendy. She is successful and confident in herself and it makes her such a great character. There is a married gay couple that owns a bookstore next to the Funplex but other than that there’s no mention of sexuality. It is just fluid and accepted when it comes to your dating interests. From my original preview of the demo build I already knew that I wanted to romance Naomi. I ended up succeeding in doing this as a female character and, again, it was handled very organically. Instead there was just excitement, acceptance and two people fumbling about as they start to begin a lasting, meaningful relationship with one another.
Diversity plays an important role in Arcade Spirits as displayed through its characters but that is not the only aspect of them that makes them so wonderful. Each character is multi-dimensional with their own true to life problems. The main character suffers mental illness and struggles to move on from certain events and live their life. The other characters also have their own issues from terminal illness to social anxiety disorder. They all have their own struggles that become apparent once your bond grows with them.
Another enjoyable aspect of the characters is that they are all voice acted. The casting for the voices really hits the nail on the head as all the voices really mesh with the visual design of the character. Particularly noteworthy were Naomi, voiced by Stephanie Sheh, and Hamza, voiced by Akash Thakkar. However, every voice actor deserves credit for bringing their characters to life. The dating sim elements are an entirely optional aspect of the game as your IRIS asks you early on if you want them in your game or not. The system itself is akin to some sort of RPG-lite statistic screen where it lists all the potential love interests and displays how many points you have with each of them in a bar graph format. This displays who you have developed the closest relationship with, but it is still at the players discretion as to whether or want to romance the top choice, another character, or no one at all. The option to pass on the romance altogether is an entirely valid choice in Arcade Spirits. The other statistics that the game tracks are what choices that you’ve previously selected in the game. Each dialogue option has an attached stat to it which not only allows you to see what kind of player you are but is an important aspect when it comes to some tricky situations towards the end of the story where you need to be your true, authentic self.
One of the great things about Arcade Spirits is the ability for it to give you a sense of nostalgia and longing to go back to an arcade and play some of your favourite games. In fact, it almost seems as if it is a true celebration of video games with a mix of real-world references and fictional games that really make the games in the arcade come to life. Polybius, a fictional arcade game with a haunted reputation in the real world, features throughout the game and is a little nod to players with knowledge of the more niche arcade games or at least the spooky stories behind them. The main character also throws out some cheesy lines that are taken from Linkin Park and Jay-Z songs which succeed in building the character.
Arcade Spirits is therefore a must play for any fan of not only visual novels or dating sims but the arcade game genre. Those dating sim elements should not put potential players off due to their optional nature. The story and characters that Arcade Spirits presents are wonderful and days after beating it are still floating around in my head. Arcade Spirits packages a lot in its six hour journey and is an example of how a game designed to be inclusive game can be done right.
– Priscilla M.