A few years ago, I picked up a fantasy literature bundle that had Sarah Maas’ Throne of Glass in it. I didn’t know anything about this series, but it had an intriguing premise (a female assassin forced into death games? Sweet!), and the cover was good. Imagine my distress to discover that I was reading a YA novel, but nonetheless I read it through. I can’t remember much about this book, a few years after having read it now, but I do recall one particular scene where the protagonist gets absolutely indignant that she’s denied access to a prince’s private library. I can’t remember the exact quote, but to paraphrase it was to the effect of “what’s the point of a library if you can’t borrow books!”
Imagine if Tolkien wrote a paragraph about how Gandalf had to swipe his library card to find out about Sauron’s One Ring. That scene of Maas’ really struck a nerve with me, and has come to epitomise my view of YA fiction. These authors are clumsy writers, focused on writing down to people that, they must assume, are genuinely unintelligent, incapable of even a rudimentary level of imagination, and unable to understand basic themes, symbolism, or even language without having it spelled out for them like they are infants. Throne of Glass is, in theory, fantasy, but the girl, despite having a “fantasy” name, thinks, talks, and behaves like a modern teenage American, and I don’t think that’s by accident. These authors have so little respect for their audience that they don’t believe in characterisation, setting, or even providing a decent story. All they care about is writing something that is relatable. Because in 2022, relatable is content that sells.
That’s a long introduction to Arcadia Fallen, but the big problem with Arcadia Fallen is that, even if you play with the voices off, you’re going to “hear” the entire game in an American accent. It is textbook American YA content, and though there’s a lot to like about what the developers have done with the visual novel format structurally, the vapid shallowness about it all, as well as its utter inability to craft interesting characters or a setting worth a damn, really let it down.
Arcadia Fallen takes place in an empire where magic has been banned. This is, of course, a bad thing, because it means magic users are subjected to bigotry and other totally mean things, when really they just want to, like, help people and stuff. The protagonist is an apprentice at a magic shop, and in the process of helping out a fairy-thing that is being assaulted, gets herself killed. The fairy-thing bonds with the woman, reviving her, but in the process turning her into a magical being. But because she’s a totes good person at heart, the supposedly dogmatic empire just decides to ignore their laws and allow her to go on a basically unsupervised quest to kill demons in the town. Along the way she makes friends with the totally smart thesis-writer-person, a young boy, a flower shop magic user, and a swordswoman dedicated to the empire, and they kill demons, all the while quipping like the very best Marvel superheroes.
What’s annoying is that there is so much to the above that could have been crafted into good fantasy. The parallels between anti-magic and racism is a well-familiar trope at this point, but it’s a good one and will, unfortunately, remain relevant as long as racism exists (so, forever). The bonding of fairy-thing and woman, so that they share a heart and soul, could be a compelling one… particularly given that this visual novel is highly diverse across gender and sexuality, and there’s a great deal that could have been explored about this, particularly given the additional layers of bigotry that it subjects the woman to.
But then lines like this undermine it all: “Uhm, so Victoria sent me. She’s really eager to get started on this big ol’ mission thing, so she wants you to meet her outside like… now.” Arcadia Fallen is filled with them. Almost all the characters talk like American teenagers discussing TikTok clips, rather than the grand, alchemy-fuelled quest that they’re meant to be on. Yes, at this point I must mention that I do realise that I’m not the market for YA fiction, but I am the market for alchemy-fuelled fantasy quests, and the childishness of it frustrated and exhausted me to the point that I could only play it for 15 minutes at a time before needing a day’s break or so.
Mechanically, there’s a lot to like about Arcadia Fallen. It’s a highly interactive visual novel, where you’re constantly being asked to make decisions about the tone you want your protagonist to set. Do you want to be an irreverent jokester? Shy and lacking in confidence? Adventurous? There are dialogue options that allow you to shape your character in any which way. As a feature, this is superficial, since most of the options don’t affect how the narrative flows or how people respond to your character, but as I mentioned previously, YA writing is almost exclusively about giving you a character you can relate to, and this structure achieves that. You can mirror this protagonist pretty closely to your own self, no matter who you are, and I’m led to understand that in modern context, that’s inherently superior to being asked to engage with a character that isn’t a mirror image to you. More seriously, I do look forward to another, better, visual novel down the track using this approach in a more meaningful way, because it’s an excellent way for a visual novel to put agency in the hands of the player.
There’s also a minigame that you’ll be playing frequently that’s a lot of fun. In it you need to rotate a number of circles so that the patterns of the circles match up with a reference image. There’s no time limits not ways to fail (YA fiction isn’t big on challenging audiences), and the puzzles are every bit as difficult as you would expect from a game written in the YA style (i.e. there’s not a person on the planet that would be stumped by them), but I genuinely enjoyed the way it was implemented into the gameplay and was used sparingly enough to break up the narrative without overwhelming it.
I also really appreciated the way the map was designed, in that it’s simple and efficient, and the fact that the game doesn’t outstay its welcome by running for around 6-10 hours. To finish on the biggest plus of all, the game is absolutely gorgeous. I love the character designs, the backgrounds, and just how customisable the protagonist is. The developers really committed to the diversity angle, and this means that you’ve got more options for designing your main character than I think I’ve ever seen in a visual novel before. More of that in games where the protagonist is a character that needs to be seen, please.
My issues with Arcadia Fallen have to do with my issues with the wider YA narrative genre that it belongs to, but I really cannot stand the tonal inconsistencies, the juvenile writing style, or the complete shallowness of these things and the thoughts they express. It seems that I’m increasingly in the minority here, but I’m not a fan of treating audiences like idiots. However, if YA writing doesn’t annoy you as much as it does me, then you’re going to really get along with this one, since the presentation is impeccable, and it does have its heart in the right place.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb