Blips and Boops
Back in the 80s, the arcade was the place to be! All the cool kids would bike on down to the local arcade after school to play the latest games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, fighting for high-score dominance while simultaneously stuffing their faces with greasy food, all lit up under a warm neon glow.
…at least, that’s how I imagine it was. I wasn’t even born until 1990, well past the peak of arcade popularity. Nowadays, outside of a few chains like Gameworks and Round1, you’d be lucky to stumble across an arcade. Even if you did, it’s probably loaded up with ticket-redemption games, rather than just straight-up video game cabinets. Barcades have started gaining popularity in many cities, although I’ve seen many “barcades” lean heavier on the bar side, with a few beat-up cabinets scattered around the floor.
But what if arcades didn’t die off? What if they continued to thrive to this very day, even becoming a central part of modern culture? This is the premise that the game Arcade Spirits explores – a world where arcades are the center of gaming culture, rather than home-based consoles and PCs. A world where arcades are places to meet people, make friends…and possibly find romance?
Yes, it’s visual novel time!
Developed by Fiction Factory Games and published by PQube, Arcade Spirits was released on February 12th, 2019, on Windows, Mac, and Linux. The Windows Steam version was played for this review.
Finding Love in the Strangest Places
As I mentioned, Arcade Spirits takes place in modern day, but in a world where the 80s video game crash never happened, and arcades are still a fairly common thing…so much so that they’ve become the center of gaming culture.
In this world you play as yourself, down in the dumps after being laid off from a recent job. Seeing your depression, your roommate Juniper installs an “Iris” on your phone – a kind of personal assistant/life coach AI. The Iris sets you up for an interview at the Funplex, a local arcade. After landing the job, you have to go about trying to find happiness and purpose in life through your new role at the Funplex.
The story of Arcade Spirits is told in an episodic fashion, being split into eight parts (or, in the game’s vernacular, “levels”). Each part lasts about 45 minutes or so, centering on specific events during the main character’s time at the Funplex. This story division made the game easy to digest in bite-size chunks; I could play through a part of the story, save and quit at the end of the “level,” and come back a few days later without feeling like I forgot anything (a problem I can have with visual novels presented as just one looooooong story).
Things are kind of slice-of-life-y in the front half of the story, often presented as a day-in-the-life of the main character. You wake up, go to work, get to know your coworkers and the arcade regulars, defend the Funplex from mobs of unruly children…you know, normal daily things. It isn’t until around the halfway point that Arcade Spirits changes up this formula a bit, getting a bit more dramatic.
This is probably because the front-half of the game is more focused on picking which of the game’s characters you want to date. Arcade Spirits does advertise itself as a romantic visual novel, and the first four chapters are spent chasing after the character that most strikes your fancy.
You’re offered up your choice of six characters to pursue, and unfortunately, most of them revolve around a singular personality trait. Available for lovin’ are:
- Gavin, the straight-forward business-minded manager of the Funplex.
- Naomi, the nerdy vintage-game-obsessed technician.
- Ashley, the somewhat ditzy arcade mascot and fellow floor worker.
- Percy, the gentle father-like figure who’s also rich and obsessed with a single game.
- QueenBee, the loud and fiery professional eSports gamer.
- Teo, the flirty and outgoing leader of a group of dancing game fans.
While the character writing for each of these is highly entertaining (and, honestly, one of the highlights of the game), actual character development is severely lacking. Really, the only character that develops is your own, and it feels like the others are just around to help fuel it.
The building of your relationships is tracked with an easily-accessible meter in the menu telling you how close you are to each character. Winning points for each of them typically boils down to making dialogue choices that they prefer, and there are a lot of choices in this game. Choices also add points into one of five personality traits (funny, logical, emotional, forceful, and neutral), which can also have an effect on your love life, as well as what you’re able to select in certain other dialogue choices.
Approaching this game like some other visual novels, where you focus completely on your character of choice while ignoring others, is not the ideal way to play though. Arcade Spirits doesn’t use a “route” system often seen in other games in the genre, instead telling a single story that is altered by your choices. With that in mind, neglecting some characters while focusing on others can lead you to some downer moments in the end game. I learned this the hard way when, in my pursuit of Naomi (because nerdy girl of course), I almost completely ignored Gavin and Ashley, earning me bad endings for each of them at the conclusion.
Speaking of maintaining relationships with everyone, the game does give you the ability to romance everyone, regardless of the gender of the character you create at the beginning. Hell, you don’t even have to give a specific gender to your character, as you’re given the option to pick a pronoun for the game to use for you, with “They” as a choice. This kind of openness and flexibility is something I can always appreciate in a game (and I’m a bit saddened that the announcement of this inclusion pre-release stirred up controversy in the community).
Anyways, despite the lack of character development, not every story needs to be a deep-dive character study, and Arcade Spirit‘s plot succeeds in other ways, mostly comedically. The game is no literary masterwork – hell, I don’t think I’d even call it a solid story – but it is vastly entertaining front to back. There was hardly a dull moment through my six-hour initial playthrough, and the snappy writing managed to pull laughs from me regularly.
When it comes to the character design, there’s just something kind of…off-putting…about it. Western visual novels often earn criticism from the community when they use more Western art styles (which I chalk up to fans just being more used to anime aesthetics in these games), but there’s something about Arcade Spirits that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s not ugly, but it just seems…off.
It may be because none of these character designs are particularly attractive to my eye. I mean, this is marketed as a romance game after all, so you would expect the characters to be, well, attractive. I grew used to the standard sprites used throughout the game, but in the art stills during events, the design is just rough.
The character that suffers easily the most from this is, oddly enough, the main character. I don’t know if it’s because you can customize them, but their design and shading just doesn’t match the rest of the cast at all. One-off sprites for unimportant characters suffer much the same way.
The game also includes partial voice acting in English, and it is extremely hit-or-miss. Some performances stand out, particularly Juniper’s and Teo’s. Others, especially Gavin’s, are extremely amateurish. The sound quality of the acting is often wildly varied as well, with some sounding like they were recorded in a studio while other recorded using a webcam mic in a room with a loud fan running.
Facts vs. Feelings
Overall, Arcade Spirits is often flawed and feels like a fan game, but there’s an obvious spark of charm that caused me to overlook much of this during my playthrough. Honestly, it was only once I sat down to start writing this review that I started picking out the flaws – during the experience itself, I was having a great time.
The game isn’t a masterpiece. I wouldn’t say that it’s one of the more notable visual novels I’ve played through, either. Despite this, though, Arcade Spirits was still an entertaining ride, and I don’t regret the time I put into it.
With that, I feel that I can still recommend this game despite its flaws. I mean, the key reason to play a game is entertainment, right? While Arcade Spirits may not meet my personal metric for “great visual novel,” it was still a highly-enjoyable game, and I would say it’s worth a look for fans of the genre.
Review copy provided by PQube for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.