When one thinks of fighting games on arcade machines and consoles, most think of games such as Marvel vs. Capcom, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Aksys Games, the publisher most known for releasing titles such as BlazBlue and Guilty Gear in North America, have brought over the latest entry in the Arcana Heart franchise: Arcana Heart 3. Arcana Heart isn't as well-known outside of Japan and Asia due to the first Arcana Heart release on the PS2 a few years back which was rather rough around the edges, causing its sequel, Arcana Heart 2, to be passed up for localization. With re-tooled gameplay mechanics and netcode taken from Arc System Works's BlazBlue franchise, one question remains: Can Arcana Heart 3 revitalize the series in western player's eyes?
For those who are not familiar with the Arcana Heart series, you take your pick one character from an all-female cast, ranging from a variety of different gameplay styles such as zoners and close-combat attackers. What makes Arcana Heart unique is the ability to associate one of several Arcana to each character. While each character has a specific Arcana pre-assigned to them that compliments their innate attributes, players can choose whichever Arcana they wish before a match. To give an idea of how many variations can be had in the game, Arcana Heart 3 features 23 characters and 23 Arcana, giving players a choice of 529 possible combinations.
Each Arcana has their own advantages and disadvantages that they bring to the match. The Time Arcana sacrifices one's attack and defense strength for the ability to create doubles to help out with combos. The Plant Arcana sacrifices one's attack in exchange for an improved defense. You get the idea. Selecting an Arcana also gives players access to special moves unique to each Arcana, no matter which character is chosen. Overall, this system keeps things rather fresh since each Arcana plays differently from the next.
The story mode is pretty bare bones, even though it's much more involved than say Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Following the events of the story in Arcana Heart 2, there have been a number of dimensional distortions as well as the appearance of several "Maidens" who wield incredible powers and a set of "celestial" stones. Players have to travel around Japan to collect these stones before Japan is destroyed in six days. All of the cutscenes between battles are voiced, although with only the original Japanese vocal track with subbed dialogue. There are no English voice overs. As with many fighting game stories, the majority of the opponents are pretty easy to beat but the mode's final boss is incredibly cheap and will test even the most experienced fighting game fans, especially on the game's higher difficulty levels.
As for the game's graphics, much like BlazBlue and Guilty Gear, Arcana Heart 3 features sprite-based character animations. As expected for that animation medium, Arcana Heart 3's characters are vividly animated and react in a multitude of different ways depending on what action they are carrying out on screen. Each character, as well as their Arcana, have their own unique battle animation that appears when their respective super move is carried out, this takes up almost the entire screen for the few seconds that it appears. Unique to Arcana Heart 3 is side panels that feature different animations depending on the player's actions on-screen. While it's a neat touch, unfortunately in practice this becomes annoying and most advanced players will likely disable the feature --- thankfully developer Examu makes this easy with a quick option available in the game's option menu.Sadly, the game's scenery and music are incredibly dated compared to the sprite work. Unlike games such as Street Fighter IV which have a number of things going on the background, Arcana Heart 3 features completely static backgrounds void of any movement. While it's somewhat understandable given the frantic pace of the game, it fails in comparison to the pseudo-3D backgrounds found in other 2D fighters like BlazBlue. On the subject of the music, outside of a few select tracks the majority of the game's tunes are entirely forgettable, although they do fit the mood of each stage and don't detract from the combat.
To make up for these lackings, Arcana Heart 3 also features a number of other modes. The first is a Score Attack mode, which has players fighting against a string of opponents one after another. The twist is that the opponent's are not paired with their default Arcana and some of them occasionally have buffed stats. There is also a Gallery, which catalogues the various character and Arcana artwork alongside the backdrops found in the Story mode, and a training mode. The most important mode for most experienced players, however, is the game's Network mode which allows for online multiplayer matches.
Since this mode is based off of the netcode found in Arc System Works's BlazBlue fighting game series, matches are almost lag-free as long as both players have decent connections. While this might change as more players pick up the game, our testing showed that the game's netcode held up as well as we had expected. Fans of spectator modes in games such as Super Street Fighter IV will feel right at home, as Arcana Heart 3 delivers rooms for up to six players. And unlike Marvel vs. Capcom 3 the other four players can watch the match.
However, what most experienced fighting game fans care about when playing a new fighting game is the advanced gameplay mechanics, which Arcana Heart 3 delivers in spades. Unique to the Arcana Heart franchise is the ability to dash or glide towards your opponents using the special attack button depending on if the character is on the ground or in the air. This can be used to decrease the distance on the ground, but its most useful application comes in aerial follow-up attacks after launching a character into the air following a combo. This system allows for insanely complicated combos and really brings a sense of amazement for onlookers when an experienced player can pull off a long and complicated combo string. For those experienced with other fighting games, Arcana Heart 3's gameplay speed is somewhere between Street Fighter IV and BlazBlue.
Similar to Marvel vs. Capcom 3's delayed combos, Arcana Heart 3 features the "Extend Force" system, which can be enabled by pressing all three of the attack buttons anytime while standing outside of guarding. Outside of its initial use to cancel a free combo or get out of a risky combo, it also allows the player to move faster, allowing for extended combos that can't be executed outside of this mode. Furthermore, it gives the player the ability to access an Arcana's innate abilities such as healing or giving extra movement options. Arcana Heart 3 also features the Homing Cancel ability, which allows you to cancel most normals, Arcana moves, specials and some supers into homing moves, which allow you to pursue an opponent directly following attack for some serious combinations.
Casual fighting fans may find all these features a bit overwhelming, which is why Arcana Heart 3 includes a "simple" control mode which functions very similarly to the one found in recent fighting games such as Marvel vs. Capcom 3. The trade-off is that many of the more powerful attacks requiring complicated button presses are not available in this mode, so anyone who is highly experienced with the game's more advanced gameplay mechanics will not have an issue against a player utilized the simpler controls.
With the recent deluge of fighting games, many of which are severely lacking in one area or another, seeing a competent and feature-packed title in Arcana Heart 3 is a welcome sight indeed. Developers Examu and Arc System Works have fine-tuned the unwelcome aspects of the first two titles to craft a new entry which introduces new abilities such as dashing with the time-tested abilities that one would expect out of a fighting game title. While it does have its minor issues and faults, they don't detract from the core gameplay experience. Fighting game fans who can stomach the character cast and are annoyed with the current crop of fighting game titles will find a lot to love here. Casual fans might have a bit more of a challenge due to some of the insane button presses required by the more advanced techniques, but if one puts in the effort they will find a very rewarding game. Simply said, Arcana Heart 3 is easily one of the best fighting games this year and if you have any inkling to try one out, this game should be at the top of your list.
|Huge amount of characters and Arcana leads to hundreds of combinations.|
|Gameplay is fast, but isn't impossible to keep track of.|
|Simple Mode doesn't make newcomers feel like complete newbies.|
|The backgrounds are incredibly plain and boring.|
|Most of the music is forgettable.|
|Some may be turned off by the all-female cast.|