“There is a theory which states that the closer one comes to reaching the limits of spiritual power, the more unstable they become.”
This quote by Weiss, one of the angels in Arcana Heart, tells you everything you need to know about this game and goes some way to explaining its madness.
As if God-level combos, insane arcane powers, an unconventional cast of fighters and the quest to find world-ending celestial stones weren’t distinctive enough, this game is packed with a bizarre cornucopia of cultural references including The Wizard of Oz, Norse mythology and the literature of Thomas Mann. I’m sure I didn’t even find half of the amusing allusions, but I found enough to fall in love with the game’s quirkiness.
So, what exactly is Arcana Heart 3: Love Max!!!!! (the five exclamation marks are part of the title) all about? Well, it’s a 2D anime fighter with a rather unique approach to the fighter game genre. As well as choosing your character (there are 23), you also choose an Arcana, a kind of elemental spirit-beast bound to your character and whose power you can control and unleash during fights. The added dimension of the Arcana means that this fighter has more controls and combinations to consider than usual fighters, making it feel much richer as an experience. There are 23 Arcana to choose from, giving you 529 combinations of character and Arcana before you even start to consider play style. If you’re thinking that’s daunting, it is, but the game makes an effort to alleviate that prospect of endless trial and error to find the right combination by giving each character a default Arcana that works well with them. Kind of like an army battle-box in a table-top game, it gives new players a solid starting point that they can then move on from.
To give an example of Arcana synergy, Lilica, a roller-blading half-demon school-girl (you did read that right, it’s anime) is most effective when airborne, with punishing aerial throw combos that can be chained if you have the technique and timing right. Her natural Arcana is Wind (Tempestas), providing her with a variety of powers which can catapult opponents into the air, getting them right where she wants them. Arcana are not limited to elemental forces. As well as Earth, Ice, Wind, Lightning and Fire there are more abstract Arcana: Evil or Time, and obscure ones such as Fenris (a reference to the end-times harbinger wolf of Norse mythology) and Mirror.
The cast of characters is unique – partly because it is entirely female. This makes for a refreshing change from most fighters in which the only female character is invariably a large-breasted ninja in a skintight suit (though, as it happens, Arcana Heart’s Mei Lang probably qualifies in that capacity). In addition, the fighting styles are creative and unconventional. Liesolotte Achenbach (her second name is a reference to a character in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice) is a little girl with a large suitcase she sometimes uses for beating opponents over the head. More disturbingly however, it contains a large and terrifying mannequin doll with blood-red hair and an eyeless face, which can be let out from its box in order to decimate opponents. Another child, Eko, draws creatures which then spring to life. Her two-dimensional friend carries her on his shoulders as it uses phantasmal swords and a rather frightening horse-toothed grin to beat opponents to a pulp. There are more straightforward characters too: Weiss, a genetically modified angel created by the Drexler Institute who fights with holographic wrist-blades; and Kamui Tokinomiya, a samurai warrior. All have their own flavour and play uniquely, which is rare. In most fighters you can see moves and styles repeated after you play for long enough, but in Arcana Heart 3 the characters feel fully realised. In addition, you can change how characters fight by altering their Arcana – giving them whole new realms of possibility.
Unlike Soul Calibur, it is not an easy game for players new to the fighter genre. It’s not perhaps as niche and challenging as a title like Killer Instinct (which slaughters new players) but the Story Mode alone is hardcore, and there’s no way to dial down the difficulty. There are combos certain characters can pull off which can half your health within the first five seconds of a match. From then on, winning becomes an ever-decreasing possibility. The true pros never allow those combos to be pulled off against them, but that means knowing exactly what the opening animation of each character’s special combo looks like, and then being able to pull off the counter in time (counters in this game are simply matching like for like: pressing the heavy attack button blocks a heavy attack, for example).
The story mode itself is fun and the wacky dialogue keeps you intrigued. If I was being hyper-critical, I’d say not enough effort has been made to accommodate players unfamiliar with previous Arcana Heart games. What is the Drexler Institute? What is the Celestial Union? Are they aligned or disparate organisations? Where do the Arcana come from? Why are members of the same factions so hostile to each other? What is even the purpose of the angels? These questions are answered to a degree, but you will have to remain alert during dialogue exchanges. I find if you treat the story as an experience rather than a tight-knit linear narrative: you’ll enjoy the game a hell of a lot more.
The sound is spot on: everything from the impact noises to the roar of Baldur’s cannon fire. Some of the rockier background tracks feel like they were written by Avenged Sevenfold, and make for heart-pumping atmosphere. The entire game is fully voiced in Japanese with subtitles and it’s probably best if it stays that way. Voicing it in English would somehow rob it of its hard-earned authenticity. In terms of its aesthetic, the game mixes the mundane everyday and the magical, which is a familiar trope of anime. Lilica, for example, wants to find all the celestial stones because she has heard they grant the wielder anything they desire: her desire is to not have to go to school anymore. Lines such as “Great Cthulhu!” sit alongside “You’re not such a bad girl after all” without explanation as to how a character from an entirely different universe is aware of Lovecraft’s elder god of the deep. Then again, he is Cthulhu.
If you fail a fight, you have a 10 second countdown and an option to restart, a beautiful homage to the arcade origins of the genre and Arcana Heart itself. If at any time you quit or fail the story mode before completing it, you will have to start the story from the beginning next time, though you unlock memories as you progress to signal your progress with certain characters. Trust me when I say unless you are a god of the fighter genre you will, at some point, reach the game over screen. The penultimate boss fight is insane (more challenging than the final boss who is still tough). I was able to complete the Story Mode, but I had to master my chosen character to do it with many hours of practice. To further complicate things, at certain points in the story you can choose which characters you wish to fight in your quest for celestial stones and those fights (and dialogue exchanges) will influence the ending – giving the game a much greater depth than a linear series of combats.
The actual in-game fighting controls well, though the added Arcana function can feel like manipulating two characters at once. Navigating the main menu is a different story. It took me an embarrassing length of time to work out that you use WASD and Tab to select and confirm your choices at the main menu. Arrow keys and Enter do nothing at all. When in a cut-scene, Tab will skip the entire scene – it’s “U” you need to press to go to the next slide, and given the wonderful weirdness of the dialogue you really don’t want to miss out. The fighting controls are much slicker: “U” is a light attack, “I” is a medium, “O” is a heavy, “J” lets you dash (both horizontally and vertically up into the air), and “L” initiates your Arcana. WASD moves/crouches/jumps you. Couple that with the possibility of each attack varying based on factors such as: (a) the attacks preceding it (b) the direction you are facing (c) the directional key you are inputting as you press the attack button (d) your character’s unique attacks and combos, and you have a vast arsenal at your disposal. An Arcana meter in the bottom left of the screen builds as you land hits on your opponent. It has three bars which can be filled: certain special attacks will use a one or more of the bars, and activating them at the right moment is key or you’ll waste your move.
There’s too much to say about this game in one review. That, perhaps, is another positive about Arcana Heart 3. There is an immense amount of content to justify the steep £20.99 asking price. Having said that, though overall the game is enjoyable, there are problems to consider too. If you think some of the characters feel overpowered, it’s not just your imagination. The developers have previously had problems with characters being unbalanced on the first Arcana Heart game and Arcana Heart 2, releasing numerous patches to fix the issues. Kamui is drastically underpowered – and lacks synergy with any of the Arcana. In addition some of the Arcana themselves feel less useful than others. The Arcana of Sin (the art for her is gorgeous, which is what drew me to it initially) can barely stand up to higher damaging Arcana, and doesn’t offer any cool status effects such as Evil’s poisonous D.O.T.s or Wind’s catapult into the air, to make up for it.
In all fighter games some characters prove natural foils to others but it should always be possible to overcome these difficulties. In Arcana Heart 3, some characters can simply destroy others pretty much no matter what they do. Fiona, with her gigantic unblockable great-sword heavy attacks, mashes fast low-damage multi-hit characters like Lilica. Having said that, there is always the option to change your Arcana which can even the odds. The choice of who you fight in Story Mode also means these nemesis confrontations can be avoided.
Ultimately, this is a hugely entertaining game with a host of interesting characters, none of which feel redundant (I’m one of the stubborn people who likes to play with non-competitive/under-used characters anyway). There is a wealth of content: Versus Mode, Training (I got an award for training for over 15 minutes solid), Survival (your health is carried over each fight), Time Attack, Trial (specific requirements for you to win matches), Story and After-Story modes as well as Steam Network play. Be warned: there are some lethal players out there, especially at 7 a.m.. The replayability value of this game is high even if you don’t play online and even if you don’t play local multiplayer, which is pretty extraordinary considering most fighters are founded on local player versus player experience.
This game isn’t for everyone: that much is clear. The bright colourful art-style, the over-the-top high-pitched voiceovers, the earth-shattering powers wielded by teenage girls – some will not find it accessible. This is game for people who love old-school anime and for people who fancy something a little different in the fighter genre. It faces stiff competition from the famous console-based fighters, which now boast incredible 3D graphics and a gritty, western aesthetic. But, at the same time, it sidesteps competition because there’s no game like it, and it certainly isn’t trying to compete with a title like Mortal Kombat.
There is something interminably charming about Arcana Heart 3, and if gorgeous characters and arenas, unpredictable dialogue, online play and 529 class combinations aren’t enough to persuade you you’ll enjoy it, take my recommendation too. It’s a blast.
Arcana Heart 3: Love Max!!!!! is available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita and PC. We reviewed the PC version.