It can often be hard to really feel like a part of the story when we’re playing video games. We’re not all meek Japanese highschool students or big bald space marines, so feeling represented in a lot of these game worlds is often a challenge. With story heavy games like visual novels, the challenge is even greater. It’s often hard to totally relate to the protagonists in these games, no matter how generic and broadly they may be written or designed. Arcade Spirits aims to tackle that challenge of representation in visual novels, but flounders in a few other areas in the process.
In most visual novels, your character customisation is simply the name you choose to have display during dialogue. Arcade Spirits takes things up a notch with multiple systems that aim to cater the game experience specifically to you. The first of these systems is an actual character creation menu, which tasks you with fine-tuning the design of your protagonist. Hair, eyes, skin colour, and clothing colour can all be customised, as well as choosing which pronouns you’re addressed by in-game.
It’s a neat system, but with barely a handful of options, it really doesn’t hold a candle to the more robust character customisation seen in games like Dream Daddy. You’ll always be a thin, unfashionable person with straight hair and a long face, which might still make it hard for some people to really feel like they’re a part of the game.
After finalizing your character, you’re dropped into an opening chapter that serves to set up the world and give you a few more ways to customize the experience. Your character is recently unemployed and mildly depressed, living with their roommate in the year 20XX where the video game crash of the 80s never happened. Because of this, video games are a huge part of mainstream entertainment; arcades are as plentiful as coffee shops, and technology is a bit further ahead than what we have today in the real world.
Case in point, your supportive roommate Juniper recommends you download the Iris app on your phone. When you do, a fully 3D AI assistant leaps out of the and decides to help you manage and measure your life in order to find your dream job. The Iris AI serves as a convenient storytelling tool to gamify some of the aspects of Arcade Spirits. She informs you that she’ll be tracking the type of responses you give to people and assigning each of them a different type of personality-quirk. If you pick a lot of caring responses or jokey responses, she’ll keep track of all of that. You’re even given the option to disable or enable these markers during decisions if you prefer not to know which response is the jokey one.
While it’s an interesting system, it’s undone by the next thing the game tells you: any of the choices you make, unless you go out of your way to be an asshole, will lead you successfully to the ending you’re trying to reach. I can really appreciate the game making it clear that this is a laid-back experience where you don’t need to overthink your choices or resort to a guide to get with your favourite character, but it also makes the personality tracking system a little redundant. Why bother keeping track of the kind of responses I’m giving if they all lead to the same result?
The AI also asks you what kind of relationships you’re looking to find in your new job. Do you want to keep things strictly professional and only seek friendship, or are you open to flirting and romance? It’s another nice little bit of customization that really helps you shape the experience of the game into whatever you want it to be. Soon after you make this decision, you find yourself set up with an interview at your supposed new dream job: the Funplex video game arcade.
The rest of the game sees you acclimating to your life working at the arcade, as well as meeting the main eligible bachelors and bachelorettes. Three guys and three girls make up the supporting cast of characters you can choose to woo, and each one is decidedly unique in appearance and personality. From a jolly British guy with a big dad bod to a tall and fierce Indian woman in the pro gaming community, the cast of characters is refreshingly diverse. It helps that their character designs are sharp and fun to look at, without feeling lazy or unoriginal.
Unfortunately, the writing isn’t quite as on point. You can feel the quirks and personality of the writer seep into the story, and not in a good way. Jokes are eye-rollingly forced and barely enjoyable, and a lot of the dialogue from your own character just comes off like middle school material. There’s no good reason for a video game protagonist to be saying “poopbutts” or “2 spoopy 4 me”, especially in the year 2019.
The game is also littered with references to real-life video games that only ever come across as ham-fisted given the written nature of the game. Seeing characters gush about TMNT and Killer Instinct with a giant trademark symbol next to the game titles in their dialogue is far from natural writing. Additionally, the game takes place in 20XX, a cute reference to the year the early Mega Man games take place in. It becomes more of a nuisance than a reference, though, as characters constantly bring up the year they’re in and years of the past like 198X or 196X to the point that it just becomes an obstacle to the story-telling. Worse is when voice acting kicks in and characters say the phrase “20XX” with a deafening bleep straight from a censored daytime television show.
That’s not really the only quirk of the voice acting in Arcade Spirits, unfortunately. The quality of acting and audio quality differs between each character in the game. Sailor Moon voice actor Stephanie Sheh shines as Naomi, but actors for other characters flounder in comparison. The rest of the audio design isn’t as flawed, thankfully. Music is fun with a hint of retro synth to it, and the sound effects that pop off as you play are a nice way to reinforce the video game aesthetic of the whole experience. There’s also a key shortcut that enables self-voiced dialogue, which makes all of the dialogue be read aloud by an automated voice. It’s a wonderful accessibility feature that I don’t see in many visuals novels.
Even so, each character is well defined and developed, and the protagonist goes through a wealth of growth that’s sure to strike a chord with players. While there isn’t a big overarching narrative about saving the world or traveling through time, I loved the ten or so hours I spent getting to know the cast and romancing my character of choice.