All-female 2D fighters are nothing new. Back in the days of the original PlayStation and the Sega Saturn, games like Asuka 120% and the Variable Geo series were a common sight in Japanese game stores, offering up hot girl-on-girl fighting action, but generally just that. The games lacked depth, relying on the gimmick of their fully female roster rather than crafting compelling gameplay. Now Atlus brings Examu's PlayStation 2 girl fighter Arcana Heart to North America, featuring 11 classic moe girl archetypes fighting to save the world from a power-hungry nun seeking to merge our realm with that of the elemental Arcana that fight by their side. The game is full of promising elements, but it all comes down to one thing—is Arcana Heart a mediocre game trying to get by on sex appeal alone, or a solid fighting game whose characters just happen to lack Y chromosomes?
Style versus substance, red versus blue...
• Characters - There may be only 11 playable characters, but each one has a distinctive fighting style and design that sets her apart from the rest. Making the tiny girl in the water globule the wrestler character tickled me to know end.
• Graphics - As far as 2D graphics go, these are definitely on the upper end of the scale. While not as fluid as Guilty Gear at its best, Arcana Heart's sprites come pretty close.
• Combat - A relatively simple four-button system hides an extremely deep combat system full of counters, reverses, cancels - all the buzzwords you'd expect in a 2D fighter; a system where skill will win over random flailing 90% of the time.
• The Arcana System - This is where Arcana Heart really makes its mark. First you select a character, then you choose one of 11 Arcana to aid you in your fight. Depending on which you choose, you're able to not only access powerful special attacks, but also inflict status ailments on your enemies, or buff yourself. Which Arcana you pick can completely change your fighting strategy.
• Difficulty - I know I praised the complex combat system under the "Loved" section, but I'd still like to be able to sit down next to a friend who wasn't familiar with the game and give them the slightest chance of beating me. Hell, I'd like to have a chance at higher difficulty levels.
• Music - Aside from the opening song, the music in Arcana Heart could have been ripped from just about any generic 2D fighter in the history of the genre. Pleasant at first, I soon found myself setting the volume down lower and lower.
Plenty to love and not too much to hate in Arcana Heart, which deftly rises above the girl gimmick. If it weren't for the fact that they're all so damn adorable, it would be easy to forget that Arcana Heart's characters are all female, and that's no mean feat considering the core gamer demographic. When questions of which girl is the cutest (Puppy Girl!) give way to which character / Arcana combination fits your play style the best is when you know the game has you. The high cuteness factor may not be for everyone, but don't let it fool you - this is not a game for reflex-challenged button mashers. This is a game for fighters.
Arcana Heart is an extremely solid 2D fighting game, packed with intriguing gameplay variety and dipped in sexy anime sweetness, making it well worth its $US 30 price tag.
Arcana Heart was developed by Examu, published by Atlus and was released in the US on April 8. Retails for $US 29.99. Available on PlayStation 2. Completed story mode for each character on medium difficulty.