Oddly enough this was my first time playing an 'Arcana Heart' game. I had often times thought about paying $29.99 for the former digital PSN release, but never did due to nature of the gamble I'd be taking. Forking over $30 dollars for a digital fighter can be sort of iffy, if you know what I mean? Regardless of my choice not to get the game at the time though I still thought that it looked interesting enough for a fighter. The fact that it featured an all girl roster comprised of the wackiest sort of anime characters definitely had my attention. The rarity of the game itself even intrigued me. It's not often that you get to see anime fighters such as the Arcana Heart series released here in the states, and when they are released they are few, and far between. I think that fact alone played a huge role in my seeking out of this latest re-release for review purposes. I was definitely curious to see how it stood up against modern fighting games, and was anxious to find out if it was a solid experience in regards to the genre. The gaming gods know I've seen my fair share of failed fighting game creations, and I was hoping that this would not follow that trend. Thankfully after giving it some time I think I've grown to like it quite a bit, quite a lot if I do say so myself!
AH3LM (Arcana Heart 3 Love Max!!!!!), at heart is a revamped version of the original 'Arcana Heart 3'. While it is still basically the same game as before the developer has tweaked some things, added some features, and improved upon the overall experience that it offers the gamer. You'll find that there are multiple modes of play including two different story modes (Story & Another Story), a 'Trial' mode, a 'Training' mode, a 'Versus' mode, a 'Time Attack' mode, a 'Survival Score Attack' mode, and an online mode known as 'PSN'. The story mode, which is the core of the game tells the continued tale of 'Scharlaroscht', and her ploy to summon an ultimate weapon known as Ragnarok. As one of many available characters you will fight against selected opponents, and their equipped Arcana in order to steal the crystals that Scharlaroscht needs to activate the Ragnarok weapon. Unlike traditional fighting game stories such as the ones in the "Street Fighter" series you will be picking which character you will fight next in accordance to an onscreen countdown that ties into the ultimate destruction of Tokyo/Japan. Whether, or not you save Japan from the looming threat is up to you, and your choice of character within the game.
With each successful victory in story mode you will come closer to facing off against Scharlaroscht, and finally against the screen sized boss character Ragnarok which lies in wait after that fated encounter. In the way of battles you'll find that they come in the usual one to two round variety with a time limit set in place, and a chosen difficulty level selected prior to entry. Of course before going into the fray you will have to pick your character, and one of twenty-six gameplay enhancing Arcana to tag along with you. The assortment of characters are a little on the wacky side of design, and come in an interesting selection with fighting styles akin to characters from 'Street Fighter', 'KoF', 'Samurai Showdown' 'BlazBlue', 'Guilty Gear', and 'MvC'. Some of the characters have a childish demeanor, and appearance while others are more stern looking, and poised for the battle ahead. There's a puppy girl named 'Konoha', a Valkyrie named 'Weiss', a young princess with a doodle guardian named 'Eko', and a samurai schoolgirl named 'Kamui' amongst others. In total there are "23" anime inspired female fighters, each with their own unique set of moves.
After selecting your character, and one of their 19 colors along with a preferred mode of play (Normal/Simple - "Think BlazBlue") you will then be taken to an Arcana selection screen where Arcana spirits of various elements (Earth, Metal, Fire ...), and alignments (Luck, Sin, Punishment, Holy, Evil ...) are displayed along with their given names. When all of this selecting is said, and done you will enter the opponent selection screen/s which will ask you to choose one opponent from up to five different character choices. Each selection screen will effectively tie-in with one of the days of the countdown until Japan's destruction. With each win you will advance to another selection screen until you reach the final boss. It is in this particular battle with the giant Ragnarok that you will ultimately be required to use the homing button, and applied attacks to knock out the crystal targets on the giant robot's various body parts.
Supposing you have played through to the end, and have met certain in-game requirements along the way you will unlock additional chapters, and sub-chapters in a secondary story mode known as 'Another Story'. Unlike the standard story mode you will be clicking your way through anime inspired story panels that contain dialogue which will explain some behind-the-scenes events. Sometimes these additional chapters, and sub-chapters will have you fighting a normal match, and other times you'll have to simply choose from multiple choice answers to advance the plot. As with the 'BlazBlue' series you will find multiple story paths as you delve deeper in to the 'Another Story' plot. It should also be noted that all characters in the game each have their own unique 'Story' mode, and 'Another Story' stories. In the 'Story' mode opposing characters will act differently according to which character you choose, and in 'Another Story' their story will become an in-depth standalone event.
Aside from the core story modes you will find that Aksysgames/EXAMU has included a couple of additional modes to help you improve on your Arcana Heart fighting skills. Trial mode, which is exactly as it sounds will have you completing objective based matches with a character of your choice. This is not unlike the challenge modes offered up in the "Street Fighter 4" series, or other fighting games of a similar design. Like the story mode you will be playing through multiple matches (this time '10'), but will be trying to do as the dialogue on the screen instructs. With each match you play in 'Trial' you will find a star associated with that said match. By completing the match correctly, and by doing as requested you can earn either a bronze, silver, or gold star which will change your current character's rank title (Newcomer ...), and provide 'LP (Love Points = Leaderboard Ranking Measurement)' for said character. Objectives included in 'Trial' mode range from pulling off certain moves multiple times to performing game specific finishers, and even defeating the last boss. In a way the 'Trial' not only helps you learn the controls, and mechanics of the game better, but it also helps you to show of your gaming prowess for each of the characters in the roster.
Not far from the 'Trial' listing you'll also find the standard 'Training' mode. This is the go to mode for anyone looking to perfect their skills, and in-game techniques for either offline, or online matches. Without going overboard on a description of what the 'Training' mode entails I'll simply state that it offers the gamer all of the command list info, CPU/AI tweaks, and gauge settings that one needs to make the most out of their practice session. You can setup the CPU dummy how you see fit (Difficulty Level / Standing), access the command list for your current character/s via the pause menu, and even set the two in-game gauges so that there is no limits on the various special moves, critical hearts, and Arcana attacks/defenses that you can use.
For those of you looking for challenges in the offline offerings there are also two other modes of play aside from 'Story', 'Another Story', 'Trial', 'Training', and 'Versus (Local/Offline 2-player)'. These modes of play are none other than 'Time Attack', and 'Survival Score Attack'. In 'Time attack' you will be going through the same events as were shown in 'Story', but will be doing so in a timed fashion. Earning a respectable finish time is the goal of this particular mode. In the case of 'Survival Score Attack' you will have a set amount of health, and must beat as many opponents as possible before you are defeated. This, of course is easier said than done as the AI/CPU is much more difficult to overcome.
In the way of online activities you'll find that 'AH3LM' has the usual 'Ranked', 'Player', and 'Custom' matchmaking options in place. You can choose to go with a 'Quick Match', search for specific match types via the 'Custom' options, or create your own named room with your own guidelines set in place. Details such as the players' mic status, PSN ID, and ping are in place in each online matchmaking menu to help you better decide which matches are worth engaging in. Another cool feature that can be set during the main menu 'Options' setup will allow you to choose a title for yourself along with a chosen title background. This includes the option of a two section title, or a preselected phrase that represents who you are as a gamer. I chose "Mr.Positive". You can even have the game select a random name for you assuming you aren't creative enough to select your own. Like 'BlazBlue', 'Persona 4 Arena' the available title words, and phrases are listed alphabetically for easy reference. They are all unlocked from the start, so there's no need of earning your favorite moniker this time around.
As far as extras are concerned the game does have a virtual cornucopia of unlockable art, videos, and other items within it's 'Gallery' menu. Like other 'Aksys Games', and 'Arc System Works' fighters the 'Gallery' stays true to their usual model. The extras are divided up by named section, and can be referenced by simply clicking 'X' on the item you wish to view, or listen to. The art that is provided is interesting enough to browse as are the videos, and the other game related items.
Battle in 'AH3LM', which is a whole other ball game can be quite the complicated experience if you don't have a clue as to what you are getting into. Along with the standard fighting game motion, and button inputs for specials you'll find certain controls/mechanics that are wholly unique to the 'Arcana Heart' experience. The control setup, which is about as simple as it gets includes three different types of attacks including 'weak ("SQUARE")', 'medium ("TRIANGLE")', and 'heavy ("CIRCLE")'. These standard punches, and kicks can be combo'd into along with variations of said standard attacks (using additional basic direction inputs). The 'X' button, which is also of importance is used as a simplified homing function for staying on top of your opponent, and following up after a launcher, or Arcana Boost (Think "Marvel vs Capcom 3"). By pressing 'X' you can home in on your opponent like a homing missile from numerous angles, and can even perform a 'Homing Cancel' to throw your unsuspecting opponent off. Other control functions, such as those that are tied to the shoulder buttons will allow you to perform your Arcana specific specials, and do such things as an 'Arcana Boost (R2)' assuming you have enough gauge to do so. Cancels, and game specific finishers are a vital part of the 'AH3LM' experience.
One thing you need to understand, aside from the standard controls is that while the controls are simple in design the required motions inputs can pose a problem to gamers not used to complex fighting game mechanics. The fact that each characters' moveset is as diverse as their appearance also makes learning the ropes of the game a trying one. One thing that helped me figure out special moves without having to referencing the command list further is that the 'Critical Heart', and 'Arcana Finishers' are based on combined presses of 'SQUARE + TRIANGLE', and appropriately applied DPad, or Thumbstick motions. More often than not a true fighting game enthusiast can figure out a character's moveset own their own as I did, but in this case I strongly advise visiting the command list often as it will help you get a much better handle on things. The fact that some Critical Hearts, and Arcana Finishers require full rotation motions as well as multiple direction inputs makes the task of learning a characters' moveset a hard one even for seasoned pros. Trust me when I say that this game is not as simple as it may seem.
Another thing I need to mention is in regards to the 'Anime Links'. In this latest version of 'Arcana Heart 3' you will find an interesting onscreen feature that displays the two characters fighting on their respective sides of the screen in an anime style art panel. This animated anime representation comes to life as damage is dealt in a match, or as actions are taken. Each hit you take, and each action you perform will reflect itself in the 'Anime Link' image of your character. When a match is finished the loser will be displayed in a sexually humiliating pose that goes along with the slightly perverse nature of the game. Along with this optional image feature (it can be turned on/off in 'Options') you'll also find in place your chosen characters' 'Trial' ranking, and the various stars you earned in your 'Trial' playthrough/s. As such the 'Anime Links' are basically a feature to spice things up, and add flair to the competitive nature of the game. Your earned 'LP (Love Points)' from both your offline, and online fights will also be shown for all your opponents to see. Even the in-game leaderboards keep tab of your earned 'LP'.
The Verdict ...
At first this game was looking pretty darn bad to me. The controls, which I could not comprehend made the game frustrating to play. Things such as the lack of a proper specials, finishers, and mechanics explanations left me fuming. The boss fight in particular inspired me to go on a rant on Twitter, because of the aggravation it caused. After spending some quality time with the offline though I found myself loving the game, and even felt anxious about trying out the online with some legit human beings. As of today though I've still not been able to find anyone playing online which worries me somewhat. Without time spent in the online environment I cannot give an accurate assessment as to how the game is online. Aside from that unfortunate lack of insight I still say the game is good, at least in the offline sense. Although it could have used a proper tutorial like the one included in 'BlazBlue: ChronoPhantasma'. Just Sayin'.
When it comes to console comparisons I'm gonna have to say that the PS3 version wins the battle in this case. Despite the pixel built character sprites the PS3 version still looks, and functions impressively enough. The character specific moves are much easier to input on the PS3 controller, and can be done more accurately than with the PS Vita counterparts. On the flipside the PS Vita does have the better character graphics. The downside to the PS Vita version, as I briefly mentioned before though is that the controls are much harder to use. I personally found the tiny, and close built face buttons on the PS Vita to be a significant problem in the gameplay scenario. Gameplay in 'AH3LM' is fast, and furious, and demands accuracy. If you can't pull moves off when you need to you'll quickly fall victim against someone who actually knows what they are doing.
As far as a verdict goes I'm gonna say this fighter has potential. It's definitely unique amongst the fighting game genre, and it works well once you learn how to play properly. All the anime fanatics out there will also be glad to know that the game is filled to the brim with anime art, and animations that bring the game to life in a vivid manner. Everything from the cinematic intro sequence to the various menu screens come to life with the anime inspired characters, and their fantasy environments. The only lingering concern I have is about the online modes of play, and the netcode. I'm just hoping that upon launch I'll be able to find people playing it, so I'll know how it truly is. Whether, or not you are brave enough to give this game a go before then is up to you. I gave you enough details to explain what the game entails, and as I promised my friends on Twitter I will be doing a follow-up video review which will give you an even better idea as to what you'd be getting yourself into should you choose to buy the game.