I miss arcades, I really do. There’s nothing more relentlessly satisfying than the sounds of a sea of gamers pushing through a series of classic gaming cabinets. The sound of the coin hitting the bottom of the machine as someone has just one, more, go. There’s an aura that resonates with me, and gamers in general most likely. It’s a safe haven of peace and tranquillity as people beat the seven bells out of one another on Street Fighter or triumph as they make the climb on Donkey Kong. It’s more than a social place, it’s a community that brings people together under one love – video games. Arcade Spirits on the Xbox One knows this and uses it to create an introduction in the visual novel genre of gaming through a universal gaming love – arcades.
Set in the year known as 20XX, Arcade Spirits introduces you as the new character on the block, as you begin your new job at the local gaming arcade. You see, in this world, the gaming crash of 1983 never happened and the popularity of arcades remained prevalent, with even pro streamers utilising their surroundings to stream directly from the cabinet itself. It’s a world that never happened and never will, but one that graciously invites gamers to experience.
Arcade Spirits is predominantly a romantic visual novel. Sure, there’s an overarching narrative filled with twists and turns that’s best left unspoilt, but the true heart remains in the relationships you forge. Starting off, you’re able to create your avatar – the protagonist you will see through this world. From the offset, you’re introduced to an app on your phone known as IRIS, which reads your personality throughout the game.
IRIS uses the data to calculate a variety of things. The majority of your time in Arcade Spirits is spent reading, but you’re able to inject your own personality into situations, and IRIS reports this. How you interact with people is broken down into multiple categories: kindly, quirky, steady, gutsy or basically. How you have these represented is up to you. An early choice enables you to see symbols to see what personality trait your decisions will lead to, but you have the option to turn this off entirely and allow your own choices to pave the way. This is definitely the better way to experience Arcade Spirits and IRIS frequently reminds you to play how you want to.
Alongside this, you are also able to see how your relationships are forging with the many people you work with and meet during your journey. The interactions you make and the friendships you build is where Arcade Spirits shines, with its undeniable sweet charm. Characters initially come across as caricatures of their personality traits. If they’re shy, they’re overly shy. If they’re confident, it’s in your face. While they do later evolve with some deeper connotations, it’s hard to deny that they’re not as fleshed out as they could have been.
It’s unfortunate that Arcade Spirits on the Xbox One is also privy to some cringe-inducing dialogue. It bills itself as a romantic comedy, but the comedy couldn’t be further from the truth. The jokes are forced and frequently fall flat. It makes the first few hours an absolute drag as everything plays to a surface level. Characters lack depth, jokes fail and the plot meanders. Situations pose no nature to be included and play out for far too long. Some characters teased early on do play a bigger part further down the line, but their implementation in early levels is tiresome.
The visuals of Arcade Spirits make up for those initial opening hours, drawing inspiration from the 80’s arcade market. The neon aesthetic feels like a wonderful nostalgia bomb of games from a bygone era. While backgrounds remain motionless, they often show visuals of the games on display, which heavy reference real-world arcade cabinets. From Pac-Man clones to Street Fighter inspired beat em’ ups, the developers clearly have a love for the past and have infused it into almost every element of Arcade Spirits. Even the way you obtain personality points is given a gaming feel, with 8-bit menus representing your levels.
Essentially, Arcade Spirits on Xbox One feels like an entry point to the visual novel genre. It lacks the depth, complexity and hook of games such as Phoenix Wright, but instead relies on its relationships to suck players in. With a slow build, it’s hard to recommend to anyone but veterans of the genre, especially with a script that never evolves beyond its basic humour. But its charm is hard to deny and, infused with the nostalgic factor, it can be downright difficult to resist at times. What Arcade Spirits lacks in depth, it makes up for in charm. Hopefully a sequel could see a level up.