The first Arcade Spirits, released in 2019 by Fiction Factory Games, was a warm cuddle of a visual novel. The characters were almost uniformly lovely, the artwork massaged the eyeballs, it had a quietly banging soundtrack and, while there were plenty of dialogue options and branching, none of them were wrong answers. They just leisurely meandered to a different ending, where a different set of people became happier. It made working in an arcade feel like family, where everyone knows your name and they’re always glad you came.
Well, open up those arms and prepare for another embrace, as Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is more of the same, and that’s a good thing. We take a very small sidestep away from working in an arcade to playing in an arcade, as – this time round – you’re a character with dreams of becoming an esports champion, managing a team to the upper echelons of the Fist of Discomfort II game rankings. But it’s the same pattern of forging relationships, some of them potentially romantic, and wending towards an ending that never fails to be a happy one.
The story starts in your bedroom, where you’ve been ensconced for years, practicing at Fist of Discomfort II in your pants. That changes when you install an illegal AI called Iris who takes it upon herself to improve your situation. She fans a small spark of ambition, and soon you are introducing yourself to a friendly but hardly competitive group of individuals in the local arcade. Well, arcade-laudromat-pizzeria. Miraculously, you are the go-getter of the group, so you’re handed the crown of manager, treasurer and general cat-herder.
You get to know each of Team GCF (Good, Clean Fun, which could be a mantra for the game itself) through similar moments to the first game. A map of the pizzacade is presented to you, and you have three units of time to spend. More often than not, there are four people, or groups of people, that you can chat to, so you’re always choosing one person to ignore. It inevitably means that some relationships get left behind while others flourish, as you pick the people you enjoy spending time with.
Conversations have plenty of dialogue options, where you choose to react according to personality types. You might choose to be Kindly, Steady, Quirky, Gutsy, or Flexible. We’d recommend switching off seeing these attributes on the options themselves, as – in our opinion – it’s more fun and natural to pick the dialogue that tickles you most, and seeing the orientation afterwards. Otherwise, you’re tempted to game it a little too much.
You can check a personality hub at any point, which would give Charlie Brooker nightmares. You can see your score with every character, as well as how you are leaning in terms of personality. If your score is high enough with a particular character, you might be able to woo them as the game reaches its denouement. And there are high tension moments in the game’s narrative where it strips out dialogue options aside from those aligned to your top two personality traits. It’s a neat and inclusive way of handling it: you don’t have to have particularly high scores in any category, because the game just chooses your top two regardless.
The characters in Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers are a thoroughly lovely bunch – with only a couple of minor caveats. Our favourites include Grace, a retro-console loving game developer who’s perfectionism means she will never finish an RPG she is making; Locksley, an incredibly on-the-nose modern-day Robin Hood; and Jynx, a spiky metalhead who loves driving games. They each have their strengths and flaws, as you would expect, and they carry narrative arcs that are each a joy to unearth. Getting to know the cast is never wearisome, and is just as fun as following the main narrative.
The footnotes here – and this is unabashedly subjective – is that the male romantic love interests aren’t as strong as the female. We’re wary of using the term male and female here as members of the cast are gender-fluid, but the male-coded characters feel more unlikeable to our tastes, with a character called Domino clearly working out some social kinks, and Locksley – while a lot of fun – feeling more like he’s an action figure than a potential love interest. The female-coded characters have more depth and nuance, and we couldn’t help but spend more time with them.
There’s also a fascinating quirk with the secondary characters. Most are bespoke, clearly differentiated and given wildly different personalities. But a decent proportion of them use the same character creation tool as your character, and that tool is not particularly brilliant. What it leads to is interactions where you meet people who look like you, but cosplaying. One moment you are talking to yourself in a long-haired wig, the next it’s you with sunglasses on. It’s uncanny. This is especially true of your rival, who hooks up with the bad guys of esports, Team P2W. You can create their look from scratch, but – no matter what you do – you will always look like twins.
The basic storyline is your traditional sports movie. It’s a tale of rags to riches, back to rags and then up to riches again. You will have seen this story many times before, and it does lead to moments where you can see the turns coming long before they arrive. But, luckily, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers has other interests, and they make the journey far more interesting.
There’s an odd sub-plot that crashes into the main plot and takes over for a bit, which we won’t ruin. It hooks onto a popular urban myth and, if you’re anything like us, will get you scanning Wikipedia to find which parts of it are true and which parts of it were fabricated by Fiction Factory Games.
You can also play Fist of Discomfort II yourself, should you choose to activate the option. It’s a shame you can’t change your mind halfway, as we wanted to experience it once and then never play it again. It’s an abstracted game of Rock, Paper, Scissors where you’re given some hints of what might be coming. But those hints are either too obvious, nullifying the fun, or weirdly unhelpful. Following a hint and then getting the rug pulled from beneath you isn’t our kind of fun.
Much better is that there’s a love for grabbing current gaming hot potatoes and juggling them for a bit. Gamergate, misogyny, accessibility in gaming, smack talking, game preservation and so, so much more all get an airing, and it will be fascinating to see if Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers ages poorly due to its ultra-topical focus, or whether it’s anticipating a future status quo. Regardless, the approach will depend on tastes: we found it to be sharp and brave, but we can anticipate it being labelled lefty or woke. Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers politics are definitely towards inclusivity, and there is no dodging those politics. If that doesn’t seem like your brand of escapism, then steer clear.
But play it if you can. Like the original, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a long, protracted visual-novel cuddle with some extremely endearing characters. They’re so well-rounded that you could play table tennis with them.
You can buy Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers from the Xbox Store