Arcana Heart 3: LOVE MAX!!!!!

Year: 2013
Platform: PlayStation 3
Developer: Examu
Genre: Girl Fighting
Review Date: 12/31/15
Rating: ***

The game that's so awesome, it needs five exclamation points in the title! When it comes to all-girl fighting games, there aren't a lot of options available. "Arcana Heart" revitalized and reintroduced the genre in 2008, and "Skullgirls" (2012) is the only other mainstream title that I know of. "Arcana Heart 3" builds on the foundation of the series with more characters, more modes, and a wealth of content. The main story involves a group of demons from a European branch of the Drexler Institute attempting to activate the Divine Celestial Weapon. Valkyrie Scharlachrot has been brainwashed into carrying out the act, and Japan will be wiped off the map if she succeeds. To neutralize this threat, you guide the fighter of your choice through a short series of matches, and ultimately face off against the Divine Celestial Weapon. The stakes are high, and if you fail to beat the final boss within the time limit, Japan is obliterated along with you and all of your friends. There's a second story mode that deals with the unexplained appearance of a mysterious hot spring. Completing this story involves playing as each character in the roster, which is a good way to experience the full extent of the game. Other game modes include versus, online, training, time attack, survival, and trial.

After playing a bunch of HD fighting games like "Aquapazza: Aquaplus Dream Match", "Dengeki Bunko: Fighting Climax", and "Under Night In-Birth Exe:Late", I was disappointed by the low-res sprites and 4:3 aspect ratio. However, the game mechanics are solid, the action is well paced, the characters are nicely balanced, and the character animations are smooth and well thought out. The basic gameplay hasn't changed much since the original "Arcana Heart", but the controls seem simpler and more streamlined. Each character has the standard weak, medium, and strong attacks, along with throws, guards, cancels, and a special attack. Each character also has an arcana assigned to them, which grants additional attack and defense abilities. Unfortunately, the lack of any useful documentation makes it difficult to understand and fully master the details of the system, and I ended up using the same half dozen moves for every character. Thankfully, the easiest difficulty setting is a nice way to ease into the game, and I was able to explore the characters and make continuous progress with minimal frustration.

There are a total of 23 characters to choose from, including a wide variety of schoolgirls, angels, demons, Valkyries (artificial angels), nuns, aristocrats, spirits, ninjas, shrine maidens, and androids. Eight of the characters are actually elementary school girls, which may put some people off, but the presentation is undeniably Japanese and combat is treated with dignity, respect, and positivity. So, as twisted as it may seem to beat the crap out of a six year old girl, it's all handled in a lighthearted and cartoonish manner, and the girls all walk away seemingly unharmed. The characters look good and the design is much better than the original game. Unfortunately, the low resolution obscures their facial details, and some of the characters' eyes are so big that they appear grotesque. The main character, Heart Aino, actually looks like a hideous mutated beast when she looks at you. Thankfully, the game art is all high resolution and the character portraits look quite nice.

As a fighting game it's a solid, but unremarkable experience. However, where it really stands out is in its staggering amount of extra content. There is a lot of unlockable artwork, and you can also unlock additional story elements for each character. These play out as static talking head conversations between the various characters, with an occasional battle thrown in. The characters aren't voiced, so it's a lot of tedious reading, but the writing is superb and really brings the characters to life with personality and charm. Some of the dialog is genuinely funny and heartfelt, and made me want to explore the characters more fully. While many of the characters solely exist to provide comic relief, several are quite tragic. Kamui Tokinomiya was my favorite from the original cast, and she's still in my top three. For me, the real standouts this time are Saki Tsuzura and Petra Johanna Lagerkvist, but Heart and Mei-Fang are still quite fun to play. Some of the biggest laughs come from Mei-Fang's dingbat inventor, Professor Mei Ling Hua. She's an eccentric space case with a strange breast fetish, and she's constantly trying to cop a feel and "examine" the other girls (all in the name of science, of course). Even Mei-Fang's cold android logic finds her behavior awkward at times. One of the most outrageous lines in the game comes when Mei Ling says:

"Among my three students, who do you think will eventually sport the biggest boobies?"

I literally dropped my controller in stunned amazement when I saw that. Her perversity also shows up in more subtle ways, which always made me chuckle. As an all-girl game, you have to expect some amount of fan service, but it's surprisingly tame and mainly limited to the story completion portraits. The hot spring story is obviously ripe for racy content, and the final scene features all of the girls having fun while bathing nude in the magical hot spring. Even though it's an all-girl game, what's most fascinating to me is that the existence of men is never even acknowledged. For all we know, this is an all-female society where males literally don't exist. Despite the large amount of narrative content, there's no mention of brothers, fathers, husbands, or boyfriends, which completely eliminates any gender based tensions or biases. The only male voices in the game are attributed to genderless entities such as Yoriko's demon familiar, Eko's drawings, and Dorothy's lion, scarecrow, and tin-man companions. This means that all of the girls' hobbies and activities are innocently pure, and they spend their days studying, baking, shopping, sight seeing, swimming, reading, eating, gardening, playing arcade games, building giant robots, or plotting to take over the world. It's all refreshingly endearing and empowering, and takes me back to the optimistic thrill and simplicity of youth.