In a world where E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial - the 1982 Atari 2600 game which is widely accredited as a major factor of the 1983 videogame industry crash - was delayed, and came out good, everything is different. Arcades are a huge entertainment industry, and the preservation of “classic” 1980s and 1990s games is a large underground movement with lots of money involved. Arcade Spirits is a window into that world, and is set in a city of neon, slightly futuristic technology and a lot of nostalgia.
First off, Arcade Spirits is a visual novel built in the RenPy engine. For those not “down with the lingo” (as the kids say), this means that this game will basically run on every system that has a keyboard and mouse and enough memory to store it. Visual novel doesn’t mean that this is a “dating sim” - while there is the option for romance, Arcade Spirits presents the option to not do any of that from the get go. I went with the next option up, opting to pursue friendships primarily but leaving the door open for romance, but there is a third option that is just looking for love.
Visual novels live and die by their writing and characterisation, and Arcade Spirits nails both. There’s a wide range of different characters, which inhabit certain roles within the arcade setting. These all manage to stay true to the stereotypes, but have their own distinct personalities and really develop throughout the game. The story that Arcade Spirits tells isn’t the most complex, but it touches on multiple themes over the course of several in-game months and these tie together to create a cohesive narrative that affects all of the characters in different ways.
Your relationship with these characters, and the way you interact with them, is recorded and commented on by I.R.I.S., your AI personal assistant-cum-personal hacker. I.R.I.S. is slightly more sentient than she should perhaps be, and is a recurring character offering options and back-up for the many dilemmas you face. There’s a general overarching theme of artificial intelligence and sentience, with some background scenes potentially setting up for a sequel.
The stats that I.R.I.S. tracks are Quirky, Steady, Gutsy, Kindly, Boldly and Basically. These each have their own colour and icon, and they’re easy to differentiate. Choosing the different responses builds up points in that stat, and some choices are locked behind picking the responses truest to your character - those in line with what you’ve chosen so far throughout the game. That isn’t to say that there is any right stat to focus, as all of them build to similar-but-ultimately different resolutions, and some scenarios require you to stretch your personality to grow as a character.
Games like this tend to utilise a similar design style, but Arcade Spirits has a rather unique look, from its characters to the wide range of backgrounds. Most games I’ve played in this genre stick to a handful of locations, and at the start it definitely seems like Arcade Spirits wants to stick to only a couple backdrops, but by the end of the game we get to see lots of different intricately designed backdrops. All of these have fun retro gaming and arcade references, notably referencing but ultimately avoiding using any real games in the art.
Arcade Spirits features an interesting and easy-to-listen to soundtrack, a fun blend between chiptune and synthwave that really complements the atmosphere built by the writing and art. There is some voice acting, with some repeated lines which sum up and convey emotions for the longer lines, and some of the more important lines are fully voiced. This makes sense, as with the sheer number of written lines in the game it would be infeasible to have a voice line for each one. The voice acting is generally pretty good, and its presence definitely helps emphasize the important lines.
I really enjoyed Arcade Spirits, both as a narrative and for its romantic elements. I wasn’t convinced that I would pursue any romance, but the characters really drew me in and it really complimented the narrative. It tells a cohesive standalone story, using references to real world gaming and building its alternate future from there. As I said earlier in this review, visual novels live and die on the strength of their writing, and Arcade Spirits' greatest strength is its writing.
Arcade Spirits (Reviewed on Windows)
Excellent. Look out for this one.
A great visual novel, with intricate and interesting writing, a distinct and detailed artstyle and a catchy soundtrack. Well worth picking up for fans of the genre and newcomers alike