Arcade Spirits, developed by Fiction Factory Games and published by PQube Limited, released on Steam back in February 2019, is coming to consoles – Nintendo Switch, PS4, XBox One – on May 1st 2020, and not a moment too soon. Winner of the Melbourne Queer Games Festival ’19 Gold Medal Award, rocking near-perfect scores across multiple review outlets, this game has been sat on my Steam wishlist for a year.
But now, Nintendo Switch in hand, I’ve finally been able to play through this game, and boy, had I been missing out all year.
Set in 20XX, you play, well, you – or rather, whatever “you” you want to be. Close to the beginning, you get to customize your on-screen avatar. Skin tone, hair style, hair and eye colour, and your name. While the choices aren’t as in-depth as one might find in an Elder Scrolls epic, there is a level of depth in the character creation not often found in the Visual Novel genre. With your pro-nouns selected, and how you wish to be represented in-game set, it’s time to delve into Arcade Spirits.
You have just lost your job, and after the suggestions of your roommate Juniper, you download IRIS, a life-coaching app, to help you find your “dream job”. This, as it turns out, is at Funplex! An arcade home to many different cabinets and many different personalities – both in the customer base, and the staff. Set in an alternate version of the future where the 1983 video game crash never occurred, Arcade Sprits markets itself as a “romantic comedy visual novel” – but is it?
Early on in the game, IRIS asks me if I even want a romantic interest. Now, I’m all for video game romance options – just check out my shelf of Bioware titles – but there was something nice about having the option to just pursue friendships instead. Maybe you’re aromantic, or maybe you’ve just gone through a breakup, or maybe you just don’t want to pretend to date fictional characters in a video game – that option is right there for you to pick, no questions asked.
While on the subject of relationships – romantic or otherwise – within Arcade Spirits’ Funplex, how well you’re getting along with people is tracked by IRIS, your constant pizza-fact-loving AI companion, right there in your in-game phone. She also tracks your personality traits, which are monitored by how you respond to dialogue throughout the game. So far, so usual dialogue trees. But what struck me was what happened next as IRIS explained this to me –
“There are no bad choices” she tells me. “Generally, people won’t get super annoyed at you unless you deliberately and repeatedly provoke the. And it’ll be obvious when you’re doing that. I promise you that if you bungle a few social encounters, it won’t really hurt anything. No cheating needed! Just relax, and have fun!” and with that, Arcade Spirits hits me with the first moment of introspection I wasn’t expecting.
Even if you don’t suffer from social anxiety, we’ve all had one of those “Oh no, they’re probably annoyed at me/don’t like me/think I’m stupid” moments, when in reality, we are just overthinking the situation entirely. And to have a video game character call me out on that before I’ve had my first dialogue option with a character stopped me in my tracks. She’s right. Generally speaking, what IRIS told me was right, not just in the game, but in real life, too. So, with that in mind, I went for the “hide indicators” option, allowing me to select dialogue options I just felt were right, instead of wondering if I was “Kindly”, “Quirky”, “Steady”, “Gutsy” or just “Basic”. None of them were wrong answers – there were no wrong answers – so I decided to make my decisions my own. As IRIS says – “Sure, you could ‘gamify’ your personality, but it’s more fun to let it happen naturally y’know? Just be you.”
There’s a real balance of humor and introspection to be found while working at Funplex. It is filled to the brim with puns and references to pop culture – particularly, of course, in reference to video games, and gaming cabinets in particular. As a 90’s kid with an unnatural obsession with 80’s paraphernalia and culture myself, the references had me snorting with laughter alone in my bedroom, while 80s synth-pop music played in the background.
Partnered with all this fun are moments of, for lack of a better word, philosophy. Dialogue that would lead me to pause, and think on what the character had just said. Maybe its because, not unlike the character you play as, I’m in a bit of a weird position too – heck, we all are, this review is being written in the middle of a pandemic. But, it’s never in a bad way. It makes you think, as well as laugh. Arcade Spirits doesn’t shy away from topics of mental health, but it handles the issues with care. It knows they are serious, and doesn’t linger on them for too long, coming back with moments of levity.
Visual Novel video games are ideal for the Switch. You can choose to cosy up with it in your favourite chair on your Switch Lite or with your Switch in handheld mode, or, like me, connect it to your TV and sit back, right controller in hand, and let the game unfold before you as you (possibly quite literally) single-handedly choose how to respond. With so many having gotten their hands on the Switch in recent months, this writer can see Arcade Spirits being a worthwhile addition to even a casual gamer’s collection. While the arcade games themselves aren’t playable, with one notable exception, choosing who you spend time with can lead to interesting results, giving the game plenty of replay value. There’s no way to see it all in one run.
The overarching theme of Arcade Spirits is to chase your dream. Everyone you meet in Funplex has a dream – including you, even if you don’t know what it is just yet. Finding a balance between chasing your dream and being practical is something the game sees as being vital. It’s all about balance.
So, why not join me for a game of Time Shooters? Or we can face off in Showtime Stage. Either way, I hope to see you at the Funplex.
Code provided by PQube for review purposes