Arcade Spirits is a visual novel adorned in neon lights and retro gaming references. It’s a game that yearns for the days when kids would queue up and feed quarters into arcade machines to have another go on that game they just couldn’t beat. I was one of those kids. I made friends, rivals, and most importantly, memories there, and that’s the mood Arcade Spirits tries to encapsulate. But that’s not what stuck with me the most.
After creating your character and picking your pronouns, you’re thrown right into things. Your character has just been dropped from their latest job, so your roommate, Juniper, suggests downloading an app that will find the perfect workplace for you. After downloading your new Iris app, it becomes your personal assistant. Iris matches you to a job at the local arcade, the Funplex, and vows to find you a potential romantic partner. You accept the job, meet your six eligible bachelors, and your journey into arcade games and romance begins.
But you don’t actually have to romance. Very early on in the game, Iris asks whether or not you’re looking for love. Whichever option you pick determines how flirtatious your options are later down the line. I think this is a really great idea because players get the feel for a character and it lets them play the game how they want: if someone genuinely doesn’t want to date anyone, that is a valid option.
In fact, the biggest thing that sets this visual novel apart from the rest is the amount of control you can choose to have. Arcade Spirits has a personality system where many of the game’s choices have one of five personality traits attached to them: Quirky, Steady, Kindly, Gutsy and Basically. Each of these traits can increase or change based on which answers you give, and certain traits appeal to certain characters more. You can choose to either go in blind or track this and have the personality trait appear next to every option! I got a feel for which personality trait best suited each character, and you can always see when their affection for you has increased.
Now let’s get onto your potential partners. With every new character I met, I found a new favourite. There’s Naomi, the Funplex’s resident techie and arcade fixer, who makes bento box lunches and loves kittens. Another is QueenBee, a rising pro-gamer and streamer, who utterly melted my heart with her vicious put-downs and confident demeanour. I found it so hard to pick who to date until near the end because Arcade Spirits might just have one of my favourite casts in a visual novel ever. They’re diverse and accepting of each other, each with a vastly different personality than the other; race, sexuality and pronouns are all accepted without any questions. It felt so refreshing and nice. I could date whoever I wanted, I could just be platonic, or we could be casual lovers. It’s all your choice, and people will accept you for whoever you are.
I’m glad that Arcade Spirits’s characters and relationships help drive the game because most of the writing is fairly clumsy. As a game that celebrates the arcade culture of the 80s and 90s, Arcade Spirits is obsessed with drenching itself in pop culture references and puns, and there’s a lot of sarcastic dialogue and cheesy one-liners that really don’t mesh with some of the game’s more touching moments. The many video game references alone are a little too on-the-nose at times. There are also still a few typos, though the developers have been working on fixing all of these since it was first released. Fortunately, when you do get some one-on-one time with the characters, these moments feel so much better: either like best friends teasing each other or lovers awkwardly flirting.
This off-kilter dialogue is also hampered by the game’s very uneven voice acting. Stephanie Sheh is the most recognisable name in the cast, and she does a fantastic job as Naomi. But the rest of the characters vary from decent to awful, right down to the recording quality. Some voices come in crystal clear, whereas others sound like they’re muffled.
Visually, the game is also a mixed bag. I love the neon lights surrounding the text boxes and the style of many of the characters. In particular, Francine, owner of the Funplex, has an array of knitwear and adorable Pac-Man earrings. This is where the references are handled well. Though the main portraits are all quirky and detailed, their crisp and colourful designs clash with the dull environments and backgrounds. And many of the side characters are either recolours of other portraits or uninspired. While I don’t expect them to have the same attention to detail as the main cast, reusing assets feels a bit lazy.
My expectations were exceeded with Arcade Spirits. I went in believing this would just be a very cheesy, cliche romance story about nostalgia, and while I did get a lot of that, it also came with a lot of love and heart. I came away from my various replays with a smile on my face and immediately wanting to jump back in and try the next character. Even though it could do with a bit of polish, this is a visual novel for everyone — one that will accept you regardless of who you are with open arms.