Hey there, PC gaming friends! Up for review today is Fiction Factory Games’s brand-new romance-tinged comedic visual novel Arcade Spirits. Writers Stefan Gagne and Aenne Schumann successfully crowdfunded this alternate history title and released it on Steam just before Valentine’s Day. Straightforward as it is, it’s also a real beast to discuss, so let’s get right into it.
The year is 20XX. The 1980s video game crash ended up putting consoles in a distant second place to arcades, which still thrive. You’re in your 20s and adrift in a sea of short-term jobs and apathy. Your childhood friend Juniper convinces you to download an AI app for your smartphone named Iris who serves as a life coach, hacker and part-time psychiatrist. Almost immediately, you land a job as a floor attendant at a small-time, mom and pop video game arcade (Jesus I miss those). Over the next 10 hours or so of play, you’ll meet quirky characters like Naomi, the retro-loving mechanic; Hamza, the eccentric reseller of classic gaming cabinets; QueenBee, a pro gamer and streamer; and more. You’ll have the opportunity to grow as a person, climb the company ladder, grow the business and find love – or not, surprisingly enough.
In Arcade Spirits, romance isn’t the end-all, be-all goal of the title – in fact you can tell Iris from the outset you’re not looking for that and play the game as a strictly platonic arcade employee. What’s more, Gagne and Schumann tackle depression, insecurity and lethargy with shocking realism. Of all the decisions you make – which obviously affect your arcade, your relationships and the endings you get – you’re offered on multiple occasions to cut your losses and go do something more steady with your life. And it isn’t always an obvious choice – at least once I really considered selling the arcade to a major conglomerate at the recommendation of a friendly NPC, which would guarantee jobs for all my friends under the new management and secure my/our futures. The game is often rooted in the uncertainty of chasing a dream job with no security versus settling for straighter work with more stability and it does a good job of blurring the lines of “right” and “wrong” for your character – not Sophie’s Choice levels of dilemmas, but still good.
First and foremost, Arcade Spirits should at the very least rekindle your love of arcades and arcade games – and I don’t mean Dave and Buster’s, who I feel may have inspired the corporate arcade who are your rival, but real buttons-and-joysticks storefronts where a quarter’s a quarter. The developers clearly have a love of video gaming, with frequent IP shout-outs and knowledgeable dialogue about CRTs and circuit boards. There’s even a bonus featurette on how to make your own retro arcade cabinet included. It’s not the same kind of love letter as EvoLand or Retro City Rampage, but this is clearly a team who remembers the senses of community and whimsy from ’80s and ’90s game arcades.
Mine was called Aladdin’s Castle in the Cherryvale Mall in Rockford, Illinois, about 80 miles west of Chicago. I had my 10th and 11th birthday parties there and, later, it was the first place I played Mortal Kombat 2. The tokens were grooved along the face to prevent copying or using nickels, so they had to go into the slots a certain way like a house key with no teeth. Can’t tell you how many times I lost a continue while scrambling to get a token out of the tube-shaped container on a lanyard that they’d give you and put it into the slot at the right angle. Good times.
And that, I feel, is the point of the game.
Another big (albeit vague) thumbs-up I can give the game is that it put me in a better mood and I wanted to keep playing it. I’d had a bad day when I first installed it and opened it up and I was expecting to hate it because of my bad mood. And I wouldn’t say it was the funniest game ever or that the characters are as near and dear to me as like, Link and Zelda or Joel and Ellie, but seeing a character make something of themselves and find a second family at a business they love was comforting, relieving and inspiring. It was sweet in the traditional sense. In fact, I would’ve had this review in almost a week ago but I’ve only had an hour or two a day to play it and by the second chapter (of eight) I knew I had to finish it before I wrote this.
Beyond that good stuff, getting into more specifics about Arcade Spirits, there’s mostly good news and a bit bad. The music is great. It’s like the score and soundtrack from the movie Drive. Warm retro synthpop/synthwave beauty and I kinda want the soundtrack. A great mixture of ’80s feel and modern sensibility. This is a mostly light-hearted, fun, enjoyable story. Your decisions matter, but it’s hard to really screw up everything unless you’re kinda trying for it. There are meters gauging your relationships with everyone and your most often-used personality traits, both of which are based on your answers and decisions throughout the game. Some players will definitely feel odd that, when faced with a major decision, Iris will sometimes grey out your least-used traits and you’ll only be able to go with your most-used ones. I never cracked jokes in serious situations, so I often found myself unable to use the humor option – including a couple times when I felt the moment really called for it. I understood why they did it (it would be like in a JRPG when they gray out an ineffective spell, which happens), but it was kind of a strange beat.
Similarly is the pacing of the game at certain points. Largely it’s bright and funny, which is fine. For example, although your character really struggles to make something of themselves in this new environment, they jump in the line of fire when unruly kids throw cupcakes, there’s an optional part of a level where they wear a French maid costume to go in disguise behind the scenes at a gaming conference, etc. However, when the more somber parts of the game happen, they tend to do so really suddenly, which can throw things off a bit. A supporting character will seem to be doing fine, then you’ll come to work one day and everyone will be in tears. “Oh, ________ is dead/hospitalized.” I felt the characters come alive throughout the game, and I liked them…but in these very sudden moments, I didn’t feel as heartbroken for them as I have in other games I’ve played. Also, on my first date, my date called the two of us boyfriend and girlfriend and we’d already made hints about being together forever by the end of the night – and we’d only known each other a couple months. Like the “dialogue option unavailability,” it wasn’t terrible, just kinda surprising.
And I don’t think I’d be being honest if I didn’t notice the other problem I had with the game. None of the voice actors did a bad job whatsoever, but once or twice an hour, I’d hear a line that sounded like it was mic’ed wrong. The dialogue would suddenly be louder or someone would sound too close to their microphone or a “p” sound would pop in the windscreen, etc.
However, none of these issues were game-breakers. They pulled me out of the moment every so often, but nothing ruined the experience.
Finally, a word on the LGBT inclusion in the game, which for some reason is angering people. I’m a straight/cisgender white guy and, as I do in most games, I made my character reflect me. He’s blond, wears black, people call him “he” and I had him be interested in a woman who works in the arcade. Like me, he even makes decisions that are logical but empathetic, which the game noticed. But hey, shocker of the century, not everyone on the planet is exactly like me! And so there are cosmetic, pronoun and romance options for other humans too. Arcade Spirits not only doesn’t push being romantic vs. non-romantic on you; it also doesn’t influence you to be one gender/pronoun or to romance someone of a certain gender/pronoun. It’s about as batshit insane and offensive as being able to enter my own name in the original The Legend of Zelda. Not exactly the apocalypse. It’s inclusive, not political – and if it were political, that wouldn’t be a bad thing either.
Anyway. Arcade Spirits has some technical issues and pacing problems, but overall I’d call it “very good” just shy of being “great.” I’m calling it a 7.5 out of 10 and I hope you give this little gem a shot. It’s an obvious labor of love full of likable characters and it’s an ode to arcades and an experience that encourages ambition, dreams and friendship.
AIR Entertainment was given a free copy of Arcade Spirits for review by its publisher, PQube Limited. Please see our review policy for more details.