When it comes to the murky world of all-female fighting games, Arcana Heart has more pedigree than most. Pre-dating the likes of Skullgirls, Girl Fight and Senran Kagura by several years, Examu's fighting franchise brought crazy aerial combat and customisable movesets to Japanese arcades in 2006, finally leading us to the recent release of Arcana Heart 3: Love Max!!!!! on PS3 and Vita. As a remake of Arcana Heart 3 with rebalanced gameplay and loads of extra content, it's definitely a major event for franchise veterans and lovers of all things moe, but does the latest NIS America localisation job deserve its five exclamation points?
Well, perhaps two or three of them at least. Maybe four if you're a fan of cute anime girls.
After seeing so many fighting games provide little or no story for solo players, it's great to play a brawler that takes its narrative seriously and offers a robust singleplayer experience. There's an entire visual novel's worth of dialogue and storyline here -- or more accurately an entire visual novel -- told through a full story mode for each character, epilogue 'After' story mode that ties up loose ends, plus loads of unlockable skits that shows the cast interacting in their daily lives that usually feature their own battles too. Though experience with the previous games will help you to understand some of the nuances, the first page of the instruction manual sums up the situation in an easy prologue (which many of my fellow reviewers seem to have embarrassingly ignored!), while the cast's personalities conform to familiar enough anime tropes that you'll soon work out what's what.
In short: Japan and by extension the entire world is threatened by a dimensional rift that can only be repaired or worsened by finding some crystals. Some characters want to stop it, others want to exacerbate it, others just have their own adventures or agendas in the background. Yes, I've mullered the fine detail, but that's basically it. I'm not sure what many of my peers were complaining about.
Mind you, there's an open-and-shut case to be made that the story is just a vehicle for fan service. The all-female cast represents every anime and moe trope and fetish out there, from busty battlers to tiny kawaii tots, demure maids, stern tsundere types, catgirls, dog girls, demon girls, demon nun girls... you name it, she's here in some fashion. And you'll unlock a somewhat cheesecakey picture once you've completed their story. As someone who plays, reviews and enjoys Japanese games on a nigh-weekly basis, I didn't find it to be too distracting or degrading (Senran Kagura this ain't!), but for most the fan service will either be the main barrier to entry or main selling point.
Thankfully the varied cast bring a host of delightfully varied fighting styles and movesets to a strong fighting experience. On a basic level this is sidescrolling 1v1 business as usual, with Weak, Medium and Strong attack buttons corresponding to totally different moves depending on whether your chosen battler favours swords, guns, insane animated doodle golems or massive battle suits. There's a niche for everyone, from pokers to grapplers and everything in between, while conventional blocks, dashes, backsteps, gauge-powered supers and throws are all present and correct.
However, Love Max!!!!! differs from the norm in some delicious ways.
First off is Arcana Heart's unique aerial combat. Arenas are approximately five times as tall as any other fighting game out there, allowing you to launch an opponent up into the air, then zoom up to their position with a homing attack mapped to X. Foes can recover in mid-air, though, leading to some crazy aerial battles that resemble some of the most outrageous anime fights from our favourite shows. I daresay that advanced players rarely touch the ground.
Then we come to the Arcanas themselves. Before each battle, you can choose one of a huge number of support Arcanas embodying different aspects from love to darkness to magnetism. Rather than appearing in combat a la JoJo's stands, your choice of Arcana instead unlocks some unique special attacks, meaning that you can round out a specialised character's moveset in an area where they're weaker, or specialise them even further with complimentary abilities. Tinkering with potential builds to discover your perfect combination is an absolute blast.
Sadly Love Max!!!!! doesn't quite flow as well as it should, partly due to the fact that it's stiffer than most Arc System Works titles and more modern brawlers, but also because the controls can't be relied upon 100% of the time. 70% of the time your attacks work as they should, but the other 30% sees your quarter-and-half-rotations being oddly ignored, which can lead to some seriously aggravating losses. There's little more annoying than setting up a ground trap as Weiss, for example, then pulling off the back-quarter-rotation-and-heavy-attack trigger combo only to see her perform a totally different move, resulting in your opponent running harmlessly over your dormant swords to smack you up into a ridiculous aerial combo.
My biggest gripe stems from the presentation, though. Despite being an attractive game that benefits from detailed pixel art and generous frames of expressive animation, Love Max!!!!! is disappointingly locked to a primitive arcade 4:3 aspect ratio.
A full third of the screen is dedicated to distracting character portraits rather than expanding the play field. Addressing the issue would have taken a lot of work, but this remake was the perfect opportunity to do so, especially since widescreen is now the norm for fighting games and one of the PS Vita's main selling points.
The lack of cross-play is also rather galling. I appreciate that cross-buy might not have been feasible for a niche localised title that needs to recoup the cost of translation, production and shipping for a small audience, but the omission of transferable saves or cross-platform online multiplayer shrinks both the community and appeal of the game.
Nevertheless, with a huge amount of content, online multiplayer and experimentation with new characters/Arcana combinations, it's still easy to recommend Arcana Heart 3: Love Max!!!!! so long as you're on-board with the premise.
- Loads of game modes and fanservice-heavy characters
- Strong story campaigns, epilogue stories and unlockables
- Exciting aerial fighting and customisable movesets; handsome pixel art
- Disappointing 4:3 aspect ratio
- Stiff controls can annoy
- No cross-play, characters conform to tired tropes
The Short Version: Arcana Heart 3: Love Max!!!!! earns most of its exclamation marks thanks to frantic aerial brawling, bags of content and handsome visuals, even if its somewhat stiff controls and letterbox aspect ratio disappoint. We rather suspect that the all-female cast, continuity and fan-service will be the main selling point for many players, though.
7 - GOOD: Some sites seem to think that the halfway point between 1-10 is 7. This is not the case. It should be noted that 7 is not just a perfectly respectable score, it's a good score. A 7 is not an indication of failure, nor is it the mark of a bad, poor or even average game. These are titles that can be considered very worthwhile, but maybe come with a caveat. Frequently the domain of the well-made-if-rather-conventional brigade.