Pressing Start to continue on Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a standalone sequel to Arcade Spirits, which originally released back in 2019. The first game was particularly well regarded within the visual novel medium for its LGBTQIA+ inclusive content, and developer Fiction Factory Games was keen to improve this factor still further with the sequel.

I was pretty late to the party with the first game, but I was pleased to discover that it excelled in providing exactly what it promised — and with Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, it’s clear that the developers and IP have been growing from strength to strength. This is not one to skip out on, whether you’re a pre-existing fan or a newcomer.

New beginnings with familiar origins

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is set in an alternative future year of 20XX, where the Great Video Game Crash of 1983 did not happen, the E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial game on the Atari 2600 was not a flop, and arcades are the default and most common way to play video games — which is certainly a dream come true for plenty of us.

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers

This is, of course, the same setup to the original Arcade Spirits, and one of many pleasing similarities between the two games. This time around, however, you’ll find yourself embodying a brand new character and meeting an unfamiliar array of strangers with whom to bond and grow from. You’ll also meet some familiar old faces along the way on your road to finding success and glory with a newly formed pro gaming team.

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is made up of 8 chapters and will take you about 7 hours to clear in an initial playthrough; there’s plenty of replay value thanks to the opportunity to discover different platonic and romantic relationships with all the characters, plus the various endings according to your key choices throughout the story.

But while newcomers do not have to have played the first game to jump straight into this sequel, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers does reward those who have completed Arcade Spirits by importing their data. Your choices from the original will tailor your fresh experience in the same setting and allow you to see exactly how your playthrough affected the world of 20XX. You can find what exactly changes if you import your data on the developer’s website, if you’re curious. Longstanding fans can also rest assured that they’ll hear plenty more pizza bagel fun facts too!

On a final note that pre-existing fans of Arcade Spirits will undoubtedly be happy to read, The New Challengers features a polyamorous route and non-binary love interest, making the title even more inclusive than before. This is one of the most noteworthy new additions to mention, but other features from the original have been enhanced considerably — including the customisation options. More on that shortly, though.

An underdog story with themes for everyone

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers casts you in the role of a custom protagonist, whose default name is Sydney “Seeker” Moore. They’re seeking (see what they did there?) direction in their life, and they find an opportunity to to get things on the right track with the return (or introduction, if you’re a new player) of the always helpful, sometimes troubling AI, Iris. The story kicks into high gear straight away as you join the rag-tag group of gamers who hang out at Good Clean Fun, the only laundromat/pizzeria/arcade in town, and attempt to pursue a career in esports.

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers

You’ll get varying degrees of welcome from the main characters and enjoy a journey from strangers to friends to maybe something more — and it should be a given that it might be a bumpy road along the way, but one nonetheless worth proceeding down.

The cast features six very different individuals, each one having their own game genre preferences and expertise, varying temperaments and relatable struggles; there’s even a customisable rival character, who is also romanceable. You not only set up how warm or hostile your rivalry is, but the character is effectively interwoven into the main plot and has their own arc on the side that is well worth paying some attention to.

Alongside exploring the relationship with your rival, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers features an overarching theme of following one’s dreams. Your aim is to unite a group of people whose only similarities are their shared love of a game called Fist of Discomfort 2, and your place in the group finds you guiding and mediating growing tensions between such a diverse group of people — many of whom are polar opposites in terms of personalities.

The characters learn to improve themselves from their shared experiences such as losses, they learn to face the struggles of their internalised hardships with the help of others rather than suffering in silence, and arcs regarding relatable themes such as burnout and self-worth are wonderfully written, making the characters feel fleshed out and full of hidden depths to explore.

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers

For those less interested in interpersonal drama, the game retains plenty of the same intrigue as its predecessor with its AI-related themes involving Iris, with the major mystery of the game involving the real-life legendary myth of “Polybius”.

To balance out the heavier, more serious subject matter such as depression, ableism and major plot revelations, the game makes plenty of jokes at the expense of real-world gaming-related issues such as loot boxes and microtransactions. There’s also a strong slapstick element through the use of sprite movement, zooms and the use of emoticons for visual comedy — this includes some enjoyable movie-like cuts to enhance the comedic timing and amusement factor. Watch out for Jynx’s cat Mynx for the best laugh-out-loud moment of the game, though!

The player’s in the driving seat

Fiction Factory Games wanted to create a visual novel experience that allows for easy role-playing, where each and every choice builds the player character into truly representing the real-life player as their own person in the game world. Like in the original Arcade Spirits, they achieve this by allowing you to make frequent choices to throughout the game, both small and major — with the latter being termed the “Identity Identifier System”. This system provides a ton of agency to the game’s role-playing design.

Choices will always represent one of several different personality types — Kindly, Steady, Quirky, Gutsy, and Flexible — and each one is as valid as the other. Arcade Spirits: The New Challenges prizes itself for never giving bad options to the player. Instead, players are encouraged to accurately shape the player character to who they truly are.

Furthermore, the game allows for absolute projection in the form of its romance options, with everyone being pursuable. While the measurements of your personality and relationships are helpfully maintained and updated by your virtual assistant Iris throughout the game, you’ll have to remember to keep Iris’ invisible “order and chaos” scales in check, because this will affect the ending!

The game caters to everyone and is truly inclusive through the use of a personality scale like this, no matter if you’re playing it to cultivate virtual friendships or to date whoever takes your fancy. The choice is yours; there’s no real wrong way to experience Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers! What’s more, you can change your mind about how you’re approaching or presenting yourself in the game without any consequences, as you can tweak your character whenever you clear a chapter.

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers

Fiction Factory Games took on board plenty of feedback from the original Arcade Spirits and implemented many notable changes, with perhaps the best coming in the form of the character creator overhaul. There are now far more customisation options available to fully immerse yourself in the game world, including more pronouns, body types, hairstyles, clothing and accessory options.

All this ensures a greater likelihood of more types of players feeling able to accurately project themselves into the game for a more effective role-playing experience. This is especially important to note as the main character appears on screen during dialogue sequences rather than the game unfolding from first-person as in many other visual novels — so having so many options to accurately represent yourself is very welcome.

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers

As you play, you’ll have to dedicate a certain amount of time to conversing with characters to build up rapport. This is done by selecting which characters to talk to. This means you have a bit of a balancing act in terms of prioritising the right people at the right time, since leaving certain characters too low on the relationship scale may leave them with an unsatisfying conclusion come the epilogue.

One of the most exciting additions to gameplay is the fact that you can experience the very game the in-game characters are obsessed with: Fist of Discomfort 2. Rather than demanding that visual novel players suddenly become fighting game specialists, however, these sequences are implemented like rock-paper-scissors matches and are simply presented in a fighting game style. Depending on your skills and choices, each match can result in a win or a loss — but never an outright Game Over.

Instead, your performance will lead to different events and endings, once again providing an example of how the game never faults you for anything, instead providing true flexibility and plenty of opportunity for role-playing. You can even skip these sequences entirely and keep the game as a straight visual novel if you prefer.

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers

Design and technical grievances

Despite all my gushing about the experience, there are a couple of aspects about the game I would have preferred to see tweaked a little. Most notable at the time of writing is a bug relating to changing your player character’s name, pronoun and handle in each section of the game, but this will almost certainly be patched in short order.

My other issues are mostly design-related; specifically, it’s very obvious that your rival character and other side characters are all designed using the same character creator you use for your own protagonist, making them stand out compared to the individually designed major characters. It can be a little distracting at times, as characters can end up looking similar or obviously “template-based” — particularly when featuring in a scene that involves one of the major players.

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers

The only other design choice I disliked was in how fully voiced lines seemingly mostly went to side characters. This felt like a strange choice, since those characters do not appear on screen nearly as much as the main cast, yet their use of voiced lines makes their speeches stand out as memorable and attention-grabbing. It’s not a bad thing to have side characters stand out and be well-regarded, but with the main characters only being fully voiced during key story scenes and emotionally powered moments, it felt like a curious imbalance.

Finally, there were a few frame rate issues when characters move across the screen, or attempting to skip sequences. Frame rate is not generally a huge issue in visual novels, so this is a minor complaint; the only real issue is that when these instances occur it can sometimes be a bit slower than usual to pull up the menu. Once you’ve beaten the game, too, a much more reliable skip function becomes available.

Conclusion

With all that said, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is clearly an overall improved product over the first game, despite how brilliant that already was.

In this standalone sequel, the character arcs are better written, the art style is even more pleasing on the eye, and the whole underdog premise makes it even more entertaining; it’s nice to see the energy and drive of the player character here in contrast to the rather troubled main character from the original game.

I may miss my beloved Percy from the first Arcade Spirits, but Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a most welcome addition to the Arcade Spirits universe — and here’s hoping we get to spend more time there in the future.

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Lilia Hellal
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