By: L. Sahara McGirt (DarthSagaSwag)
Developer: Fiction Factory Games LLC
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 & 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PC (Steam, Itch.io)
When I heard a new Arcade Spirits visual novel game was coming out from the folks over at Fiction Factory Games, I admit I was pretty excited. I quickly fell in love with the first game, going so far as to complete it in a single day. I became attached to some of the characters, romancing Ashley as, for some reason, I still haven't figured out; I just absolutely loved her. There's something to be said about new installments in games and whether or not they live up to the first and evolve the game further or just don't quite meet expectations. I'm here to answer whether or not Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers manages just that.
While Arcade Spirits was set in the Funplex with the protagonist figuring out their place in turning the arcade's (and their own) life around, The New Challengers has players take on the role of an esports gamer who has never set foot into an arcade as they take steps towards meeting their esports victory dreams. For anyone who remembers, a popular esports game, Fists of Discomfort, had mentions in Arcade Spirits. In The New Challengers, its sequel, Fists of Discomfort 2, becomes central to the storyline as the protagonist desires to reach the peak of victory in FoD2.
As was in Arcade Spirits, players choose their name and create their protagonist through which they will be playing their way through the visual novel. The New Challengers has stepped up character creation with more pronouns to choose from and the ability to customize body type, nose, and clothing to include headwear and glasses. Players may also choose from a wider range of hairstyles. While customization is not particularly detrimental to a visual novel, it's nice to create more of an immersive experience with the story. Players may also choose to change their 'Metadata' and customize their character at the end of each chapter. I changed my character at least once after finding a certain outfit not quite as satisfying as I wanted it to be.
This next installment of Arcade Spirits not only introduces a new protagonist but a new setting, Good Clean Fun, a place where you can eat, do laundry, and game away. (Somehow, they make it work.) New characters to befriend or fall in love with hang around the place, and getting to know them is detrimental to reaching your protagonist's dreams. This new crew of characters includes:
Zapper - a fun but fiery gal border lining on the ol' fiery and fierce redhead trope.
Locksley - a high-tech Robin Hood who has made it his mission to stick it to prize arcades.
Rhapsody - a wonderfully gender-ambiguous shoutcaster who has a passion for FoD2 and its inner workings.
Domino - that weird friend who somehow manages to say the wrong thing but always questions the meaning of life.
Grace - a kindly software/game developer who just wants people to be nice and enjoy games.
Jynx - a racing game queen who can sometimes come off as cool, but there's much more to her than meets the eye.
Iris - not to be confused with her sisters, this Iris is the next to set a protagonist down the road to some major life changes.
Honorable mentions include the return of Ben & Matt, former proprietors of the Hole Story and now the proprietors of Good Clean Fun, plenty of side characters, and the return cameos of characters met in Arcade Spirits.
Worth noting in The New Challengers is the introduction of the protagonist's rival. A fully customizable character (Gary, anyone?) that a player's protagonist will meet again and again from time to time throughout the game. From the start, players may choose whether this is a friendly rivalry or a cutthroat one and, in doing so, may also choose whether there's an undercurrent of something romantic there as well.
While my short descriptions of the characters may sound tropey, these characters are anything but and have a certain depth that makes them feel more like a real crew of people one might hang out within an arcade in 20XX. Unfortunately, while all of these characters were great and certainly befriendable, I did not quite fall in love with any of them, except my rival. Which probably says something about me and my love of enemies to lovers tropes. I'm still questioning it.
The New Challengers also offers up the ability to play Fists of Discomfort 2 as a mini-game of sorts, a kind of rock-paper-scissors mechanic that functions within the game's storyline well. I love mini-games, so the ability to lead victory or fail at my fingertips was nice. This additional mini-game is just that, and players can opt-out, but I think it's well worth playing through the matches to get more in-depth with the story and think about strategies when facing specific characters, much as one might do if playing IRL.
Other gameplay mechanics in this visual novel include points where players are limited in the number of interactions they can make at a location, meaning sometimes players have to choose who to leave out. The mechanic of making certain choices contributes to points in certain personality traits, much the same as Arcade Spirits. There is the option to opt-out of this, and to each their own, but I did not see a point in doing that. Players may also import decisions from the first game, but this really doesn't impact the story much beyond some background story later in the game.
The story itself is much like the first, with the protagonist meeting a motley crew of pals at an arcade, pursuing a dream while shaking up the lives of the characters around them, and growing or not growing while discovering if it was worth it all in the end. While some parts were different, I didn't feel like it offered up much in terms of evolving a story, making this visual novel feel a little revisited somehow. However, it has plenty to like about it and is still worth playing as the stories of Arcade Spirits games are about gaming, community, and growing into a dream in unexpected ways.
There is a rather fun reference to PAX that I will not be spoiling further, but it's a fun bit that is, in some ways, very on the nose. I personally found the introduction of a rival to the story to be especially engaging. Another redeeming quality of the story is the internal growth happening for the protagonist, which asks the question: Will their desire for victory consume them? Something many competitive gamers might have to ask themselves.
While playing, I did note that while the game offers the option to choose pronouns, there were points where the pronouns slipped up, likely a flaw in proofreading the script and nothing more, and I hope that gets fixed quickly.
Visually, Arcade Spirits continues in the vein of 80s neon-aesthetic. I find it a particularly pleasing look and enjoy the drawn aesthetics of the backgrounds and characters. It's part of what drew me to Arcade Spirits in the first place.
As for sound, the 80sish background music is a nice throwback to those early arcade days of gaming and digital 8-bit sound.
I did not love the New Challengers as much as I wanted to. While the overall story was great and continued the sense of building a community within an arcade, there are points where I expected some sort of evolution from the first game to the second game. While some mechanics changed, and we had a new cast of characters to get to know, I had a harder time connecting to them than I did in the first game. This is easily a me problem, though, and I expect some other gamers out there will find some connection to this motley crew of pals who somehow end up in the esports scene.
Overall, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a worthy visual novel experience that revisits the world of 20XX, especially for anyone that wishes arcades were anything like they are in this alternate version of gaming reality.
Thank you to PQube, who provided the game code for the purposes of this review.