Somewhere in EXAMU Inc’s headquarters, a developer drew a Venn diagram to explain how a crowdfunded sequel to a Japanese developed all-girl fighting game with an initial release exclusively on the PC of all home platforms would be a wise commercial move. In an age where every big publisher is grovelling over how microtransactions are imperative to make any kind of financial return and companies like Capcom are wasting golden intellectual properties on poorly sold fighting game titles, it is a miracle to me that this niche to the third power game manages to get sales and reviews on Steam. The question of course stands as to whether it is worth it was weighted bust-line in money.
Given the niche nature of this game, it is a little hard to exactly explain Arcana Heart 3 LOVEMAX SIXSTARS!!!!!! to any person who finds themselves in the position of having never played an Arcana Heart game before and is not immediately scared off by it due to it being a 2d fighting game, having an exclusively all-girl cast or both. The Arcana Heart series generally involves these girls who can summon power from supernatural forces typically known mechanically as “Arcana” though in the game’s story, they are referred to narratively as “Celestials”. With each primary instalment of Arcana Heart (that being 1, 2 and 3), the game’s story involves a villain trying to use these Celestials or a macguffin related to them to obliterate the entirety of Japan which, since post-nuclear scare Godzilla does not exist in this universe, falls under one of the Arcana Heart’s cast to defeat. In this title, the game has the villain, Scharlachrot, collecting 5 “Celestial Stones” to obliterate Japan after being the product of an organization named Drexler Institute’s experimentation to create their own Arcanas to implant into girls. One would consider it an improvement on typical “fighting tournament as a front for evil” stories from fighting games had that cliché not be subverted in favour of “fighters must save Japan/the world/multiverse” in their main stories numerous times before at this point. Naturally, the game’s aesthetic compliments its contingent of cutesy girls fighting with over-designed Final Fantasy summons, right down to its gallery mode progressively filling itself with the video game equivalent of slice of life filler episodes it calls “sub-stories”.
Most of the gameplay can be described as a 3+2 button fighter, with most of the player’s basic attacks being broken down into weak (A), strong (B) and heavy (C). The extra two buttons are where Arcana Heart distinguishes itself from other fighting games with “Homing” (D) and “Arcana” (E). Homing acts as a special prolonged dash that has you charging at a set speed towards your opponent regardless where they are on screen. Playing with the D button with other inputs nets some handy mobility options where your character’s dashes and jumps just can’t quite keep the needed pressure on. The Arcana button meanwhile could be said to have some features similar to the Guilty Gear series’ “Dust” attack what with its standard use seemingly being for knocking your opponent against the wall or launching them skywards, but when given special inputs like the attack buttons before it, the Arcana button takes new life. This new life being dependant on the player’s chosen Arcana, which new players may stick with their character’s standard (Heart Aino having Love, Minoki having Ichor e.t.c.) but more talented or experimental players may uncover the properties of over 20 Arcana and find enjoyment on testing over 300 combinations and adding a touch of meta-game to the skill intense genre that is fighting games. While not wholly unique as individual parts, the sum of Arcana Heart’s design decisions help it develop an identity among its compatriots in the “anime fighter” sub-genre. That being said, anyone wishing to play this fighter on, say, the Steam Controller would be best advised to cough up some decent dough for a proper fightstick instead as Arcana Heart’s arcade roots are strong in this game, and attempts to pull off quarter circle motions without getting a tiger kneed air attack or pulling off the game’s multi-button triggers without mashing your controller requires motor skills I clearly do not possess.
The game sports itself several game modes beyond the staple “Arcade, Versus, Training and Online +1” of many other fighting games. In place of Arcade is a Story mode, which ultimately emulates an arcade game mode with visual novel cutscenes spliced between them and, more interestingly, options. Before each fight up until the encounter with Scharlachrot, you have a choice from 2 to as many as 5 or 6 encounters to choose from with different characters and thus distinguishing pre-fight banter. While the destination is the same, it is nice that the game gives its single player game mode some re-playability if only for it to be an expansion on Street Fighter III: Third Strike’s own Arcade mode. Then again, Third Strike’s Arcade mode didn’t have a bad ending so points for that. Following this is the After Story which more casual fighting game players may draw parallels to from Street Fighter V’s Character Stories, albeit one with a more connected narrative. Basically the after story starts with a news reporter reporting on a fresh hot spring that they somehow found she and her reporting crew inexplicably got themselves teleported to which opens up a few characters’ “After Story”, where you play a piece of visual novel narrative with a small slice of fighting gameplay in between before then unlocking a few more “After Stories”. Again, like the fight selection of Story Mode, this slight attempt at re-playability is welcoming particularly to a genre prone to isolating single player fans. Alongside the training is the game’s “Trial” mode, where a player must complete a revolving series of challenges in each match to earn Bronze, Silver or Gold stars while also evading defeat. Things can be as simple as “perform 10 mid-air attacks” to more tense “defeat your opponent in 10 seconds” so players should avoid complacency should they not wish to find themselves curb stomped. ‘Time Attack’ and ‘Survival’ are rather typical single player fighting game faire although the difficulty spike starting Time Attack versus the nigh lethargic Story mode or basic challenge ‘trials’ is startling to encounter for the first time. The biggest issue with all these game modes is frankly the rather fictitious starting point. While I can respect that fighting game enthusiasts are tired with hand-holding in their genre and “SIXSTARS!!!!!!” is under no obligation to welcome new players, its rather sad that its only means to welcome new players is a more simplified control scheme option which has no real reason to exist anyway as players most likely to adopt that option are the same players who will drop the game in frustration when their supposed “combos” are not registering in the “Perform 20 combos” bronze challenge. Sure, the game’s practise options are respectable and a staple of the genre, but using practice alone to learn fighting games is like using past exam papers to start learning mathematics, it bass-ackwards!
So what’s new in SIXSTARS!!!!!! for those who player its last title of “Arcana Heart 3 LOVEMAX!!!!!”? Frankly, not that much. One new character and Arcana, along with some gameplay rebalancing and the promise of DLC to come (The kickstarter suggests a shark girl and an edgy dark version of the game’s poster girl will be making an appearance), all at a £22.99 price tag, placing it in competition with a title such as “A Hat in Time” price wise. While Minori, the new girl, is a lot of fun to play around with and a worthy addition to the game’s already unique cast, I find myself struggling to see what made “SIXSTARS!!!!!!” inclusions far too big to be a patch or DLC for “LOVEMAX!!!!!”. In an age when even notorious price gougers Capcom are wise enough to not constantly segment its comparably bigger audience into pieces with multiple purchases of the same game, “SIXSTARS!!!!!!” is a hard sell to anyone beyond EXAMU supporters who inexplicably got left out with prior editions of Arcana Heart 3 though, even then, there are more original titles out there to serve the same niche (even those seeking more lewd fair can consider EXAMU’s “Nitroplus Blasterz: Heroine Duel”).
“SIXSTARS!!!!!!” is a game for its kickstarter backers and I am more than happy to say that the game works and its audience is happy with it given Steam reviews. Beyond such an audience however, its difficult to see how this title will add to the series’ fanbase, particularly where past titles have not yet. With any luck, the appearance of Shark Girl will perhaps include a proper tutorial so that it can add visual novel enthusiasts to its fanbase. Given the series’ persistence of an all-girl roster and several visual novel inspired cutscenes featuring slivers of soft fan-service, I can easily see fans of the Sakura series joining the Arcana Heart fandom…or the Senran Kagura series joining them. At present though, the game is well made but difficult to recommend to those outside the most persistent learners or those who no doubt own this title already.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.