Typically, visual novels aspire to entertain audiences. Rarely are they used as a tool for self-analysis. That’s not the case with Fiction Factory Games’ Arcade Spirits. Instead of providing a handful of routes to emulate self-determination, every interaction gradually tweaks the stats of your main character. Answer candidly, and the novel provides a Myers–Briggs-like assessment of your personality that’s remarkably insightful. The appraisal also influences your interactions with others, making a playthrough of Spirits a foundation for reflection– at least if you don’t opt to role-play as someone else.
Your journey begins in a character creation suite, where you’ll pick a name, select some basic appearance options, and choose a gender. The ability to select from he/she/they pronouns signals Arcade Spirits’ resistance of binaries. Later, you’ll be able to romance all, any, or none of the novel’s six secondaries, and as make some decisions about your vocational trajectory. While the novel’s plot isn’t particularly sophisticated, the way Arcade Spirits handles decisions is downright progressive.
Coin-ops Thrive in Spirits Imagined Setting
Spirit’s story is set in alternative history where arcades never diminished in popularity. Although a specific year isn’t mentioned (only that it’s 20XX), technology hasn’t radically outstripped reality. One slight advancement is found in IRIS, a Siri-like artificial intelligence that’s contained in a phone app. After the protagonist loses their job, your long-time friend and roommate Juniper suggests using the tool, with the hope you’ll find a new employment, potentially make new friends, and if you choose, some romantic coupling.
Obeying the recommendation finds you landing a job at Francine’s Funplex, a quint arcade situated in a strip mall. Here, you’ll gradually meet other members of the staff, from Gavin, the Funplex’s effectual accountant to Ashley, the center’s resident cosplayer. Additionally, you’ll encounter several regular visitors like Percy, the British retro gamer who strives to maintain a score on the Moopy cabinet and Teo, an energetic dance-game enthusiast. While each offers lively conversation, don’t expect a lot of depth of much of an arc from the game’s cast. Instead, they’ll react relatively convincingly. Whether you ignore them or engage them in friendly banter, they’ll exhibit reciprocity.
Consistently Amusing but Rarely Hilarious
If you’re familiar with the depictions of school life that are common to most Japanese VNs, adapting to Arcade Spirits can be a bit challenging. Here, the cast is mostly comprised of millennials in their late-twenties struggling for vocational and social fulfillment. As such, attitudes embodied by the demographic permeate the plotline, depicted in outlook, behavior, and even a self-aware attitude. So, while the novel’s characters are tenaciously accepting of one another, there’s also a shallowness to relationships. Reflecting our contemporary era a bit too closely, true difference isn’t often discussed with confidants but other intimate details are shared with strangers.
The result is a cast where diversity stems more from outward appearance and hobbies rather than belief or perspective. But because that problem tends to exist in the real-world, Sprits get a pass here. But when it comes to those satisfying arcs of character development, the novel doesn’t fare as well. Spirits is rooted in the splice-of-life style of storytelling, which aspires to depict realistic interpretations of our experiences. And while there’s a bit of antagonism to overcome, the novel’s payoffs aren’t as fulfilling as works that methodically let conflict build to a groundswell before offering resolution. Instead, Spirits hopes that a barrage of references and the expression of self-awareness will suffice. Personally, many of the allusions weren’t as clever as I would have hoped, which might just be attributed to a post-High Score Girl phase. But if you’re accustomed to the emotional heartstring tuggings associated with nakige or utsuge, Spirits might seem a bit cold.
That said, you don’t have to be a member of novel’s target demographic to enjoy some of in-game rewards. Gradually, you’ll unlock twenty-two pieces of game art. Elements like a sub-chapter where one of the game’s arcade technicians gives a step-by-step tutorial of building a home-arcade cabinet are a delight. Entertaining and informative, I wish the novel had devoted more time to these types of elements.
Further satisfaction is rooted in the game’s personality assessment tool, which classifies each of your responses into five different categories that range from Basically, Gutsy, Kindly, Quirky, to Steady. With optional icons, you can opt to answer without any kind of hint. Or, if you’re replaying to seek out different character interactions you might want to make the signifiers visible.
With a refreshingly inclusive approach, Arcade Spirits offers an insightful examination of the pursuit of fulfillment by a group of young adults. There’s little in the way of revelatory twists to be found. Instead, there opportunity for self-analysis, perceptive bits of banter, and a host of subtle references to be found at the Funplex.