Publisher: PQube / Developer: Fiction Factory Games
Imagine, if you will, an alternative timeline (something you’re probably already doing on a daily basis as in) and in this timeline the biggest deviation is that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial did not nearly crash the video game market in the early 80’s and instead video games were allowed to thrive and grow to become popular commonplace things. Imagine, if you would, it is the year 20XX and arcades are commonplace and you down-on-your-luck, fired from last job when a sentient phone app decides to come to your aid to help you find your dream job and more.
Thus is the premise of Fiction Factory Games’ Arcade Spirits, a visual novel that has been available on the PC since early last year but is currently on its way to console for the Nintendo Switch, PS4, and XBox One on May 1st, 2020. I was fortunate enough to get a chance to play the game on the perfect device possible (at least in my opinion): the Nintendo Switch. Given that you’re doing a lot of reading and flipping through pages, I like to be reclining in my couch and reposition often while holding the portable device close as I happily read through the riveting tale by Stefan Gagne and Aenne Schumann. And for the first time in a long while, I let my console battery get to 10% and hurriedly docked the device to the station so I could finish that last chapter on the big screen, because it demanded to be finished and I invested in seeing it through.
I hinted at the basic premise earlier, but the central narrative of Arcade Spirits is that [Insert Your Character’s Name Here] are down on your luck and manage to land an interview at a small independent arcade. With the aid of your IRIS app, you stumble your way through finding happiness. Now, Arcade Spirits is very decidedly a romantic comedy kinda story, but the game makes sure you can engage with it in a variety of the ways. The game lets you choose your pronouns and look, lets your decide if you want to do your run through aromantically, or if you want to be professional on your first day on the job before you start flirting with the customers and coworkers. Additionally, all of the romantic options are available independent of your character which means everyone is bi, and everyone will reciprocate your feelings, assuming you have the personality and the affection to get to that point.
Like most visual novels, the general story beats remain the same through the eight chapters (each chapter taking a little over an hour to complete, sometimes more, sometimes less), but you still very much feel like you have agency. The game prompts you with notices like “you’re not going to have time to solve every problem” and “who do you want to hang out with,” and each decision does feel like there is some consequence to your action. And even on repeated runs, you can tell how it all converges.
IRIS, the app and pseudo-narrator/proctor of the game and your life, walks you through the game, giving you helpful hints, summaries of how much certain characters like you, and how frequently you pick certain response that correspond to the various personality archetypes in the game. However, IRIS also goes out of her way to assure you that these are indeed your decisions alone to make and that these are simply guidelines and reminders of what you have done in the past. And if you do want to unintentionally or intentionally game the system, you do have the option to turn the identifiers off.
But as you slowly discover your passion for running the arcade, you get to interact with your steadfast manager Gavin, your quirky cosplaying co-worker Ashely, or the kind game technician Naomi. There’s also the customers Percy (patient gamer trying to get to a fabled killscreen), Teo (charismatic dancer), and QueenBee (an esports queen with not a single @#$% to give). Each of the characters has a distinct writing and impeccable voice acting that makes them fully realized characters and lets you form attachments. You’ll easily find yourself gravitating towards certain characters because they’re just your type, and it’s a very satisfying experience building relationships with the crew, whether romantic or not.
The script is sharp and smartly-written, featuring a veritable laundry list of arcade and gaming allusions, puns, callbacks, call forwards, and all around an engaging narrative that left me smiling through my playthroughs. It was a true joy to play. While I knew that the narrative was going to fall the rom-com trappings, I still bought in 100% because it was kind and sweet and provided that boundless optimism that was occasionally tempered by the realism of small business and elevated by just a bit of magical realism.
But the big take away at the end is that Arcade Spirits is very much the kinder timeline I wish I was in. The type of escapist fantasy that helps make quarantine slightly more easier to manage. And if you’re in the position, you owe it to yourself to spend some time at the Funplex.
9.5 “Steady/Quirky/Gutsy/Kindly/Balanced Responses” out of 10