Arcana Heart 3: Love Max!!!!! Review

While far from an expert, I’ve been playing fighting games since Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat. Street Fighter IV brought me back into the fold in 2008 when I found myself in Tokyo during the location tests, and since then I’ve spent more money than I care to admit on arcade sticks, yearly updates to my favourite fighters, costumes….

Despite all this, nothing could prepare me for Arcana Heart.

Love Max!!!!! (yes – five exclamation marks) is the first revision of 2011’s Arcana Heart 3, and also the first time I’ve had the pleasure of being part of this series. Along with its all-girl cast of 23 characters, the Arcana Heart series has a few unique selling points – the two most notable ones being the Arcanas, which enable some customisation of each individual character, and the movement system.

Each of the 23 characters carries their own unique moveset. Once a character has been selected, they can be equipped with an “Arcana” – a spiritual being of sorts that bestows an additional arsenal of moves as well as attack/defense buffs to your character. Each character has a default Arcana but changing this allows you to customise your character around your individual play style or character’s inherent weaknesses.

The other thing that sets Arcana Heart apart from other fighters is its Homing movement. As well as being able to jump, double-jump, dash and air-dash, you also have the option to home in on your opponent. If they are far away, pressing the homing button will cause you to move towards them, whether they are on the ground or in the air; you can also influence this by holding a direction on the stick before commencing your home – a dash forward or back can help you get out of a sticky situation before making your approach, and you have a certain degree of maneuverability in the air as well, which belies the outward appearance of two characters careering through the sky, seemingly out of control. Moves can also be “Homing Cancelled” – cutting the move short and letting you get out of trouble, or keep the pressure on your opponent, be they ground- or air-based at the time.

When playing fighting games, the learning process is peppered with miniature epiphanies. For instance, in Street Fighter IV – the first time you throw a fireball with Ryu, followed by the realisation that his crouching Medium Kick can be cancelled into that fireball for a small-but-reliable combo that is also safe when blocked. It’s a small, complete package that is over after two moves and is easy to understand. In Arcana Heart, similar things occur – the first time you combo a sweep into a quarter circle foward (QCF)+A  into a QCF+AB with Heart, followed by the time you pick Yoriko, go HCF,F+A then the follow-up attack of drawing a pentagram with the control pad… only to realise that it’s just a power-up and you still have to do an actual combo after that.

Arcana Heart is almost entirely incomprehensible at first glance, and after a few hours I didn’t feel much more comfortable. Everything I learned was derived from someone else’s wisdom. My very first session with the game was about an hour long. Deliberately clueless, I wished to see what the game could – and wanted to – teach me about how to play, and sadly that turned out to be almost nothing. For a game so complex and requiring so much learning to attain any illusion of competency, this was pretty disappointing. There are trials for you to work through, but they do not explain anything, merely requiring you to achieve a specific task that you are expected to know how to perform in advance.

Instead, Love Max contains an absurd amount of additional story content that – mercifully – is completely ignorable if you have no interest in it. The roster is diverse and interesting, but not so much that I wanted to wade through large amounts of Wacky Schoolgirl Adventures. From a fighting perspective though, you’ve a wide range of character types to choose between, such as Heart – your most straight-forward aggressive character; Kira, the grappler who permanently exists in her own personal glob… swimming pool… thing; sword-users like Kamui and Fiona, the latter of which clumsily wields a claymore that is easily as big as she is; and unique characters, such as Eko who rides a giant chalk drawing.

From its name onwards, Arcana Heart 3: Love Max!!!!! is a terrifying experience. Once you’ve accustomed yourself to the unrelenting yelps every time any move is performed (or turned the voices off altogether in the options); made sense of the enormous array of options given to you at any point during a match; learned a few combos and become familiar with the nuances of the Homing movement, you’ll find a hugely complex, satisfying and rewarding experience waiting for you.

For many, though, there’ll be a point where the learning process feels too much like work, the subject matter is off-putting, or the technical ceiling is just too high to warrant the effort. Find a friend who is at the same level of (in)competence as you though and you can at least have the most ridiculous scrap of your life.