If you've got a low tolerance for syrupy-cute anime nonsense, Arcana Heart probably isn't for you. A 2D fighter with an all-girl cast, it piles on the saccharine with high-pitched voices, exaggerated posing and lots of overcute everything everywhere. What's more, its 11 fighters have all been tailored to fit some weird Japanese fetish archetype; there's the athletic schoolgirl, the mopey schoolgirl, the bumbling witch with big glasses, the gothic Lolita, the maid with a giant claymore, the Chinese android with huge breasts and a thong, the... the diabolical 12-year-old in a swimsuit who rides around inside a giant blob... you get the idea.
So long as you're cool with that, though, Arcana Heart is much more than just a thin pretense for watching cute girls beat the crap out of each other. At the center of the game is a deceptively simple, four-button fighting system that's friendly to button-mashing, making it easy to chain together short combos even if you don't know what you're doing (it's also easy to make a fight look cool, thanks to a flashy parrying effect every time your attacks collide with your opponent's). If you do, however, it's possible to bust out some ridiculously lengthy, impressive attack chains that'll leave your opponents devastated. At its best, the game's juggle attacks, midair dash moves and huge stages enable the kind of aerial craziness that defined the Marvel vs Capcom games, although it'll take a little practice before things get that far.
Basic combos are the least of what's at your disposal, as each of the 11 characters comes standard with a handful of special moves and super attacks, the latter of which can only be executed once you've charged up a few levels on an onscreen gauge. On top of that, each character can be augmented with one of 11 "Arcana," which are chosen during character select and tack a secondary list of moves and abilities onto what you already have.
Each character has a default Arcana they're identified with, but you're free to mix and match, and savvy players will pick the Arcana that best complements their character's abilities - i.e. if you're picking a girl who's reliant on close-quarters attacks, you might want to pick an Arcana that offers a lot of long-range moves, just to shore up the difference. The Arcana can also augment your fighter's basic abilities, making her faster or giving her an extra midair jump.
Best of all, they enable massive, screen-filling super attacks that can turn the tide of a fight in seconds. These are pretty insane, too, ranging from a gigantic fish-god who fills the entire stage with water (slowing your opponent, but not you) to a carnivorous plant that swallows your opponent and briefly transports her to an alternate plant-universe where she's spat out and bounced off the walls. The only catch is that to use the best ones, you have to activate "Arcana Force," which rapidly drains your power gauges. If you don't use your super move in that time - or worse, if you get knocked down - you'll lose the Arcana Force for the rest of the round, meaning that it's something you should only use when you're really ready to do some damage.
Overall the game is pretty evenly balanced and fun, but then - if you're playing through the game's Story or Arcade modes - that all goes out the window at the very end. See, Arcana Heart's single-player action follows a bad precedent set by some earlier 2D fighters, in that the relatively unchallenging "normal" opponents suddenly give way to a melt-your-face-off tough final boss that the normals did not prepare you for.
In this case, that boss is Mildred Avalon, a busty sorceress with angelic pretensions. Before you can even fight her properly, you've got to go up against her frustrating "cocoon" form, which slaps you down constantly with knockdown attacks (if you don't have any long-distance moves, don't even try to win this one). Then, win or lose, you'll have to fight her "angelic" form, which is to say you'll get mercilessly smacked with every other fighter's super attacks in rapid, unrelenting succession. And unless you're masochistic enough to think that it's fun to watch your life bar instantly disappear while being unable to retaliate, this is guaranteed to frustrate all but the most dedicated players.
In terms of presentation, Arcana Heart is pure eye candy, with fast, over-the-top action and beautiful hand-drawn characters bolstered by flashy CG effects. However, don't expect anything on par with a Guilty Gear here - the characters may be pretty, but for the most part they animate pretty stiffly. Don't expect anything on par with Guilty Gear's plot, either - Arcana Heart's story is dumb and one-dimensional even by 2D-fighter standards. Thankfully, it's not really meant to be taken seriously, and once you've accepted that, the goofy dialogue and silly characters make the story mode worth playing through at least a few times.
If you've been starving for a decent 2D fighter on PS2, there are better options than this - but Arcana Heart still delivers the quality, and its mix of accessible, over-the-top anime silliness and deep technical fighting put it in a comfortable niche between games like Super Smash Bros. and King of Fighters. And if nothing else, it's kind of a guilty pleasure to watch the ninja girl with dog ears and big socks violently boot the top-twirling shrine maiden across the screen.
Apr 14, 2008