Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers Review (PS5) – Competitive Spirit

A well written visual novel that’s acutely aware of gaming culture, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a real good time. The Finger Guns Review.

Back in May 2020, I had the distinct pleasure of reviewing the original Arcade Spirits visual novel game from Fiction Factory Games. In that review, I said “Arcade Spirit is tightly written, with only a hand full of lulls, but plenty of heart and a tonne of quirk”. I remember coming away from my time with this game hoping we’d see a sequel. As a premise, there was certainly a lot of potential there that had yet to be tapped.

Here we are, two years later and Friction Factory Games have once again teamed with PQube to being their latest title – Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers – to the world. While this game isn’t a direct sequel, it’s a follow up to the 2020 original. With a new protagonist, a new bunch of potential love interests and a new goal, can The New Challengers build on the solid base of the original? Yes. Yes it can.

Like the original, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is set in an alternative version of our own world, set in the year 20XX. In this reality, the video game market crash of 1983 didn’t happen. This means that arcades maintained their prominence in gaming culture, even becoming more popular than they were ever before. This had a pretty profound knock on effect on gaming itself as well as the wider world.

In Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, you play as a skilled player of a game called Fist of Discomfort 2. Having gone as far as they can playing online at home, reaching the upper echelons of the competitive leagues, they decide it’s time to try and go pro. To do so, they’ll need to join a team. Your character’s rival has joined one of the best teams out there – Team Play 2 Win – thanks to the advice of an illegal AI called IRIS.

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Attempting to follow suit, the player character downloads their own IRIS and tasks it to find a FoD2 team to join. Rather than directing your character to a pro group however, IRIS sends them to a place called Good Clean Fun. This establishment is part Pizzeria (Good), part laundrette (Clean) and part gaming arcade (Fun). Here, the character meets a rag tag group of gamers that mostly play games for fun rather than competitive venture. Banding them together, the player character leads this band of misfits in hope of FoD2 glory, in the name of friendship and maybe even love.

The road to success in Fist of Discomfort 2 is a twisting one through out Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers. For every moment of warm and fuzzy team building where you get to learn more about your new cohorts, there’s a moment of intrigue, deceit, set back or frustration. I won’t spoil the wider arc but what I will say is that compared to the previous game, the story moves at a much faster pace and doesn’t repeat itself at all. It’s much slicker with an aim for the player to see much more content in one play through compared to the previous game. The choices you make during every conversation or when you’re deciding your next course of action influences the player characters personality as well as the relationships you have with the core group of characters.

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The diverse representation of the characters is once again a major strength of Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers. The core group of 6 main characters, as well as the many supporting cast members, come from a wide variety of backgrounds with very distinct personalities. What I found particularly impressive is that a large number of sexual preferences and genders are represented here without it becoming an all consuming attribute of the character. This is an alternative reality where They/Them is simply accepted, choosing your pronouns is the standard and who you’re attracted too is valid. Whether you want the character to be gay, straight, bi-sexual or totally uninterested in the romance within the game, you’ll likely feel catered for as a player.

That’s partly because the customisation options extend far further in this follow up than they did in the original Arcade Spirits. Your choice of name, look, pronouns, online handle and more are elements of your character that you can tailor to be however you prefer. The experience itself is far more personable too; You can decide if your rivalry is friendly or heated, whether you want romance to part of your journey at all and if you do, at what speed that relationship proceeds.

For a game that includes a wide variety of personalities to romance with varying genders, it’s quite impressive how these characters feel like they avoid being pigeonholed caricatures of dating game tropes. Some of the characters in the original game did feel a little stereotypical – Percy looked like he’d just walked in from Dream Daddy – but that’s not the case with the cast of The New Challengers. They’re all interesting people to spend time with and get to know and they’ll often surprise you with their depth.

While each character has their own likes and dislikes, they also represent a different aspect of gaming culture too. Grace is into classic retro experiences while Domino prefers shmups and introspective, challenging experiences. Jynx is a racing game fan, even having a custom racing cab to mitigate her need for leg brace, and Locksley spends his time undermining those arcade games that are rigged against the player like claw machines. Just beneath the surface of these personalities is some real nuance, delving into the diverse tastes that make up some gaming communities.

arcade spirits the new challengers review FoD2
The New Challengers even includes a little mini-game that mimics Rock, Paper, Scissors

My favourite aspect of Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is how it demonstrates an acute awareness of the challenges that video games as an art form and an industry are facing right now and incorporates them into its narrative. Remember the Blitzchung controversy from 2019 that opened up a 6 month debate on the place of politics in video gaming and eSports? There’s an interesting conversation in here that mirrors the complex commentary that this event inspired. There’s also a few characters that represent the women hating, bad faith players that you find preying on the impressionable gamer we see today. It’s a little on the nose, but they’re most definitely inspired by the career trolls that have plagued YouTube over the past few years. By steeping itself in gaming culture, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers represents the good and bad of the industry between the romance and friendships.

Visually, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is presented in the now accepted standard for visual novel cum dating sims. Characters will pop up on either side of the screen to represent a conversation and occasionally, you’ll be treated to a bit of animation. The art style used here for both the characters and the backgrounds are as charming and pleasant as they were in the previous game. At times, it’s most definitely a step up in quality.

My only disappointment with Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a complaint I had with the original game too – the audio. There have undoubtedly been improvements here since the first title, as in the vocals don’t stop the background music this time around. Those vocals are only used for the more poignant moments – most of the game is purely text based – and the performances are generally convincing. That said, there are still times when two characters will be conversing and their volumes don’t sound balanced. It’s a little off-putting and jarring, as if one character is shouting.

I think it’s also worth mentioning that if you really want to get the most out of Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers, you’re best playing the original Arcade Spirits game first. This new game skirts around explaining arcade culture in its alternative reality that was heavily covered in the first title so it rightfully avoids going over it all again. Unfortunately, you’ll be missing out on some context if you dive right into this follow up. There are a number of returning characters and references to the events and places found in the original Arcade Spirits that will have far less impact on you as a player too. In short – If you’ve not played the OG Arcade Spirits, do that then come and play The New Challengers. It’s a fun yet poignant visual novel that’s worth your time.

A pseudo-sequel that’s worth inserting a coin for, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers takes the premise of the original and builds upon it in some imaginative ways. With a diverse and interesting cast, most of which you can romance should you choose, as well as some astute commentary on the state of modern day gaming culture, it’s a smart and engrossing title.

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is launching onto PS5 (review platform), PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, Nintendo Switch and PC on May 27th, 2022.

Developer: Fiction Factory Games
Publisher: PQube

Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.

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Sean Davies

Once ate 32 pieces of pizza at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Husband to 1. Father to 5. Likes Star Wars and Star Trek equally. Doesn't care if you put pineapple on your pizza.

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