I’m snobbish when it comes to visual novels; I rarely find the writing engaging, characters interesting, or the storyline so convoluted I wonder if I’m reading a dime a dozen trash romance novel. I think it’s fair to say Arcade Spirits is nothing like that. And dare I say, it’s probably the only visual novel that challenged my perceptions of the gaming industry and people who live (and work) in it.
The legendary videogame crash of the 1980s never happened, and we’re introduced to a future world of 20XX. You play an aimless character who just recently lost their job and now feels adrift in the world. Your loyal roommate, Juniper, recommends a life coach app called Iris to help get your life back on track. This being a future where technology is integrated into every part of everyday life (so different from our own, right?), Iris starts to make recommendations on how to improve yourself.
Whether through fate or the free app download, you end up getting a job at a retro-style arcade called the Funplex. There you meet a cast of characters from the eSports competition QueenBee, including the score seeking, stock trading champ Percy, or the tech-savvy Naomi. With all this at your fingertips, it’s up to you what you make of your time at the arcade.
Arcade Spirits builds up this sense of escapism from the start, encouraging you to project yourself onto your character. It’s also heavily inclusive of LGBTQ elements we rarely see, though the story won’t play out differently based on the pronoun and gender picked for the person you choose to play as. Options for customization are limited, but it gets the job done.
Unlike other visual novels I’ve played, it’s made very clear from the beginning there are no “right” or “wrong” choices. They’re just decisions you make as a person and how you react to the consequences of those actions is what defines you. You have to build your personality from the ground up choosing whether you want to be heartfelt, quirky, etc. These are decided by the decisions and responses you make throughout the story and will affect the relationships you build with other people at the Funplex.
Iris plays as your little helper throughout the story and is disguised rather nicely as a tutorial guide. She keeps track of your personality stats (whether you’ve scored more points in the quirky department, etc.) and how strong relationships are with other characters. It’s a small addition, but I found these stats handy when romancing a certain character.
Where this visual novel shines in particular isn’t in how characters are portrayed, but its story. The motivations behind why someone will play one game for hours on end is in loving memory of a lost loved one. Spending countless days, even weeks, repairing abandoned arcade cabinets sends a thrill up another one’s spine. The passions and motivations behind why people play or repair games (sometimes both!) is shown front and center. People build relationships with these games and for many it’s a place to call “home” because of the experiences and memories associated with them. Even the Funplex itself isn’t just another retro arcade, but a place they call home.
There were odd choices that didn’t make sense for Arcade Spirits, like dialogue being only partially voice acted. This may have been done to give a sense of how the main characters sounded and the context of their speech, but it also felt unfinished. Why can’t all the dialogue be voice acted? Or why not forgo it in favor of letting me imagine how each person sounded? It just felt like an odd choice in an otherwise heartwarming and often devastating storyline.
The buildup to the ultimate “villain” did feel lackluster and I felt could have been handled better. Otherwise, Arcade Spirits is the best visual novel I’ve played in a long time. It could easily be played through several times just to dig into the backstories of the other people to be found at the Funplex. There’s no “wrong” choices to be made, just reflecting on those decisions you do make and how you approach the consequences of those actions. Why can’t all visual novels be more like this?