Developer: Fiction Factory
Publisher: PQUBE Ltd.
Genre: Dating-sim Visual Novel
Reviewed On: PlayStation 5
Also Available For: PlayStation 4, PC, Xbox One/Series X, Nintendo Switch
The Basics: Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is an extremely queer dating-sim visual novel with surprisingly compelling sci-fi aspects mostly centered around video games. Like the original Arcade Spirits, it is set in a world where the 1983 crash of the video game market never happened, which allowed arcades (and video games in general) to continue to flourish and grow into a (somewhat) respected part of the cultural zeitgeist. The differences between our own version of 2022 and the version of 20XX that The New Challengers presents aren’t all that monumentous, to be honest – capitalism is still that ever-present beast and every imaginable type of toxicity and inequality is still rampant both within gaming circles and society at large – but it’s still interesting to see the more speculative aspects of Fiction Factory’s writing at play.
The New Challengers is set five years after the original Arcade Spirits and has an entirely new cast, so it’s absolutely not necessary to go through the original to appreciate this one. As with nearly any other game that can be said of, however, you won’t appreciate certain aspects of the story and setting as much, even though it does a pretty good job catching the player up to speed on the important bits. The player character is moderately customizable, giving the player options for appearance, name, and a range of pronouns including several sets of neopronouns that can all be adjusted between chapters as well as at the start of the game. This, alongside the diversity of the rest of the main cast, does a pretty good job of representing the breadth of people and experiences one can find within the gaming scene (and indeed the world at large).
The one thing about the player character that’s set in stone is their motivation within the story, which is to become an e-sports champion for a fictional fighting game-MOBA hybrid titled Fist of Discomfort 2. To that end, they enlist the help of a living AI app named Iris who directs them to the arcade-slash-pizzeria-slash-laundromat Good Clean Fun, where they meet the rest of the main cast who wind up comprising their esports team. The six members of their team, unsurprisingly, are the six main romance options in The New Challengers, though alongside the options to romance a customizable rival character (whose design is, unlike the protagonist, set in stone after initially making them), enter a polyamorous relationship with both Grace and Jynx, or simple remain friends with everyone there are nine routes in all.
In the original Arcade Spirits I was a big fan of all the lady romance options, lesbian that I am, but I was kind of tepid on the men. It’s not even that I disliked them, I just didn’t feel any particular connection, and the only reason I did their routes was for completionism’s sake. By contrast, this time around only has two romanceable men (in addition to three women and one nonbinary hottie, not counting the rival who can be whatever) who I both found to be very compelling characters even outside of their specific routes. Everyone else is similarly compelling, and I had a real fondness for the entire cast by the time I finished everything up, which is really the main thing you want from a dating sim, right?
On the other hand, the main plot didn’t grab me quite the way the first game’s did. Though its moments of speculation about its alternate timeline are still interesting, it feels less consistent about it than the original did, perhaps as a result of its increased scope. Also, I just can’t bring myself to care about esports the way I did about a small local arcade chain going up against a megacorporation, even if The New Challengers is still very much an underdog story. The structure is also more or less the same, which felt a bit stale to see two games in a row; eight chapters total, one intro followed by three chapters each centered around two of the six romance options, locking in your route in chapter five before hitting the nadir in chapter six and using the last two chapters to make a plan and beat the antagonist. I’ll admit that I’m perhaps being a bit too cynical in this particular judgement of the game, but I couldn’t help but be put-off somewhat by how formulaic the two Arcade Spirits games feel when taken together.
Another criticism I have with the actual content of the game’s writing is how the disabled character’s disability is written – more specifically, I take issue with the way many of the protagonists reactions to her disability are portrayed. There are many points in the story where the protagonist either can or is forced to stick their foot in their mouth regarding Jynx’s disability, to which Jynx will typically respond with a degree of annoyance and explaining to the protagonist (and by proxy the audience) why that was kind of messed up. This is all well and good, I’m all for attempts to educate abled people, but it feels like in their eagerness to represent the diversity of human bodies Fiction Factory ironically forgot that some of their players would be disabled as well. Nearly every interaction with Jynx in which her disability comes up (which is a significant portion of them) seems to hinge on an assumption that the player character and by extension the player themselves are not disabled, which as someone who is in fact disabled was consistently very jarring to experience.
Some other things I didn’t like: sound mixing on dialogue and the quality of the voice acting itself is all over the place, ranging from very professional to somewhat grating. Pronoun usage for the rival character seemed somewhat inconsistent, with many places I noticed using “he” rather than the neopronoun I had actually assigned them, and in general the game suffers somewhat from the increased customizability of the player character – that is if I am correct in my assumption that the PC’s conspicuous absence in any and all CGs is a result of the character creator being more in-depth. The fact that a number of incidental characters are also made using it (including some who really should have gotten their own proper designs such as one romance option’s sister) is also off-putting, as is the way the game makes a big point about not trying to “min-max” one’s relationships and personality traits when it makes it very easy to do just that. Which is not to say that gamifying relationships is the worst thing a dating sim can do! There comes a point where you just have to accept certain idiosyncrasies of the genre, but I do think dating sim makers should avoid actively drawing attention to it by going “hey don’t do this thing we all know you’re going to do anyway”.
I want to be clear that I am in fact fond of this game, and that all of these complaints are relatively minor in the face of the things it does well. It helps, of course, that I am generally much more forgiving of a game’s flaws when it is an indie title vs. a more big-budget affair, but what helps even more is how a lot of the moment to moment writing and characterization in The New Challengers is genuinely delightful. Some may roll their eyes at a few of the references and memes and gamer culture in-jokes, especially the more dated ones, but I frequently had a smile on my face or was actually laughing out loud at the goofs. Even more importantly, a lot of the personal issues the characters deal with hit close to home and feel like very real depictions of modern-day struggles, again both within and outside of gaming circles.
Despite what I said earlier about how formulaic this game feels when taken alongside its predecessor, I do think that fans of Arcade Spirits will enjoy The New Challengers a similar amount. Maybe they’ll enjoy it a bit less, maybe they’ll enjoy it a bit more, but they probably will enjoy it. For anyone else, this is still a pretty good visual novel with a fun cast of lovable weirdos that is, again, aggressively queer, something which always earns points in my book.
Happy belated Pride month.
Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is a charming visual novel that is not without flaws.