Japanese fighting fans have been able to play Arcana Heart in their local arcades for more than a year now, but those of us in North America won't see its release until next month. In the meantime, Atlus has been kind of enough to send a preview version our way so we could get a feel for what this upcoming PlayStation 2 release has to offer.
It won't take you long to realize that Arcana Heart is a game of contrasts. The 2D visuals are filled with cutesy female brawlers, each featuring sparkling eyes and bright costumes. It seems every female anime archetype is represented in the game's 11 playable characters. However, the fighting isn't nearly as lighthearted because it offers a deep move set and plenty of element-based customization to help appeal to the hardcore crowd.
Story is usually an afterthought in fighting games, but Arcana Heart's plot helps to explain one of the more important features of the gameplay. The female brawlers are known as the maidens, and it's their mission to keep the world we know today from merging with the elemental world (the result of this fusion would be disastrous). Oddly enough, they go about doing this by actually teaming up with spiritual beings from the elemental world known as the arcana. This means that before each match, you select both a character and an arcana to supplement your roster of attacks with elemental special moves. It's an interesting twist that lends a lot more variety to the characters than you would otherwise see.
Aside from this mix-and-match aspect, the core gameplay is fairly traditional. Basic attacks are mapped to the square, triangle, and circle buttons. The X button is used to dash and execute arcana abilities. Many of the attacks require multiple buttons to be pressed at once, so it's often a better strategy to keep three fingers over the face of the controller rather than just your thumb. The quick pace of the battles and the fact that each character has a wide variety of moves means you'll need those fingers to dance rather frantically. In our experience, the controls felt nice and responsive, although mastering the directional sequences with the joystick could take some time.
Adding more variety to the combat are the aforementioned arcana abilities and a number of miscellaneous techniques. Your arcana can be summoned in grand fashion--temporarily putting a hold to the action with a quick but dramatic animation sequence that contrasts nicely with the cutesy 2D characters--to effectively double your number of special attacks. You'll also need to grasp the game's homing, homing cancel, and guard cancel techniques because proximity, as well as timing, are very big factors. On top of this, the levels can get very vertical, so there's also an aerial element to deal with also. All in all, Arcana Heart feels like the sort of game that's aiming for the seasoned veterans of the fighting genre.
This PS2 port of Arcana Heart will give players the option of using the original version of each character or the "full" one (the latter option comes from an arcade patch that was released to address some character balance issues). Whichever you prefer, you'll be able to check out Arcana Heart when it's released on April 8.