Arcana Heart 3 is the latest installment in the popular Japanese 2D all-female arcade fighting game series from developer Examu. While the series might not be well known outside of Japan, players who take the time to dig into this heavily anime-influenced game will find a fast and fun fighter with a surprising amount of depth. While the game was released as a full-priced disc version in Japan, the North American edition of Arcana Heart 3 is available exclusively via PlayStation Network download for a reduced price of $29.99. The low cost is certainly appealing, but many potential players are likely to get turned off after seeing the cast of characters, which consists almost entirely of youthful anime females in sometimes skimpy outfits. There are certainly some stylish character designs in the mix, like the pigtailed, pistol-packing Petra, but some may find beating up characters like grade-school artist Eko ethically questionable. Overcome these qualms, though, and you'll find a good game underneath the morally ambiguous surface.
Arcana Heart 3 operates with a five-button control scheme. Three of the buttons are used for attacks of increasing strength. The fourth button activates the game's unique homing mechanic, and the fifth has varying effects based on a player's chosen arcana. (There is a simplified control scheme available as well, though it makes it difficult to pull off some of the more advanced techniques seen in high-level competitive play.) Special moves are executed with stick motions in standard fighting game style. You also have two gauges: the force gauge and the arcana gauge, which allow limited use of powerful super move maneuvers for offense and defense, like guard cancels and the arcana burst. All of the 21 selectable characters have different skills and attributes that suit them toward different play styles.
One of the more unique elements to the fighting in Arcana Heart 3 is the homing button. By using this button, you can track a moving opponent as the maneuver around the stage. You can apply pressure by quickly zipping towards them, or experiment with different commands to further harry your foe. The homing button can also be used to cancel normal and special moves instantly into a homing dash, as well as initiate guard cancels to switch from defense to offense quickly. The use of homing adds an element of control and strategy to spacing that is very distinct to AH3.
The way the super meter--the arcana gauge--in Arcana Heart 3 operates is also different from what you might find in a lot of other fighters. The super meter has three levels, and techniques like basic supers and guard cancels use up a single level of the meter. The meter recovers automatically after a set period of time, though certain moves and techniques cause its recovery to slow down somewhat. However, it only auto-recovers up to a certain level unless you increase its maximum capacity, which is accomplished by attacking and defending while the bar is not in recovery mode. Though it's possible to constantly spend and replenish a single-level meter without bothering to increase the meter, it's not a sound strategy because more powerful attacks and options open when you have more meter levels in reserve.
Perhaps the most interesting element of Arcana Heart 3 is the titular arcana themselves. These spirits are selectable after you choose your character and each one can affect your attributes, including defense, offense, force and arcana meter recovery rates. They also grant unique special attacks and can alter your chosen character's attacks and movement. The arcana also grant unique special abilities during extend force mode, which is a limited-time boost you can enter by using up their force gauge. There are myriad combinations of characters and arcana suited to a wide variety of play styles, so you can experiment with a massive number of options. It's easy to spend hours just playing around with character and arcana combinations to see their capabilities.
The fighting itself is fun, though solo play isn't terribly impressive. The narrative presented in the Story mode is silly and incomprehensible, and the final boss, in classic fighting game style, is absurdly overpowered and difficult. You can unlock artwork for the in-game gallery, but unless you simply have to see the motivations and endings for each of the girls, you'll probably lose interest after a while. The real meat of Arcana Heart 3 lies in its competitive multiplayer mode. The infrastructure was developed by Arc System Works and is largely the same as its much-lauded BlazBlue netcode. It's easy to find and play against opponents based on your specifications, and provided that you both have strong signals, play is delightfully smooth, though matches with some lower-quality connections are still very good. Fighting against a CPU simply doesn't compare to the sort of intense skill and strategy playing against a human requires, and Arcana Heart 3's distinct combat elements make it a wonderful competitive experience.
Arcana Heart 3's stylings make it a bit of a tough sell, but there's plenty for players to enjoy. If you have no problem with the pervasive pandering and the concept of a bunch of (mostly) teenage girls trying to smack each other into unconsciousness, there's a very creative and technical fighting game underneath. It isn't likely to give Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition or Mortal Kombat a run for their money, but Arcana Heart 3 is a sleeper hit that genre fans should not miss.