Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers Review – A League of Legends

Set in a futuristic world where the great video game crash of 1983 never happened and arcade machines never went away, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers has you play as an aspiring esports star who has one specific dream: to win and become champion of the Fist of Discomfort 2 (FOD2) Pro Tour. This event leads you to join a group of rookie gamers that hang out in a place that’s a wild combination of a laundromat, pizzeria and arcade, and better yet? This time you’ll even get to play a game of FOD2 outside of the visual novel format, just to spice things up a little.

But before you can get started in this new game, you’re first given the option to customize the player character. Unlike its prequel, which only had a few scarce options for hair, hair and eye colour, and the selection of pronouns, this time players will be able to pick their body type and there are different hairstyles also. As someone who has been asking for more games to let us take on the role of fat protagonists and characters, the selection of body types particularly interested me. It’s so easy to look at the world that is presented to us through medium after medium and think that only white, cis and skinny individuals deserve love and for their stories to be told, but not this time. Still, it’s far from perfect. While you’re allowed to have a fat body and not have that affect who you romance, I was disappointed that the clothes for fat characters only consisted of very baggy options. While this may be a reality to some, it felt disheartening that only skinny or muscular frames were given more options for clothes.

There was also a bug with the character creator’s name and pronouns that made it impossible to change. This meant that in spite of my pronouns being she/they, I was only able to be addressed with she/her pronouns and my name was stuck to being Sydney Moore. On the surface this may seem like quite a minor bug, but for queer players who would most likely prefer not being misgendered? Not the best bug to have, but one that I’ve been reassured will be fixed during a Day One patch.

Games and the people playing them have always been the heart Arcade Spirits, and the sequel is no exception. You immediately get to know your new team and together embark on a life-changing journey of training montages, heartfelt moments, extreme drama, and shenanigans in order to whip you and your group into shape to become a league of legends in the esports world. If that sounds inspiring to the point of fantasy then good, because as I quickly learned, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows in the world of competitive gaming. Far from it.

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers
The New Challengers’ character creation is much better than the prequel.

Much like its predecessor, the game from Fiction Factory Games isn’t afraid to ask the hard questions that go beyond being skin deep. So despite marketing itself as a game about romance and friendship (which it is, to a certain extent), Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is also one about defiance and challenging the status quo that thrives within the esports and games industry. In-game, the problems of the esports industry are presented in the very first chapter. Misogyny, ableism, mental illness and bullying are just a few things that you face, and while not directly rubbed in your face at all times, these themes of otherness and how they impact you and your friends within the industry are scattered throughout the entirety of this sequel.

A direct personification of your challenges comes in the form of your rival, Hunter. They can be customized in whichever way you like and you get the option to choose whether you two have more of a friendly rivalry, or one that has both of you butting heads non-stop. I went for the latter rivalry, which allowed me to experience a person who I’d safely dub as ‘toxic person who makes the gaming community look bad.’ This version of Hunter revels in ‘pwning’ noobs and rubbing it in their faces, and will go out of their way to screw you over both inside and outside of games. Them joining up with the best esports team in the world (one that you dreamed about joining as a hotshot FOD2 player) is what pushes you over the edge in the first place, driving you into the arms of your own esports team.

While Hunter is a literal walking, talking reminder that the games community can suck major ass, your crew of friends quickly become the protagonist’s anchor during the vengeful storm of events that occur throughout the 8 chapters you play. Each one has an interest in games beyond FOD2, but all of them come together to help the player character reach their dream of winning the Pro Tour. Another thing they all seem to have? A devastating amount of self-loathing and hatred. I told you that this game was relatable, didn’t I?

Much like the original, the cast of Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is the game’s strongest feature. Even if you decide not to pursue a romance, you’ll find it hard to pick just who is your favourite. Rhapsody is a FOD2 shoutcaster and quickly takes on the role of becoming the quirky voice of reason. At first, they were the one I wanted romance the most, but by the end of it I was dismayed to find that Jynx was actually my favourite. It’s very much an ‘oh my god, I love you all equally and I can’t make my mind up on who I like the most and oh my god how can I choose?’ Thankfully, if the prize references that can be found in the main menu are any indication of what endings you can get, there does look to be a polycule ending if you decide that’s the way you want to go.

Expect a lot of moments where you want to reach into the screen and hug your virtual friends.

The relationship mechanic works similar to the previous game, where your handy AI friend Iris logs down and scores your personality and relationships into scores that get revealed to you at the top right corner and at the end of each ‘level’. You can choose to turn this off if you’d like to experience your relationships without a PING or CHIME noise going off in the background, and honestly? I’d recommend it because it can get a tad annoying otherwise, even if it does let me know who exactly in the cast I need to be giving some love towards.

But another thing that’s great about the cast this time around? You’ll have the actual chance to talk to everyone! In the previous game you were pretty much forced to talk just to your love interest and a few friends, meaning that the two characters you didn’t talk to ended up moving away or just losing contact with you. So it was a relief to end the game and see that my least talked to characters, Domino and Grace, still considered me a friend. Realism is good and all, but I’m here to smooch, get in my feelings, and unpack the trauma of the hot people I meet while combatting the toxic environment that is rife (in-game and otherwise) in games.

Unfortunately, despite having such an excellent premise already with the esport storyline, I found that my biggest gripe with Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers was that it took on the baggage of the first game, stifling the second’s big, impactful story moments in the process by tying it back to the former. That’s fine with little nods to previous characters (Queen Bee fans will thrive, and that’s the only spoiler I’m going to mention), but when your esports story throws an AI wrench in the works for seemingly no reason but to connect the two games? I wasn’t a fan and found that it diluted the monumental impact some segments and levels were clearly going for. Even so, this baggage thankfully doesn’t touch nor take away from truly touching moments found within the game’s characters, of which there are many.

If Arcade Spirits was about finding your place in the world, Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers is about finding value in who you are and not just your accomplishments – thereby making it one of the most enjoyable and personal experiences I’ve played this year.

Score: 4/5

Arcade Spirits: The New Challengers for Nintendo Switch was provided to Gayming Magazine by PR.

[Disclaimer: Arcade Spirits is one of our sponsors for our upcoming DIGIPRIDE 2022 event. However, there is no direct nor indirect involvement in coverage whatsoever. We just want to talk about arcade games, esports and hot, queer people.]

Aimee Hart

[She/They] Aimee Hart is Editor-in-Chief of Gayming Magazine. She specializes in queer fandom, video games and tabletop, having started her career writing for numerous websites like The Verge, Polygon, Input Magazine and more. Her goal now is to boost LGBTQ+ voices in the video games industry.