Dating sims and visual novels are so abundant these days that they've started addressing niche markets. Arcade Spirits is by no means the weirdest one I've come across (Hatoful Boyfriend,anyone?) but it certainly addresses one of the most niche audiences I've seen in a while: arcade gamers.
Story & Flow
In Arcade Spirits you take on the role of the hopeless protagonist, with gender and orientation being completely up to you. Of course, being a dating sim, you'll come across a slew of people with certain archetypes, all of which are romanceable and all of which require certain actions and responses to impress. That's Dating Sims 101. Where this game sets itself apart is, first and foremost, the aesthetic. If you were a gamer from the '80s or '90s, prepare yourself for a ride down memory lane.
The game takes place in a alternate timeline where the great video game crash of the '80s never happened, meaning that arcades (which in our world are a dying breed) are still alive and well. Pro gamers prefer the arcade scene to sitting at home on consoles, even e-sports focus on streaming from arcades. Your character, a hopeless, cursed loser (their words, not mine,) is seeking to find something new in life; something worth living for and fighting for. Enter IRIS.
As your companion throughout the game, IRIS, a self-aware AI on your smart phone, will help you maneuver through the pitfalls of dating, working at the Funplex, and surviving your new life in the pursuit of hope, love, and purpose. As you make decisions, she scores you based on the kinds of responses you give and lets you know how you're doing with each potential romance. But don't think this means you're gamifying your relationships; the game very explicitly urges you to act as you see fit and use the scores IRIS makes to help see where you're headed. Maybe it'll help you see something in yourself you didn't notice before?
The characters are all very interesting and all have a surprising amount of backstory to them. With multiple endings and tons of choices to make, you'll need to play through several times if you want to understand everyone's story. And surprisingly, all the stories I've seen so far are well worth discovering. Sure, I have my favorites; it's a dating sim. But at the same time, I still keep wanting to come back to see how things turn out (not just romantically) with each of the other characters.
The game does rely heavily on the aesthetics of retro arcades, if that wasn't already apparent, which leads to a lot of interesting looks into the unseen world of arcades, from how the machines work to what an arcade raid/auction is. Whether this thrills or bores you will largely depend on how much you fit into this game's niche market, but if you're fascinated by arcades and the games within them, prepare to be mesmerized.
While the game does record stats, such as your boldness, kindness, and so on, there isn't a lot here beyond making decisions. Some dating sims include mini games, which seem like a no-brainer for a sim about arcade games, but sadly, there's nothing here. That's not to say the game isn't involved or engrossing, but if you want more than clicking on choices, this may not be the right game for you.
Graphics & Sound
The art and music in this game are phenomenal. Not in a 4K HD, blow your monitor apart kind of way, but in the love and details that went into them. Each character is unique and, frankly, gorgeous. The background is filled with tons of hidden details if you take the time to appreciate it. And of course, the music is perfect for the game. It draws you in and makes you feel like you're back in an arcade, waiting with a handful of tokens and a heart full of hope.
The characters aren't fully voiced and there are a few times where the recording quality wasn't as good as it could've been (I'm looking at you, Hamza) but overall, it's nothing that will detract from the story.