Version tested: Xbox 360
If variety is the spice of life, then fighting games have been spoiling us rotten ever since Street Fighter II kick-started the war of numbers. It all began innocently enough with eight world warriors, before Capcom upped the ante with four playable bosses and four new challengers. Tekken and The King of Fighters then raised the bar to well over 20, and as the one-upmanship intensified, we saw the ill-advised shoehorning of 63 characters into Mortal Kombat: Armageddon.
But a roster roll-call is an inadequate way to gauge true variety and statistical diversity. When you factor in innovations like multiple fighting systems, freeform tag teams and super move selection, it's clear that modern fighting games offer much more choice. Indeed, Marvel vs. Capcom 3 offers 7140 different team combinations, and if you factor in assist types, that figure increases to a whopping 192,780.
But if there's one thing that BlazBlue has proven, it's that larger select screens don't necessarily offer greater variety; by crafting a handful of characters that look and play distinctively, a compact roster can challenge the flexibility of bulkier contemporises. Arcana Heart 3 is one such fighter that offers quantitative variety and qualitative diversity in equal measure.
With previous Arcana games having skipped Europe entirely, Arcana Heart 3 will be the first point of entry for many players, myself included. As the colourful screenshots suggest, this is a 2D fighter with an all-female cast of 23 maidens - lending the game an eye-wateringly twee presentation where pintsized ninjas with puppy-dog ears face off against rollerblading demons with pigtails.
However, these are just the standard-fare characters. Once you come face-to-face with a girl who fights within an anthropomorphic water blob, a crayon-wielding child who brings her drawings to life and a bunny-girl who's borrowed one of Doctor Robotnik's old mech suits, it's clear these ladies take accessorising to a whole new level. Really, the zaniness is no more extreme than Marvel vs. Capcom 3's - it's just unapologetically Japanese.
Once you've settled on a doe-eyed dame who tickles your fancy, it's time to get to grips with Arcana Heart's flexible combat system. The control layout is split between five buttons that include three attacks - much the same as BlazBlue and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 - as well as a dedicated Homing and Arcana button. Basic combos can be achieved by chaining attacks from light to heavy before finishing with a tasty special move.
Character-specific gauges also mix up the offensive pressure of certain fighters. The operatic Petra, for example, has to reload her pistols to get the most out her gunslinger combos, while half beast, half schoolgirl Akane needs to keep her ninja gauge topped up so she can chain her special moves together. The strictly business Zenia, meanwhile, has a golf-swing gauge that determines the damage dealt by her pneumatic gauntlet.
Further trickery is achieved through a super gauge that starts with one complete stock. This can be increased to a maximum of three stocks by dealing and taking damage, then whenever you burn meter on a super or Homing cancel, the gauge will slowly recharge back to the highest stock you previously achieved. This lets you dish out level 1 supers early on, or if you're feeling patient, you can hold out for a brutal level 3 Critical Heart in the final round.
So far, so samey, but the real twist comes courtesy of the Arcana system that augments your character with supplementary abilities.
After picking a fighter, the select screen fades away to reveal 23 Arcanas that look like the distant cousins of Final Fantasy's summons. Each one is ranked by its attack and defence characteristics, but in truth, they affect everything from your character's health to how quickly your super gauge recharges. They also confer passive abilities that include immunity to chip damage, unblockable charge attacks and increased jump height. Metal even lets you charge your super gauge manually, SNK style.
Things get even more complex once you start experimenting with the Arcana-specific moves, as with everything from basic projectiles and command grabs to advanced special moves that let you harvest plants for health or morph your opponent into a helpless dark slime, it's clear that Arcana Heart 3 offers a mindboggling level of depth. And that's without contemplating the ins and outs of the Force Gauge and its defensive Arcana Bursts and screen-filling Arcana Blazes.
And yet, despite all its mechanical splendour, Arcana Heart 3 suffers from The King of Fighters XII syndrome, with its comparative lack of single-player distractions.
The weightiest offering is the by-the-numbers Story mode. This plays out through static storyboards as you work your way through a handful of AI opponents, before cumulating with an elaborate yet uninspired boss fight. Then, once you've skipped the end credits more times than you'd care to, you're left with the sedate Versus, Score Attack and Gallery modes.
Thankfully, the online functionality proves to be more accomplished; working with Arc System Works, developer Examu has borrowed the excellent BlazBlue netcode. This means lag-minimal matches when playing against people in the same country, and with customisable Player and Ranked matches to keep you busy, Arcana Heart 3 offers a pleasingly robust experience. You can even brush up in Training mode as you wait for an opponent to join your room, which is a welcome touch.
To recommend Arcana Heart 3 therefore depends on what you want from a fighting game. If you're the kind of player who demands a wealth of single-player content and expects to see everything from combo trials to challenge towers, then this barebones approach will rub you up the wrong way. And if you prefer your games gritty and gory, then these manga maids are only going to make you cringe.
But if you can accept the pleated pixels for what they are, can appreciate the accomplished fluidity of the on-screen animations and - more importantly - are prepared to invest time into learning a technically demanding yet ultimately rewarding combat system, then Arcana Heart 3 is one of the most flexible, diverse fighting games that money can buy. It's far from perfect - and the variety it offers will be too spicy for some - but it effortlessly positions itself next to the current cream of the crop as a colourful, curious alternative.
7 / 10