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.