When it comes to mainstream gaming, being late to the party is not usually considered a badge of pride. Although attitudes are thankfully shifting, it can sometimes feel as though the flurry of initial engagement has waned for players who discovered an older title too late. Reviews, livestreams, Easter eggs, entire walkthroughs of each and every ending — they’re published with such immediacy that the impact of all this content can bleed into the expectations for a game way before the player has even reached for a controller.
By contrast, The Arcana welcomes latecomers with a gripping episodic storyline, enchanting setting, and gloriously enthusiastic community of fans. And that fandom is still going strong for one very important reason.
The development company is Nix Hydra, which is based in L.A. and founded by women. They are committed to “making magical, colorful, bold products for young women and anyone else traditionally ignored by the gaming industry,” as per their Kickstarter. One of the team’s latest ventures is The Arcana, which is an otome-inspired visual novel for iOS and Android that flirts with a sinister mystery beneath its rich illustrations.
The player character is an adept magical apprentice, honing their natural gifts in fortune-telling. The wandering, secretive Asra is your mentor, and while packing up to leave on another mysterious journey, he entrusts his prized tarot deck to you. Whether you challenge Asra’s repeated disappearances or defer to his judgement, he becomes dreamy and melancholy, tangled up in thoughts of words he should have said.
The Countess Nadia (pictured above, middle) is authoritative and strong-minded, determined to govern the city in the void left by her husband’s death. Despite her courtly, stoic appearance and disdain for magical arts, she is plagued with nightmares of the fire that claimed Count Lucio. You are instrumental in her carefully laid plan, which is years in the making: luring the murderer to the palace and sentencing them for their unforgivable crime.
Her accused? The dishonorable Doctor Julian Devorak (pictured above, right), talented beyond belief yet reviled by all for his perceived involvement in the Count’s demise. As fate would have it, he darkens the apprentice’s doorway just moments after Nadia’s visit, seeking Asra’s whereabouts. Scornful and suave, Julian’s sudden reappearance and his possible innocence casts an uncertain shadow over Nadia’s quest for justice. Just what secrets are to be revealed — and by whom — will be written in the cards.
All of the aforementioned characters are playersexual and referred to with they/them pronouns before being properly introduced — a tiny consideration that has not gone unnoticed. Once the prologue is complete, players choose their apprentice’s name and select their own pronouns, which can be changed at any point by tapping the save file cog. Moreover, the apprentice is never depicted in-game, which has only empowered fans’ imaginations. The official Twitter account proudly retweets many diverse renditions of the main character.
The Arcana also showcases art that is quite simply sleek and beautiful, seamlessly weaving the characters into their settings and infusing the drama of the script with individualistic reactions and emotions. Backstories and relationships pointedly avoid tropes in LGBTQIA+ themes, and differing characters may fall in love with each other over the course of the branching narrative.
Second only to inclusivity, freedom of choice seems eminent to the developers’ visions. Not once did I feel compelled to select a certain response or channeled into a narrative path contradictory to my previous decisions – a storytelling feat that even game developer behemoths fall short on.
Tarot card readings also deepen the interactions between the apprentice and supporting characters, urging the player’s role from passivity to active performer on The Arcana’s stage. Hearts will be captured by the game’s sumptuous writing and a world that is as delightfully familiar as your favorite fantasy media, but that harnesses more than enough depth to rival them and draw you into its intricacies. Thus, it is so much more impressive that the game is developed through the unerring efforts and commitment of just two Nix Hydra team members: Nikolai Ladizinsky and Dana Rune, who act as the writer and artist, respectively.
Here’s where we circle back to that ‘late to the party’ concept! Following a triumphant Kickstarter campaign that received 140% of its funding in November 2016, content for The Arcana is released on a bi-weekly schedule. “V – The Hierophant” is the latest update consisting of plot progression and bug fixes. Because of this, latecomers don’t get the short end of the stick; five chapters are immediately available to them upon downloading, the game’s core mechanics are polished, and the fan community is established yet not so large that it feels daunting to join the fray.
So how do the developers maintain positive engagement with their serialized product in a market continually populated by the very opposite?
Short answer: microtransactions. Long answer: incoming. Yes, The Arcana is free to download, but certain narrative choices cost the apprentice coins, such as buying items or a special scene with a character. New players automatically find 150 coins in their apprentice’s account, which is definitely enough to select one choice, but not both. (I only encountered two of these ‘coin’ choices in my first playthrough.)
Initially, it was microtransactions that provided more coins and therefore more narrative flexibility. However, Nix Hydra fully appreciated that a proportion of fans would not be able to spend actual coins on the visual novel and, instead of shelving them, they introduced the Wheel of Fortune. On the Wheel, players can win coins of varying value or a trinket. Once the player has collected all unique trinkets belonging to The Arcana characters, an exclusive flashback scene is unlocked. The Wheel can be spun once per day for free or, alternatively, 20 coins will buy an extra spin.
In addition, the developers were abundantly clear that The Arcana is not pay-to-win. Romance routes are totally actualized and concluded with or without the coin-related scenes. These unlocked opportunities are considered bonus content and very much peripheral to the story’s progression. It is this sympathetic rapport cultivated between audience and developer that provided assurance to fans that their feedback was heard and, most importantly, acted upon.
As a final point, The Arcana’s episodic nature keeps us on tenterhooks, anchoring everyone together at the same narrative point, which endows players plenty of time for speculation, gorgeous fanart, and memes.
These decisions have been heartwarmingly well-received and understood by players, speaking volumes as to the dedicated following of The Arcana. It also bodes well for new indie enterprises in the same vein. I can’t recommend it enough! I’ll unabashedly admit that I’ve fallen far too deep into the plot, rehashing my save file and savoring each bright backdrop to search for hints as to what fate really befell Count Lucio. HMU if you have any theories (or memes), ‘cause I would love to hear about your impressions. The Arcana is an excellent and truly enjoyable beginning to a distinct twist on the fantasy visual novel genre, leaving you sighing in wait for the next installment.