Slightly sluggish controls. Not terribly different from most other fighting games.
A hugely popular game in arcades in Japan, Arcana Heart is one of the newest anime-style games to make it to the US and arrive on the PS2. Although not based on an anime series, the game's graphics and character designs are very heavily anime-inspired, which contributes partly to the game's huge popularity-the other factor being this game is the very rare fighting game to boast an all-girl lineup, all the fighters are female.
The graphics are impressive and fairly slick, as the game makes very good use of the anime-style illustrations between the impressive opening animation sequence, character designs, post-fight screens, and in-game backgrounds. Serious anime fans will note a lot of the typical anime traits in the graphics-wide eyes, kanji characters in the backgrounds, and certain "other" nuances. The frame rate is very smooth and there is little to no unintentional slowdown during gameplay.
Sounds are solid as well and generally taken from the original Japanese version of the game. Almost all, if not all the original character voices from the Japanese arcade version are present here and have not been translated into English, which certainly helps to maintain the authenticity of the original. Not surprisingly, this makes the voices sound typically cutesy as they do in anime, which might turn off a few people. The music varies by stage and is generally well-done given it's compatible with each stage's character although some music isn't as good as others. The sound effects are excellent and appropriate for different events as well although sometimes they do end to be overshadowed by the constant voices of the characters doing their moves.
Controls are fairly good for a fighting game, especially one like this that can be played well without an arcade-style controller, although with the PS2 controller there's still a little bit of sluggishness at times, especially when trying to execute certain special moves and multi-button commands. With an arcade stick the results tend to be a little better but not perfect, and it's not really enough of a difference to warrant using a stick instead. The button layouts are fairly adjustable though, so it can be changed to something more suitable to your liking.
Gameplay is generally standard fighting-game fare, although the addition of a spiritual partner known as an "Arcana" does help to add variety and depth. The Arcanas can be called upon by the fighters to aid them in battle, and the ability to pair up any character with any Arcana makes for over 120 possible combinations, each one unique compared to any other one and resulting in fairly high gameplay depth & replay value.
There's also a bit of variety in each character, from the typical anime staples-the wide-eyed schoolgirl who believes love will solve the world's problems and the samurai girl who lives & dies by the blade-to the just plain weird and downright humorous, like one girl who moves around and attacks with the help of what looks to be a giant blob, and another girl who uses witchcraft but is also controlled by a talking wooden skull-head staff named "Mike".
Otherwise all the typical fighting game staples are here-fireballs, super uppercuts, combos, and a couple of other unique features-namely the Arcanas and the homing gauge that can be used for quick dashing attacks and recoveries.
There are a handful of gameplay modes including Story Mode and Arcade Mode, plus the PS2 version adds a second version of the game-Arcana Heart Full!-which fixes some minor glitches in the original and adds a little more balance to the gameplay.
While there are no unlockable characters or environments there is plenty of artwork and a couple other items to be unlocked through gameplay.
Although Arcana Heart isn't terribly different compared to other fighting games, for an anime-style game it's very good and a nice alternative to the other fighters out there because of the all-girl lineup and also because while it's a serious fighter, it really doesn't take itself too seriously and there's quite a bit of intentional and unitentional humor in the gameplay. It also has enough depth and variety to keep you interested for quite a while. Overall it's a great addition to most fighting game libraries, even though it might be one to keep stashed away from the girlfriends & wives who frown on this type of game.