Game Review: Sweet Fuse: At Your Side

Those of you who have read my blog for awhile (or even just looked at my tumblr or Facebook feeds over the past few weeks) will know that I have a thing for dating sims in general and otome games in particular (Angelique was my first). In recent years, especially with the success of games like Persona 3 and 4, Aksys Games has figured out that maybe there’s an audience for this mostly Japan-only genre, and brought us Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. Now, a year later, Aksys has brought Sweet Fuse: At Your Side to North America, but will this title blow your mind, or will your enthusiasm be defused?

Sweet Fuse: At Your Side is a visual novel/otome game developed by Idea Factory and published in North America by Aksys.  You play as Saki Inafune, niece of game designer Keiji Inafune, who has been invited to attend the opening of her uncle’s theme park, the Gameatorium, which as its name suggests, is a theme park with video games as the theme. Upon her arrival, however, a menacing figure in a pig costume who calls himself Count Hogstein blows up the Ferris wheel and takes the park staff hostage. To save her uncle, Saki volunteers to take part in a series of deadly games along with six men: a journalist, a detective, a fortune teller, an escort, an idol singer, and a hardcore gamer who only came to the park for DLC. Over a seven day period, these seven individuals must survive Hogstein’s deadly amusement park attractions while trying to discover his identity and his reasons for doing what he’s doing, oh, and perhaps find love along the way.

From left to right: Shirabe, Shidou (bottom left), Urabe (upper left), Saki (center), Mitarashi (upper right), Wakasa (bottom right) and Meoshi

Seeing as this is a text-based game and uncovering the plot is part of the fun, I can’t say much more plot-wise, Suffice it to say that it’s a much more lighthearted affair than games like 999 and Virtue’s Last Reward, also published by Aksys, although both games place a far greater emphasis on puzzles. As is typical for a visual novel, you will spend a lot of time reading and making choices (which may or may not earn you affection points with the guys) in Sweet Fuse, choices which may or may not suddenly result in the appearance of the game over screen.  Sweet Fuse does have a couple features to break up the monotony, however: Explosive Insights and “What’s Wrong With You?!” sequences.

In a nutshell, Explosive Insights occur when the characters are stumped during one of the games. Saki will go over the situation in her head, and you will be prompted to select three key phrases, if you pick the right phrase, Saki will have an epiphany (“Insight Incited!”) and the game will continue, failing these challenges means game over (I’m not sure if it’s an instant game over in all cases, though).

My favourite feature, however, are the “What’s Wrong With You?!” sequences. At certain points in the game, the screen will turn red and shake, and Saki can choose to either “get mad” or restrain herself. Getting mad is ridiculously fun, whether it’s because one of the guys is being a sexist idiot or the villain is being an asshole, the ability to (literally) blow up in their faces is really satisfying. Note though, that there are a couple times where restraining yourself is a good idea so you can get all the gallery images (and you will want to complete the gallery, trust me). Note that getting mad at other characters usually results in an instant apology and an affection point, no one dares brush off angry Saki, not even the Big Bad who is pulling the strings.

Not pictured: Lightning flashing, a character’s hilarious “Oh crap!” face.

One thing I love about Sweet Fuse is that it paces itself well, you;re well into the action within the first ten minutes, and the game generally hits that sweet spot right before “characters are talking” becomes “characters are talking too much” before an Explosive Insight pops up. There are times where the game will drag on (particularly in a certain route where the character is out of action for a few days) but that was pretty much the only time where I was like “Ugh, move plot, move!” It helps that the characters are interesting and they all have their own little quirks and secrets to uncover. Even characters I didn’t like at first managed to grow on me. Saki herself can be as shouty or demure as you like (although getting angry is often required to get the best endings), and although the men she’s with do often end up declaring that they will protect her from danger, Saki pledges to protect them as well, and she’s constantly using her wits to get her and her friends out of difficult situations (in one case, she ends up rescuing herself from captivity). The game also manages to avoid the problem with other visual novels where it only takes a few minutes to play through the game for the second or third time. While the first three “stages” of the game are the same for everyone, the last four differ depending on which character you end up with (this is why it’s a good idea to play through every route, and also because the characters are adorable). Yes, you can skip text you’ve read before (although you can’t skip Explosive Insights), and the game does keep track of which decisions you’ve already made.

I would love to go in depth about the routes and how I felt after playing each one, but I’m trying to keep this review spoiler free, so I will now talk about some things I didn’t like about Sweet Fuse. As I said, the game does drag on a bit and certain points, and even though the characters are memorable (learning that the straight-laced cop is terrible at flirting or the tough escort has a secret love of amusement parks is always a treat) and you learn some things about their background if you pursue them, in some cases I was left with the feeling that I still didn’t know a lot about them. Other reviews have also raised concerns about the age gap between Saki and some of the guys (particularly Shirabe and Mitarashi, particularly since the former is a widowed single dad and Saki is eighteen and still in high school) but I found the age gap didn’t really bother me until I played through Shirabe’s route. Your mileage may vary. The other thing that bothered me (to the point of being mildly annoyed) were the spelling and grammatical errors within the text, particularly when it came to using the correct verb tense (Although I suspect that Aksys translated onigiri as :donut’ because of Pokemon). Seriously, for the love of gods, Aksys, this is why Q&A testing exists! I should note here that all of the dialogue is voiced (apart from Saki’s lines, which have no voice work except in one case) in the original Japanese, so you don’t have to worry about craptastic English dubbing. The one other issue I had with the game is that it’s ridiculously easy to save scum, as you can save anywhere except during Explosive Insights, so if you make a “wrong” choice, you can easily go back and pick the one that will get you an affection point or not lead to a game over. The Explosive Insight sequences are for the most part very easy, and, thanks to the aforementioned save scumming, if you don’t pick the right keyword, you can load the game and start all over again. Lastly, some routes are definitely more spoilery than others, especially the secret character, who is available after completing the game once. I think it would have been better had the secret character been available after getting the good endings for the other guys.

As for potentially triggery content, I’ve already mentioned the age gap and the sexism, but there is one particular route where creepy stalker-ish behaviour happens, and it does come out of left field. I ended up liking this particular route and feeling guilty for liking it because of the creepy factor. Note that unlike other examples of the Yandere archetype, this character is not violent towards Saki, and he’s definitely a milder version of this character type. However, for those of you who wish to avoid the character completely, avoid falling for the “traitor”.

In case you want to avoid being prematurely spoiled, my recommended route order (from first to last) is as follows: Wakasa, Meoshi, Mitarashi, Urabe, Shirabe, Shidou, Secret Character. The Secret Character’s route is unlocked by picking “It was a present” (if you haven’t completed the other routes, pick the other option, as it locks you out of the Secret Character’s route).

Overall, Sweet Fuse is the perfect diversion on a rainy day. Despite involving bombs and deadly amusement park attractions, the game is rather lighthearted and full of humour and gaming references. If you’re not completely sold on the idea of visual novels, this is a great way to get your feet wet. If you love otome games and you want to see more of them in North America…seriously, why haven’t you bought this yet? Or even if you like anime and you’re looking for a good story, give Sweet Fuse a try.

Sweet Fuse can be bought in UMD form for $30 or as a digital download for PSP and Vita on the PSN for $25. I bought the UMD because my PSP’s still kicking and I prefer having a physical copy, plus it gives more money to Aksys, but if you want to save money and the resources it takes to make the UMD, get the digital version.

Also, on a somewhat unrelated note, I am very annoyed at the lack of slash in the fandom (especially since there is a good amount of subtext, especially if you play through Mitarashi’s route) and am thinking of writing fanfic, and I haven’t written fanfic since I was twelve.

First Impressions: “The Royal Trap” Demo

I’ve been waiting for this game to come out ever since I bought Magical Diary and found Hanako Games’ forums. As you may know, I’m a big fan of Hanako Games’ stuff, so, in the interests of giving Hanako and co. more exposure and because I get $5 off this game if I blog about it, here are my first impressions of the demo, which you can download here: http://www.hanakogames.com/royaltrap.shtml (You can also go there to purchase the full game.)

First things first, The Royal Trap is a visual novel. You play as Madeleine Valois, valette (er…valet, but the closest female equivalent doesn’t sound badass enough) to Prince Oscar. Her job is to guide and advise him, as well as keep him out of trouble, with the end goal of helping him land a royal bride. What she is not supposed to do is let him get caught in a web of court intrigue, and she is especially not supposed to fall in love with him.

Things…don’t really go according to plan.

In all honesty, even though I’ve loved every other game that HG has put out, at the time I wasn’t sure if I would like a “pure” visual novel (ie. one with no gameplay apart from the text-based portions). Of course, since then I’ve played and loved VNs like Cinders and Date Warp , so I must conclude that I should just stop worrying and enjoy every game Hanako comes up with.

But, for those of you who want concrete reasons why you should pay $20 for a game (don’t start about VNs not being games, srsly) with no gameplay, here are some good ones:

The Art

The art is gorgeous. Full stop.

In a visual novel, where your task is to entertain an audience via text and visual alone, the art (IMHO) is very important, and The Royal Trap‘s art delivers. There’s plenty of eye candy in this game, and it’s not just for lovers of either bishonen or outrageous costumes (although there’s plenty of both). Bright colours predominate, particularly jewel tones (appropriate for a courtly setting), but I was particularly impressed with the scenic art, which was simply eye-popping. The character art is similarly well done, from the dark-haired, mysterious Nazagi to the very flamboyant Gaston (that HAIR!) to Princess Cassidy’s pink….everything, it all looks very nice and, most importantly, very consistent (as I believe multiple artists were involved in creating the art). The only area where the art suffers are the backgrounds, which I thought were quite plain in comparison, but that hardly matters when you have characters that look like this:

Prince Gaston and his glorious locks…and sparkles.

The Music

The music is an eclectic mixture of JPop-ish tunes (the trailer theme/main theme), slower instrumentals (stringed instruments are predominant), to an adrenaline-pumping guitar riff that was completely unexpected and plays during tense or more action-oriented scenes happen. I didn’t expect to be this impressed with the music, but this is honestly heads and shoulders above HG’s other offerings.

The Shut Up Factor

There is probably an official name for this, but I’m going to call it the “Shut Up Factor”. In a nutshell, the SUF is the point where the characters shut up and either let the player do something (such as make a choice or play a mini-game) or something happens that increases the tension and gives the player a break from more ponderous exchanges between characters (or internal monologues). If the characters go on past a certain point, I become bored and my interest in the game plummets. A great example of a VN where the characters don’t know when to shut up is Aselia the Eternal, where characters not only will not shut up, their dialogues take the form of a made up language that isn’t translated for the player’s benefit until the protagonist has heard enough to learn it. You might see this as a realistic portrayal of what being immersed in a language is like, but in practice it’s pretty annoying, and this is from someone who loves to read. Seriously, if your visual novel can manage to annoy a prolific reader, your VN needs work.

Fortunately, The Royal Trap has a good mix of dialogue, internal monologues, tension-building scenes and just plain stopping and letting the player make a choice to hold my interest. It helps that the writing is great (as usual for HG) and the characters are interesting and all appear to have their secrets. Madeleine herself is a very down-to-earth protagonist, raised to be a “proper” lady and always in her older sister’s shadow. Romance, courtly intrigue, dual-wielding daggers, all of this is in the demo, but there’s also the persistent theme of the “gilded cage” of a society where people (even nobles, especially nobles) are given a role to play and certain expectations to fulfill, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it will probably be examined more closely in the full game.

I was a dummy and didn’t take a screenshot from the demo, so here is one from the official page.

Bottom Line

If you like stories with adventure, romance, and courtly intrigue and don’t mind a lot of reading, this might be for you. I’ve played most of Hanako Games’ other games, and the production values in this one are nothing short of impressive (especially for a small indy game studio). If you try the demo, and like this but wish there was more gameplay, I’d definitely check out Long Live the Queen, by the same company, which has courtly intrigue (and a bunch of ways for your character to die horribly) wrapped up in a raising sim, or Date Warp, also a VN with a bit of gameplay and more of a modern/sci-fi feel.

Once again, if you would like to try the demo, the link is here: http://www.hanakogames.com/royaltrap.shtml

Oh, and for those of you who are concerned about replay value, I’ve heard from Hanako that the game is seven chapters long, the first four are shared between all the possible “routes” (which, I’m assuming, depend on which of the four princes you decide to chase) but the last three are completely different depending on which route you’re on. Considering that other HG titles tease you mercilessly with questions that remain unanswered until you play a different route, I’d say you’ll probably want to play it more than once. Thankfully, there is a “skip” option, so it’s not like you’ll need to wade through mountains of text to get where you need to be.