Sweet Fuse: At Your Side
バクダン☆ハンダン (Bakudan Handan)
Otomate / Aksys Games
Sony PSP / PS Vita
It’s opening day for Saki’s uncle’s gaming-inspired theme park. Excitement is replaced with fear when someone in a pig suit sets off bombs and takes people hostage. “Count Hogstein” announces the terror shall stop if seven people can beat his games. Saki volunteers, but can she and the others save everyone and unravel Hogstein’s true identity?
All the talk lately about Universal Studios Japan’s upcoming Nintendo and Square Enix attractions made me think, “You know, I’m in a theme park mood.” And I can’t pull out Rollercoaster Tycoon because I’ll just be sending a bunch of people to their deaths. Hope the aliens from Pixels never see that footage…
Instead, I dug out Sweet Fuse: At Your Side, a game world I think a lot of us can get behind. You see, a theme park based on video games just opened up. Forget VR! People can go in and experience some of the biggest game hits for themselves.
Or at least they would have had a pig not bombed the place at its grand opening.
As Count Hogstein holds the staff hostage, he announces he’ll pick seven “heroes” to take on his challenges in order to save everyone. Saki volunteers in a scene reminiscent of The Hunger Games so she can save her uncle and because she feels she’s pretty good at game logic. Her fellow companions, however, have been drafted. These guys range in age and occupation, and together this group of strangers must work together to save the park and its occupants.
Like most visual novels, the game ultimately comes down to “choose option A or B (or sometimes C)”. However, the game has segments where Saki ponders the current situation, and singling out key words will have her gain insight. Think of these sections as a very, very shortened version of Ace Attorney‘s courtroom sequences. Just like in that game, sometimes you might know the answer, but choosing the correct combination may be a bit tricky. That’s what save scumming is for though.
Speaking of decisions, the most fun ones are where you can chose to “get mad”. Saki’s rage summons lightning as she scares the living crap out of everyone around her. The accompanying visuals are always hilarious and is one of the best parts of the game. She doesn’t take anyone’s crap, including Hogstein’s. This makes her a very fun main character and not a doormat.
As is the standard for dating sims, certain selections will increase a guy’s affection for Saki. Each man has two endings, one good and one bad. But Sweet Fuse: At Your Side has one of the best systems in a romance-based visual novel. While it’s often obvious which option will increase a guy’s love gauge, some choices are essentially choosing between rock, paper, or scissors. Fortunately, the game includes a couple of spots where you can choose any of the guys for an easy affection boost. Even better, on replays, you can allocate affection points. In Hakuoki, for instance, if you use the Record of Service to jump to a chapter, the game resets the love gauges. This makes it essentially useless to go straight into a character’s route, as the lack of affection almost certainly is going to lead to a bad ending. In Sweet Fuse, you just choose a chapter, distribute up to the maximum love points available, and off you go. Seriously, why can’t more games be like this? If I want to start at the beginning, fine. If I want to jump right to the final chapter, I can do that. That’s how a good visual novel should work.
The game is divided into seven chapters (called “stages”). The first three make up the common route before moving on to a character route. Despite the original goal of defeating all seven games, the routes do diverge pretty significantly. While this prevents the story from being repetitive, Sweet Fuse is one of those games where players should follow a recommended order. The main intrigue lies in Count Hogstein: what is his identity, and what is his motivation? If you choose to complete Shidou’s or Shirabe’s paths first, you are going to spoil much of the puzzle for yourself. Later Otomate games like Norn9: Var Commons include route order recommendations, and Sweet Fuse certainly could have used a hint. You can even get on spoileriffic secret route on your second time through; most games would lock it until all others have been completed. If you want to solve the mystery in as short of time as possible, you certainly can do so in two playthroughs. This is good if you want a Cliff Notes version of the situation, but playing in a non-recommended order takes away a lot of the impact of the story. (The recommended order is Wakasa -> Meoshi -> Mitarashi -> Urabe -> Shidou -> Shirabe -> secret character.)
Over the course of the seven days, Saki and her newfound companions take on a bunch of games. This is the part of Sweet Fuse that I think even non-otome fans will enjoy. Who wouldn’t want to play an Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland racing game? Or perhaps you’ll catch some of the real-game allusions (Samurai Fantasy VII anyone?). The most obvious though is the fact Saki’s family name is Iwafune, and her uncle’s name is Kenji. Heck, KANE DE BOO is the mascot of Comcept (real-life Iwafune’s company). Saki herself isn’t a major gamer, but Sweet Fuse itself provides plenty of jokes for players. The game also has some hilarious moments that make me laugh each time I play. I never miss the moment the priestess is revealed. Yet despite this lightheartedness, there’s still the threat of bombs going off. But don’t mistake this as a dark survival game in the vein of Zero Escape; its drama-comedy balance is more reminiscent of Ace Attorney.
The romance options in this game are pretty varied. In a lot of dating sims, you get the choice of the sweet one, the tsundere one, a mischievous type, etc. While you do see that here, the men are all at different stages of their lives. In many ways, they are defined more by their careers than anything else. Wakasa is an idol who is a bit cocky. Shidou the cop is diligent and protective. Fortuneteller Urabe is a good listener. So instead of deciding if you want to go with a quiet guy or a loud one, instead you are really deciding if you want to hang around a NEET or a host. As you learn about their pasts, players discover what influenced their life decisions, and the moments when they finally reveal their personal stories are very touching.
However, while these type of revelations often serve as the moment when two characters fall in love, a lot of times I felt like the whole “true love” aspect was forced. I can understand the predicament the writers were in: the story doesn’t make sense if Saki and the guys know each other, but the puzzles can’t last for weeks at a time to make the love story more believable. The romance is still lacking though, especially since the first days are all about the seven coming together as a team. I mean, it’s obvious the end couples care about each other, but sometimes it was more along the lines of, “This is an otome game; she has to end up with the guy” versus “Saki and her guy face the challenges and find love along the way”.
Another reason for this is the age gap. Four years, for instance, is not much for a pair of working adults, but it is when one of them is still in high school. And Saki’s potential boyfriends go all the way up to 32 years old. And did I mention Sweet Fuse only takes place over seven days? Sure, there are many real-world couples with a large age difference or who fell in love in a hurry, but these two aspects together don’t really make for a moving romance. Some of the couples click far better than the others, and most of those are — surprise! — the ones with the smaller age gaps. There are also a few scenes that may make some players uncomfortable. No sexual situations are presented here (a lot of routes barely have a kiss), but a few situations would definitely raise some eyebrows if Saki were to report what happened to a friend. I really enjoyed the characters: the game addict, the always-on-duty reporter, the escort who keeps changing the subject when theme parks come up, the protagonist who might be scarier than the villain, and all the rest, but the nature of Sweet Fuse makes it feel like a group’s “coming together” story and not a couple’s “getting together” one.
The graphics are actually quite good for a PSP game. Character mouths are animated, and the colors pop off the screen. The game areas are pretty creative and show off their themes. Characters were designed by the artist of the Ace Attorney series, and despite the hairstyles, the faces make them look more real than anime characters. It’s definitely a style that takes some getting used to. I really didn’t like Urabe’s main character sprite. It was like they were trying to make him super-realistic, but he looks flat. I do like Mitarashi’s elf ears and just the fact that this big, brawling dude is in flash garb and is an escort. Meoshi’s outfit also attracts a lot of attention… for looking like a straightjacket. Of course, graphically, this is a downstep from the Vita otome lineup with animations, but the older style almost works considering this takes place in a park dedicated to popular games. If you like the more cutesy, more shoujo-y style of most otome games, than Sweet Fuse is likely to feel like a step down. I do wish a lot of the stills featured more than just one guy. Some felt empty.
The cast features a lot of anime all-stars. If you’ve never heard of Wakasa’s seiyuu before, then congrats on your first visual novel or anime ever. Other voices fans might recognize is Van Helsing from Code: Realize, Inuyasha‘s Sesshomaru, and Naruto‘s Sai. If I were to name a standout in Sweet Fuse, I would probably say Mitarashi’s seiyuu. Hino often voices characters with a deep voice, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard his deep voice in a more flirtatious character. It’s not even that he’s hitting on Saki every two seconds; it’s a more “I’m an ally to all women”-type voice. It’s a nice change from automatically assuming deep voices = serious characters. Saki is voiced only for the scenes in which she gets mad a la the original Ace Attorney‘s “objection!” shouts. I really don’t pay much attention to the OST as I’m listening to the voices. The music in the hospital certainly was creepy though, and a lot of tracks have a rock sound to them. Oh, and the heroine’s name is voiced if you leave it as default. That’s always nice.
First, Saki’s and Wakasa’s ages have been altered. Saki is 17 in the original Japanese game, but she’s 18 here. I can understand why Aksys wanted to avoid some legal issues in the U.S., but does anyone believe Wakasa is 17? He clearly looks 15, and he even says his group is the “Jr. Junior Boys”. His English-version self is kind of an old Junior.
Mitarashi introduces himself as an escort, but in Japanese he’s a host. The two careers do have a lot in common, but “escort” has more of an illegal connotation in English. It’s also slightly irritating since “host” is clearly said in English. Yes, some hosts do more than just take drink orders at bars, but still. Other terms like “miko” are translated, but I think I remember “onigiri” being a doughnut once. A lot of the Japanese mythology is kept in one section. Shidou’s penchant for using full names is also often dropped while Urabe’s “Saki-san” is “Iwafune”.
The theme park’s name in Japanese is 鐘堂ブロッサムランド, Shoudou Blossom Land (aka Bell Tower Blossom Land). That’s much more girly than The Gameatorium!
Count Hogstein’s Japanese name is ワルドブー. The English name is pretty funny, but it does miss out on a piece of information. The Gameatorium’s mascot is KANE DE BOO, which is written in English even in the Japanese version of the game. Its name in kana is カネドブー. Yep, the antagonist’s name is a direct rip-off of the mascot. It’s why that person is in a pig costume, and it makes a certain remark or two have more impact. So to keep the reference, his name should be something like WARU DE BOO. Changing KANE DE BOO to something like “Earl Pigstein” would have been an option if KANE DE BOO didn’t exist in real-life. “Waru” is, of course, comes from the Japanese word for “bad”. “Kane” is Japanese for “bell”, which goes back to the theme park’s original name. It’s all connected.
Meanwhile, the piglets in Japanese are 黒子たち. Straight from WWJDIC: “1) stage assistant dressed in black (in kabuki); stagehand; prompter; (2) behind-the-scenes supporter; string-puller”. So something like “Stangehands”, “Operators”, or “Props” would also have kept their behind-the-scenes name. I really don’t know what I would have called them. In English, the term “Piglets” seem more affectionate than the “Background Crew” in Japanese.
Anyway, grammar-wise, typos and mistakes are kept to a minimum. Well, compared to later Aksys works like Norn9: Var Commons or Code: Realize ~Guardian of Rebirth~ anyway. Some parts are punched up, but that is typical of their translations.
Sweet Fuse: At Your Side is a good visual novel, but it’s not really a good romance visual novel. The guys develop, but the romance really doesn’t. I’ve always wished it would have been made into an anime and given a harem/open ending instead. Alas, no. So if you would rather have a female-oriented mystery visual novel than an dating sim, Sweet Fuse should be considered. For those who play it, the gaming references and the Saki anger scenes will probably make the game worth it.
The physical version is out-of-print, but it can be downloaded on PSN for a reasonable $9.99.
In case you were wondering, no, it’s not a coincidence that I posted this today. Putting the “Waru” and “Boo” in WARU DE BOO.