[Disclosure: This review is based on a download copy of the game provided by the publisher]
A popular genre in Japan, visual novels haven’t really found a footing here in the US just yet. But that didn’t stop Aksys Games from localizing Sweet Fuse: At Your Side for the PSP/Vita, one of the latest offerings in the niche genre. And it’s a good thing it didn’t, either. For English-speaking visual novel fans or those looking to dip their toe in and see what all of the fuss is about, Sweet Fuse offers a fun, intriguing story to wade through, a great cast of colorful characters and loads of features to create a more personalized experience.
In Sweet Fuse (now available through PSN), the player follows high school student Saki Inafune, the fictional niece of gaming giant, Keiji Inafune (Mega Man, Onimusha, Dead Rising). Uncle Keiji has fulfilled his lifelong dream of creating a theme park based on some of his favorite (also fictional) video games and has invited Saki to attend the grand opening.
The celebration is cut short, however, when the devious Hogstein shows up to crash the party. Capturing park employees and taking them hostage, Hogstein calls on seven “heroes” to take on deadly challenges he has spread across the park. Saki volunteers to take part in the dangerous game and is joined by six archetypical hunky dudes: A journalist, a young idol, a fortune teller, a male escort, a detective and an emo gamer.
Together, this band of reluctant participants must spend seven days in the park tackling puzzles at each of the seven main attractions. If they fail any of the puzzles, that attraction and its participants will be blown to smithereens. There’s also the added danger that each of the game’s puzzles typically has a deadly component of its own, meaning the contestants are always in danger of a premature “Game Over.”
Despite the deadly nature of the setup, Sweet Fuse is actually pretty lighthearted. The plot is absurd, of course, which makes it easier to accept the happy-go-lucky moments that pepper the storyline. If you think the risk of death is going to stop these folks from laughing over a shared joke at dinner, taking a moonlit stroll or harmlessly flirting with one another, you’d be sorely mistaken.
Speaking of which, there are some light dating sim elements at the heart of Sweet Fuse, as Saki starts to fall for the eligible bachelor of your choosing. Random events throughout the game (bits of dialogue, choosing who you’ll go with when the team splits up, etc.) can cause the characters to like you. You can have a more direct influence on who that is by picking sides in a discussion or deciding which of the lads you’d like to hang out with in between the main missions. But again, these are mild elements of the game; you won’t be expected to stare longingly into anyone’s eyes while choosing the sappiest bit of poetry to recite. These relationships mainly affect the extra bits of story you’ll get to experience, eventually leading to one of the game’s 14 endings.
Other than the occasional bit of interaction, there isn’t much to speak of in the line of gameplay in Sweet Fuse, which is typically how these games work. It’s all right there in the name of the genre: Visual Novel. Your primary objective will be reading and following along with the story, which is fully voiced and beautifully illustrated. Your interactions are limited to occasionally deciding between a handful of options (such as which area of a room to investigate or whether you want to stop an argument or check on another character instead) and occasionally taking part in a mini-game of sorts in order to help solve a puzzle. These moments of insight allow you to read over the rules of a given game and decide which of the highlighted words or phrases might help the team discover the solution. You can pick three highlighted bits of text and, if you select the important one, you’ll assist in solving the puzzle.
This is my only real gripe with Sweet Fuse. While I suppose these types of interactions stay true to the visual novel nature of the game, I don’t see what the harm would have been in creating actual puzzles or mini-games for the player to interact with. Everything works well enough as it is, it would just feel more like I actually achieved something if I was able to take a more active role in the process.
As for extra bells and whistles, Sweet Fuse offers lots of options for players to customize their game, as well as streamlines the whole process for those who want to discover multiple endings with a quickness. The left shoulder button serves to quick save while the right shoulder button quick loads. You can also save at any point, no matter what, which is easily my favorite feature. Whether you’re mid-conversation or in the middle of an important scene, you can always save the game at the current screen and jump right back in exactly where you left off. Talk about convenient.
Hitting the circle button allows you to enter a screen capture mode for photographing your favorite moments and images, start allows the scenes to automatically progress without you having to press X constantly, and hitting select will allow you to skip directly to your next bit of interaction. Triangle gives you access to a menu where you can finagle all sorts of game elements, including scrolling speed and the like. You can even choose to mute voices on an individual basis, meaning that you never have to actually hear anyone who happens to grate on your nerves. The original Japanese voice acting is solid, though, so you probably won’t have to worry about that. Still, it’s great that they thought to include it as an option.
Sweet Fuse: At Your Side is an entertaining and colorful story with plenty of content to plow through (Even more if you’re interested in splitting scenes and additional endings). I would have enjoyed a more active role in some of the puzzle solving but, for the most part, I was happy to just be along for the ride. I would also be remiss if I did not mention how great a lead character Saki is. She’s a strong, independent young woman who serves as an integral part of the team rather than a damsel who is constantly in distress.
I enjoyed my time with Sweet Fuse: At Your Side. If this is what visual novels have to offer, then here’s hoping that their popularity (and availability) Stateside continues to grow.
Developer: Idea Factory
Publisher: Aksys Games