"Sweet Fuse is packed with laughs and tender moments in equal capacity, making it easy to recommend to visual bibliophiles of either gender."
Visual novels have been slowly gaining steam outside of Japan in recent years, but the "otome" subsection of the genre remains woefully underrepresented. For the uninitiated, otome games put the player in control of a female protagonist, and allow for the romancing of male characters, inverting the typical structure of a dating sim. Aksys made their first attempt at filling this niche in North America by bringing the Hakuoki series to our shores, and they now return with a second offering in the form of Sweet Fuse: At Your Side. This eccentric visual novel features an eclectic, loveable cast of characters trapped in amusement park who are forced to stake their lives on a series of unusual games. While eerily similar in concept to the excellent 999 and Virtue's Last Reward, Sweet Fuse puts a decidedly less grim spin on events. After all, this is an otome game, meaning that the player will be in concurrent pursuit of an answer to the game's overarching mystery as well as the affections of an eligible bachelor. It's a relatively short experience, but Sweet Fuse is packed with laughs and tender moments in equal capacity, making it easy to recommend to visual bibliophiles of either gender.
As Saki Inafune, the fictional niece of legendary game developer Keiji Inafune (yes, seriously), the player is invited to the opening of his new theme park called "The Gameatorium." Things go quickly awry when a would-be terrorist named Count Hogstein, clad from head to toe in piggy regalia, interrupts the festivities by kidnapping employees and announcing that bombs have been planted in the park. The only way to rescue the hostages, he explains, is for seven people to play a deadly series of games over the course of a week. Determined to save her kidnapped uncle, Saki volunteers to take part in the games and finds her fate entwined with that of six other participants — all of whom happen to be very male and very single. The player takes control of the narrative at this point by deciding which of the men Saki will spend most of her time with, resulting in one of seven different paths through the story with unique endings. Each character lends a different perspective to the game's events, and at least two playthroughs are necessary before the game's overarching mystery is resolved.
The story is well-crafted and, despite its high-stakes setup, isn't quite as grim as one might expect. The main plot does have a satisfying climax, but the true joy of Sweet Fuse lies in its compelling character interactions. Each of the personalities in the mix are clearly defined and convincingly portrayed through amusing dialogue. Saki is an earnest do-gooder with a bit of a temper, but her heart is always in the right place. Thus, it's interesting to watch her mesh with each of the men despite their pronounced differences — the least of which are their colorful designs by Phoenix Wright artist Tatsuro Iwamoto. It's not every day that an escort, a pop star, a detective, a writer, a fortune teller, and a shut-in gamer get together and solve riddles! Helping Saki discover what makes each man tick is a huge part of the game's appeal; for instance, is Mitarashi's fiery demeanor merely a facade? What sort of person is Meoshi underneath his quiet and awkward exterior? What sort of story is Shirabe pursuing, and why does he look so damn good in a green turtleneck? Wait, forget that last part. The point is that Sweet Fuse features a fantastic localization rife with clever puns, funny word choice, and natural-sounding dialogue. It's not the most sophisticated prose in the world, but it's unfailingly entertaining, and written with an English audience in mind while staying true to its Japanese roots.
In terms of gameplay, Sweet Fuse is more of a straight-up visual novel than a puzzle adventure, so those anticipating something akin to 999 should temper their expectations accordingly. Static backgrounds and text boxes make up the majority of the game, although each character has several different portraits, all of which animate when they speak. Rewards come in the form of CGs at pivotal moments in the story, but otherwise, reading is the primary activity in Sweet Fuse. Pauses in the narrative come as infrequent "explosive insight" segments, where Saki must select a key term that helps the characters solve a riddle, and "break time" sequences at the end of each day, during which Saki spends extra time with a man of her choosing. While it's not strictly a "feature," there are also opportunities for Saki to get angry at exceptionally pigheaded (snort) characters, prompting an amusing cut-in where she yells, "What's wrong with you!?" Rarely did unleashing womanly fury work to my disadvantage, so I employed it whenever possible, as the ensuing reactions were golden. And on the subject of yelling, the game features full Japanese voice acting — all of which is nuanced and top-notch. I couldn't imagine more perfect voices for the cast. The music, meanwhile, is surprisingly catchy, and because each route is no longer than about five hours, it doesn't wear out its welcome.
Sweet Fuse is not the most emotionally arresting visual novel I've played, but it executes on everything it promises to deliver. It's jovial, not overly dense, and amuses without resorting to slapstick anime humor. I would've liked a bit more interaction, since embedding the puzzles in the narrative removes any feeling of accomplishment on the player's behalf, although I don't begrudge the game too much for being what it is. Sweet Fuse is an easy recommendation for any fan of visual novels, unless you absolutely hate jokes — in which case, all I can ask is, "What's wrong with you!?"