Heartstring Bugs is a curiously titled indie otome (girls-side) dating sim with a goofy premise. Elly is the shy protagonist determined to make her remaining three years of high school better than her miserable freshman year. She has a chance encounter with a juvenile alien virus that “infects” her with the ability to catch glimpses of other peoples’ emotions and emotional responses. Armed with this newfound insight, Elly has the confidence boost needed to not only pursue one of five cute boys but can also enhance her friendships with three girls, potentially making one her “bestie.” Between typical high school drama and a curious alien virus working on his own school report on Earthlings, Elly’s remaining high school years will be one hell of an adventure.
I have played more of these kinds of games than I care to admit, so it takes something special to pique my jaded interest. I have played far better examples in the genre than Heartstring Bugs, but the game has one standout aspect: its music. Music is sometimes an ancillary component in dating sims, since mundane “slice-of-life” aspects don’t have bombastic emotions to draw inspiration from, so I was very pleased by this collection of wonderfully composed tunes that offer more musical depth than your garden variety dating sim soundtrack.
Musically speaking, the layered compositions take more from “deeper” forms of music like jazz than more “shallow” genres like pop. Many of the songs have a kind of pop sensibility to draw a casual listener’s ear, but plenty of interesting varieties in their melodies and harmonies to satisfy elitist musician ears. For example, a whimsical piece like “Laugh it Off” uses a meandering saxophone melody as the main instrument rather than simple pop synthesizer melody, flipping the script on what one would expect from a garden variety track of this type. There is another whimsical track that uses the typical synth/slide whistle instrumentation, but somehow it feels more substantial than the cotton candy fluff I’d expect.
The vocal theme, both the long and short versions, thoroughly engaged me. The instrumental arrangement and vocal melodies (sung by vocalist chiE) are quite strong, and I like how the selection of notes and the funky changes in timing offer a different dimension to the cookie-cutter J-pop pieces found in most examples of the genre. This is a vocal theme with excellent depth, and I encourage any fan of good vocal themes to check it out.
Games like this live and die by their character themes, and all of the character themes here are terrific. Musically, the compositions go beyond the surface level of the character archetypes and offer genuine depth. For example, the theme of the popular, social/friendly, outgoing girl hits the expected major-key notes but also occasionally deviates into minor chord and scalar progressions hinting that there may be something lurking behind the seemingly perfect front she puts on in public. My personal favorite is the theme of Lucas, with its juxtaposition of being both laid-back and quite intense. I also like the charming nature of Huang’s theme and the haunting lines of Chase’s theme. The only character theme I’m 100% sold on is Blaze’s theme. It is nicely composed, but I dislike the thin and tinny sound of synthesized overdriven guitars. No synthesizer can replicate that magical sound of a Les Paul guitar through an all-tube Marshall or Mesa/Boogie stack.
The event themes go above and beyond the call of duty as well. Even a theme like “Regular Day” hits those notes and chords that elicit a more intense emotional response in your heart than the average surface-level theme found in many dating sims. Painstaking care was put into each and every note, showing that even an average day in the neighborhood can potentially hold something of notable impact. I liked those everyday themes far more than the “epic moment” ballads.
I had no expectations going into Heartstring Bugs’ soundtrack, especially considering the game’s goofy premise, but I am glad I gave it a chance, because it blew me away. More than just an excellent dating sim soundtrack, it’s just a fantastic video game soundtrack, period. It may even find a spot among my personal favorite love adventure/dating-sim soundtracks. I know that is a bold statement coming from me, but listen to the music for yourself and see if it doesn’t move you.