Everyone and everything is connected. Our actions define our lives and touch others in ways both perceptible and not, resulting in complete existences in a complete world. Naturally, we seek completion in our lives, every exchange a give and take, excess spilling over to fill in pockets of emptiness. But that would be too perfect, wouldn’t it? And this world we inhabit isn’t at all perfect—it’s ruled by power, which is granted by wealth and propagates greed, and there are oftentimes things that are entirely out of our control that we simply can’t understand. But it’s tragically complete all the same. These concepts are tough targets to land, and as Bustafellows rushes headlong into these sometimes painful truths, it’s impressive how many bulls-eyes it makes. Yet the misses compile, drops in a bucket that form a wave at once spectacular in its ambition and tragic in its fleetingness.
Bustafellows is fairly ambitious for an otome game. As a visual novel, it features an underlying plot that reaches across the fictional New York-esque city of New Sieg. The story follows a protagonist—default name Teuta—with the mysterious power to jump back a short amount in time into another person’s body as she is inevitably swept into the undercurrent of crimes, corruption, and cover-ups that plague New Sieg. The protagonist herself feels especially complete when compared to the average otome heroine: she’s ambitious and finds success in her journalism career through her own hard work rather than because of the men around her, which is refreshing and results in plenty of wholesome moments between the cast. Her mysterious ability isn’t a narrative throwaway, either; instead, it fleshes out the game’s overall writing as the protagonist takes direct action to affect the world around her rather than leaving everything to those around her.
The protagonist isn’t alone in this escapade, however: she finds herself caught up with an unlikely group of men with their own expanse of power and influence. These five fellows’ professions run the gamut that allows them access to the seedy underbelly of New Sieg. All the while, they attempt to deliver their own forms of justice, justice that isn’t enacted by those with authority due to some form or another of deeply-rooted corruption. Limbo the “crooked” lawyer, Shu the moral hitman, Helvetica the wily plastic surgeon, Mozu the rational pathologist, and Scarecrow the prodigious hacker round out the primary cast. This complete, fleshed-out team bounces their diverse personalities off each other in the shared route as they work to solve various crimes. While the waters of the cast and story dynamically churn above, there are hints of relevant backstories hidden beneath, preparing to bubble up to the surface as your choices during the shared path send you down one of the story’s forks, each aligning with a different man primed to become the protagonist’s love interest.
While a primary story with branching paths is standard fare for the genre, the ambition starts off strong with a wide selection of choices, some of which may not seem highly critical but reward you with “memorabilia,” this game’s form of achievements. Unlocking certain memorabilia will also unlock various “extra episodes,” short stories that offer a bit of additional insight based on the scenario you’ve helped create. Sometimes these situations are brought about by a timed choice: like it says on the tin, some choices must be made before a timer runs out, reminiscent of the timed choices in Zero Time Dilemma. Also similar is how letting the timer run out is treated as its own “answer,” and sometimes not answering is the best course of action.
But these ambitions don’t feel quite complete and, as the river of the story forks, the waters crash against the riverbanks, dissolving into a fine mist rather than reaching the highest possible crest. Much of the memorabilia feels redundant, as some are used to unlock extra episodes, and reading those additional episodes gifts a separate memorabilia that doesn’t unlock anything. Timed choices are completely discarded once you enter a character-specific route, despite the many instances where time is in fact of the essence, such as a choice made while abducted or when you’re literally running out of time to make a critical phone call.
These perfect opportunities for timed choices are instead left as standard take-all-the-time-you-need choices, while the timed choices of the “shared” story themselves really don’t need to be timed. Only one of them is interpreted as the protagonist not answering right away if you don’t respond. Otherwise, not answering a timed question is always taken to mean “I don’t know,” which could easily be an individual option in an untimed question. The novelty of timed choices wears thin as you replay the shared story to unlock the branching paths knowing that the mechanic is entirely discarded despite the use it could have seen.
With that said, the Bustafellows‘ story itself, both before and after it branches out, is great. It skillfully navigates around painful but relevant realities such as the treatment of illegal immigrants, how privilege affects our lives, and just how deep corruption can run. But there’s always a rather hopeful outlook to all the danger and deceit, a rainbow just beyond the tumultuous waters. After the shared path, the individual character routes are split into two chapters: the “Side A,” which focuses on the specific man and his ties to the dirty underbelly of New Sieg, and the “Side B.” Side A may lead into a bad ending, but successful completion of it unlocks the Side B, which is always entirely wholesome. These chapters focus on the budding romantic relationship between the protagonist and the route’s leading man, setting aside any and all concerns over the dangers they just experienced. And truthfully, it works: the stakes of the story manage to be high, but the outcomes always result in a pleasant resolution, creating a safe space for players to enjoy an otome title that feels gritty but just unsullied enough for the romance to feel fitting.
There are moments when Bustafellows’s writing slips up, though, namely with typographical errors. The game has its fair share of typos, lines of dialogue that don’t wrap properly, and inconsistent localization choices, such as a character being referred to as both “Zora” and “Zola” so interchangeably that I still don’t know how to refer to him. Thankfully, one can overlook these issues with relative ease considering their infrequency—this isn’t even close to the worst localization mishap an English otome release has seen in recent years. But there’s one area in which Bustafellows’s localization is simply incomplete: the movies don’t have subtitles.
Sometimes the lack of subtitles during movie sequences is but a mild inconvenience, such as during the previews that precede each chapter, which are only a few seconds long and simply pull dialogue from the upcoming chapter itself. Other times, however, they effectively bar players out of in-game content: Bustafellows includes six short audio dramas with different characters interacting. With no subtitles, these miniature “episodes” leave players listening to a few minutes of spoken Japanese dialogue with no indication as to what’s going on. But the lack of subtitles is truly at its worst when it breaks immersion and nothing is there to provide the player with crucial information about the primary storyline—namely, during the movie ending for the “final” chapter.
It wouldn’t be too bad if that final chapter didn’t leave you feeling empty, as if something was wrong. But it does, and you desperately hope those final lines at the very end give you that closure you so desperately seek. Yet without subtitles, players who don’t understand Japanese spend the last few minutes of a tragically heartwrenching chapter watching something unfold that they simply don’t understand.
The final two chapters you unlock in Bustafellows are treated almost as a “true” route that ties up the loosest ends of all the story endings. The first of these two chapters follows the same “rules” established by the rest of the game: there’s danger, but a hopeful, net-positive resolution. The chapter that follows—the final game chapter—throws it all out the window in favor of entirely unexpected tragedy and a dismissal of the beautiful themes the game had been cultivating up until then. This is because the chapter’s point of view doesn’t give the cast the chance to really reflect on what occurred, leaving players with more questions—and concerns—despite the fact that it seemed just a chapter ago that we had all the answers. None of the unlockable extra episodes take place after this ending, either, unraveling what was leading to a completely resolved narrative. But hey, each love interest gets his extra episode where you cook for each other! The final chapter of Bustafellows is one of the most utterly heart-destroying endings of any otome game, but because of the ultimately upbeat nature of the prior chapters, it’s also the most whiplash-inducing.
It feels like Bustafellows wants to be the complete package: an otome sweet enough to melt your mouth with cavities, as well as a dangerous and dark visual novel. But it leans too far in one direction to allow the other its chance to emerge seamlessly from the depths. So when it does emerge, it’s entirely shocking, near incomprehensible due to its massive departure from the rules the world had set up prior. Tragedy is absolutely possible in otome—it has frequented the genre for quite some time. But the game needs to give players the tools to handle it for it to work, which Bustafellows unfortunately doesn’t do. It isn’t like Piofiore: Fated Memories, where major characters may die in certain routes to establish and enforce the danger the cast is constantly in. Instead, Bustafellows grants some of the strongest plot armor I’ve ever seen to its main characters, to the point where deaths are minimal in number even in the bad endings—and you certainly aren’t expecting the “true” ending to be worse than the bad ones.
It isn’t like Hatoful Boyfriend, either, where the “true” ending is drastically different from the rest of the game but actually comprises the majority of it, giving the tonal shift time to settle in. In Bustafellows, the primary endings for each of the love interests’ routes are some of the sweetest the genre has, and the “final” route is approximately the same length as them, if not shorter. Still, it’s the last thing you see—it’s what sticks with you the most by pure virtue of how visual novels are. The strength of the shared route isn’t entirely lost, but it does get skipped—literally, as Bustafellows includes an admittedly beneficial menu option to skip entire sections of read dialogue on your subsequent playthroughs—as players seek out the branching routes of the love interests the longer they play. And the immense weight of the final chapter threatens to crush the others, drowning the memory of the prior routes beneath its fathomless black waters.
Maybe that’s the point—but it doesn’t settle in quite right. It’s the suffering that we all undergo in our journeys of life that force us to confront ourselves and grow as individuals, but with none of the answers that we as humans naturally seek to make sense of our chaotic, imperfect, fragmented world. The seams unravel. The once-completed circle is no longer perfect.
The reality is, there’s no such thing as a “perfect circle.” Circles simply aren’t perfect. We can all hold hands and make one ourselves, but what about the people outside our circle, those that Bustafellows would have us believe “live in a different world” but we can still strive to understand? They affect us as we affect them, but they are forced to make their own circle as we close ours off. And what then? Circles can’t perfectly tessellate—there will always be negative space left over as you try in futility to have them perfectly align. It’s just not possible. That negative space is the emptiness felt after finishing the final chapter of Bustafellows; you want to fill that emptiness with some of the excess from the other chapters, but you can’t without actively destroying those circles, without somehow altering the gritty-yet-wholesome foundation the game has so thoroughly built up.
But there’s a moment just as the wave breaks, as it all comes crashing down, where the sea spray lingers in the air and a rainbow appears against the blue sky. From where you stand, you only see its upper arc, but there’s comfort in knowing it’s a complete circle somewhere, the rest of Bustafellows that had built up to this moment. And it’s fleeting, perhaps even quickly forgotten, but it’s beautiful.