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Few genres have the ability to cultivate a sense of earned camaraderie between characters as well as visual novels can – a welcome byproduct of the intersection between unusual length and strong narrative focus. It is a potent mixture that gave us two of this generation’s very best games in the form of the Zero Escape series, and it has now yielded yet another delicious fruit, though this one of a decidedly different flavor. Sweet Fuse: At Your Side, an otome developed by Idea Factory and published by the once again on-point Aksys Games, does not reach the dizzying heights of Spike Chunsoft‘s magnum opus, nor does it attempt to. But what it does, and what it does damn well, is present an incredibly likeable and ultimately cohesive cast that does not inherit these traits, but attains them. And in an industry where even inheritance is routinely bungled by incompetent storytelling and characterization, that is a feat most impressive.

sweetfuseimage4Sweet Fuse, in defiance of its bomb motif, gets off to something of a dud start. You play as Saki Inafune, niece of Keiji Inafune (that Keiji Inafune) and attendee of the opening ceremony for her uncle’s brand new Gameatorium, a wonderland theme park that celebrates the magic of video gaming. Unfortunately for Mr. Inafune, the ceremony is crashed by Sweet Fuse’s antagonist, the piggish Count Hogstein, who proclaims the Gameatorium to be a tremendous waste of money. Seven people are chosen by Hogstein to play a series of seven seven-hour games over seven days, where failure would bring about tragically explosive consequences. Call it the Septenary Game: Hambidex Edition, if you would be so kind.

This entire opening sequence is over in a flash, giving the events a lacking sense of gravity as you are thrust unceremoniously into the first game before you even have time to settle in. Similarly, I wasn’t at all sold on the cast at first; their personal introductions felt more like interrogation-style info dumps than a proper organic roll-out, packing a critical amount of information into a very tight time window. You could almost call it ham-fisted, but one must know when to quit when one is behind. This weak opening stanza is made all the more puzzling by just how well-crafted the rest of the narrative is.

Sweet Fuse has received a superb localization from Aksys, presenting a script that is positively dripping with characterization and an appropriate balance of comedy and very real drama. It doesn’t take long for the abrupt intro to fade from memory as the game’s colorful cast members sell their individual personalities with carefully-tailored dialogue at every step. Saki in particular is a highlight, her portraitless text conveying a spunky, no-nonsense high school girl with a propensity to swear in the most adorable fashion that makes her an immediately endearing character; it’s hard not to crack a smile at lines such as “Gosh darn it, he’s really cheesing me off!”

sweetfuseimage3The rest of the group is equal to the task, and you’ll quickly find yourself acclimated to each character’s quirks and idiosyncrasies. These narrative crutches expertly cede the stage to relatable humanity as you delve into each man’s backstory, culminating in many of the game’s best moments. Don’t be surprised if the man you favored coming in falls by the wayside to an unexpectedly appealing bachelor — it happened to me. Sweet Fuse accomplishes quite a feat in that almost every character is ultimately likeable, even the ones you may have been predisposed to ignore.

Just as impressive is how the cast interacts, pitting those idiosyncrasies against each other in such a manner that draws out every last drop of characterization. Ryusei Mitarashi‘s manly bravado will routinely draw the ire of the naturally cautious and analytical Subaru Shidou, while interacting with Saki will often set the asocial Kouta Meoshi‘s cheeks ablaze. Rare is the moment not spent reinforcing these disparate personalities in one way or another. The somewhat pedestrian main plot — though it does have its moments — serves best as a framework for these compelling characters to inhabit, and they do so with vigor.

With all that being said, it’s time to address the elephant in the room, for your own sake. Man or woman, gay or straight, it matters not; the fantastic ensemble and pleasantly saccharine writing of Sweet Fuse makes it easy to recommend to anyone who may be turned off by the otome designation. Despite what you may have been led to believe, this is by no means a “dating sim” — the only date-like element is the occasional end-of-day Break Time, where you choose a member of the cast to spend the evening with. Even here the expected sappy love scenes are nowhere to be found, instead leading to genuine and revealing conversations with these compelling characters. Romance is present in Sweet Fuse, but it is handled in an extraordinarily natural and charming way that anyone should appreciate. More bluntly, for those whom bluntness is required, offhandedly rejecting a quality work due to your own insecurities is a bad look. Don’t be that guy.

sweetfuseimage1All this narrative strength does regrettably share the floor with some notable mechanical weakness. Where the game stumbles a bit is when events shift to the deadly attraction puzzles, though I suppose the bother is in that calling them puzzles is more than a bit misleading. Rather, you serve as an oft-frustrated spectator to the proceedings, waiting for your companions to either figure things out in brutally protracted fashion or eventually find themselves run up against a wall; it’s times like these when you will finally be granted a modicum of interactivity in the form of Saki’s Explosive Insight. Racking her brain to uncover any important bits of information the group may have missed, this mini-game presents a series of dialogue with highlighted words strewn about, forcing you to find the right word to proceed. It’s remarkably simple stuff — I didn’t even lay eyes on the game’s Zelda-esque game over screen until a careless mistake on my second playthrough — but it’s hard not to get pumped when the excellent Insight theme begins to run, a highlight of the altogether solid soundtrack.

Unfortunately, the jolt Explosive Insight provides only serves to accentuate the great shortcoming of Sweet Fuse: it simply doesn’t do enough to engage the player, which wouldn’t have been much to crow about if the game hadn’t been based almost entirely around a series of brain-teasers. There is really no good reason for not having significantly more involved and rewarding puzzles for the player to solve, while still maintaining the exemplary character interaction that so dutifully carries the game. Even more egregiously, this disconnect is strongest in the first attraction — before the cast can sink their hooks in — where a series of three puzzles are presented in the most crushingly monotonous manner imaginable, serving as the worst of introductions. Stomach this segment and you’ll be rewarded, as it is by far Sweet Fuse’s lowest point, though this disengagement never fully dissipates.

For a lesser game, this flaw would be fatal. But for one with writing and characters as strong, beginning to end, as Sweet Fuse’s, it is something more akin to a concussing blow: enough to rattle the windows, but not near enough to crumble the foundation of an attraction very much worth visiting.

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Sweet Fuse: At Your Side was developed by Idea Factory and published by Aksys Games. The game is currently available on PSP and PS Vita (by way of PSN).

A digital copy of this game was provided to Save/Continue by the publisher for review purposes.

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