Sweet Fuse: At Your Side
Developer: Comcept/Idea Factory (under their Otomate label)
Publisher: Aksys Games
Genre: Visual Novel/Otome
Platform: PSP (Playable as a PSN download on Vita)
NA Release Date: August 27, 2013 (over one year, six months after the Playstation Vita launch)
Aksys Games Swings for the Fences
Sweet Fuse: At Your Side rests at a weird convergence between two different eras in gaming. On the one hand, you have its significance as the last PSP game to see a traditional retail release. It’s not the last PSP game period (that would be the port of Retro City Rampage DX in 2016), but the last one where you had the option to buy it in a store or download it from the Playstation Network. On the other hand, it’s also one of the first titles developed in part by Comcept, a design studio Keiji Inafune founded after leaving Capcom. Comcept would later be known for its controversial crowdfunding campaign for Mighty No. 9 – a Mega Man-style game eventually released in 2016 to weak reviews, and broken promises to its backers. Published in 2012 in Japan, and abroad the same week the Kickstarter for Mighty began, Sweet Fuse just barely avoided being associated with disaster – if only just.
Of course there are other interesting tidbits to discuss as well, such as how Sweet Fuse was so under the radar, it never even had a Metacritic score. There’s also its place as an early effort by Aksys Games to grow the market for otome games in the West. Either way, the point is that there’s a lot of factors that make this game somewhat historically significant, making its obscurity a bit frustrating. This is a shame, because under the surface, Sweet Fuse is a game with a weird narrative spin and an absolute time capsule of what gaming was like six years ago. It’s a game that could never have been made in any other time and that’s why it should be talked about.
Upfront, the game lets you know you’re playing as Saki Inafune, niece to gaming luminary Keiji Inafune, as she’s about to visit the grand opening of her uncle’s new video game theme park. An otherwise bright and sunny day takes a turn however, when the park is overrun by terrorists, Uncle Keiji and his business partners are taken hostage, and Saki and six random men are chosen by the leader, a person dressed in a full hog suit named Count Hogstein, to partake in a week-long series of deadly games based on the park’s attraction. If they don’t follow the rules, the hostages die.
Surprisingly, even though you see and speak to Keiji Inafune in the game, it never feels like an ego trip on the same level as Hideo Kojima inserting himself into Metal Gear Solid games. It’s more like a tribute to a beloved creator who enjoys bringing entertainment to millions of people. Who better to run an in-game theme park? Anyway, the plot works well enough to keep the story entertaining, but it’s really just a framework. Sweet Fuse is an otome game, which is a subgenre within visual novels – meaning that most of the gameplay is based on reading dialogue (fully voiced in Japanese) and making key story decisions. More specifically though, as an otome game, this is all a set up for a much more universal goal – helping Saki find the love of her life among the six other men.
That’s what otome games are – a mix between visual novels and dating sims. Usually starring a female protagonist, often a shy and quiet one, the goal is usually to progress through the story and ultimately choose the suitor you like best. To some, this may sound misogynistic, and there’s definitely an argument for that. However, there’s also something to be said for the amount of choice games like these have. Being able to choose between several different guys for the sake of love is a fantasy many people find empowering, because rarely does that choice exist in real life. Especially in a game like Sweet Fuse, where there’s little mention of sex and the personalities of the men vary greatly, it feels nice to relax and try to find what’s best for Saki. As the rest of the game is focused on pressure and making sure nobody dies, this is a nice balance to have.
Part of this has to do with context. Sweet Fuse is pretty tame, but there are obviously some otome games and dating sims that are more erotic. While there is nothing wrong with having sex in video games, having a protagonist so young (18 in the English translation, 17 originally) would make these scenarios a bit more rocky. Meanwhile, a more stereotypical otome game might feature traditional roles for men and women, making potential erotic scenes feel blasé, like a chore to put up with. Especially in the West. Including a stronger female protagonist who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and contribute to the group is the easiest way to get around this, but writing strong women is a problem across the board in the gaming industry, not just in otome games.
Thankfully, many of the core mechanics in Sweet Fuse revolve around Saki’s involvement with the group and building her strong personality. One of the most interesting things about her is that, periodically throughout the story, one of the men will say something stupid or act like he’s full of himself in a way that just makes her absolutely livid. In these moments, the player has a choice to act on Saki’s emotions and call the person out, or to remain quiet while one of the other men essentially says the same things she would. This is actually an important mechanic, as being honest and speaking her mind makes it easier for Saki to win affection points in some cases. Affection points are little tokens that pop up during your interactions with the other guys that help determine which path the story will go down.
There is also a mechanic called Explosive Insight, which occurs whenever things gets down to the wire, and no one has a clue what to do next. In these moments, all of the men rely on Saki as she goes over all the clues and keywords in her mind. The player has to select three keywords from the bunch and, if one of them is correct, Saki will instantly think of the right answer and lead the group down the path of success. Should she get it wrong though, and the correct keyword isn’t chosen, it usually results in the death of everyone, because no one is as smart as Saki.
These mechanics help endear the player to Saki, and make her more than just a self-insert avatar to find a man you like. Whichever guy she ends up falling for not only changes the progress the rest of the game takes, but her own story as well. In some routes, she may get sick or injured, but in other routes she may not. Sometimes she’ll take the lead with her romantic interest and come up with ideas, and other times she’ll go along with plans and react to them in her own way. She’s not the best character – you end up learning more personal details about the guys than herself – but she’s well-written enough to make her needs and wants relatable. She’s like the protagonist of a YA novel, except the novel is a cross between a thrilling plot and the good parts of a romance novel, just without the sex.
Even with all of this in mind, however, some may still find it hard to soldier through. This is because, while Saki is 18, the men range in age from just a little younger than her, to almost double her age. Even if there is no sex, some people will still get uncomfortable when Saki winds up kissing Shirabe, the single freelance journalist in his thirties with a kid. Yet, it will happen and pretty much has to if you want to get to the secret extra path of the game and want to learn the motivations behind everything. This is as far as the game goes, though.
Still, playing through Sweet Fuse is an overall enjoyable experience. It has an off the wall scenario that sort of feels like Aksys’ other series, Zero Escape, but approaches it in ways that are both more and less realistic than you’d expect. All meta elements aside, the romantic parts of the plot are obviously the focus, and are written nicely if you can get into them. It also feels like a game Capcom never would have made if Keiji Inafune still worked there, as much as it is a game that could not have come out any later, or else it’d be seen as a tribute to Mighty No. 9‘s success. As a result it exists in this weird middle ground, where it’s just old enough to have made it to the PSP, but still new enough to feel tied to the current generation of gaming, where the saga of Mighty No. 9 was a pretty big deal.
Not many people reviewed it, and even less probably remember that it exists now. But Sweet Fuse captures a weird moment in gaming perfectly – you’ll just have to break out your PSP, or even your Vita, to be a part of the experience. Even if you can’t find a physical copy these days, it’s still worth a ride.
And that’s why you may have missed it.