With the localization of series like Capcom’s Ace Attorney and Aksys’ Zero Escape, visual novels have garnered an unprecedented amount of attention in the West. As such it was only a matter of time before fans of the genre began clamoring for decidedly more niche experiences to come stateside as well. One of the more popular forms of visual novel available in Japan is the otome genre, which are essentially games marketed towards female players. A game that contains only text and features a female protagonist romancing men seemed like a hard sell in the United States, but Aksys took the risk in 2012 with the release of Hakuoki: Demon of the Fleeting Blossom. Apparently it was a successful endeavour, because they are back with a brand new otome title for PSP called Sweet Fuse: At Your Side.
The first thing video game afficianados will note about Sweet Fuse: At Your Side is that the main character, Saki Inafune, is the niece of legendary video game creator Keiji Inafune. The story kicks off with Saki going to visit a fictional video game theme park that Keiji is opening in Japan. Uncle Keiji is kidnapped by vile pig masked villains and the theme park is thus taken over. The leader of the pig masked villains then issues a challenge in the form of survival games based on the parks attractions. Six men are chosen for the games and Saki volunteers as the seventh competitor in an attempt to save her Uncle. Rest assured that the plot sounds far more convoluted on paper than it plays out in game. The Zero Escape games were an obvious influence on the puzzle solving mechanics, but Sweet Fuse: At Your Side manages to be slightly less creepy than those titles while still maintaining the suspense.
The real charm of Sweet Fuse: At Your Side lies in its intricate characterizations. Saki herself is unique in that she is contrary to the typical otome heroine. She is a strong female lead who uses her wits to solve problems, stands up for herself when treated unfairly, and ultimately learns from her mistakes. The notion of romancing the other gentleman takes a backseat to survival. Perhaps the game’s best feature is how the dating simulation portions appear to occur naturally, rather than being wedged in for their own sake. The male cast members do not fixate on Saki and generally treat her like a normal human being, while the game gives the player subtle dialogue choices to spark romantic conversation. It avoids common anime tropes like reverse harem and treats all of its characters with respects, a notable classy move in a genre rife with objectification.
The writing in Sweet Fuse: At Your Side is sadly far from flawless. While the puzzle portions do maintain a steady suspense, the oddball nature of the villains make the story unfold similarly to an episode of Scooby Doo, just with more depth. The game is targeted at a teenage feminine demographic, but some of the plot points can only be described as juvenile. On the other hand, some of the puzzles are solved in a clever manner and the banter between characters is witty and charming. Overall the writing is a mixed bag, and while it can be interesting it mostly reads like young adult fiction.
The text portions of Sweet Fuse: At Your Side are engaging, but the visual aspects keep the game from getting stale. Fans of the aforementioned Ace Attorney games will be pleased with Tatsuro Iwamoto’s character designs, which appear to be cut from the same cloth as his Miles Edgeworth illustrations. Conversations are bright and colorful, and the static images have enough facial expressions to keep the reading from becoming tedious. The video game theme park setting is taken full advantage of, with plenty of references and homage to classic video game franchises. The music has a distinct Japanese pop flavor, and that coupled with the art assets conjures visions of Atlus’ recent Persona titles.
Even though it exists in a genre that appeals to a very specific audience, Sweet Fuse: At Your Side just might have enough hooks to entice newcomers. From affiliations with industry icons to welcoming writing that avoids pandering, the game actually has the tools to be a sleeper hit. What holds the game back is a tendency for juvenile humor and story beats. The fact that it is potentially the last physical release for Playstation Portable certainly does not help, but digital sales will more than likely offset this detriment. Sweet Fuse: At your Side is aimed squarely at fans of the otome genre and serves that function quite well. It is confident, quirky, and unique enough to satisfy visual novel readers who might be curious to know what otome is all about.