Let me preface this by saying I have never, that I can recall anyway, played a game that qualifies as a dating sim or a visual novel. For reasons still not entirely clear to me, however, I was amused by the premise of Sweet Fuse and bought it on a whim. I'm writing this introduction just to warn veterans of the genre that I am not an expert, and to probably take a lot of what I say with a grain of salt. While I'm going to do my best to confine spoilers to things readily apparent in the first 10-15 minutes as the game gets you up to speed, if it's important to you not to have any story tidbits before playing, you may want to proceed with caution. I'll also be using screenshots from the game, mostly with text off. Unless it amuses me more to leave the text in.
A pretty bitchin' theme park layout as far as they go.
So here's the basic premise: A high school girl named Saki Inafune is off to attend the grand opening of her uncle Keiji Inafune's new video game theme park. Because this is a game, things do not go off exactly as planned, and a hog ne'er-do-well named Count Hogstein crashes the festivities, kidnapping Keiji Inafune and the other park investors. After the pig declares seven people are to be drafted into his demented games and everyone runs away screaming, Saki volunteers to enter so she can save her uncle. She's then introduced to the six dudes that will be her new teammates on the quest to save the hostages and the theme park: a detective, a singer in a boy band, an escort, a grizzled reporter, a fortune teller, and what appears to be an escaped mental patient. Not only are these Saki's new teammates, they are ostensibly her new romantic interests.
This seems like a reasonable crew to care for a high school girl!
With the introductions out of the way, Count Hogstein lays out the rules of the game. The team of seven must work together to solve the puzzles laid out in the various attractions. The seven heroes must complete seven puzzle levels over seven days with seven hours per day to complete the tasked puzzle level.
Sensing a theme....
If they fail a puzzle level, the attraction blows up. If they fail the game or try to escape, the hostages will be brutally murdered. Sounds like a typical day at a theme park. At the same time, though this is not a rule set by the good Count, Saki will earn affection points from her team mates. It is a very linear affair with no ability to steer your character. Instead the character models appear on the screen as they speak, much like in Shin Megami Tensei IV.
So here's the thing about the puzzles. While the game purports to offer puzzle challenges, let's be real here: This is a dating sim with a story. There are indeed puzzles for the group to solve, but frankly the player often has very little to do with solving them. That being said, Saki can influence the group actions and decisions in a few ways. First, from time to time Saki will be offered the choice between a couple of dialog bubbles. The result of these is either to suggest a course of action, which may or may not be followed by the group, or to earn you affection points from one of the guys if they happen to like what you said. Easy enough.
Second, as the group discusses the solution to a puzzle and realize that they are missing something, Saki may go into “Explosive Insight” mode. When the Insight mini-game pops up, Saki will remember important clues picked up during the course of the level and certain words and phrases will be highlighted. The objective is to pick three of the highlighted words that you think will be important to solving the puzzle. If Saki chooses the correct word/phrase (“Insight Incited!”), she will redirect the group to the right clue and greatly aid in solving the puzzle.
The third way Saki may influence the group is the “What's Wrong With You?!” dialog choice. At certain points, characters may do something that pisses Saki off. Gradually the screen turns red as Saki fumes before you are given the option to “Get Mad” or “Restrain Yourself.” If Saki chooses to Get Mad, she will yell at the offending character while they apologize profusely for being a dick. This also, interestingly enough, will earn her an affection point from the character she just publicly berated.
With the mechanics in mind, I'm sad to say the puzzles themselves leave something to be desired. As I mentioned above, often there seems to be little you can actively do to steer the conversation where you want it. By the time the option for an Insight popped up, I had usually solved the puzzle already. This can lead to some frustration as you sit and watch the group make stupid decisions while you've figured out the puzzle ages ago. After receiving walls of frustrated text during one theme park level where I had solved the puzzle a full thirty minutes before the characters got there and had to watch helplessly as they made the wrong decisions, my best friend observed, “Okay, you need to play a less stressful game." In some cases, you may get the correct insight and yet the characters fail to interpret it correctly, even though you have. It is in fact rather stressful.
Brilliant deduction, Holmes!
Though the puzzles themselves are hardly puzzles at all, the Insight mechanic is actually pretty fun. The biggest problem with Insight is basically that it does not appear enough, and the impacts are somewhat limited. It could also have benefited from being just a tiny bit more difficult, as almost every time I knew the correct phrase before the clue text was presented.
The “What's Wrong With You?!” mode is another mechanic that actually had a surprising amount of potential but was not effectively implemented. At first it seems like there is almost no reason not to get mad at someone, unless you are actively avoiding earning affection points with that character. However, there is one level where it does in fact have the potential to affect the outcome of the puzzle. I greatly enjoyed figuring that out during the level, and can only lament that it was not implemented more often in the game.
It feels too wall of texty up in here so here's a picture of Count Hogstein getting bitch slapped by truth.
Just briefly I wanted to mention that the game has a really good save system. Basically you can open up the menu and save at any time as long as dialog is not still loading or Saki is not in the middle of an Insight. This is helpful for those of you who like to stack the deck (i.e. cheat) by saving at every critical juncture. You can also quick save by hitting the right trigger button and quick load that quick save by hitting the left trigger button.
The story itself is fairly standard, with some nods to popular games and gaming culture that may make you smile from time to time. The main attraction in Sweet Fuse is really the characters, namely who your impressionable young high school student is going to chat up in her free time between puzzles, or team up with during puzzles.
I have to admit this part made me the most uncomfortable. While no actual ages are given, these guys mostly have professions and do appear to be noticeably older than Saki. Of the six guys, four are adults with professions and two are possibly teenagers, or otherwise seem young. With my western cultural upbringing, I squirmed a little bit at making Saki chat up Detective McCuteGlasses up there, especially when the game is peppered with references from the older males that Saki is indeed young. There were times where I was thinking, “Alright, buddy, I'm going to need to see that badge again,” as the attraction points racked up and the buddy cop became more-than-a-friend cop. I never really got comfortable with it, but I learned to just roll with it.
"I'm just saying this seems inappropriate for a high sch.....what was I talking about again?"
Without giving too much away about the story, I'll just say that overall I enjoyed it but found the ending incredibly unsatisfying. Your mileage may vary, however.[Addendum: I realized I forgot to mention there's supposed to be about 14 different endings, so I'm hoping some turn out to be better than what I got. Additionally, I do believe pieces of the story along the way will have to be different based on your affection point allocations.]
So, alright, I realize I may just be taking what is essentially a Harlequin romance novel in game form little too seriously here. However, Sweet Fuse
honestly does have a lot of potential. Largely wasted potential, unfortunately, but still, potential. Despite my many frustrations with how little player agency there is over the puzzles and characters, I have to admit that I came home from work one night and played it until all of a sudden I realized it was past midnight. Much of that was spent yelling variations of “you morons!” at the characters, but in many ways it was much like watching a horror movie where the character being chased runs upstairs for reasons no one can ever explain. It's the equivalent to watching a cheesy B, or even C, horror flick or reading a crappy “summer-reading” novel. You realize it's incredibly cheesy and yet there is still something very charming about the whole experience.
Pictured: Charm! And interestingly not bondage.
To sum up, I think Sweet Fuse
is a fun distraction and a fairly solid reason to whip out the PSP. The mechanics and puzzles leave a lot to be desired, namely in that they cannot truly be called either, but watching the personal relationships between the characters unfold is reasonably entertaining. Because of the puzzle issue, I think replay value may be limited unless you are interested in seeing all the different romances, which I admit I may actually do. Ultimately, if you have $29.99 to burn on a visual novel about a girl trying to save her uncle while also picking herself up a boyfriend, Sweet Fuse
is the way to go.
I do not really like numbers on reviews, however, I offer the following to those who feel incomplete with out them: