Review: Sweet Fuse is roller-coaster romance that’s light on commitment

Keiji Inafune is one impressive guy. Not everyone can crowdfund a game like Mighty No. 9 while being held hostage at his own theme park.

Sweet Fuse: At Your Side (out now for PlayStation Portable and PS Vita via PlayStation Network) takes place during the grand opening of Inafune’s Gameatorium, an amusement park in Japan where every attraction is modeled after a video game. His niece, high school student Saki Inafune, attends the welcoming ceremony to support her uncle but soon becomes involved in a week-long series of death-games that an evil pig called Count Hogstein has organized.

She’s also surrounded by hot bachelors.

This “otome” game — a romance visual novel targeted at a female audience — at first reminded me of another visual novel, the popular 999: 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors. It even plays with numbers the same way: In this case, seven strangers meet to participate in seven games spread across seven days. They come from different backgrounds: Urabe’s a fortune teller, Meoshi is a video game nerd and shut-in, Shidou is a cop, Wakasa is a pop star, Mitarashi is an escort, and Shirabe is a journalist. Their lives depend on trusting one another, but a traitor could be in their midst.

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It’s not long before Sweet Fuse distinguishes itself from 999. It’s much less a puzzle-oriented adventure game and much more focused on romance and decision-making. As Saki, players engage in occasional moments of Explosive Insight, where they attempt to pick out the word or phrase that the group should heed most to think through a difficult situation. These flashes of intuition are simple and usually provide little challenge, but they help break up the story. Sometimes failing them is acceptable; sometimes it results in a game over.

More fun are the times when the hot-headed Saki can either get mad or restrain herself. A giant explosion erupts behind her as the words “What’s wrong with you?” blaze across the screen, and the character taking the brunt of her rage cowers as lightning cracks behind him. It’s a hilarious animation, but the novelty of it wears off too fast. Otomate could have made more of an effort to vary these scenes. Watching the same one three times in a row (as I did with the character Kimimaro Urabe) gets pretty boring.

Players can also often decide which characters to tag along with and whom to spend time with during “break time” on the ship, where they return after a day’s game is over. Choices during dialogue can affect the male characters positively, raising their affection for Saki. By the third day, these affection levels determine which romantic interest will govern the rest of the story and determine how it unfolds.

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After that point, Saki spends more time with her new love interest than with the games themselves, which is a huge shift away from the first three stages, where everyone competes in Hogstein’s challenges together and romance exerts little influence over events. While the entire story deals with mystery and murder, people and their pasts — appealing to anyone, not just women and young girls — prospective players shouldn’t forget that this is a romance game. Expect a lot of flirtation and long conversations.

As far as visual novels go, Sweet Fuse is actually rather short. The many different possible endings account for the alleged 30 hours of content, but my first playthrough only took me five or six hours. The “skip read” or “skip all” options can massively cut down on the time each subsequent playthrough takes, but the final four stages will largely be all-new content as long as players are seeking to win the love of a different man.

Other conveniences include taking screenshots (with or without text) during any scene, rereading dialogue or viewing current affection levels, pausing and saving anytime, disabling voices, accessing hints for Explosive Insight, and more. This is a very player-friendly visual novel, and one that won’t eat up more time than you’re willing to spend.

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I do recommend multiple playthroughs, if only because my first was so disappointing. I unwittingly garnered the love of a secretly despicable man (despite my best efforts) and finished with a bad ending. Each playthrough unlocks new scenes and even new characters, revealing more of the larger plot: the reason why Hogstein is holding the park hostage and forcing seven strangers to play his absurd games.

While I would have liked more challenge and actual puzzle-solving — the premise is a bit misleading that way — I grew fond of the characters, their personality quirks and histories, and their animations. Even though they’re two very different games, if you liked 999, you’ll probably enjoy this. Sweet Fuse is much less chatty and is, for the most part, light-hearted.

Just do yourself a favor: Turn off Hogstein’s voice. You can’t switch off his annoying sound effects, but boy, was his voice a lot worse.