Sweet Fuse: At your side is a dating game, more specifically an Otome game (one of the most common genres of Visual Novels), a game normally geared toward Female audiences. In it you play as Saki Inafune, the niece of legendary game developer Keiji Inafune. It is also one of the last if not the last game released for retail for the PSP in North America
Saki is visiting her uncle's new theme park. But during the inauguration ceremony, the speech from her uncle is interrupted when the Ferris wheel blows up and Count Hogstein -the evil villain in a corpulent pig costume- makes his appearance, declaring that he's taking people in the park as hostages, including Saki's uncle, and in order to save them, 7 people will have to take part in a deadly series of games.
Desperate to save her uncle, Saki volunteers to be one of the participants in Hogstein's games, and she find herself, alongside six other guys, trapped in survival game, but of course, things are not as simple as they may seem at first sight
Sweet Fuse: At Your Side stars a cast of characters that are so colorful and unusual that they work very well together in a natural way. In the game the player takes the role of Saki Inafune a strong, intelligent girl, who will very easily just say what she's thinking, but that as the game advances we can shape trough our choices. And then we have the male cast: Ryusei Mitarashi the fiery male escort, Subaru Shidou the overly serious police officer, Ayumu Shirabe the pocky eating journalist in the green turtleneck, Kouta Meoshi the quiet shut-in gamer, Towa Wakasa the cowardly and girly pop Idol and Kimimaro Urabe the nice and calm fortune teller. They may sound cliche at first but as the story develops you will find out that they are very unique and varied and not as simple as they may appear at first. It also helps that the game has top-notch voice acting and if you're into Anime and Visual Novels, a lot of those voices will sound quite familiar.
(Random fact: The character design was in charge of Tatsuro Iwamoto, who you may know as the character designer for the Ace Attorney series)
This is a Visual Novel with branching paths that forces you to play trough the same parts more than once, in fact, every character route is the same for the first three chapters, but they are completely different for the last four. If you have played games like 9 hours 9 persons 9 doors, you know that this can become a chore and a detractor to the overall experience. Fortunately the game offers some welcoming mechanics to help you with that. You can skip the sections that you've already read, the game has a quick save and quick load option in the shoulder buttons, you can create as much normal save files as you want (or your memory stick allows) and there's even a Diary in the main menu to track down your progress. The game is quite friendly in that aspect.
While the stakes may be high (it's a life or death game after all), the game is not as grim as the premise may seem (so don't expect something along the lines of 999 or Virtue's Last Reward) and the story is somewhat goofy and tries to keep things lighthearted and fun. The game is full of puns, gaming references and amusing character dialogue. Praises are due to the fantastic localization by Aksys that while written with an English Audience in mind, it stays true to its Japanese origins (think Persona 3 or Persona 4), but without a doubt the story is top-notch
*Skip to the next section to avoid spoilers
The strongest part of the game is how all the routes are connected to the main mystery of the game, and you have to play trough the game at least 2 times in order to get the true ending, which features a 7th character and serves as the thread that unites all the individual discoveries you do during the other 6 routes, but you really have to play trough all of them in order for it to make sense, like why Kimimaro decided to play traitor for example and how all the characters, except for Saki, were chosen to participate in the game for a very specific reason and their involvement in a certain incident which makes for a very compelling mystery during the game.
Aside from the choices you have to make to advance the story, the only other instance where the player has some input on the game is in the form of a little "puzzle" game mechanic. Every now and then, the group will come to an impasse and the game will make you play a mini game called "Explosive Insight". In it Saki goes through her thoughts of all the clues related to the present mystery, then you have to choose the phrase that you think is the answer (or a clue to arrive at the answer) to the mystery (you choose up to 3 phrases). If you pick the right one, you will solve the puzzle and save the group from peril, if you fail, well, an explosion will kill you and all your companions. The downside is that at times it really feels like you are choosing 3 random options hoping the correct one to be amongst them, so it really doesn't feel like a challenge and actually it's pretty rare to fail at it.
One of the good points of the game is how the attractions you have to go trough are all inspired by popular videogames like Final Fantasy and Mario Kart combined with literature references from things like Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or Dante's Divine Comedy. The downside is that there's only one route where you really explore all of the seven attractions, and you don't really interact that much with them, which would've been a really good addition to the game, but that's the price you get when you want your location to be directly integrated into the plot. This is a more straight up Visual Novel than Danganronpa or 999 for example.
While the rapid save, multiple slot save, rewind and skip functions are more than welcome mechanics in any game of this nature, the fact that a Game Over only means that you just need to rewind and pick the other choice, leaves the game devoid of this sense of danger when making the wrong decision, reducing some impact from the overall experience.
While the character design is really good, and the backgrounds are nice, the short variety in character's expressions and lack of dynamic in the background causes that the things that you're seeing and what you're actually reading at times don't match in the slightest, causing this sense of disconnection from the story. This is not that uncommon in Visual Novels, but at least for me this is one of the less than stellar and more glaring instances of this.
A fun, lighthearted and eccentric Visual Novel with a very diverse and entertaining cast of characters. The story unravels little by little but it executes everything so well that it manages to keep you interested during time it will take you to complete the game. Gameplay mechanics helps in making the experience smoother, and the conclusion is quite rewarding.
An easy recommendation to Visual Novel fans. Also don't mind the Otome game label that the game carries, this is an interesting and appealing game to people of either gender.
This review was created with Talk Amongst Yourselves' official review format.