Never before have I felt both so excited and so afraid to review a title before. The latest in the Little Tail Bronx series of loosely connected games, I’ve been a fan of the series for some time now. However, I also knew the story would absolutely break my heart. It’s a tale of vengeance, of loss, of sacrifice. It also stars a cast of adorable animal people. It is a game laser-focused on striking me deep in my soul.
Fuga: Melodies of Steel releases July 29th, 2021 for PS4, Switch, Xbox One, and PC. The PC version was played for this review.
The Horrors of War
The Little Tail Bronx series (Prior games being Tail Concerto and Solatorobo: Red the Hunter) has previously been fairly lighthearted. This is why when I first saw information on Fuga several years back, it caught my attention. This new game would feature a cast of children caught in a war and forced to fight back. To their good fortune, they’ve found a massive tank that may be just the thing to give them a fighting chance. With one shot from its mighty cannon, it can turn the tide of any battle. It just… well, it…
…it uses the soul of one of the occupants for ammunition.
With that dark premise and a vow to never fire that thing if I could help it, I sat down with Fuga. Set in what’s basically France during World War II, it stars a set of six children from the small town of Petit Mona. Over the course of the first tutorial level you learn how they lived a quiet life, sure the invading Berman army wouldn’t trouble their inconsequential village, until they rolled into town and started taking everyone prisoner. A mysterious voice pleaded for them to head to a nearby cave where they found the ancient Taranis, and taught them how to use it, easing the player through all its functions.
Throughout all this, the kids are expressing their fears and hopes, and you get to know each and every one of them. We’re taught how to use skills, target weaknesses, change formation, explore the Taranis and… hmm, is that all the important functions?
No, in perhaps one of the cruelest tutorial lessons I’ve seen, you are forced into a situation where you must use the soul cannon. Unable to choose any other option, I was forced to choose one of these children I’d been getting to know, and sacrifice them. They each had their own reasons for why they would do it. One felt nobody would miss him. Another wanted to protect his friends, etc. One felt that it was his responsibility to protect the others… and in the end that’s who I chose. They went all out in making it as heartwrenching as possible. His trepidation at doing it, the foreboding chamber that opened for him, the sad music… and the reaction from everyone else. This was unlike so many character deaths in other games; there was no swearing of vengeance and making sure their death wasn’t in vain. The focus was firmly on the despair they all felt at losing a friend, the scars it leaves when they’re gone.
Even expecting something like this might happen with what I knew going in, I still had to put the game down for a while and just have a moment. Maybe it was the fact that I had to make the choice of who would die, maybe it was them being cute puppies and kittens, maybe it was because some of them were too young and could barely grasp what was going on, but this whole intro sequence hit deep.
I rolled forward to strike back against the Bermans and rescue my friends and neighbors, all the while learning more about the real reasons behind the Berman empire’s invasion and the mysteries surrounding the infernal contraption that was now these kids’ home and likely their tomb. Going forward, I swore I would never fire that cannon again.
Would that I had the luxury of that choice.
That was how the game began, with the kind of moment most games would have partway through for a twist, the kind of thing I wouldn’t normally mention due to spoilers. Fuga, however, comes right out the gate with this and it honestly sets the tone for the rest of the game. It does lighten up considerably past this point, with most conflict involving usual JRPG levels of drama and villainy with the Berman empire.
The intro manages to cast a shadow over the rest of the story however, because in one stroke they’ve shown they’re not afraid to make the player suffer. There’s no telling yourself that things will always turn out for the best, and every moment of hope the children has has a sour aftertaste of knowing they might be wrong. There’s plenty of heartfelt moments between the kids, but there’s this knowledge that depending on how things go that may be the last thing they ever say to each other. That said, play well and you can very well get through without firing the soul cannon again… but that can be easier said than done.
Life or Death Decisions
In Fuga: Melodies of Steel, the Taranis lumbers ever onwards to your destination. Along the way you’ll find resources to heal and replenish skill points, intermission points that work as save points and allow you to use the facilities inside the Taranis to get resources, make upgrades, and raise affinity between party members, and of course battles.
Battles involve three of the kids manning the turrets in a turn-based RPG format, with their stats determining what kind of attack they use, what skills they have, and how fast and hard they fire. HP and SP are from the Taranis itself however, meaning they all share those resources. There’s a heavy emphasis on using the right types of weapons for the enemies you encounter – matching the correct type will deal extra damage and delay that enemy’s next turn. There are other secondary mechanics as well, such as placing the other kids in support roles for each turret to activate passives and even allow for powerful link attacks if the two characters have gotten to know each other.
However, the one thing that had the biggest impact on my playthrough was perhaps the simplest: time. The Taranis only goes forward. There is no going back to level grind or get more materials. Each intermission you have an allocated amount of AP to do actions and you have to choose between fishing for scrap, making upgrades, raising the team’s affinity for each other… all things that may make or break the later fights.
If you make the optimal decisions and help this pint-sized crew work like a well-tuned machine, well that’s good. If not, and if you find yourself in a hopeless situation where even redoing the previous intermission won’t be enough to bolster what’s important… then you have no other choice if you’re going to proceed. The game does everything it can narratively to convince you to not fire the cannon (and I suppose even if you have a heart of stone, you’re losing a vital member of the crew with all the skills they have to offer), but the gameplay is there to force your hand. Sometimes, no matter your intentions or how well you tried, you may have to make a decision you never hoped to make.
A Bittersweet Composition
All the 2D visuals are absolutely gorgeous, and the animation really sells it. The Taranis lurches forward less like a machine and more like a horrifying beast, all the characters are super adorable and expressive, the little things like lighting are all well done, and I’m glad the game collects all the illustrations you’ve seen to look at later.
That said, it’s a bit of a shame that this level of quality doesn’t hold up when there’s 3D models instead, namely when exploring inside the Taranis. They’re fairly low detailed, and I occasionally had trouble noticing characters if they were next to something that matched their colors. It’s still kind of cute, but it’s a noticeable drop in quality.
The music is also phenomenal, an orchestral soundtrack filled with an air of melancholy. The boss music in particular with that amazing choir just gets me every time. The voice acting is restricted to Japanese and French, but I loved their delivery in the Japanese version… heck, even the general sounds like the Taranis clanking forward and the weighty impact of each enemy attack serve to underscore just how fragile you are.
Hurt Me More
Fuga: Melodies of Steel is perhaps one of the most impactful games I’ve ever played. The story and gameplay both serve to complement each other, with the story adding so much importance to your decisions, but with the horrible impact of firing the cannon entirely within your power to prevent if you pay attention to all your options.
I don’t know if my experience will match everyone else’s, but I sincerely and genuinely felt something from this, and sometimes it just feels good to have something connect with you even as it hurts.
Review copy provided by CyberConnect2 for PC. Featured image courtesy of CyberConnect2, other screenshots provided by reviewer.