Fuga: Melodies of Steel

CyberConnect2 is best known as the developer of gorgeous anime-to-game adaptations stretching from Naruto and .hack to JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. In their heart of hearts, however, company president/CEO Hiroshi Matsuyama and his cohorts want nothing more than to make more of their own Little Tail Bronx series of colorful action games about animal people. Now, weary of waiting for Bandai Namco to greenlight another Little Tail Bronx title, CyberConnect2 does it themselves with their first self-published game, Fuga: Melodies of Steel. And that’s not the only way it stands out.

Fuga: Melodies of Steel is part of the Little Tail Bronx line and therefore stocked with adorable doglike Caninu and catlike Felineko, but it trades the blue skies, floating islands, and cheerful tones of predecessors Tail Concerto and Solatorobo for a grim and unsubtle World War II allegory. A peaceful village is razed and its citizens captured during the onslaught of the Berman Army (we told you it was unsubtle), leaving only a pack of children, led by childhood friends Hanna and Malt, to flee for their lives. A mysterious voice on the radio directs them to a nearby cave, where they find an enormous mechanized fortress called the Taranis. And so they wage a one-tank crusade to rescue their families from the Berman forces.

The Taranis lumbers across the landscape, liberating villages and demolishing Berman armored divisions, with each battle staged as a back-and-forth clash similar to revered strategy trailblazers like Military Madness. Here the approach is simpler, as you’ll pick out several linear paths instead of choosing a position on any gird or map. The tactics arise when choosing who goes where: crew members pair up and take three separate firing positions, and every child has one of three artillery specialties (cannon, machine gun, or grenade launcher) and a mix of healing spells, special attacks, and debilitating moves. The opposition includes an equally well-armed assortment of helicopters, tanks, and more inventive fusions of World War II technology and Miyazaki-esque adornments.

The Little Tail Bronx games are always where CyberConnect2 showcase their best in design work, and Fuga presents the same marvelous detail. The Taranis chugs and wobbles along like a hybrid of Howl’s Moving Castle, a Metal Slug vehicle, and Bonaparte from Dominion Tank Police, and enemy machines recoil are nearly as intricate in their looks. In lieu of detailed cutscenes, however, CyberConnect2 makes up for it with lovingly rendered character portraits and splash artwork by a variety of artists (Nobuteru Yūki chief among them). Still, you can’t help but notice just how many plot points are merely described by on-screen text and how characters utter exclamations instead of full lines. The developers evidently couldn’t pour as much money into their cat-eared, dog-nosed Wehrmacht war as they could into their latest Naruto fighter, but they dress it up very well.

Indeed, much of Fuga’s appeal comes beyond the battlefield. The Taranis is a village on wheels, and when not in combat you’ll guide any one of the crew around the tank’s interior, where you’re harvesting crops, raising chickens and pigs (apparently this world has no pig-people to get offended), fishing for scrap, refining weapons, cooking meals, and, most importantly, talking to others. There’s no sugarcoating of the conflict: these children are in the thick of a war, and having to kill enemies and confront death leaves them shaken and depressed. Only by raising morale and building bonds between the characters can you keep things positive and, conveniently, make them more effective in their artillery skills.

Fuga: Melodies of Steel also amends one of the major complaints about Solatorobo: it was far too easy. Fuga lets players chose their path, with paths clearly marked as easy, normal, or challenging, and even the less taxing routes have no mercy for players who don’t watch their energy meter, swap out their characters, and work out when to defend or concentrate on breaking enemy armor. And for those who want things to be easier, the game offers the Soul Cannon and its one-hit kills at a terrible price.

Looking at its components separately, Fuga: Melodies of Steel would seem basic, but everything clicks together like the innards of the Taranis itself. Clashes with enemy tanks are interspersed with the slower, endearing scenes of wandering around the tank and building relationships between the crew, which is of course essential to leveling up your capabilities. Ruins also appear occasionally on the map, letting you pick an exploration team and uncover some extra treasure. It’s a basic side-scrolling maze where the character merely walk and shoot, but it’s another gear in the machine that makes the entire package compelling.

Yet it wouldn’t be half as interesting without the atmosphere. The characters draw on routine stereotypes: the gloomy new kid, the sacrificing surrogate mom of the group, the pranksome twins, the bookish mechanic, the easygoing glutton, the oddball self-appointed leader, the gifted yet insecure sorceress, and the Berman kid driven to betray his own horrible country. Yet they’re all likeable, and conversations with them reveal all of their insecurities, crushes, and idiosyncrasies. Putting actual children in a war zone naturally invites sympathy, and with CyberConnect2‘s affection for the characters coming through in every detail, it’s easy to care about them as they push deeper into enemy territory.

And then you’ll decide which of them dies.

The Soul Cannon is both the Taranis’ secret weapon and the game’s most blatant evocation of the cost of war. It’s powerful enough to end any battle with a single blast, but it requires you to sacrifice a crew member. As with the underrated Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, it’s a cleverly cruel decision both emotionally and tactically. You can wipe out any boss easily, but you’ll lose a character and all of his or her abilities in future battles. More pressingly, you’ll kill off innocent little Mei, who just wanted to see her grandparents again. Or cynical Kyle, who’ll never confess his feelings to Hanna now. Or weird little Wappa, who was honestly a touch annoying but didn’t seem to even understand the severity of war. That’s enough reason to tough it out and win every battle without using the Soul Cannon, but in one last sadistic turn, you have to sacrifice comrades if you want to see every possible storyline.

Fans of the lighthearted Tail Concerto and Solatorobo may be put off by Fuga‘s grim approach. It’s still a cute adventure in part, with gentle orchestral themes, optional French dialogue, and characters with names like Boron Brioche and Hanna Fondant. Yet it never neglects its wartime tragedy for very long. It borders on the meretricious to alleviate some shell-shocked child soldier just by feeding them steak fries or telling them things will work out fine, but it’d be irresponsible for the game to ignore the costs of battle entirely. It’s not exactly Art Spiegelman‘s Maus or a furry version of Come and See, but it leads to blunt and possibly uncomfortable analogues, from the unabashedly Nazi look of the Berman army to the prison-camp scientist Dr. Blutwurst, who conducts unspeakable experiments and self-loathingly hides his cat face behind a dog mask. There’s even an enemy vehicle named the Zyklon. Third Reich parallels are one thing, but Holocaust references are another.

It’s a challenge to take on a brutal World War II retelling with imagery and characters cute enough to populate Maple Town, but CyberConnect2 sticks with it, just as they’ve stuck with their Little Tail Bronx series despite its modest sales. And it’s paid off. Fuga: Melodies of Steel is altogether as charming as its predecessors, but it’s also harsh, inventive, beautifully realized, and unlike anything else out there. And if enough people appreciate that, perhaps CyberConnect2 won’t have to wait so long to try it again.

#Fuga #Melodies #Steel

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