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March 2024

Fuga: Melodies Of Steel

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Role-Playing
Developer: CyberConnect2
Release Date: July 28, 2021


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PC Review - 'Fuga: Melodies of Steel'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Aug. 24, 2021 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Fuga: Melodies of Steel is an RPG where you place children, each with their own unique characteristics and skills, at different gun turrets in a tank to fight against the enemy.

Some game franchises can have years — even decades — between releases. CyberConnect2, best known for its Naruto games, has been gradually developing new games in a series that's loosely connected by its setting, which is populated by anthropomorphic animals and steampunk mecha. The last game in the series was 2010's Solatorobo: Red the Hunter for the Nintendo DS, but despite the success of its anime licensed games, it's clear that CyberConnect2 still has a place in its heart for a world of cartoon animals. Fuga: Melodies of Steel is its most recent venture into the world and perhaps its most ambitious entry to date. It's also easily its best.

Fuga is set in an alternate fantasy version of France that's populated almost exclusively by furry animal people. The evil Bermans are invading and capturing people to work as slave labor or serve in terrible experiments. Nothing seems to stop them until a group of children running away from invaders stumbles across an ancient tank in a deep cave. The tank offers them the chance to fight back and rescue their family from the invaders. As children, the real question is whether they're prepared for the horrors of war.

Fuga's tone is slightly weird. The graphics are adorable, and the cast is a standard group of anime archetypes. At the same time, it doesn't shy away from the genuinely awful elements of war: concentration camps, human experimentation, mass murder, and revenge. When the cast first kills someone, they're left horrorstruck, and everyone around them is similarly horrified that the ultimate war machine is being piloted by children. It would be very easy for the game to feel ridiculous or insulting, but it manages to tread the line by using its cast of characters to emphasize how soul-crushing even a heroic war of self-defense can be.

The basic layout of the game resembles Slay the Spire. When you enter an area, you are put in a path with various icons, and each icon represents a healing area, a dungeon, a fight, or other things. Frequently, you'll have to pick the path you want to follow, with dangerous paths offering greater risk and greater rewards. Each area also has an "intermission" spot that serves as a checkpoint and what amounts to a town hub.

Intermissions take place inside the Taranis tank, which can house up to 12 individuals at a time. You're give a set of action points (AP) and can spend them to power up your tank, grow food in the garden, cook food for buffs, go scrap fishing for rare items, explore dungeons, recover from injuries, or have characters talk to one another to unlock special events and dialogue. Think of it like Persona, where the between-dungeon segments all occur at specific areas.

You need to be careful about how you use AP because you won't have enough to do everything. You have about 20 AP per rest, and most actions take between two to five points. Gardening or cooking a single meal sets you back five points. If a character gets injured or depressed, you'll need to spend AP to help them recover, which leaves less for gathering materials to upgrade your tank or facilities. You'll also need to make time to help characters befriend one another, which serves many different purposes.

In combat, you have control over the Taranis, which has three different weapon slots. Each slot is filled by two pilots: one main pilot and one support pilot. The main pilot determines the weapon for that slot: cannon, grenade launcher or machine gun. Cannons hit incredibly hard but have low accuracy, grenade launchers are good all-rounders, and machine guns are weak but can hit flying targets and tear through armor. The support pilot gives the main pilot a character-specific buff and a unique link attack.

You can swap characters at any time. As long as a swap hasn't occurred within the last three turns, you can reconfigure the tank's entire loadout. You can swap partners, move people around, and even swap one character's turn for another. You're strongly encouraged to do this, as characters who fight together gain Affinity, which unlocks special cut scenes, increases the benefits of their support ability, and makes your cast stronger. While you can stick with a set cast of six, that'll leave you weakened if you lose one of your cast members for any reason.

It's advantageous to use every character because each one has a distinct set of skills and abilities. Hanna specializes in defense, with powerful healing spells and the ability to inflict status effects that reduce damage. Kyle is a machine gunner who specializes in anti-air and anti-armor attacks. Each of the cast members has a niche, and some skills are exclusive to specific members of the cast. If you only use a set cast, you might miss out on some of the game's most powerful abilities or attacks.

In combat, both players and enemies have a turn order, with faster characters having more frequent turns. Enemies have a "weakness" to various weapon types, designated by colored markers above the enemy. Machine gun is blue, grenade launcher is yellow, and cannon is red. If an enemy is hit by the correct combination of attacks, their next turn is heavily delayed. While they can't be delayed twice in a row, it means that careful use of attacks can provide you with some breathing room. You can also choose to defend, which limits damage from the next attack. If a bunch of enemies attack in a row, it can be pretty bad for you.

One interesting wrinkle about combat is that your HP bar isn't the only thing that determines your health. While your health absolutely determines when your tank dies, it also represents the condition of the children within. As you lose health, it becomes more likely they'll become fearful, get depressed, or get injured. A fearful pilot's accuracy drops by half, a depressed one loses the ability to use skills and link attacks, and an injured one is unavailable. (They must be injured twice for that to happen, though.) In the case of depression and injury, they can't be cured until your next rest point.

This makes health more of a balancing game, so you need to decide if it's worth using precious SP to heal when there's a healing tile nearby or if you're willing to risk having one of your best characters taken out of the game. Since negative status effects are a serious danger, it makes you consider how far into the danger zone you're willing to take the poor pilots.

Another nice thing about Fuga is how it handles status effects. When you use an attack that has a chance of inflicting status effects, it shows the percentage chance of the attack working, so you can see how likely it is that a status effect will be worth your turn. In addition, status effects are frequently useful. Not every enemy is vulnerable to every status effect, but many are, and there is a special "bad luck" status effect that even weakens normally immune enemies. Doing damage isn't always the best choice for your next turn.

There's one more little wrinkle to combat. The Taranis is equipped with a failsafe ultimate weapon, the Soul Cannon, which is guaranteed to win a fight — but it requires a human life to power it. When you get low on health in a major fight, you're offered the choice to use the Soul Cannon, and if you do, you're obligated to pick which child dies to assure your win. It's as grim as it sounds. Thankfully, you never need to use the Soul Cannon. As long as you're using the available tools, you can win fights without resorting to desperate measures, but the option is always there.

Death in Fuga isn't necessarily the end. If you die in combat, you have the chance to return to your last intermission and try again. I'm a little torn on this. On the one hand, it's nice that a single mistake doesn't require you to redo an entire area, but on the other hand, it takes away from the tension of the Soul Cannon's existence when you know that failure gives you another shot and there's a save point before each boss. In this specific area, it might have been better if the game were more roguelike to encourage the idea that you should throw that five-year-old into a furnace so you don't have to redo a stage (if you're a monster!).

The basic flow of Fuga is addictive. The combat is engaging, and the social aspect is a nice balancing act. The game isn't super punishing, but it has enough bite to keep you engaged throughout, and it has enough twists and turns to keep it feeling fresh through its roughly 20-hour playtime. In addition to the core gameplay, there are also multiple endings, collectible comic books, troves of lore, and various other things to hold your interest. There's also a New Game+ mode if you want to go through the game again and perhaps get a happier outcome than your first playthrough.

Fuga looks simple in the best kind of way. There are a handful of characters and sprites in the game, but they all look amazing. The furry children's various animations are delightful to watch, and an adorable tiny cat nibbling on an oversized cake is enough to make you want to avoid using the Soul Cannon at any cost. The combat animations are basic, but they do the job well enough, and the enemy units have excellent animation. The music is excellent and adds gravitas to a game about fuzzy cartoon animals in the middle of a world war. The voice acting is solid, if largely reduced to short snippets. It does not have an English dub, but it does have Japanese and French dubs. The latter makes more sense, considering it's a game set in a fuzzier version of France.

Fuga: Melodies of Steel stars anthropomorphic children as they confront the horrors of war in a tank armed with a soul-sucking Super Cannon. It feels like something I never could have anticipated playing, but it works. The characters are likeable, the gameplay is engaging, and I felt genuinely awful when something terrible happened to one of my charges. It's the rare game that comes out of left field and does most things right, and if you're a fan of JRPGs, you'll find a whole lot to enjoy with Fuga.

Just … don't use the Soul Cannon, please.

Score: 9.0/10

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