Fuga: Melodies of Steel (Xbox Series X)- Review

Thanks to CyberConnect2 for the review code

Title: FUGA: Melodies of Steel
System: Xbox Series X
Price: $39.99
Release Date: 07/29/2021


Prelude

Today’s review comes from a weird spot, one that was sorta unexpected, to be frank, in that I was originally going to review this game regardless, using my own funds to purchase the game, yet CyberConnect2 was super kind enough to give me a review code regardless, so here we are. Needless to say, it should be obvious that me getting the code has no bearing on the final score or any opinions in this review, as is the case for every single review I write using review codes.

I note that in particular for this review, because well, my original biggest plan to cover this series was this fun retrospective I made on the subseries FUGA is part of as a whole! This is the third major chapter in Little Tail Bronx, which spans three main games, and the other two being pretty darn hard to obtain. I go over my memories trying to gain one of the earlier ones, so if you like the sound of this game or the world I mention in this review, you may enjoy my rambling about why the series as a whole is interesting and why I was excited to give this game a go as a series newcomer.

Anyhow, onto the review…

Story

FUGA is a strategy RPG that takes place in the aforementioned world of Little Tail Bronx, a universe populated by humanoid animals of all kinds. Luckily, this does not require knowledge of the other two games to enjoy, though you may be able to catch some fun nods and hints toward them if you’re familiar: whether you played through them fully, or only know a few things about the characters and world of older titles like I did.

In this game, set on the region of Gasco, a far-off village known as Petit Mona is suddenly attacked by the vicious Berman Army, who completely obliterates it and seizes the residents. Malt and his childhood group of friends manage to escape to a mysterious cavern thanks to an advance warning, where they find a tank known as Taranis. This strange tank ends up giving the children not only a place to fight back, but also a place to live and work together as they are the only ones able to save their families.

As is the norm for RPGs, this one is very story heavy, and if I go into much more detail I’ll be giving away pretty major spoilers, so I can only really say a few minor things about how the story went for me. Mainly, that I was honest to god impressed by just how careful and well-written it was on a some touchy situations regarding loss. It’s very hard to explain much further without the aforementioned spoiler risk, but those who know me are aware that I went through some pretty scary situations in my youth that nearly led to my own end, which have never fully gone away, and the game does a huge job at focusing on that aspect along with the aspect of morality, to the point that some parts of this game emotionally broke me or just had me terrified outright.

That may very well be a hard part for some people to get past, and could outright be a deal-breaker, so be aware, this game gets serious, to the point I’d say the overall story is generally darker and more emotional than some of the more action-packed games I’ve played, rivaling my beloved Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series in the aspect of the plot being more dark and meaningful to the player than you may originally expect.

It’s not all non-stop gloom and doom however, as a ton of the character interactions have lots of funny moments to lighten the mood, even the occasional bit in a main chapter ends up being pretty darn cute or funny, and the game does tone down for a while in the middle to prevent itself from being pure angst, which was a very relieving thing to see! Luckily, your performance in the game can determine how dark some aspects get, and for me in the end, the extreme workload and overcoming the challenge led to my most satisfying and impactful video game ending since Super Mystery Dungeon.

I just went there. Oh yeah.

Presentation

Fuga continues the aforementioned world of Little Tail Bronx, and is arguably the most artistic of the series yet, since everything here is presented in a very well-done art style that reminds me a bit of more old-fashioned literature. It doesn’t go full anime like Solatorobo, nor does it go for the colorful, Mega Man Legends-esque look of Tail Concerto, but FUGA works as a great individual entity in its own right, and a lot of aspects just have really neat touches to them.

The best part of the visuals for me, come from the full-screen illustrations that pop during key story moments. It’s nothing new, other RPGs and games have their own cinematic dialogue screens, but the ones here in FUGA just look amazing, and continue to do justice to the art style, in a way that honestly made me not mind the lack of an anime introduction at all. Even cooler for me personally, is that the end cards for each chapter were drawn by members of the furry community in Japan, which is super awesome to see in a big game like this! Heck, one of the contributors ended up surprising even me to see, as a huge fan of the Zelda series, and you may know of them as well.

The art is just great all around, and the same even applies to the old-timey looking UI and the 3D models for the intermission segments, which all are pleasing to the eyes. The interior of the tank has a lot of cool details in general that I found fascinating considering how it’s just a side segment of the game. Whether it’s the adorableness of the characters enjoying activities such as fishing from the back of the tank, the cool details in areas like the observation room or the pulsating walls of the soul cannon basement, there’s just tons of neat touches to go around, and that even applies to simpler aspects such as the enemy forces being decorated with animal ears, making foes like the little flying saucers more adorable than they are definitely meant to be.

Even though the game is largely a sidescrolling turnbased RPG, I couldn’t help but still find the art and backgrounds solid all around, with super special shoutouts to the gorgeous background in the 11th chapter, showing off the game’s style to the max. The stages are landscapes and parts of the world, so as you go deeper and deeper through them, things begin to change and evolve gradually, showing off some neat variety and environmental storytelling, even if some earlier chapters are a bit too short for this to really do much of anything.

The audio is equally a great highlight of FUGA, going perfectly with the game’s look and past experiences from Lien, the band behind older CyberConnect2 titles. Just like how Solatorobo included background music reminiscent of hymns, FUGA continues to do the same for key moments, and it’s super impactful, with the end credits theme being one to rival Miss Blue from the PC Engine version of Valis as my favorite vocal ending in any video game to date. Several songs in the OST were so good I was content to just let the game loop them without doing anything, and it’s definitely a soundtrack that’s worth buying in full whenever it comes out: I’d love a vinyl release, even!

Needless to say, this OST is magnificent and easily worth a listen, but the voice acting is another positive aspect, even if it’s a bit limited here, with only certain lines being fully voiced, and the rest of the dialogue just using basic cues that can repeat quite often during a 25 hour playthrough. While the game offers a Japanese voice option as expected for this kind of game, it also intriguingly offers a french voice option, where the Japanese VAs talk in French, and it seems that this is a link to the fact that Tail Concerto got a French release and Solatorobo had the same sort of voice acting. While some may cry foul at the lack of an english voice option, I honestly found the french option to be my preferred choice, no doubt thanks to it bringing back good memories of my old French classes, and just being a cute performance in general that brought a good change of pace from listening to EN and JP voices in games for most of my life. All around, a great showing from the sound team.

Gameplay

Fuga is a strategy RPG broken up into twelve chapters, taking place with a seemingly simple objective: guide the Taranis through branching paths of enemy blockades as you traverse the country side in search of the missing families. Each chapter has several different “phases” to them, starting with a quick trip to the neighboring villages, then the initial plot of that chapter, the first intermission, the next series of paths, story elements and enemies, the mid-checkpoint intermission, more progression, and then the final checkpoint before the stage boss.

In a way, it kinda reminds me a smidgen of an arcade structure, in that the core loop is expected and familiar, but with lots of variety and fun stuff in said loop to keep you on your toes and having things to look forward to. While the combat is definitely the biggest aspect to this game, and what you’ll be spending the most time on by far, that’s only one part of what makes Fuga flow, with the intermissions being the energy that bring everything together.

Here in these intermissions, you start with 20 AP, which acts as the usage of time before you have to move back into the battlefield. AP is used by a variety of actions, ranging from expanding and upgrading the Taranis, talking with your friends and building relationships with them, gathering supplies and materials either by scrap fishing off the back of the tank or by harvesting and planting crops in the farm, picking a friend to clean the laundry with, preparing for the next battle by resting the kids up in bed, planning their battle positions in the control room, or using the observatory to find new landmarks for the library or re-explore discovered dungeons. All of these cannot be done in one go, and while at first it seems like you have more than enough resources to do a lot of this, as you go throughout the countryside, your initial roster of six will expand to twelve, all while your AP will still start at 20, thus leading to more consideration being needed for you to manage your time wisely.

Typically in RPGs where character building is an option, I don’t typically end up caring for much of that besides a few main favorites, but in Fuga, everyone is essential, and focusing on only favorites is the key to disaster. As you help and talk with the other chosen children on the Taranis, your current character will build up their relationship gauge with them, and when it reaches certain amounts (2, 5, and 10), a fun little interaction scene will take place, where the two characters will discuss things that bring them together or help them understand their differences, and doing this will unlock a Link Attack for the battles, which comes in handy and will save your life so many times it’s not even funny.

While I ended up focusing first on these link attack pairs for the sake of improving my combat strategy, I did have quite a lot of fun just goofing off at times and using my spare AP to interact with characters just to see what they had to say to one another. Some were very funny, some revealed more aspects about their backgrounds before the war and fleshed out their character development, while others were surprisingly touching and relatable, especially as someone who has lost close family members and best friends in the past few years, and seeing these characters learning to deal with what I had to deal with in the rough years of 2019 and 2020: grief. I even found myself not really disliking any of the cast of twelve, and when I thought I did, I ended up finding an interaction with them that made me find something really likable about each and every single character, something that I was stunned to see considering how a lot of media with multiple protagonists usually don’t do a great job on fleshing everybody out.

The last part of these intermissions that are worth noting, come from the explorable dungeons, which are originally encountered on chapter maps, but can be revisited from the Taranis at the cost of some AP. Seeing these side-scrolling dungeon explorations in previews gave me vibes of Ys III and Spelunker oddly enough, and I have to say, it’s more or less like the latter than the former, in that these whole experiences are mini-puzzles requiring you to find a key to open a treasure chest full of materials, all while loading up a toy gun with bullets found around the levels to take out monsters waiting to ambush you, or to break vases and walls blocking even more goodies.

Unfortunately, this is the one aspect of the game I didn’t find myself liking all too much, since it starts off incredibly simple, to the point I was able to 100% some of these in a minute or two, and barely getting any more in-depth than that until the absolute end, where the final two dungeons required both careful resource management and dodging of enemies without the initial ability to fight back. There are clever traps in these final areas, some enemy placement requires tricky timing to sneak past them, you need to carefully decide where to break walls, and that brainteasing gave me exactly what I wished the rest of the dungeons would have been.

While the dungeons do give outstanding rewards if you succeed in 100%ing these, the other big problem comes from how they’re the exact same every time you revisit them: the room layouts and solutions never change, so once you figured out how to solve a dungeon, you can just repeat that and never change your strategy, which made me wish there was some sort of room shuffle to it, or at least an Mystery Dungeon type of challenge where you could explore an endless, randomly generated dungeon until you felt the need to retreat. Ultimately, while they’re a fun diversion, I rarely felt the need to ever make return trips to any of them unless I was missing an upgrade material I knew was in one of these places. At the very least, it’s unintentionally hilarious when you run face-first into spikes and deal with a character getting knocked out in a slow-mo fashion, only to be perfectly fine after the expedition as if nothing happened.

After each chapter’s boss fight, you’ll be taken to a village, where you’ll be able to talk to some villagers for items and info. These don’t really have much to do, since it’s all menu based not unlike the handheld Shining Force games on Game Gear, and only two things are worth doing here, one of which has you talking to villagers who are really into this cute comic series, each chapter giving you the next piece of this cute in-universe story to enjoy in your spare time, and the other being the trader, which allows you to trade your items and materials to get better or worse ones.

For example, do you trade the small HP healing jars for one big one, or do you break up a big one into three smaller ones? For items like that, it works fantastically, but for tank materials, I didn’t find this to be too useful, since you can’t look at what the tank requires for upgrades while in-town, you have to do that in the intermissions. This means if you don’t exactly remember what materials you’re missing for an upgrade, you’ll have to guesstimate, which isn’t exactly all that fun. I really do wish this section would allow you to at least look at the workshop so you can get a refresher on what materials are needed.

Onto the maps, the main site of the action. The Taranis moves on a set path, and each of these paths have spaces in them that can contain a variety of things, ranging from enemies, HP/SP restoration, or materials, and these paths have branches that can take you to different routes of varying difficulties, all ultimately leading to the same end boss. Combat is where the game mostly takes you however, and I’m happy to say that as a turn-based RPG, Fuga’s combat is exceptional, with a great system that keeps things going at a fast pace while also requiring plenty of thought, the exact kind the dungeons were sorely lacking.

Each character has a type of tank weapon they maintain, Grenades, Machine Gun, and the Cannon, and there are six slots to occupy in battle, broken up into pairs of two. The front character in a pair is the one who does all the fighting and uses their respective skills, while the back character provides support via a unique skill and their respective link attack. But each of these weapon types do good on certain kinds of enemies, with machine gun being a fantastic anti-air offense, the cannon being the best for ground foes, and the grenades being a safe mix of both. They all lead to a fun weapon triangle of sorts that allows for plenty of strategy, and it definitely influenced my order of events, since the way turns in this game work are a lot like most other speed-based combat systems. In fact, each enemy has a set of clocks applied to them, that when broken with a respective weapon color, will cause their spot on the timeline to be delayed, allowing for more time to prepare for their attacks or take them out first. All this goes on while the animations play out remarkably fast, keeping the pace of battles at a great speed that doesn’t make me feel like I have to reach for an option to turn off animations to speed things up!

For a while I felt that my main set of six would be more than ready to deal with the challenges ahead once I maxed out their relationships, but the enemies won’t let you get too comfortable, as they can inflict a range of nasty status effects that’ll require you to plan backup pairs and then backups of backup pairs as a result. You have fear, which reduces your accuracy and makes you miss a lot more, but can wear off or be healed if you give it time, injury, where a child gets a direct hit and will be removed from battle until a rest in bed if they get a subsequent one, and the most annoying of all of them, depression, where your skills and the ability to use the link attack are completely disabled, with the only way I was able to find to cure it being to talk to said depressed character during an intermission.

Thus, if a character you were hoping to use for a special link attack gets injured or depressed and your initial strategy has to be cancelled, then it’s time to call in some backups, which you can only change after a three turn cooldown. This is where the game gets very hectic, since a lot of bosses and foes on tougher routes will more than gladly take advantage of these status effects and high damage output to disable your crew, which can be more than troublesome if you end up only focusing on one healer and they’re unable to heal during a boss fight, and you didn’t bother to train anyone else as a backup. The more kids you recruit, the more management you’ll have to do in your head for Plan Bs when all twelve are in the party.

This is where the combat became genius to me. Genius in the sense that it could have very easily been a game where it could be broken wide open by relying on the same sort of pairings over and over again, perfected to the point of becoming unstoppable gods, but with the risk factor and randomness of your mains getting knocked out of commission, there’s always tension in these fights when they get tough, especially if really nasty bosses continue to cripple your entire crew one by one. Do you swap out a party member that’s injured before they’re knocked out, or do you risk them going again in hopes that the enemy targets someone else with that status? If the tank is wounded enough and a character’s mood is good, they can even go into a hero mode that gives them a special benefit, so do you risk more damage in hopes of performing a powerful armor break with Boron, for instance, or do you just play it safe and focus on maxing health?

It gets very nervewracking, and it is even more like this on the alternate routes in chapter maps, where you can choose to go on safer routes with basic enemies and grunts, or you can take tougher routes with some ferocious foes, usually guarding a path of rare materials that can make upgrading your tank super easy, allowing for increased damage from all three weapons or more HP/SP. Sure, you could in theory just stick to the safe routes all the time, but then you’d barely be able to upgrade without going through dungeons, trading or scrap fishing, which would in turn make the already challenging boss fights even more grueling.

If that didn’t sound punishing enough, then there are even crazier battle routes you can take, leading to purple encounters known as elite battles, consisting of the toughest enemies in the entire game, to the point they outright rival bosses in complexity and difficulty. They’ll pull all the stops with status conditions, delay attacks, high armor values you’ll have to break, and extremely high damage output, to the point that most of my near-deaths in this game came from these fights, rather than the bosses. You’ll have to pull out all the stops on these guys to get their precious materials, but it’ll weaken your tank for the fights ahead, so there’s a huge risk and reward factor to this that I just adore, as it flows together for some damn fine combat and careful planning.

Nowhere is the planning for combat more anxiety inducing than the boss fights, however. While you can ignore the dangerous routes and get to these tough adversaries just fine, these bosses are not a pushover, and especially early on, they’ll test your patience and require lots and lots and lots of careful decision making, as you slowly chip their HP down bit by bit, while they pull all the stops on you. These are easily some of the best fights in the entire game, and key bosses are accompanies by some of the most godly vocals I have heard in a boss theme in a very, very long time, perfectly exemplifying the stakes at hand.

You see, you can easily defeat the bosses at half health, since your tank will unlock a forbidden weapon in these battles only; the Soul Cannon. This vaporizing beam obliterates everything in its path Exodia style for an assured victory, but at the permanent cost of a child’s life, forever. Not until the next chapter, not until a sacred spring that revives them, not until going to a fair and doing a bunch of side missions, no, they’re forever erased for the rest of your save file, and it’s the most intense emotional choice you could possibly make in Fuga, the one that I argue will very well turn away quite a bit of people out of fear, if the dark elements of the plot don’t already do that.

Sure, it may sound easy to just put your most unlikable character into the cannon and win an easy fight, but what will happen if you need their skills or link attack, or healing abilities? Then the game gets even tougher in future fights, leading to the cycle being at risk of repeating itself. So you may of course wonder, what happens if you just die by loss of all HP? Well, it’s still rather bad, but not on nearly on the same level, since your tank goes “Return to the Past, now!” and warps you back to the last intermission, allowing you to either spend AP differently to better prepare yourselves, or just try again after the fact. For bosses, this is just a mild annoyance since an intermission is usually right before these fights, but for dangerous routes it can be soul-crushing if you’ve spent 30 minutes dealing with fights only for a tough elite battle to wipe you out right before you make it to the next checkpoint. That doesn’t mean the boss fights are quick to redo though, since later ones took me anywhere from twenty minutes to forty five to finally defeat, and if I had lost at the very end, it would have been equally demotivating, and arguably worth tempting the soul cannon to save myself in the moment.

Despite all that though, the game still continues to keep going strong, since I managed to successfully clear the game with all twelve children intact and without dying once, leading to the true ultimate ending that was beyond worth every searing struggle and near-death close call, with some of the finest payoff I had ever felt from a video game accomplishment in recent memory. The constant challenge and having to be on your toes at all times was more than worth that glorious payoff, and helped keep me engaged as the chapters continued to grow longer and more complex with more enemies and tougher routes thrown at me, despite the game mostly being a series of really tricky battles with the intermissions to change the flow now and then. Add the fact the story continues to stay engaging throughout every chapter while offering a lot of tension-inducing twists and turns, and you have yourself one magnificent gameplay loop that masters the art of risk and reward to great payoff.

Conclusion

In conclusion, FUGA was a game I honestly didn’t expect to wow me as much as it did. At most, I figured it’d just have a strong story that hit too close to home in spots and be a basic strategy game to hold it together like glue. But Fuga ended up containing so much stuff I loved about RPGs, refining them, and just making a magnificent experience from start to finish that I couldn’t put down until I had to quit to prep for my day job, since everything just ran at the right pace and kept my interest. It’s very difficult to pinpoint what about the game made me super engaged like this, but I feel it’s honestly just everything blending together in meticulous harmony, rather than one aspect being far superior to the others.

There are some very minor bummers, such as the dungeons being little more than short-puzzles with little variety, and the lack of some QOL stuff I would have liked, especially with the trading in towns, but otherwise this stood out to me as a must-own strategy RPG, with the battles being satisfying, edge-of-my-seat experiences, and a story that honest to god, just did so much more for me than I anticipated. This was the first LTB game I’ve ever properly played, and it’s absolutely one of the best introductions to a franchise I have experienced, rivaling that of Ys Book I and II, the PC Engine Remake of Valis I, and Final Fantasy VI in that aspect, and making me so excited to check out the others someday.

Not only did the plot in Fuga serve as a surprisingly terrifying look into the nature of war without being overly edgy, with plenty of moments that made me stunned, disturbed, and super anxious, but Fuga also did an excellent job in giving me the hope to push on despite all the anxiety, and work for my happy ending: the fact you can do that, and it leads to you feeling as if you earned that ultimate, final victory if you succeed, led to an outstanding experience that I honest to god recommend everyone to go for: strategy fans, story fans, Little Tail Bronx fans, furries, RPG fans, there’s just so many audiences here that get catered to, while still managing to be a satisfying and intense challenge from beginning to end.

Truly, this game ended up being the best surprise gem for me in years, and when it contains all the aspects of my favorite games of all time, with great characters, world building, soundtrack, writing, and addictive gameplay loops, Fuga creeped up from behind and led to an unforgettable adventure, where the saddest part for me was when it all came to an end.

I give Fuga: Melodies of Steel a 10 out of 10.

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