When their parents and guardians are kidnapped by the Berman Empire during a surprise attack on their peaceful village, a group of young children take refuge inside an ancient battle tank that springs to life, propelling them headlong into the horrors of war. I’m not sure if the young heroes of Fuga: Melodies of Steel being anthropomorphic kittens and puppies makes the situation better or worse.
Fuga: Melodies of Steel, released late last month for consoles and PC, is the latest game in Japanese developer CyberConnect2’s Little Tail Bronx series. CyberConnect is mainly known for anime fighting games like the Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm series, but every now and then it releases a game set in its own steampunk fantasy world made up of floating islands populated by anthropomorphic dogs and cats. First there was 1998 action-platformer Tail Concerto. It was followed in 2010 by action role-playing game Solatorobo: Red the Hunter for the Nintendo DS. 2014 brought the Japan-only mobile social RPG Little Tail Story.
And now we have Fuga: Melodies of Steel, CyberConnect2’s first self-published game and the first in what the developer is calling the “Trilogy of Vengeance.” In this particular case, the vengeance is that of a group of children taking on a furry fantasy analogue of World War II’s German army to try and save their kidnapped parents and/or grandparents.
Aiding the children on their journey of vengeance is the massive ancient battle tank known as Taranis. It’s a mobile battle platform that seems almost like it was built to be piloted and inhabited by children. It features child-sized bunks, a small farming area, a laundry, an upgrade station, a mess hall, and a massive cannon capable of destroying any enemy at the cost of a child’s soul. More on that in a bit.
The Taranis serves as home base for a very loveable band of lost, fluffy children. There’s Malt and Mei, big brother and little sister puppies who lost their parents when they were young and hope to rescue their grandparents from the vile Bermans. At 12 years old, Malt is the oldest on the crew, which is just so goddamn sad to imagine. He’s in charge of a ragtag group that includes fellow 12-year-old Hannah, a perky feline who wants to be a doctor, Chick and Hack, a pair of six-year-old puppy twins, and 10-year-old Boron Brioche, a big-boned catboy who wound up being the first I sacrificed to the Soul Cannon.
See, whichever ancient race built the Taranis included an insidious “I Win” button in the form of the Soul Cannon. When the Taranis takes massive battle damage and it looks like the children might be overwhelmed, they gain the option to fire the Soul Cannon. All you, the player, have to do is choose which of your precious animal babies to sacrifice as fuel for the shot. Once you make the decision, the chosen child steps into the ammo chamber, says their final goodbye, and then boom: enemy destroyed, child gone.
The whole point of Fuga: Melodies of Iron is not to use the Soul Cannon, ever. Early in the game a scripted event forces you to use it, and unless you’re completely dead inside, it shatters your heart into a million pieces. After the smoke clears the children all cheer the defeat of their foe, but then the questions begin. Wait, where is Boron? Is this his necktie on the ground in front of the Soul Cannon door? Oh no, Boron.
Then the game turns back time and lets you try the battle again, this time after unlocking the ability to upgrade the Taranis’ weapons and having the children talk to each other during “intermission” segments to upgrade their relationships and unlock co-op abilities to use in battle. Intermission segments also allow you to wander the interior of the Taranis, getting to know your children and their friends better, which makes the moments when fierce battle against grown-up enemies makes them terrified or depressed even worse.
Mechanically speaking, the turn-based battles between the Taranis crew and their evil Berman opponents are quite engaging. Each child on your team has an affinity for one of the Taranis’ three weapon types — cannon, machine gun, or grenade launcher. Enemy armour has weaknesses against specific weapon types. Hitting enemies with the weapon they’re weak against knocks them back in the turn order, so fights turn into this lovely little ballet of shifting between children and weapon types to maximise turn efficiency. It’s quite enjoyable, especially when you get just the right battle grade.
What’s not exactly fun is leading these children into battle after battle. If the Taranis takes a lot of damage their morale can drop, lowering their efficacy. They become frightened, as well they should be. It’s not just a matter of being hurt in battle, either. The idea that they are killing other living beings weighs heavily as well.
Playing through Fuga, the kids’ feelings always come first and foremost for me. Not just because I am a father of two tank crew-aged children myself, but because the developers designed the game this way. It is constructed to pull at your heart strings. Every time I feel like I’m getting comfortable with this quirky cast of young cats and dogs traversing the countryside in their massive battle tank, the game reminds me these are children being traumatized and it is not ok.
Their mental health is literally in my hands here.
I’m not going to lie. Playing through Fuga: Melodies of Steel has been pretty rough for me. It’s a heavy game with heavy themes and a deceptively delightful art design that keeps trying to convince me I’m playing something much more cutesy than Fuga actually is. At one point while playing my 10-year-old son, Seamus, sat next to me and started reading the children’s lines out loud as I played, and I was delighted until he started talking about the horrors of war in his best sing-song cartoon voice. Needless to say, we shall not be playing this one together again anytime soon.
I will still play, however. These poor children need their families, and I need the peace of mind that will come from knowing that their harrowing journey comes to a satisfying end.