Choice, camaraderie, and sacrifice in CyberConnect2's Fuga: Melodies of Steel
It’s been almost 25 years since game developer CyberConnect2 first hit the scene with Tail Concerto, an action/adventure game for the original PlayStation featuring cute, anthropomorphic anime cats and dogs in a world of floating islands and robots. While the game and its spiritual successor, 2010’s Solatorobo for Nintendo DS, didn’t turn significant profits, they’re still looked back on fondly today by gamers as hidden gems of their respective systems.
Undeniably, the vast majority of CyberConnect2’s success has been in the licensed game market, having developed dozens of titles based on anime franchises like Naruto and Dragon Ball. Still, their passion to develop their own original titles always burned brightly.
Things reached a turning point by the late 2010s. Self-publishing had become a much more feasible means for developers to craft passion projects without needing a large publisher’s backing. Thus, work began on Fuga: Melodies of Steel, the third game in what is retroactively known as the Little Tail Bronx franchise.
“The intent was to make games that were faster to make, with total freedom for our creators since we were our own publisher,” says Fuga’s creative director Yoann Gueritot, who helped craft the game’s story, characters, systems, enemies, items, level design, and music.
Embracing RPG design
Set 700 years before the events of Solatorobo, Fuga is about 12 children from a war-torn land taking control of a ludicrously powerful tank and traversing the land to save their families from captivity by the evil Berman army. While its predecessors focused more on action/adventure gameplay, it was decided that Fuga would go the RPG route. Two children would man each of the tank’s three cannons, their attacks determined by each child’s abilities.
“It was an early decision to have many playable characters, so it just felt natural,” says Gueritot. “At first, we planned to make it some sort of roguelike, but it didn’t feel right. We wanted to have a proper, emotional story, and stories take time to tell. Story in games like Hades or Returnal can be cleared in less than 2 hours, so it’s fine when you die and retry after 20 or 30 minutes. It never feels too annoying. Fuga, however, takes between 15 and 17 hours to beat, and we couldn’t imagine the player dying and retrying after a 10 hours-long run. Everyone would just drop the game (I would!).”
“Then there’s the fact that you unlock new characters through the game. If you kept dying and retrying at the first chapters, your starting members only would level up like crazy, while the characters you don’t have yet would stay at their base level,” explained Gueritot. “Then the difference would be too big when they join the crew. If you die after getting a new character, you would start again from the beginning and lose them. It felt like it just wouldn’t work. I wasn’t feeling any sort of fun in any of this, so I asked the president to make it more like a JRPG, my favorite genre.”
The emotional stakes of permadeath
Compared to its predecessors, Fuga features more mature subject matter, such as the ravages of war and permanence of death. Perhaps the most striking element of the game is the Soul Cannon mechanic. This gargantuan weapon has the firepower to one-shot virtually any enemy the player will face, but there’s a catch: it requires the sacrifice of one of the characters’ lives every time it is used—and when they’re dead, they stay dead. Whether or not the player decides to sacrifice a character, and whom, to win a particularly difficult battle is up to them (though of course they are also well-rewarded for finishing the game without sacrificing anyone).
Gameplay-wise, the player may not necessarily feel like they’ve lost much; characters are capable of learning many of each other’s moves. Rather, the impact is more emotional than tactical. They didn’t just sacrifice a proficient gunner or tactical expert, but a friend they had grown fond of. It’s not surprising, then, that the developers were initially concerned over how such a mechanic would be received. “That’s why we decided to have no blood or screams during sacrifices, so death wouldn’t feel too harsh,” says Gueritot. “I think it also helped that the kids were animal-people.”
Thankfully, these heady topics are offset by the childish innocence of the game’s characters. Intermissions between battles allow the players to get to know each of the children in more relaxed settings that allow their unique personalities to shine. Cyberconnect2 even created a series of supplemental YouTube video shorts called Fuga: Comedies of Steel, in which the children get involved in all sorts of wacky shenanigans.
“The game itself is pretty dark, so we wanted something where we could focus on the characters’ cuteness and the relationships between them,” says Gueritot, “to expand and affirm every character’s personality, so you can get attached to them even outside of the game. As much as we wanted to feature dark elements, we didn’t want Little Tail Bronx‘s fans to feel like it was a completely different universe. I think it worked pretty well in the end and contributed into making Fuga such a unique title.”
Naturally, self-publishing without the backing of a large company has the inherent risk of the game’s visibility suffering, making it harder to succeed. But like its predecessors, Fuga has already found success in its own charming way. “We know it’s a niche series, so we were not expecting huge sales from the beginning,” admits Gueritot, then noting that the game did end up receiving amazing scores, “ We know Fuga is now considered by many as a ‘hidden gem’, so we keep believing in the game’s potential while hoping it gets the popularity it deserves some day.”
As for the future of the Little Tail Bronx series, Gueritot believes that Fuga’s sales will have a hand in determining that, so it’s up to the fans to ensure this hidden gem is unearthed. “We need everyone’s support to keep making these games we love!” he says. And, judging by the recent announcement of an upcoming sequel, Fuga‘s fans rose to the challenge and helped secure the future of the series.