Don’t be fooled by the cute anthropomorphic cats and dogs or the soft, colourful art style: Fuga: Melodies of Steel is a dark, confronting game. Telling a story about the human cost of war through the eyes of some of a group of children as they fight for survival and try to rescue their parents from labour camps, anything other than “dark” and “confronting” would be an abdication of duty, frankly. But where so many well-intentioned efforts to tackle themes of war in a serious manner overplay bleakness and misery to the extent of dulling the point they’re trying to make, Fuga is a game that always has humanity and the light of hope at its core. It’s this juxtaposition: of tension and quietude, of conflict and moments of levity, of a cheerful art style and the absolute horrors of war, that make Melodies of Steel leave such a powerful mark.
Though it’s part of a fictitious, steampunk world, Fuga‘s setting is a clear analogue to World War II, with the Free Lands of Gasco struggling to resist the ambitions of the fascist Berman Empire. When a quiet country village finds itself in the war machines path, a group of children manage to flee—and take refuge in a strange old tank, of all places. The Tanaris looks every bit as terrifying as the Berman weapons, but it’s far more ancient and packs some mysterious powers, and with no other options, the children call this monstrosity their new home as they set out on a journey to rescue their imprisoned family members.
What follows is a harrowing journey across the country as the kids fight desperately to survive, coming face to face with death and rampant destruction, and having to make some unimaginably tough choices. Fuga is unflinching as it traverses things like labour camps, human experimentation, and the Bermans’ pursuit of ethnic cleansing—the World War II comparison isn’t subtle, by any means. It’s not graphic; it doesn’t dwell on details, but instead focuses on the emotional toll it takes. In doing so, it makes a powerful impact.
Importantly, it avoids the common trap of a black-and-white framing of good and evil. Undoubtedly, the Berman Empire is abhorrent, and Fuga never suggests otherwise, but nor does it present the Berman people as this monolithic hive-mind. Sometimes good people do bad things for complicated reasons—that doesn’t absolve them of responsibility or complicity, but it brings perspective and understanding into the equation. And when it comes to the people caught in the crossfire, the regular civilians just trying to survive in a war-torn land, the lines between “sides” are arbitrary at best. Berman or Gascoan, people are just people, and in war, everyone suffers.
This isn’t something that Fuga: Melodies of Steel just passively depicts, either, but something that informs every facet of the game’s design. The basic flow of the game sees you following the Tanaris as it travels along a mostly linear path, dotted with nodes that spark different events: a battle, some items to collect, a safe spot for a rest, a crucial first-aid crate. Periodically, this path will branch, and you’ll get the choice between two or three different routes, each labelled as “safe”, “normal”, or “dangerous”. The more dangerous the route, the better the potential gains, in terms of materials to upgrade your tank and other boons, but with harder, more numerous battles that take much more of a toll on precious resources like the Tanaris’ HP and the mental state of the kids.
With means of recovery being relatively scarce, Fuga turns the flow of fight after fight into a battle of attrition, and by extension, it makes those seemingly easy route choices much more significant. A “safe” route might be safe in the short term, but will foregoing the resources found on the more dangerous alternative come back to bite you later? Likewise, the rewards from a dangerous path might be enticing, but what if—even if you survive those more difficult encounters—the damage you sustain in the process is too much to bounce back from? Fuga isn’t a survival game, per se, but it draws on a lot of the same ideas to build a sense of tension and desperation.
To that end, Fuga is a deliberately, necessarily difficult game—not in the sense of forcing you to learn and improve through repeated failure, but in the way even regular battles can put you on the ropes and force you to use everything at your disposal just to survive. It’s not difficult because it demands practised perfection, but because perfection often doesn’t exist: resource attrition, bad lack, and enemies that pack a heavy punch mean that, more often than not, you’re fighting just to stay alive, rather than chasing the XP bonus of a flawless encounter. There’s plenty of scope for playing strategically as you exploit weaknesses to delay turns and make the most of a well-timed defensive stance—but even then, you’ll still need to use every tool at your disposal, you’ll still need to scramble, you’ll still need to make desperation moves and weigh the heavy risks of the options before you.
Which brings us to the Soul Cannon. This is the Tanaris’ big secret: a mystical weapon so powerful that can destroy any enemy, bosses included, in a single shot. The catch? It’s powered by life force, and lots of it: you can only fire the Soul Cannon by sacrificing someone.
It’s a last resort that most players will, understandably, go in expecting to never need to use. These aren’t just random, procedurally-generated characters you can replace; any sacrifice is final, and even setting aside emotional connections to the characters, is one fewer member of your party. But there will come times when it feels like using the Soul Cannon might be the only viable choice—when things get so desperate, when your every turn is just spent trying to patch your wounds and you never seem to get a chance to actually fight back. Sometimes, it feels like it’s Soul Cannon or game over, but that’s a terrible decision to have to make.
What makes it work so well is that the game over a Soul Cannon shot would avoid is rarely, if ever, a foregone conclusion. We’re not talking about a Telltale game forcing you to make a binary choice between which of two characters to leave behind, with no other possibility—there’s always the sense that maybe, somehow, you can eke out a win without that sacrifice. Most of the time, you’d be right in thinking that, but the way to dig yourself out of the hole isn’t easy to find. The line between a situation being genuinely hopeless or just mostly hopeless is murky at best, making it difficult to weigh the risks of trying to tough it out or just cut your losses and go nuclear.
What does this all mean? The decision to sacrifice one of the kids in your squad to save the rest is always wrapped in doubt, without any clear answers. And if you do go ahead with it? The knowledge that you could have avoided that if you’d just done something differently—made a different choice earlier in the battle, prepared differently, risked taking the dangerous route half a chapter ago instead of the safe one—will always linger, and that hurts. In a game about the cost and impact of war, and the impossible decisions war forces people to make, the Soul Cannon is a potent, haunting symbol.
But, like I said, the thing that gives Fuga: Melodies of Steel its weight isn’t just its confronting depiction of war, but the way it keeps humanity and hope at its centre. In the interactions between this group of kids, there are plenty of quiet, uplifting, cheerful, even humorous moments. Friendship values are common in JRPGs these days, but this is one of the most meaningful iterations of the system I’ve seen in a while—not because Fuga does anything different with the idea, mechanically, but because of the different context and mood they bring to the whole piece. Comical scenes of a woefully shy boy trying to learn to talk to girls, or the uplifting sight of kids bonding over something as mundane as doing laundry, hit different in the context of Fuga‘s more challenging subject matter.
This is where the gorgeous art style fits in. The designs for the main cast are cute and colourful, a wife array of different humanoid cats and dogs overflowing with personality. They’re an eclectic bunch, ranging from a cheerful four-year-old, to more serious older kids who’ve taken on a semi-parental role, to the cold demeanor of a teenager who’s been through hell and is out for revenge. But even at their darkest, even in the face of the most horrific consequences of war, there’s an underlying sense of hope and optimism—and the vibrant, cartoon, almost playful art style carries that well. Even the villains, ominous though they tend to look, have an almost comical air to them that belies the complexities they carry.
In a medium that’s so happy to turn war into a frivolous entertainment, it’s rare to see a game actually engage with the realities of war in any meaningful way. You might not expect it from the cute character designs, but that’s exactly what Fuga: Melodies of Steel does, and with remarkable success: weave a harrowing but ultimately hopeful story about the destruction that war leaves in its wake and the desperate lengths people will go to to save those they care about.
Fuga: Melodies of Steel
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.