When you think about it, stumbling across, and piloting, a monstrous tank is the best way to deal with most of your problems. That’s especially true when said problems include your quiet little village being invaded by a powerful army and all the villagers being abducted. That’s why it’s so easy to empathise with the children of Petit Mona taking up arms (or should that be cannons?) against the Burman army in the gigantic Taranis.
The time you spend with the children takes several different forms, but the main one sees you engaging adversaries with the tank in turn-based battles. On your turn, you can change the child currently operating the weapons, allowing you to change the type of damage done by your attacks to target weaknesses. A hit with a weakness will delay the turn of that enemy unit, so switching out your strengths is key to success.
Then you have to factor in each child’s individual Skills into your strategy, as Hanna’s healing abilities are pretty much a requirement during protracted battles, while Boron’s powerful attacks can end the battle before it really starts. Each child has their own set, with a few crossing over between users of similar weapons, which grow in scope and power as they level up. Also, consider who will be in the background, as their Support Skills can affect the flow of battle too, with boosts to critical hits or regenerative abilities for example.
These battles are interspersed along a timeline that the Taranis travels along once each objective is complete, occasionally crushing boxes containing health packs for the tank and items that restore your party member’s special points. Once you reach the end of a chapter, you will have a far more difficult encounter to overcome that will test your skill and strategic prowess. In fact, these battles are likely to have you on the ropes if you aren’t careful.
Here is where the gut punch comes in with this game both mechanically and narratively. If you are close to failing an encounter, the Taranis will grant you the use of a weapon called the Soul Cannon. This devastating attack will defeat any adversary, and therefore bring you the victory no matter the odds. However, and this is big deal, the use of this weapon requires you to sacrifice the life of one of the children to power it.
We can’t understate how harrowing this is, not only because of the concept of what you’re doing, but how guilty the remaining characters make you feel for doing it. The only advice here is to try to not use the Soul Cannon unless you absolutely have to and, I’ll be honest, I preferred to fail and retry the scenario instead of going through that experience more than a couple of times. Oh, and there’s an ending involving not using the Soul Cannon at all, so there’s that.
Outside of battles, the chapters contain at least one Intermission, where the focus moves inside the Taranis to give you a little of time with the cast of character (you know, so potentially sacrificing them is even more difficult to take). The beginning of each Intermission grants the player a certain number of points to use in the segment, and each action you take will use these points, so you have to consider how you’re spending this time to best grow your power.
You can switch between the children to interact with the others to build their affinity using one point, which will show you a skit between the two for each level and even grant the use of a powerful Link Attacks to use in battle if you pair them up in a weapon station. For more points, you can fish for upgrade materials, spend time and resources upgrading various elements of the Taranis, cook meals which give all of the children temporary stat boosts for the coming battles, and other activities you unlock as you progress.
The Intermission segments also give you a little diary, detailing the things that the children want to do. These will range from the vagueness of wanting to eat something right up to very specifically wanting an all-girls sleepover. If you then complete these tasks, the children will get a boost to their mood, meaning that they are likely to perform better in the coming battles, and come closer to activating a Hero Mode that grants them a huge boost for the next five turns.
You can occasionally find Expeditions, short and slightly bland dungeons that require a team of children to explore and often grant pretty decent loot. These can be explored again from the Taranis during Intermissions, if you missed anything or want some easy experience. Also, in between missions you can visit towns and villages to receive items from the townspeople and barter with the shopkeepers to trade items and resources for their enhanced versions.
Aesthetically, Fuga: Melodies of Steel more than lives up to its predecessors. The art direction is stellar, going with a cartoonish watercolour design for its characters and world that is expressive and colourful, instead of dipping into the blandness of visuals often seen in games ostensibly about the horrors of war. The music exceeds the previous games, doing so with fewer tracks but a far stronger consistency across the score.
This is a far darker spell in the Little Tail Bronx universe than we have seen before, with the weight of war hanging heavy over the narrative and gameplay in a way that Solatorobo only hinted at. What Fuga: Melodies of Steel achieves is the seamless merging of the heart and excellent characters the franchise is known for with some excellently considered strategic combat, enhancing the gameplay beyond the arguable monotony of the previous games. If only it weren’t so damn upsetting at times.