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Every otome game follows a tradition. You got your romance, you got your pretty art, and you got your basket of boys. Each of your possible love interests tend to follow the John Hughes’ RPG class system that has since become staple thanks to The Breakfast Club: the Nerd, the Princess, the Jock, the Basket Case — but in the latest by developer eXtend, BUSTAFELLOWS, everyone is a criminal!
In the city of New Sieg — a very blatant pastiche to New York City — you play a young journalist named Teuta looking for the latest scoop. After witnessing the death of an infamous “crooked” lawyer, and through her mysteriously innate ability to briefly travel back in time, she gets intertwined in all sorts of other shady characters and shenanigans in an effort to prevent his murder. Teuta ends up becoming an honorary member of the “Fixers”, a group of covert vigilantes with all sorts of skills and specialities who commit crimes to solve crimes.
BUSTAFELLOWS is pretty episodic, and each section essentially revolves around one case. The game presents itself like a TV serial, each chapter beginning with a brief opener (including a legal disclaimer that asserts the story and its characters are fictional) and a closing with a preview of what is to come next.
As an otome game, BUSTAFELLOWS has the sort of dating sim elements you’d expect. You can romance each of your “dangerous fellows”, each with completely normal everyday American names like “Limbo Fitzgerald” and stable, working careers like being a “hitman that silently eliminates hitmen”. These character-focused portions are actually playable separate from the game’s main storyline, and further divided into individual routes. However, you may extract information and acquire items from the game’s main storyline portion that can be helpful and have a potential impact in these routes.
Like other games of this ilk, you read through various scenes with much of the gameplay influenced by the decisions you make across a roster of choices in dialogue or actions. Some of these moments are timed, and these prompts do have explicit right or wrong answers. They’re usually a simple question testing your comprehension of the progress of the game thus far. For instance, you may be asked what was a character’s favorite restaurant mentioned in dialogue several scenes ago. Like other visual novel games, these choices influence where things will go from there.
One disappointment is that the time-hopping abilities unfortunately never come into play as a literal mechanic you can control on your own accord, and only functions during purely scripted moments in the narrative. It is definitely a wasted opportunity to not explore the concept of limited time traveling in clever ways, especially for a genre so reliant on choice-branching and manipulation. The main character’s abilities and her justification in using them reminds me of the early 90s television series Quantum Leap. Critics have often referenced it as America’s answer to Doctor Who despite its only true similarity with the latter being with the time traveling aspect. That said, Quantum Leap is more similar to BUSTAFELLOWS than Doctor Who, yet unlike either series the game does not let you even try to experiment with the moral implications of what time traveling can do.
BUSTAFELLOWS’ visuals are solid and at times are far more artistically thought out compared to what other otomes may be willing to do. The striking detail put into the backgrounds of the game capture incredible accuracy for something aiming to be an emulation of New York City. From the townhouse style apartment buildings with stoops to the right amount of convoluted signage and lighting in the game’s own imitation of Times Square, it was clear research was done that makes the settings so distinguishably inspired by the “Big Apple”. Small, looping animated details, such as flickering lights, add depth to many scenes.
The game also does some very minute, but interesting things that add dimensionality to the basic visual novel format. Character portraits have more varied poses I have not typically seen used in regularity in other similar games, which typically offer only a frontal pose facing the viewer. Some poses have just an extra added element to them, like a slight turn, which helps give more dimension to an otherwise static scene, or to transition into full-on, animated video where it needs to.
As opposed to many other titles of this sort, where the young, female protagonist is more or less forced by circumstance or pure coincidence into a situation that Stockholm Syndromes her into eventually falling in love with a bunch of strangers, BUSTAFELLOWS’ Teuta feels more realistic. She is able to stand firmly on her own as to why she is choosing to work within an unfamiliar world through her own beliefs that it will lead to the answers to many questions, such as figuring out the origins of her powers. Since the dating sim elements of the game are mechanically separate from the main game, romance is not even the game’s main priority and never something that overshadows the core conflicts at hand. The banter between all of the characters and their personalities are great, and everyone cohesively fits in with the world without overstepping one over the other on equal footing.
BUSTAFELLOWS is a game about found families and other connections made through the microcosms of a city. It is not only refreshing to see a romance game prioritize friendships, but also the same game that romanticizes city life outside of the typical binary of idealism and cynicism. A lot of games taking place in a city either depict it as a horrible place to live in or as some utopic, hipster paradise, but BUSTAFELLOWS manages to strike a balance between those two ends that is much closer to reality. In spite of all the bad things that happen, there are still many incredible people you can meet in unexpected places who will have your back, especially when you need it in the streets.
The game is by far not saying anything deep and transgressive of any sort, but by already reveling in a premise that revolves around seeking alternatives to a broken legal system, it takes a few steps above other otome titles tapping into some social commentary. It’s certainly not revolutionary in saying that sometimes you need to take justice into your own hands, but I was definitely caught off guard when it seemed like Teuta was about to go off on her cop friend on how corruption is so ingrained in existing systems that people should not be surprised that others will try to do unorthodox things to do a better job— which was all right in the dialogue when you first meet said character in the beginning of the game.
These critical sentiments towards the world have even more support towards the climax of the game’s first chapter, where another character comments that, “The world is unfair and unreasonable[….] [and] sometimes, things just don’t sit well with [me]”. They are defending the Fixers purpose and that a group like theirs needs to exist to just “fix those things a teensy bit”. BUSTAFELLOWS may not be mind-blowing, and where it hits the strongest is nothing unique, but it definitely has the working parts to it that make a whole machine work. But what if that machine just sometimes does not want to work the way it was programmed to do?
While BUSTAFELLOWS was originally released just for the Nintendo Switch in Japan back in 2019, this English language iteration on the PC, was unfortunately released in a less than stellar way. The most glaring issue, present from the moment you open this port, is how it mistreats what should otherwise be very crisp, beautiful visuals. The game’s image quality is ridiculously compressed, and it looks even worse when a video starts playing with all sorts of artifacts and anomalies abound. There is no way to adjust or tamper with this in the settings. In fact, the settings have nothing in them at all; you cannot do anything substantial besides playing around with sound.
So firstly, there are no display options. The game is not system DPI aware, which refers to its ability to scale and render according to the primary monitor settings I am using. It became problematic when it struggled to responsively adapt to my very square, unconventional monitor resolution. In spite of messing around with many things outside of the game to respond to issues that should be resolved in-game, I had numerous playthroughs where the game’s screen was extremely blown out because I have no idea how to fix it until it randomly does it itself at some point.
Secondly, you cannot remap the controls. Playing this game with a keyboard and mouse setup, I have also quickly learned that sometimes the game is not consistent about when I should be using my cursor or the arrow keys to navigate a screen. It does not give the cues on when to do so, let alone never providing what its default controls are. I also struggled with doing basic things at first, such as pulling up the menu and panicking over how to save the game, because the game has such an unconventional control schematic compared to other visual novels I had played, like using the Windows Function keys and or the navigation keys, like Home, End, and the Page Up and Down buttons. These are used to return to do things like return the menu screen, skip text, and save. (So if you don’t have those, or don’t have a Steam Link to override these, good luck!)
BUSTAFELLOWS on the PC is pretty busted. This is a game that was specifically developed for the Nintendo Switch in mind, and it is questionable whether there was any effort put into any proper optimization for a port, especially for a major international release. These ills do not override all the good parts of BUSTAFELLOWS, but it certainly makes a recommendation of the PC port impossible. This is especially upsetting to the spirit of visual novels, a genre of games that are often played and designed to be on a computer.
Although these grating issues are specific to the PC port, there was also some disservice made to the overall English language release of the game. BUSTAFELLOWS has remained faithful in keeping the Japanese language voice acting, which at times has been left untranslated for some reason. The dialogue has some ad libbing and improvisational lines performed by the seiyuu which are now at odds with the flow of the dialogue text on screen. As I am not fluent in Japanese, I have no way of knowing what the hell is going on or if I missed something significant that was added to a character’s performance. Whether this is a huge oversight or a deeply misguided idea, it is nevertheless an obstacle to accessibility.
This problem was especially egregious in the game’s prologue, where your main character is speaking with two completely different voices before you learn she was speaking through someone else’s body. At that point in time, you probably would not yet know she was time hopping. You have to go back in the game’s text logs to find out what has been actually said, so it is clear that these lines have been indeed translated, but they for some reason were not considered in the programming in the on-screen dialogue scenes they belong to.
Judging this game on the merit of what it actually has to offer, and not how it was presented on a platform that was not intended for it, BUSTAFELLOWS can be a bombastic blast. It romanticizes all these weird ideas of what an “American” aesthetic is with a fake American city, rooted in all these tropes from noir fiction applied to a contemporary setting. If you’re someone who likes anime series like Baccano!, Bungou Stray Dogs, and Blood Blockade Battlefront — in which case you likely also want to date some boys — this game is for you. But if you also want a text-heavy game with just good character dynamics, straightforward mysteries, and a sweet found family narrative, this game is also for you!
BUSTAFELLOWS adds to the recent wave of otome games that continue the tradition of wallowing in cheesy tropes while being reminded that their audience will not stop aging: Past the cusps of cruel adulthood and more than willing to take in mature storylines, the otome game audience is now more than ever deserving of something more beyond the fantasy of a high school setting. In BUSTAFELLOWS’ case, why not fall in love with some weirdos while you’re trying to unveil the dark underbelly of the big city? After all, as crooked as the system is, you’ll be bound to run into some pretty freaks that intend on trying to fix it.