Sometimes you want a nice, relaxing treat. A nice slice of life that coats you in a warm embrace that puts you at ease. Visual novels don’t always have this sense of brightness, but Fujiwara Bittersweet is a title that coasts on the pleasant vibes of high school friends and blossoming romance. But what is knowing of happiness without some manner of the opposite? A narrative path consisting of all manners of moods is what to expect here.
What gives this a bit of a twist is the result of the player’s choices. Typically, if you don’t choose the “correct” options, you’ll end up with a rather lackluster or even “bad” end in non-kinetic novels. What this does is route you on one of two paths, both providing a nice sense of fulfillment for the effort. A nice measure of fairness and accessibility that’s surprising rare within the genre, at least from my experience.
One other thing to note is that this is an otome game—a visual novel typically directed at women with all-male options for romance. This marks my second time reviewing this type of game after also trying out Love Spell some months ago. Does this fare any better? It’s certainly fluffier!
Story – Bittersweet Is Accurate
Given this is an otome game, the story will be the major selling point. Gameplay takes a backseat to how engrossing characters and story are to the player, and Fujiwara Bittersweet certainly tries to emulate the ebb and flow of fictional high school life.
Aya is a first-year high school student who starts off isolated and alone. She, like most anyone else, wants to make friends and enjoy the pleasantries that being around others her age can provide. Through a series of unfortunate(?) events, she ends up acquainted with a number of people in her class and outside of it, setting the stage for her bittersweet life to begin. No matter what happens, there will always be some good around the corner.
This comforting aura is something that becomes quickly evident while reading through the first five minutes. Relaxing music, colorful and evocative art style, and… well, the characters are pretty mixed in this regard. Some are quite open and kind, even to the point of being oblivious of the effect they have on others. Others will call you trash and threaten you with death with every interaction. Quite a bold way to introduce one of the romanceable options! How the course of the story flows is entirely up to the route you choose, with the decision implemented fairly early on in the game.
At this point, there are likely tens of thousands of visual novels out there. What could Fujiwara Bittersweet possibly do to stand out? Doki Doki Literature Club decided to subvert expectations and revel in players’ complete shock and awe in its total abandonment of genre norms. This game… doesn’t really do anything. Though some may find this to be a bland choice, I don’t feel there’s anything necessarily wrong with doing what’s familiar in a very efficient manner. What’s more relatable than going through teenage angst in high school? The story harnesses that energy (with some exaggeration) and provides an immersive quality almost by default.
Characters and Routes
As much as the bittersweet vibes were agreeable to me throughout, there’s an unfortunate degradation effect that takes place. When I started the story, I was immediately entranced with the prospect of getting to know these characters and seeing what makes them who they are. It also helped that the character I was immediately interested in, Haru, ended up being whom I chose first (at random). The writing is generally very down to earth and spirited, even providing side characters with a lot of charming enthusiasm to counteract some bouts of gloominess (Ichigo is great). First time through, it was nothing short of a really satisfying experience.
Then I did Haru’s romance route, after initially getting her friendship route. Didn’t feel quite as climactic, though still fairly solid. Kenji was my second choice—how can I pass up a redhead with an eyepatch? Going through his routes, I was also a bit let down, but couldn’t quite figure out why. Not until completing Ikki’s routes did I finally come to the realization that no matter what route you take, the structure feels too familiar.
Fujiwara Bittersweet is a non-kinetic novel, meaning it has choices that branch the story in different paths and scenarios. Once established onto one route, players can make 3-4 choices that matter towards the outcome of the route, between friendship and romance. Other choices are available, though from my experience they only change minimal scenes or dialogue. Also from my experience, the friendship routes almost always feel more fulfilling. They tend to be shorter, but more contained plotlines that lead up to a conclusion that still fulfills the promise of sweetness without delaying the inevitable. Romance routes are more generally stretched out, containing similar treatment of characters tossing and turning over what is plainly obvious to anyone else. Whether through implied love triangles or characters just being incredibly shy, it gets fairly repetitive if played directly after others.
For the sake of transparency, I’ll state that I did not go through every route possible prior to writing this review. However, I did attempt to go through character routes that overlapped with other characters. With Kenji, you also learn more about Minami and Tanaka, who are his club members, and Ryu, who seems to share some strange connection to him. With Yuta, you interact with a large number of characters, including Haru and all members of the anime club. Given the time I put into it, I feel confident that I know enough about each character to give the writing behind them their due credit, even if I’m not totally familiar for the reasoning behind a couple of them.
That said, I liked every character outside of Toshio, the one that wishes for your death with every glance. Not a great way to get on my good side, but I digress. Even minor characters ended up being more memorable than some romanceable options, though that may be through a lack of seeing their “annoying” traits. Nevertheless, while the writing in dramatic moments weren’t always to my taste, the characters generally exhibited enough vigor to remain entertaining. Energetic characters were always pleasant to read comments from, and the humor was surprisingly realistic!
All that should be said, though, is that Hazuki x Ichigo is OTP and no one can change my mind. I’d pay money for that spin-off game.
Gameplay – Hit That Space Bar, Momma
Given the nature of the genre, this section won’t be too long. How do you play a novel? You read it, obviously. Games like this are pretty straightforward, as well. You progress the story by pressing a button; you select choices by selecting a choice with the mouse. Simple stuff. I will go over a few things I did find noteworthy mechanically:
Fujiwara Bittersweet does not contain any sort of gallery option, for whatever reason. Not a dealbreaker by any means, but I find it odd that such a basic option wasn’t provided, forcing the player to rummage through dialogue any time they may want to see cute CG art. Pretty much every visual novel I’ve played has had a gallery option at the forefront.
The skip settings in the options menu don’t seem to do anything, particularly with unread text. No matter how I fiddled with it, the feature would override everything. Whether read or unread, if you hit skip, it’ll skip everything. This made it pretty difficult to assess what was and wasn’t different about each route, so perhaps I sabotaged myself into thinking they were the same when they weren’t really. But to scour for every hint of difference would likely double my playtime, so I chose to assume (with some occasional stoppage).
Pretty subtle uses of character transitions gave characters more of an energy to them that I enjoyed. Models will occasionally bounce around or slightly move in regards to their mood. As small as it is, these kinds of details help make for better immersion and realism to an otherwise cartoon-ish artstyle.
Graphics & Audio – Rainbow Roles
Some may look at Fujiwara Bittersweet and think, “Oh, that looks really amateurish.” I would disagree! It goes for minimalism and expressive color to give it a bit of a distinctive edge. The more I looked at it while browsing Steam games, the more I grew quite fond of it. Some of the character models are very striking, with props awarded to characters definitely looking the part of their personalities. Ryu is wild and bright, just like his character. Haru never shows more skin than possible, with only her eyes showcasing some flair of emotion. It’s a very loose and non-detailed manner of realism that speaks more to the emotions of players than their objective tendencies. It’s immediately accessible and very pleasant, while also serving as a nice indication of character portrayal. And I personally prefer it this way over what it originally looked like (not an indictment, but personal preference):
I will note, though, that background art occasionally takes the minimalist route too far. A couple scenes look downright ugly, particularly near the end of Yuta’s route and in Haru’s route. Additionally, a lot of scenes are simply described rather than showcased, as there didn’t seem to be too many backgrounds for individual locations. That occasionally took me out of scenes, but these are minor gripes.
As for the soundtrack, it served its purpose. No track specifically stood out to me, nor did it really build upon the mood of the story either positively or negatively. Some have a sticky texture that make them easier to recall, but I struggle to think of any that really struck me during dramatic or romantic moments. Frankly, it’s hard to think of many dramatic tracks at all; this story is so fluffy and sweet that maybe there wasn’t much requirement for it. Nevertheless, a soundtrack doesn’t necessarily have to stand out to earn my blessing—it didn’t distract me from anything.
Fujiwara Bittersweet was reviewed on PC via Steam.