He’s there, leaning against the fence. Carrying nothing but a drink.
Even if I pass bread over to him, he won’t eat it.
Dark hair, fair skin, and eyes that don’t initially trust others.
Having always been poorly, Sakiyama Youji is anxious about returning to school after missing so much class he has to repeat the year. All he wants to do is catch up with schoolwork s and not cause trouble for anyone, least of all his sister.
However, Youji’s state further deteriorates when he finds something gruesomely horrifying happening within his very own body. It’s certainly not something a doctor would be able to find in a medical textbook, or even something that’s simply explained. When taking a bath, he realizes that the water has turned into blood. Blood stains suddenly appearing on his body. Footsteps following him home amidst breathing is heard. Sweating profusely and blacking out. As Youji becomes further tormented by such occurrences, he’s unable to tell if what’s happening to him is real, or if it’s all an illusion. If it’s to do with his psyche, or something else entirely… Perhaps it’s instinct.
In the midst of it all, there’s his cold classmate, Tetsuo. He’s someone Youji can’t take it easy around. He often feels eyes on him, which he knows are his. Yet Tetsuo never says anything, even when asked. As Youji’s life gradually alters he runs into more trouble, while he silently comes to help him. Does he somehow know, or even understand what’s happening to him? Will he be able to help him? It’s hard to tell when he won’t say more than two words to him. But he’s not the only person who’s approaching Youji. The school’s resident highly unpredictable psychopath has also taken an interest in him for some reason, frequently harassing him in the halls.
The chances of Youji being able to quietly get on with his studies is looking less likely, with his life spiraling further out of control, becoming part of something he never could have imagined.
While Youji lives on his own, up until recently he lived with his sister who he loves dearly and respects. Like him, she too isn’t in the best of health and is expecting, about to give birth any day now. The last thing Youji wants to do is be a burden or further distress her so he hides what’s happening to him. He’s not that great with dealing with people, finding it difficult to trust them. Even though he does have a ‘friend’ who he will often go places with after school, he’s uncertain about the concept of friendship. However, he is a thoughtful person. He observes what’s around him, and handles what’s happening within his body with a surprising amount of maturity. Youji isn’t the sort of guy to constantly complain about what’s happening to him or ask “why me?”. He doesn’t even keep it locked away, going to the hospital to check it out and will willingly go along with someone if there’s a possibility they’ve information for him.
I felt immense pity for Youji. He’s someone who just wants to be normal and catch up on what he’s missed, but fate is a harsh mistress.
If Shironuma Tetsuo’s classmates had to use one word to describe him, it would be that he’s an enigma. Nobody knows a single thing about him… But then again, it’s not as if anyone tries. He gives off a peculiar vibe that many would say is robotic or machine-like, further alienating people by having the best grades in the year. He spends his lunch time alone on the rooftop, steering clear of others. Initially Youji feels ill at ease around him, often feeling Tetsuo’s eyes on him. Even when Youji questions him about it, he remains silent.
I didn’t think much of Tetsuo at the start, but like every other character in Sweet Pool after coming to understand him more I really began to like him. Like Youji, he too is clumsy at expressing what he really feels which will often lead to him saying unpredictable things, much to the surprise of Youji. But what he says is sincere.
In a low key religious school, Okinaga Zenya starkly stands out with his complete disregard for school rules and impulsive nature. He unnerves both teachers and students, although no one ever does anything due to rumours involving him being the son of a yakuza. In that sense, he’s free to do whatever he wants, whether it’s swinging from the school fence like a loon or casually slugging alcohol in the morning. Even with him coming across as a fearful individual, what’s even more unnerving still is his peculiar way of speaking, the way a child would tell a story to their parents or an older person with lines such as ‘and you know? and then?’ peppering his speech. His father is Kunihito, someone who was once a highly revered yakuza member, but seems to have become unstable in recent years. Luckily for Zenya, his father’s subordinate Kitani is on board to care for him.
Zenya was a character I couldn’t quite pin down at first, much like Tetsuo. While at times I found him to be an utter nuisance who needed a(nother) punch in the face, other times I saw him as someone deserving of sympathy. A victim of circumstance.
With Youji having to repeat a year and feeling out of place in his class, Mita Makoto is the only person who’ll comfortably speak to him without a care in the world. He’s the type of refreshing guy who’s kind to everyone and is forever cracking jokes, having plenty of friends and never leaving anyone fall by the wayside. He’s a big eater, having a hunger that can never quite be sustained and can associate food with almost anything. When Youji brings up an aquarium, Makoto is quick to bring up sushi. So he’s always eating, whether it’s ice cream before class or several burgers after school.
Even with him and Youji being close to a point, Makoto senses an uncomfortable distance that can never quite be overcome no matter what he does. He’d like it if Youji would rely on him more and tell him what’s troubling him. That’s what friends are for, right?
Nitro CHiRAL really upped their game here. There’s such a large gap in quality and overall sense of satisfaction and completion that comes with Sweet Pool’s ending that it’s hard to take in that this was written a mere three years after Togainu no Chi. Or indeed, whether the same writer even worked on it. Togainu was a patchy experience for me, while Sweet Pool moved me to tears with its earnestness. The characters are all relatively ordinary guys with nothing unique as such about them, but I found them all to be unexpectedly likable. I may have said that Zenya is a victim of circumstance, but really, all of them are, getting caught up in something that’s out of their slippery bloodstained hands. The wheel of fate keeps turning, and it won’t allow any of them to have a traditionally happy ending with bluebirds chirping and horns being blown. It just about broke my heart in one ending when Youji idly wondered what things would be like if the circumstances were different, or if they were normal.
The atmosphere is the kind that would have you hooked within minutes. It instills an uneasy feeling in the reader, letting them know from the outset that there’s something sinister brewing, opening with cryptic religious passages. Sweet Pool carefully pushes on with that ominous feeling even when the perky Makoto introduces himself. You still get a whiff that something is not quite right and wonder where such a suffocating atmosphere will take you. Comedic scenes are kept to the bare minimum here, even though much later things do get unintentionally silly, mostly due to Kunihito. Such scenes don’t last for long, but they managed to detract from my overall experience, if only slightly. While reading through them my whole opinion on Sweet Pool nearly changed right there and then (you’ll know the scenes once you’ve got to them, and oh boy, do you know), but those embarrassing segments didn’t last too long, and once they were over it was back to regularly scheduled programming.
After completing Sweet Pool, I looked at the liner notes which feature afterthoughts and comments from several people who were deeply involved in its production. One such person was the infamous Urobuchi Gen. Up until fairly recently he was someone who lurked in the shade of the industry, known among those who read eroge and for a dodgy script or two. Recently he’s been pushed into the light having worked on titles such as Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero, and undoubtedly many studios are at their throats wanting to work with him even as I write this. But for now, let’s ignore the hype and focus on his roots. Many things slotted in neatly together once I read that Urobuchi was Sweet Pool‘s advisor. It’s been a good few years since I read Saya no Uta, which is arguably his seminal work. But its atmosphere and themes were all present here. Most noticeably, that hopeless sense of isolation with two people somehow managing to find each other. Even with the world against them. In his section in the notes, he praised Fuchii, calling her one to be feared. The rest of the team was also impressed with it. In particular, the male staff praised Kitani’s development. And I have to applaud her too.
There were people who were crushed that weren’t any happy endings to be found, with the slipper staying lost and the princess continuing to sleep forevermore. People who were frustrated at the lack of a proper route for Makoto or Zenya, and those who were crying out for a Kitani or Kamiya route. People who were too squicked out by the premise to even check out the title, or those who hesitated taking it to the counter after hearing their friends badmouth it for its gory descriptions, putting it back on the shelf and swiftly moving on. But Fuchii threw caution to the wind and wrote what she wanted to, not giving into servicing or appealing to prospective readers. She took a chance, and it stood to her. I’ve developed a newfound respect for someone who I thought wouldn’t be able to write something this tender. While reading Togainu, I never got the impression that I was experiencing a masterpiece. Not that I’m saying Sweet Pool is one either, but it’s certainly unusual. Although it is a BL game, I feel like it could be enjoyed by either gender.
While Youji and Tetsuo’s are the main focus, their relationship is presented in an atypical way where BL titles are concerned. Fuchii has come a long way since Akira unconvincingly being paired off with Rin or Motomi, having written a connection here that’s genuine and credible. It truly is them against the world, and that melancholic feeling never lets up. They’re people who are isolated from others for various reasons. But they come to value and cherish each other’s existence, much like Saya and Fuminori. And it’s meaningful. No flowery love words are ever exchanged between the two. There are no dramatic speeches or overblown cheesy confessions with sparkles and flowers distracting both them and the reader. A heavy air surrounds them, and it’s one that they too are aware of.
The art is outstanding and highly pleasing to look at. The character designs aren’t anything that would usually catch your eye, save for perhaps Zenya’s quirky ensemble with his long hair and eye-patch. But they’re drawn in such a way that they manage to look appealing. How many characters can you think of when I give a description of a character having a pallid complexion with floppy black hair? Yeah. It takes skill to make a character look good while having such a basic outline. I have one complaint when it comes to Onitsuka’s art. The core characters are supposed to be anywhere between sixteen and seventeen years old, yet they look like they’re in their twenties. In the official manga the characters look even older still. Youji is depicted as being a rather frail and sickly guy who doesn’t eat as much as he should and seldom feels hungry, yet still looks pretty fit. BL physiques, eh?
The tachi-e look pleasantly unusual, due to the style employed. Only a few of them directly face the reader, taking other poses looking to the side of them at the character they’re speaking to. It’s almost as if they were drawn with CGs in mind.
I quite liked the use of filters here. Especially when things started to get a little more twisted, evidently borrowing from Silent Hill‘s nightmarish otherworld with rusted bloodstains and a disturbing sense of decay being present as the world started to shift towards the bizarre.
The music was composed by the ZIZZ STUDIO. After looking through the BGM section I was almost surprised to see that there were only sixteen tracks used. The music greatly added to the atmosphere, with experimental industrial sounding pieces being used to add a feeling of distortion, with random pauses, squeaks, and all matter of random noises. That haphazard production style meshed well, with tracks such as ‘chill 02’. ‘fade’ was a calm piano track which sounded out of tune at times, creating a warped effect. ‘calm 02’ is a track I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to without thinking of that final scene in the true end. Excellent music score overall.
The opening ‘I’m in blue’ grew on me more with each listen. Each ending has its own theme. Zenya’s feral song with a swing is ‘VLG’ and Makoto’s is ‘The Hunger’, each with lyrics reflecting their situations. The stand out track here is undoubtedly the Itou Kanako sung ‘Miracles May’, subtly powerful like Sweet Pool’s ending with Itou’s voice soothingly carrying over the few instruments playing. It has also been covered by Watanabe Kazuhiro, whose version could give Itou’s a run for her money. The pair performed a heartbreaking duet of the song at the CHiRAL Sweet Pool night, which had people shrieking and mournfully wailing before it even began. It’s just one of those songs.
Everyone bar Midorikawa Hikaru used a pseudonym (it’s my theory that his voice has become so recognizable that it’d be pointless to use one, at this point or even a few years ago). It’s refreshing to hear him take on the role of someone so silly instead of the typical cool guy he’s known for. He manages to bring Zenya’s childlike manner over with ease. Kishio Daisuke is a perfect fit for Makoto, whereas it’s his usual cheery voice or during his darker moments. Some of the best voice acting in Sweet Pool comes from him, including one of the more chilling, inorganic laughs I’ve ever heard. Hatano Wataru has stated he had difficulty playing Youji due to his nature and the way he speaks to people, but I thought he played him well, with just the right blend of caution and detachment, never sounding too bored or like he was constantly on edge. Although I had mixed opinions on Kawahara Yoshihisa’s role in OwaSekai, here he did a fine job of playing Tetsuo, luckily not having the opportunity to ham it up. He conveys his emotions without going overboard, steadily.
For the minor characters, Kouji Yusa played to his type with the sharp chemistry teacher, Kamiya. Kunihito sounded silly from beginning to end, but I suppose that was what they were going for. Most of Sweet Pool‘s unintentional hilarity came from his frantic begging and maddened outbursts.
Instead of typical dialogue choices, Nitro CHiRAL came up with a rather novel way of maneuvering readers through with the use of instinct vs. reason choices. Every so often a situation will arise, and you decide which of the two Youji will follow. The logical blue reasoning, or the pulsating red instinct. It’s fascinating, really. The only complaint I’d have about this system is that I wish it went into a little more depth with the consequences of those choices. Usually after choosing either there might only be a line or two of different dialogue before the story progresses, for the most part. There was a high velocity skip option, which more VNs should really have. It takes you from choice to choice from a couple of seconds to half a minute or so, ideal for those who’ve missed a certain choice and finding themselves having to start all over again (not like it happened to me… Ahem).
Sweet Pool is a short enough title, which can easily be completed between ten and twenty hours. I think I clocked in about sixteen/seventeen but it’s hard to tell with the timing in the save slots being a little messed up. For example, I’d save in slot A with seven hours, and work off of a slot B. When I’d return to slot A, none of what I read in slot B was accounted for.
Outside of Tetsuo, Youji’s other potential suitors are Makoto and Zenya. While they don’t have proper routes per say, they do have endings. Brief affairs with harsh outcomes for everyone involved. I’d recommend that those two endings be completed first before taking on the other four endings, which involve Tetsuo. After two of those have been seen (Diving Deep and The Red Road) along with Makoto and Zenya’s endings, the final two routes open up. Like Makoto and Zenya’s endings, Tetsuo’s are also brief. But, that didn’t make them any less powerful. Usually I’d complain if I felt like routes were too short or didn’t have enough detail, but there was just about enough in Sweet Pool to properly convey everything. It leaves the reader with a sense of catharsis.
Sweet Pool is an unforgettable, high quality work that’s befitting of Nitro+’s cataloge and is a gem in the otherwise stagnant world of BL. Unlike Togainu, Sweet Pool certainly deserves all the praise it gets. Earlier on when I was looking at other people’s reactions to it, I saw such comments like “this will be a title I’ll take to my grave” and “I never thought I’d see the day where I’d cry reading a BL game”. It takes a while to sink in, but the more I thought about its ending and Sweet Pool as a whole the more I came to appreciate it. It’s not the kind of ending that hits you right away, instead needing to be mulled over. Overall a very solid title, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it, whether you’re a reader of BL or not.
If you’re someone who has been sitting on the fence about picking Sweet Pool up due to scaremongering about the grotesque elements, don’t let it bother you! The descriptions can be graphic, but there’s something memorable and beautifully sincere waiting to be found here if you’d just give it a chance.
Personal enjoyment: 4/5
Overall score: 87%
At the end, I’d like to see it. Tetsuo’s face.
Just one more time.