Why I love sweet pool

I’ve already dedicated an article gushing about the worthwhile venture the new English localisation of DRAMAtical Murder is, and there I had briefly mentioned that the game was not even my favourite of Nitro+CHiRAL’s works despite all the said praise.

This honor goes to sweet pool, a game that originally released in 2008, got a fan translation in 2013, and was then officially localised in 2018 by JAST BLUE. Additionally, I had previously covered my favourite boys in BL, in which sweet pool’s protagonist, Youji, appeared in, so it’s about high time I reminisce on what made this game so bittersweet, horrifying and unforgettable.

sweet pool follows the aloof and reserved Youji Sakiyama, who was taken ill for around a year before returning to high school. Since setting foot back into education, both his physical and mental health goes on the decline as something sudden and disturbing starts to develop in his body. To put it bluntly, monstrous lumps of flesh start protruding from his body.

It not only causes him serious reasons to be concerned for his wellbeing, but is also the source of a significant amount of unwanted attention within the school. From hereon, sweet pool becomes an exceptional example of body horror done right, delivering one of the most gruesome and mind-breaking experiences within the genre in the visual novel medium.

Spoilers are discussed in the rest of the article, and please be cautious of triggering and sensitive subjects in both the article and in the game.

sweet pool

A horrifying visual novel

It’s certainly no surprise that the sub branch of Nitroplus provides mostly dark and disturbing titles. The company are well known for their depressing stories that often end on a sad note, and sweet pool delivers a grand, terrifying tragedy more so than any other of their titles.

Each and every ending is disturbing, be it with the protagonist being imprisoned until he dies from hunger and is mummified to be kept by his captor’s side even after death, or by being cannibalised — hauntingly foreshadowed with the constant background theme of hunger.

I said it before, and I’ll say it again, Youji deserved better, and even in the true ending, his state is undetermined, while Tetsuo lives on having forgotten all about him. Queue the waterworks as Kanako Itou’s “miracles may” plays.

The closest any other visual novel got to sweet pool’s level of body horror was in Song of Saya — which I will one day tackle (Do, it’s great – Ed.) — and it’s worth mentioning for its similarities; not only does Hikaru Midorikawa voice both sweet pool’s antagonist Zenya and Song of Saya’s questionable protagonist Fuminori, but Song of Saya’s writer, Gen Urobuchi, was a consultant on sweet pool.

The fact that sweet pool’s emphasis is on its horror over romance should make it clear that, despite being regarded as a boys’ love title, the game is not targeted at any particular audience. The overall mystery and uncomfortably high tension throughout the game is intriguing and thrilling enough for any horror enthusiast to enjoy.

In fact the tagline of the game is “It’s not romance, it’s not even love. It’s something much, much deeper…” — and Fuchii Kabura’s writing being as haunting as it is here makes it an unforgettably bleak and disturbing experience.

The slow building of dread and the depiction of Youji’s deteriorating mind and body is told with such excruciatingly subtle detail over the course of what feels like forever. In a world of endless pain and suffering, we are made to witness his inescapable demise, and your eyes will be glued to the screen for every second of it.

Subtle signs such as Youji’s waning hunger as he becomes increasingly weaker and more ill throughout the game is just one example. It is easily the best written work by Kabura, beating out DRAMAtical Murder, Lamento and Togainu no Chi — in my opinion, of course.

sweet pool

Tragedy filled

sweet pool is an utsuge, meaning “depressing game”. Popular examples of the same kind of visual novels are Umineko, House of the Fata Morgana, and Kara no Shojo. And nowhere is this more evident in sweet pool than when you finish the entire game and realise that Youji’s fate was never going to have a happy conclusion in any route. However this hopelessness is not exclusive to just Youji.

Despite him being the player character with the most emphasis in driving the story, the fact that Youji’s world and surroundings are so bleak that it leaves even those around him without much hope or good fortune makes the game all the more depressing.

No one at the end of sweet pool comes off any better than how they started out — in many cases, they are actually worse off. It’s just one example of how truly unforgivable and cruel its world is. Makoto would have to never be near Youji again to keep them both sane; Zenya is fated to succumb and die due to his relationship with his father; and while Youji and Tetsuo are a perfect match for one another, no ending gives them a happy conclusion.

The tragedy of it all is reinforced with the antagonisingly beautiful yet sad soundtrack delivered by Zizz Studio, who you may already know from Song of Saya, Togainu no Chi, Hanachirasu and Mary Skelter.

A coming of age story through a body horror lens

Looking back, a lot of thoughts are evoked by taking in sweet pool’s story. Its initial appearance of being a high-school romantic visual novel does not feel too far off even when looking under the surface, despite the unusual and horrifying premise. Youji’s situation, while supernatural, feels eerily familiar when we consider his living situation and how he is thrust into a new environment. And despite how old all the characters appear, let’s not forget that they attend high school.

sweet pool

Youji experiences physical changes, much like when we all go through puberty, and his forced independence from living alone is not the only new change to his surroundings.

After taking a year out of school due to his declining health, he is enrolled into a new school where his only friend is Makoto. Throughout the game, Youji appears lost, confused and disgruntled by the events happening around him and the strange developments in his body, reinforcing the penetrating loneliness of his entire existence. So many scenes and frames are with Youji alone, and his very lengthy inner monologues indicate his stagnant and sad life, making for a very striking and relatable protagonist.

Once again, the same can be said for the supporting cast. No matter how lonely Youji clearly is to us, those around him also suffer from this same isolation. While Zenya is initially a loud troublemaker, his past indicates the trauma he had endured that has made him be this tortured and troubled person who even goes as far as to harm those who are suffering in the same vein. While he is understandably terrifying, he comes out as the most tragic character.

Tetsuo behaves for the most part as a lone wolf and barely has anything to say for the majority of the time, since he seems unsure of how to effectively communicate with others, but in the end even he reveals he yearns for a connection with someone. And while Makoto is the opposite to him, appearing confident and content, he is seemingly popular but often confides in just Youji and no one else.

It could in fact confirm that Youji is also Makoto’s only friend, since even his bad ending shows how no one notices his sunken and broken state after consuming Youji and his own arm. Yikes.

sweet pool

The game’s central mechanic of choosing between only two options of “instinct” and “reason” further adds to this perception of the game being a metaphor for a coming of age story. It depicts Youji’s loss of innocence and his sexual awakening, which he immediately fears and denies.

One such instance is us selecting if he pleasures himself in a bath of blood, which is just one of many examples of how uncomfortable playing this game can get. The deliberation of choosing one’s actions on either side is also seen in many characters who share the same turmoil due to the changes around them — Makoto struggles to accept his desire of Youji, while all reasoning goes out the window if Zenya or Tetsuo are near Youji due to his “scent” after the first incident of the flesh monster making an appearance.

Youth really is a hard time, especially so when you add flesh monsters into the mix. (Ah, how I miss my school days – Ed.)

Themes

sweet pool has many elements and themes that not only embrace the horror, but widens its scope massively for an everlasting effect after experiencing the title. Identity is a big one, of course explored the most in our beloved protagonist. Youji’s fate is sealed even at the start of the game with no happy ending for him, and he never even had the chance to start truly living by the time we are in his shoes.

By having to accept the death of his parents at a young age with only him surviving the danger, and by being ill since birth and knowing that his health worsens over the course of the game, he never had a hopeful future in front of him. Everything is out of his control, and it’s truly heartbreaking to see a person so relatable and harmless be put through so much hell with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Furthermore, when it comes to the encompassing pain and trauma felt across the majority of its characters, Zenya’s is not only the most sympathetic, but his narrative points out how negative and villainous the majority of the authoritative figures in their lives are. They mostly all seem unbothered, uncaring or are, in fact, enemies towards Youji, Tetsuo and Zenya. They do not have their best interests at heart despite the cast being young adults who deserve guidance and support.

Youji and Tetsuo’s omegaverse relationship ends up being the only defining factor of the couple and even makes Youji’s value and thereby identity mean that he is merely the “female” equivalent to their partnership and that is all he is. It is forced upon them by those who either think they know better, or want to use them for their own objective.

Furthermore, even more tragedy is added on top of this insult to Youji when it comes to them falling into the bracket of a ‘love at first sight’ romance. Their relationship will never come to be stable due to this harmful interference. They are truly star-crossed lovers. Additionally, Zenya is so entrapped in the deep end by the latter points of Tetsuo’s routes that he also stands in the way of the fated pairing despite sharing their struggles. He deserves the world as much as Youji does, but he can never be saved. It was never a choice for us, and it’s not ever an option for Zenya.

sweet pool

The theme of sex and sexuality of course runs rampant for a story set in a high school as a coming of age tale with a dark side. The sexual awakening brought about by the parasites’ effect on Youji indicates a mourning of losing the freedom of once being a child and now coming into adulthood. But because this is sweet pool, this moment also makes it clear that this is when the boys lost out on a normal future.

In the case of the unfortunate Youji, the revelations of the flesh monsters can be looked upon as being similar to menstruation. This translates well with the sudden unwanted attention Youji receives if we look at it this way. The loss of innocence is indicated at the first instance of Tetsuo taking advantage of Youji, forcibly taking his virginity because it is simply out of his hands to control his desire; he is unable to resist Youji’s “scent”. Even if it’s you Tetsuo, that’s still extremely problematic.

Furthermore, the aspect of mourning lost innocence goes hand in hand with the constant element of death hovering over the characters. The sad revelation of Youji’s parents, Zenya’s decaying state, and the death of both Youji and Tetsuo in the Red Road ending in order to birth their offspring are all instances where the haunting reminder of their obsolete futures can never be diverted or stopped.

Even the revelation of what the flesh monsters truly are further shows this penetrating atmosphere of unavoidable pain and prolonged suffering in sweet pool. It’s excessively painful for every single character as well as the audience to witness, but it sure is gruellingly entertaining and thought-provoking.

Conclusion

Despite how much adoration I have for the visual novel, it’s not without its problems. It faces many badly aged tropes, such as having only one named female character, its “uke” and “seme” dynamic, and the worst offense being the troubling amount of rape.

This is especially detrimental to the character of Tetsuo as Youji’s soulmate, but in the end, the hand these characters have been unwillingly dealt with is bad enough and is explained considering the flesh monster’s effects on others. But it’s still understandably off-putting for many, since it imposes a problem of accepting Tetsuo as Youji’s lover because — say it with me — Youji deserves better.

If you can stomach the gore and uncomfortable tags, then sweet pool is a BL more should have played by now. It’s easily one of the greatest horror visual novels available in English.

You can buy the game on Steam, with its explicit content being available to purchase on JAST USA’s site. You can also just buy the 18+ version outright on JAST USA’s site, and there’s a physical limited edition still available at the time of writing via JAST’s partner J-List.

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Lilia Hellal
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