note! This probably won't make much sense if you haven't read the story yet, and it definitely won't make sense if you haven't played the game. :3
media (art, sound, movie)
Let's do the easiest part first.
The character art and CGs are both wonderful. It's a more realistic style that makes the characters look like men, not sissy boys. (For the record, I adore sissy boys, so don't get your panties in a wad!) CGs are presented in a unique way; instead of showing the player the entire CG and leaving it static throughout the scene, Sweet Pool usually start by displaying a piece of the CG and moves the camera around on it, creating a sense of movement. There's also skillful use of layering, where multiple CGs will be displayed at once to create something more visually interesting than an ordinary flashback.
The background music is a bit of a mixed bag, but it fits the game atmosphere well. I'm not fond of the songs that are used for the tense moments, and the "cat squawk" noise in Zenya's theme is especially annoying, but I can't say that any of the music wasn't fitting. My two favorite pieces are the one played during tender moments (Fade) and the sad violin song used in most of the endings (Forever). One feature of Sweet Pool that I've never seen in a BL game is the inclusion of multiple ending songs. Each of the six endings has a different song that plays during the credits, and all are in English. But that doesn't mean you can understand them. :p My favorite vocals are the three by Pale Green - the opening, and the two Tetsuo instinct endings.
The characters of Sweet Pool don't see much development throughout the story; this is one of the game's major failings. The character development that we do get is too little, too late, or just seems irrelevant by the time it's presented. Worse, it just floats on the surface and doesn't affect the plot of the game in the slightest.
Now, I understand that we're playing from Youji's point of view, and he doesn't have the magic all-seeing eye. But the player certainly does! The game is constantly cutting from one scene to another, leading the player around into different places to check up on the action. Unfortunately, Sweet Pool tries way too hard to keep everything mysterious - and succeeds far too well. By the time we find out about how Zenya was forced to become a host (and with rotten meat, no less), it's the end of the game. We don't learn that Tetsuo was an abused orphan until after he and Youji die in the ending where Kitani guns them down.
The best (worst?) example is the story of the car accident that killed Youji's parents. If we'd known more about how horrible it was and how it affected Youji, it would have been a lot easier to feel some sympathy. Instead, the player is forced to go through more than half of the game thinking that the main character is a cold jerk who doesn't know how to deal with people. If the writers wanted to hide the fact that Youji died in the accident and miraculously woke up on his own, fine. But don't go tying it to critical character information that would have helped me at least sympathize with the character I'm pretending to be. I found it very hard to put myself in Youji's shoes or to give a damn about him as a person because he was so callous.
Tetsuo is another mess. I wanted desperately to like him, so much so that I still feel a bit fond of his character, especially after the contrived affection in the ending scene on the roof. Sure, he was a cold jerk who could barely be bothered to grunt a reply, but Mr. I-have-FOUR-endings was obviously meant to be Youji's match. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the pretty CG that made me want to play this game was a rape scene. I still clung to hope. There had to be a reason! And there was, but Tetsuo denied any knowledge of it, and I stupidly believed him only to realize later that he was a liar. By the time I got what I wanted - some love-love chat - it was too fake and too late. It was like a switch was flipped as they got to the rooftop and looked at the sunset - suddenly Tetsuo was talkative, honest, kind, and gentle. Never mind that moments before, he fatally wounded Zenya in a frenzy of male aggression.
Again, Zenya's a case of too little, too late, though I did find it easier to sympathize with him even before the truth about the rotten meat was revealed. The scene where he remembered Kamiya calling him worthless was touching. I tend to cut crazy people a lot of slack because insanity's not their fault. Even Kunihito can be pitied, though I find it hard to care much about him because he was a bit too much of the "crazy old man" stereotype.
There is one exception to all this character bashing - Kitani. We both loved Kitani. Out of the six major characters, he's the only one with a backstory that was dispensed at the proper time. His desperation, anger, and hate were all real and touching. His devotion to the Okinaga family was realistic and well-written, and it provided some much-needed comic relief (shopping with Zenya, making clothes for Christie, wearing an apron as he cooked). I was also pleased with his ethics; he didn't like to harm women or children, but he saw nothing wrong with spying on a cult or seeking revenge for his masters' deaths. Maybe I'm a bit of a mercenary. :)
Hoo-boy, where to start?
General comments first, I suppose. If the writers of this game wanted so badly to have the story go along the one true path!!!1two, I wish they'd just written a book instead. There are far too many meaningless choices in this game - they may trip a flag in the system dictating which endings the player is eligible to get, but they do nothing for the story. When the difference between reason and instinct is one line of description or dialogue, there's a problem. Almost all of the choices in Sweet Pool are like this. If the story's meant to be linear, don't be a cocktease by throwing in 20 different decision points.
Sweet Pool is an okay game, but it had the potential to be so much better. There's no problems with the art or sound; the game's failings are in the realms of forced plot and poor character development.
I was left with an unsatisfied feeling overall, almost as if there's more questions than answers, but that's not true. The majority of the endings do make sense - it's just those two along the blue Tetsuo path that make absolutely no sense to me. This really eats at me because I'm sure the "hidden" ending you get from choosing reason in the pool is supposed to be the true ending.
The many plot holes and loose ends left me feeling, well... empty. Why didn't Kamiya show up at all in the last long scene at the school? What happened to the cult? Doesn't anyone give a damn that the precious Female has been killed or disappeared? Why does Kitani meet Kamiya in the bar and hand over the box of cult stuff? In the endings where Tetsuo lives on, why isn't the cult after him for being involved in Youji's disappearance? What the hell is up with the ending where Youji is somehow a ghost, as if it's okay to make shit up on the fly like that? In the "real" ending, Tetsuo sees Youji on the train platform - but what does that mean? Why is Makoto able to smell Youji's pheromones if he's not a Male?
blah blah blah... you get the idea
One last thing that colored our perception of the game, and this is purely personal preference - there's no romantic love. None. I didn't expect it from Zenya, but I thought Makoto had romantic feelings at first, not instincts stirred up by parasitic pheromones. And Tetsuo? There's no way to avoid him groping Youji in the bathroom or raping him out behind the school. And yet, the two are all lovey-dovey on the rooftop at the end? That pissed me off. Totally unrealistic. The ending where they mate and melt together in order to produce a Purebreed might seem romantic, but the game makes a point of saying that Youji felt "something like love," not any real affection. Yes, it's supposed to be animal and instinctual, but these are still (mostly) human characters with human minds, feelings, and needs. So are the players.
Despite all this, I'm still glad we played Sweet Pool. The concepts behind the story are chilling but fascinating. The cult and Male and Female and Them and Purebreeds - that is some good stuff. The presentation of these plot elements was wonderful, and secrets were revealed at a slow but steady pace that kept us glued to the computer for hours.
I'm kind of torn between saying "play this only if you can read it!" or "play this only if you can't read it!" If you can read it, you're going to be frustrated by the characters and plot. If you can't read it, you're going to be frustrated by not having a clue what's going on.
I guess this is a lukewarm recommendation: try it, you might like it.