Sunrider Review

Title: Sunrider
Release date: 2014-10-02
Developer & Publisher: Love in Space

"Sunrider" is probably the best known western made visual novel / SRPG hybrid. In production since 2010, it was finally released in two parts in 2014 after a very successful Kickstarter campaign. The game was supposed to be a free trilogy, but producers decided to release the third part commercially after giving it a visual upgrade and full voice acting. So, with the release date for the third part ticking closer and all the bugs squashed in the first two parts, it's time to play the game and see if its critical acclaim is worth anything.

The first two parts of the trilogy are known as "The First Arrival' and "The Mask of Arcadius" and they are currently presented in a single package, where "New Game" actually allows you to choose which part you want to start first. Though I have to wonder which newcomer to the game would be so dumb as to start "The Mask of Arcadius First", without playing its prequel.
The main hero of the story.
You play as Kayto Shields, one of the youngest officers in the Space Navy of planet Cera. You are appointed as a captain to Sunrider - the newest and most modern warship built built by Cera's shipyards. The whole procedure was supposed to be a routine - Kayto assumes the position, introduces himself to his XO, who just happens to be his high school crush, and takes Sunrider out of the dock for a test run around Cera's moon. He just didn't figure that PACT will choose this exact time to attack his planet.

PACT stands for "People's Alliance for Common Treatment". Originally they were a revolutionary front that stood up against the New Empire, however once they overthrew the despot, they became despots themselves and started doing what the Empire did before them - attacking and occupying other planets. Even a blind person cannot fail to notice the obvious parallels between PACT and Soviet Russia. Even if we don't notice that their backstories are very similar, the obvious personality cult, the PACT leader's rants against imperialists/capitalists and PACT armies being referred to as the Red Fleet clinches the deal. Funny that all the organisations with "People's" in their name care so little about people and are willing to engage in mass murder of enormous proportions.
Colour-coded for your convenience: reds are bad, greens are good.
PACT is led by a mysterious man named Veniczar S. Arcadius (Veniczar actually being a title), who always wears a mask and whose identity is shrouded in mystery. Arcadius overthrew the New Empire, but there is some doubt that the man currently hiding behind the mask is the same one. After all, if no one ever sees your face, you can die and someone else can pick up your mantle and continue where you stopped, with no one being the wiser.

Arcadius himself participates in the attack on Cera with his super dreadnought Legion. He destroys the capital, possibly killing Kayto's sister, and demolishes the Navy, with only Sunrider managing to escape mostly unscathed. So now Kayto is in a pinch - his whole family is most probably dead, his ship is under-armed and under-staffed, the main Vanguard cannon is non-functional, he has no allies, no ryders in the hold and only the support of his XO to keep him going.
I have seen something like this somewhere before.
What follows, clearly shows how much influence "Mass Effect" had on the creation of "Sunrider". Starting with visual cues and continuing with many plot points, the game tries really hard to emulate the RPG juggernaut, though not always succeeds. From the get go Kayto says that they need money and allies if they want to wage a successful war against PACT. You can participate in side missions which do not have much plot, but which net you some hard earned dough, however there are very precious few of those, to the point that the whole concept feels like a half-baked gimmick. I can count a few missions in the beginning and a few near the end and on the whole they feel like they were added at the very end of the production cycle with very little thought. There is not even any plot tying those missions to the main story, as choosing them throws you directly into the battle. At the very least the money you gain do not go to waste, because you need it to upgrade your ship and your ryders, and I tell you - the upgrades are fucking expensive.

I have mentioned ryders a few times already and they are your main battle resource, not counting Sunrider itself. Ryders are bipedal armoured combat vehicles... OK, they are fucking mechas! Are you happy now?! They are bipedal fucking mechas you use for space combat and which never touch the ground, so the question arises - why do they have to be mechas? Small maneuverable single person space fighters would make so much more sense and would probably be more economical. I gather that the answer to the ryder question is the "rule of cool", but I would love being proven wrong.
Obvious mirror flipped sprite is obvious.
"Sunrider" tells a mostly serious story about war, sacrifices and hard decisions that have to be made in order to achieve anything. The game is also very good at showing that there are more than two sides in any conflict. In order to fight PACT, Kayto Shields allies himself with the Solar Alliance, an obvious fictional stand-in for NATO). However, he worries that even if PACT is defeated, Alliance might just become a new enemy. Cera used to be an independent planet in the Neutral Rim and our protagonist would like it to stay that way once the enemy is defeated, but he is afraid that Alliance will roll-in and take Cera "under its wing". Moreover it is shown that Alliance is not above spying on Kayto even when they are engaged in a mutual fight against the PACT. The world of "Sunrider" is not so black and white and even some antagonists do have a valid point. PACT commander Fontana might be a fierce enemy, but he is shown to truly believe the cause they are fighting for, as he considers the Alliance to be the bigger evil. A self styled pirate queen Cosette might be as crazy as a bag full of ferrets, but what she really wants is an independence for her homeworld and a better treatment for its people - it's just that being a mass murderer doesn't make other people inclined to listen to her.
Battle preparations.
At certain moments in the game you will be called to make important choices that will engender consequences in the last part of the trilogy "Liberation Day". We don't see the consequences of our actions in the first two parts of the game, but we'll be able to import our last save into "Liberation Day" and see how we affected the world. I just hope that the developers will actually make our choices matter and don't just handwave them away. All the choices basically belong to one of two categories Prince & Moralist (*cough*Renegade & Paragon*cough*) and you rack up points in one or both of them. Prince tries to win the war in any way possible, while Moralist tries to be more compassionate (or just stupider). The example of such a choice is one of the first side missions: you can destroy important PACT relay station or free some people from the slavers, but you only have the timeframe to complete one of those. Most of the actions I chose belonged to the Prince spectrum; I think I only ever took one Moralist decision throughout the story.

Despite the story being mostly serious, the game still falls into the usual trap so prominent in Japanese games, and introduces some tired clichés. Eventually you start collecting more and more allies and crew members... and they are all beautiful anime girls. Of course, how else. It's hard to give the situation a serious treatment it deserves, when your crew members are engaging in cute shenanigans. Your XO Ava Crescentia even hangs a lampshade on this by notifying you that she had to remodel male quarters into female ones due to the overabundance of female members.
A tea break.
Another problem I had, was the relative cleanliness of the conflict. We are actually spared from the ugliness of war, which is supposed to affect our characters so strongly. Of course, you might say that it's hard to show the really ugly side, when our heroes are shooting projectiles and lasers from spaceships, rather than fighting face to face in a muddy field, but still, short of two scenes, one of which is near the very end, the galactic war appears incredibly sterile. Once you get a choice to eject captured pirates out the airlock, but the action itself is not shown, thus the choice doesn't affect you emotionally. Still, it's better than "Galaxy Angel". I personally never played that game, but I heard that the characters somehow manage to win the war without any deaths. Amazing... not.

There are multiple female companions on the ship, but no routes or alternative paths - the game is completely linear and that's why I hope that your decisions will matter and create different events in "Liberation Day". Asaga is a self styled hero of justice, Icari is a mercenary/contract killer, Claude is a perverted shady doctor, Sola is a long lost Ryuvian princess, Kryska is an Alliance officer and Ava is your First Officer, but right now it seems that engineer genius Chigara is the one that is actually in love with you, even though other girls also show some muted interest. Still, the game is not very good at characterisation or weaving a complex plot. All the girls are poorly fleshed out and their backstories are shallow and unimpressive. Kayto himself is also subject to that shallowness, as his backstory is mostly crammed into "Mask of Arcadius" with poor timing and breaks the proper story flow. It would have been much better if his past would have been explored throughout the whole game, rather than cramming it all in one place. The setting of the game is mostly left unexplored and the whole history of various parties and factions is left out or only briefly mentioned. One way to fix it, would be to include a "Mass Effect"-like Codex and I really hope we see something like that in the sequel.
Veniczar Douchebag.
One way to make the story memorable is to create a truly memorable and menacing villain, but the game doesn't accomplish anything spectacular  here either. Arcadius looks and feels like the same old tired cliché villain from a dozen other games. He mostly just spouts unconvincing diatribes like "the world will be mine" or "you'll see my power" and engages in recreational maniacal laughter, but comes across as a laughable and pitiable figure, rather than a menacing enemy commander. All in all, once you take a long hard look at "Sunrider", you see that it is a game with a pretty poor story held together by its well made battle system.

The tactical strategy battles are actually very fun and introduce a fair amount of challenge. "Sunrider" has multiple difficulty levels, with you able to chose one at any time, a feature which is very useful, because some battles tend to get very hard. I tried to play the game on default "Captain" difficulty level, but only managed to beat two fights, before had to lower it to "Ensign" and this is the difficulty I used for the whole game. Admittedly I had to lower the level even further - to "Casual" - for three fights: both escort missions and the fight with Legion. It's ironic, but the very last fight in the game was also probably the easiest one, it's the penultimate that gave me trouble.
Battle formations.
All your ships and ryders (later you can even buy additional ships, which stay with you until they are destroyed) have three main attacks. Lasers have high accuracy, but are pretty weak and later lose their relevance due to most enemies having shields. Missiles and rockets have a very high accuracy, but they are easily brought down by enemy flak cannons. Kinetic rounds do the most damage and there is little protection against them, but their accuracy is very low and you have to bring your unit very close to the enemy in order to hit. You can upgrade all three attacks for their damage, accuracy or energy consumption. Ryders also have a very powerful melee attack they can only use on other ryders. Moreover, you can upgrade your defence techniques like shields, flak and armour. At every turn you move your units until they run out of energy and then give the turn to the enemy. You can also upgrade the amount of energy your units can have, thus they can complete more actions during one turn. I found the gameplay to be enormously fun and enjoyed it even more than the story. I wish that there were more varied battle goals, rather than just "kill all enemies". There were a few escort missions, but they were annoying and needlessly hard. I few different missions, like "destroy the objective in a certain number of turns" or "catch the enemy before it flees the map" wouldn't have been amiss.
That would be hitwoman.
Graphically the game looks average. I cannot say anything either good or bad about the aesthetic side of "Sunrider". The backgrounds appear a bit bland and the character sprites are a bit static, but overall the looks are passable. There is just one quibble - it's the holograms. I would have expected the holograms to looks slightly transparent or shining, but they look just like actual character sprites. I disliked that, because once the captain places a call and the sprite of the answering character appears on the bridge, it looks like the character actually stands on the bridge. If the bridge actually has persons on it at the same time, you can't tell which is a hologram and which is real. I hope they do something different about that in a sequel.

"Sunrider" is also known for having two slightly erotic, though very tame, scenes which were excised from the Steam version (there is a restoration patch). While the situation was not unusual for that time, we now have a much more erotic commercial game, which made it to Steam with no censorship. I feel that "Love in Space" would be able to successfully appeal the inclusion of the scenes, as all they show is some boobs.
The most important plot scene.
Ultimately I want to talk about the science aspect of this sci-fi game. The science in "Sunrider" is as soft as they come. When the very introduction mentions that it's possible to travel across the galaxy in days, you start to suspect that the authors didn't put much thought in that area. When there are no mentions of other sentient species or even non-sapient life forms, you start to squint very hard. And finally when the game starts spouting bullshit about these special Ryuvian powers, you suddenly realise that "Sunrider" runs purely on anime science and you shouldn't overthink it, as "Mass Effect" it is not.

Nevertheless, don't think even for a minute that I disliked the game. Objectively, some parts of "Sunrider" are pretty poor, but taken as a whole it suddenly becomes... fun. Yes, I had fun playing "Sunrider" - the story is sufficient to get the point across, even if it will win no Oscars, and the battles are really engaging. The game is pretty long, but I never felt that it dragged, and actually felt sad when it ended. So, will I play the "Liberation Day", once it arrives? Hell, yeah!

P.S. It's also worth to mention that the game has a creator approved fan-novelisation. I haven't read it yet, but it probably shouldn't be a terrible read.

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official site (also download the game and get the de-censor patch here)
Steam page
Sunrider: The Novelization
Kickstarter page

Final Verdict: 77 %


  1. Anonymous19/1/17 11:28

    Hate to burst your bubble, but Liberation Day sucked, and this is coming from someone who loved the first two episodes a lot more than you.

    I mean it really SUUUUuuuuucked. I had to quit playing just 3 missions in it was so bad. The writing was much, much worse. The battle graphics actually got a downgrade; no more animated weapon firing, they just get replaced by static particles so terrible looking that it feels like a placeholder that they forgot to replace with the "real" graphics for the finished product.

    Your choices from the first 2 episodes don't matter for squat. I didn't notice a single difference (other than one character wearing an eye patch or not).

    The girls? You are forced into a relationship with the single most boring one. The fact that you immediately know which one I'm talking about lets you know how awful painful the romance scenes are.

    It's crazy that Liberation Day was considered the polished, commercial product. It feels like it should have been the free, proof of concept prototype episode while The Arrival and Mask or Arcadius feel like the commercial releases by comparison.

    What a disappointment.

    1. Well, I did review Liberation Day too:
      Maybe I personally wouldn't have used the word "sucked", but I would describe it as mediocre, unmemorable and overpriced. Ultimately, it was a disappointing game.