Apparently we needed more skevy shots of underage women. Thanks Sunrider!
I’ve never played a visual novel before largely because the genre has never seemed all that interesting. The basic idea of a visual novel is to read a story interspersed with minor gameplay elements, which seems to deny the benefits that the video game format offers. Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius adequately shows the appeal of the visual novel. It uses solid writing, a space opera setting, and anime tropes to bring together an engaging story about a captain of defeated planet and his motely crew of underage girls.
I did mention anime tropes, right?
The story centers around Kyato Shields, the newly anointed captain of the experimental ship Sunrider, who fights back against the evil PACT empire after it conquerors his home planet of Cera. Joining Kyato is a group of teen girls who pilot ryders, the game’s mechs, and who serve as the games cast as the story develops. The girl’s personalities, the mech fighting, and the whole feel of the game is that of a quality Japanese anime. Strong writing helps elevate the story beyond the usual clichés, but it’s the tough decisions that add weight to what could have been another staid space opera. Sunrider repeatedly asks the player to make painful choices between lofty principles and practical reality. One of the long running plot lines involves an ambitious admiral whose willingness to sacrifice lives and freedoms force the player to think about how much those things are worth. In one situation, the admiral proposes destroying a highly populated space station to prevent the annihilation of his fleet and a potential war losing blow. The decisions the game poses are tough and the situations surrounding them feels believable and natural.
Sadly, those decisions don’t mean much. Sunrider isn’t Mass Effect and the choices you make don’t seem to matter. The game has a linear plot that doesn’t permit much player input and regularly justifies even the most naïve choices as the right ones. The decisions are still emotional affairs, but the knowledge that they don’t effect the world takes out much of their weight. The story is also undermined by the creepy sexualization of the underage female costars. The Sunrider is positively teeming with girls dressed in school outfits (military issue, I’m sure), crushing over the dashing Captain Shields. The game goes further with gratuitous skin shots, an unnecessary shower scene, and dialogue boxes framed across teen crotch. I get that anime does this kind of thing, but it undermines the rest of the narrative. It’s hard to get invested in Captain Shields’ struggle to deal with the weight of the war when he discusses his woes with a 15 year old sub wearing an ass high skirt. It’s uncomfortable and unwelcome.
As one should expect from a visual novel, the gameplay is simplistic. The player controls the Sunrider and its ryders in grid based battles against enemy fleets. Each ship and ryder has a limited number of action points that it can use to either move or shoot. The Sunrider also has access to special attacks that use Command Points which are earned at the end of battles. The whole system feels clunky and explains very little of its weakly implemented nuance. Fights aren’t well designed and rely solely on regular waves of enemies arriving with no variance in battle conditions. On the whole, the fights can convey a sense of fleet combat grandeur, but too often become mired in the weaknesses of the system. In one particularly frustrating example, waves of action point stealing support units showed up and effectively prevented me from doing anything during the several turns before I died. The same units nullified long range weapons and hung out in the back of the fleet leaving me without an effective response. More time spent balancing the fights would have helped alleviate much of the frustration.
Your enjoyment of Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius largely depends on your love of anime space operas. Sunrider does a good job replicating the feel of Japanese anime and its free price makes it an auto include in fan’s libraries. If you’re not as invested on the anime world, the game is of more limited value. The dialogue is generally good and it’s probably worth checking out if you’ve ever had any interest in visual novels. Just cover the screen during the crotch shots.
As for my evaluation of Steam, Sunrider represents the strengths and weaknesses of the system. Undoubtedly, I would never have run across this game without the assistance of Steam’s new system. Sunrider, and its predecessors Grim Dawn and Xenonauts, are outside my usual information streams. That being said, I didn’t truly enjoy any of these games and all of them felt like second or third tier copies of better ideas. This all goes to support my previous conclusion which was that Steam’s update definitely increases the discoverability of the genres I like, but can’t make up for bad games. Hopefully, Steam’s update will allow customers to access previously unknown developers and therefore accord those developers greater resources to improve their games. We’ll see.