I’ve got a real soft spot in my heart for those works that are made not because someone’s trying to make a profit, not because someone wants to get a name for themselves, but simply because someone decides that this is a thing that needs to exist. The urge to just create is a powerful, beautiful thing, and some of the best works of art out there are just these kinds of projects, those that exist for no other reason than to fulfill someone’s passion. In fact, I believe that’s one of the greatest things about the internet, that it makes it so easy for creators to just produce and get their works to an audience, with no worries about the costs of publishing, marketing, or anything else that normally goes into most of the creative works we all enjoy. The freeware creators are incredibly valuable.
There is one big flaw with creators, though. They’re people, too. And that means they need to eat, take shelter, and bungee jump over active volcanoes just as much as regular people like you and me. And for that, they need money. And money changes things. I’ve seen that so many times, through my background in both working with nonprofits and as a small business consultant. Nonprofit projects where everyone regularly stretches every dollar involved as far as possible will suddenly get a lot more convoluted when people find there’s the possibility of getting paid, and artists trying to turn their craft into a business quickly find out how much they need to change their approach to their art. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to make a living out of your work, but the pursuit of compensation does necessitate a different way of creating, and oftentimes your work will be quite a bit different than it would have been had you just done it for nothing other than the need to create. It’s not necessarily a worse situation, just a different one, and we’ve been seeing plenty of it lately with the rise of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Patreon.
And I think that’s a large part of the reason why I like Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius so much. This is a work that has money behind it. And yet, even though they got money involved, this is very much an obvious labor of love. Love in Space, Sunrider’s creators, ran a successful crowdfunding campaign, raising over $44,000, almost fifteen times their original goal. Nobody’s going to get rich off that, but that’s still more than enough, with proper management, to get a small, limited, indie game out into the world with a tidy profit trailing it. With Sunrider, though, the production values, the amount of content created, the amount of just plain work that’s so, so apparent in the finished product is so high that I will never believe that Sunrider’s turning a profit. All the crowdfunder money and more is accounted for in the completed work. The visual novel has professional quality voice actors, sound design, art, and more, to the point that the amount of money they’ve collected through the crowdfunder could never cover all this alone. It’s obvious that the team behind Love in Space are volunteering at least some of their own time and resources to the project, yet even so, this project is still completely freeware. They’re creating it simply because they want this to be a world in which Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius exists. Just the amount of integrity and passion going into Sunrider makes the work notable. The fact that it actually delivers are long, enjoyable experience for the pricetag of completely, no strings, no expectations, free only makes it more so.
Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius is a combination visual novel/turn-based strategy game, currently in open beta available on Steam. Basically, you’ve got turn-based strategy battles, with the visual novel format telling the story in between. Or maybe it’s visual novel story segments with turn-based strategy battles in between. Whatever. The game uses both of them and keeps them at about equal importance, so you can’t say it’s a ‘turn-based strategy game with visual novel elements’ or however the reviewers would phrase it these days.
In keeping with Love in Space’s moniker, Sunrider is a good old fashion space warfare tale with a bit of a romance bent. You are Captain Kayto Shields, the suspiciously silver-haired commander of the warship Sunrider, the pride of the planet Cera’s military. Unfortunately, said military doesn’t get to bask in it’s magnificence long, as that organization, along with the planet’s government and a good chunk of it’s people, simply stops existing shortly after the Sunrider’s first taste of real combat with the nefarious PACT. And so, you are left with one of the most powerful military vessels in the galaxy, absolutely no chain of command or oversight, an unlimited amount of ammunition, and a real grudge against the PACT fleet and all their explodable, squishy, bullet-magnet spacecraft. What do you do?
Well, obviously the answer is to fill your kickass spaceship with hot women who regularly wear suits thinner than a coat of paint. What were you thinking?
And so goes the tale of Sunrider. PACT, basically the space communists, are an evil force that pissed off a lot of pretty ladies, so of course they have to pay. Also, they took over your planet, killed pretty much everyone you’ve ever known and loved, and are rapidly spreading and conquering the entire galaxy, so you’ve got plenty of lesser reasons to hate them, too. You, as captain of the newly commissioned and now completely independent Sunrider, have nothing left but to collect a bunch of smoking hot mecha pilots and harry PACT across the galaxy. Will you be able to turn the tide of PACT’s complete domination over the entire galaxy?
Sunrider, much like most visual novels, focuses heavily on the characters, even with this galactic warfare going on. I won’t go so far to say this is a character-driven story, but it does have a really heavy emphasis on using its characters as a lens to the plot. That’s a narrative style that’s largely unique to visual novels, I’ve found, where all the plot is delivered through dialog rather than narration or action. Ships may explode, planets may fall, entire governments may twist and turn on your actions, but it’s not until you have the characters talking about them and hashing out their feelings that you really get the full impact on what’s going on. The writing could probably use just one more pass from an editor, there’s a few awkward sentences or errors around, but for the most part it’s surprisingly solid for the amount of content there is. With the intense character-focus, though, I find the way the characters themselves are built to be a little odd. Characters in Sunrider are round, but they’re not deep. They’ve got features on them and complications in their backstories that adds interest. It’s obvious some time has been spent thinking on how these characters got to where they are, and almost everyone has one or two kinks in their history that makes them more than just the average young adult anime warrior. At the same time, though, it’s obvious that their personalities were built with archetypes in mind, and there’s no attempt to develop them beyond that. Sola’s exactly the same ice queen, Asaga’s exactly the same spunky chick, and Chigara’s exactly the same shy bookworm that you’ve seen a thousand times before. The characters aren’t bland, but it’s very obvious the developers were going for some basic anime archetypes, and I would have liked to see either something more unique or some development of those archetypes in a story with this kind of character focus.
The overarching plot of PACT vs. Everyone Else is relatively simple, but it does have a few nice twists in it that keep things from ever getting too stale. In particular, I really appreciated the way they handled the Solar Alliance, the main interstellar faction taking the main stand against PACT. Between their size and resources, and your military prowess, it’s obvious that both you and the Alliance absolutely need each other to make a reasonable stand against PACT. However, their government is composed entirely of straight dicks, their ultimate goals and yours are likely to be at odds once PACT is defeated, and their military leader takes some really morally questionable actions over the course of the game. You’re in bed with them whether you like it or not, after all, you both need each other, but Kayto’s views on it are completely up to you. I really liked the internal conflict that creates, and found that to be one of the most interesting aspects of the plot. That kind of nuance doesn’t pervade all the writing, of course. PACT is never anything less than obviously evil, for instance. But aside from a few emotional moments that just fell flat with me, the narrative is never actively bad. It may not be a complex story, but it’s a perfectly serviceable one, and it sets up well all the big space shootbangs and love-love eyes you need.
You are given the chance to make your own input a few times, helping Kayto come to a decision on a few different matters. I’m honestly unsure how much of a change your choices make, largely because it took me twelve hours to get through the visual novel for this review and I just don’t have time to give it another run just to see. The last choice I made seemed to have really major consequences, and there was only one choice that the plot noticeably later countermanded, but still, I’m not sure how strong of rails the plot has. My Kayto ended up with two women obviously falling in love with him, and confessed his love to a third by the time it was through. Does that happen in every run, or is that an active result of my input? The two that fell for me, I had been pretty close with at every opportunity, but the one that I confessed to I had been actively against in most choices. Or do they always happen now, but will be more flexible after the game leaves beta? I’m entirely unsure.
Of course, when you’re sitting on a huge honking warship, you have to use it. In this case, that means turn-based strategy space battles. I have to say, given that this is a freeware game, given that they had such a limited budget, and given that this is built in an engine specifically tailored for visual novels, Love in Space put a surprisingly large amount of elements into their battle system. It’s still really, really basic compared to the turn-based strategy examples you’re probably thinking of now, but you can’t blame them for that. Battles take place on a hex grid out in space, with no terrain details to mind. You’ve got the battleship Sunrider and a small compliment of mecha, or Ryders, in the visual novel’s terminology, up against an enemy fleet that invariably vastly outnumbers you. Most of your attack options fall into the categories of kinetic weaponry, basically bullets and shells, that hit hard and are matched against armor, energy weapons, which are long range and accurate but are reduced by shields, and missile weapons, which are powerful, precise, and long reaching but have limited ammunition, are defended against by flak, and are far more useful to your enemies than they are to you due to their numbers and the way only a few of your forces have any flak protection. You’re able to overlap your flak and shield defenses, with some of your units providing protection to others, but armor is completely individualized. You’re also given two support units, and your enemies are given a few to play with, that can inflict ailments on enemies and boost allies. Each unit has a certain amount of energy per turn, and can move and launch attacks until they run out. Battles are actually really hard, especially your first time through. You don’t have a whole lot of strategic options to play with, so they often come down to how well you’ve managed the complex upgrade system and your target prioritization. It’s really not uncommon to lose units on the first turn of combat, as enemies have the nasty habit of firing every missile they have at earliest opportunity, the entire enemy fleet focusing their powerful and accurate initial attacks on a single member of your forces while whatever voodoo flak protection runs on is too random to provide a reliable defense. Luckily, you’re able to adjust the difficulty level on the fly, and I would strongly suggest you do so when needed. The difficulty in this game is a little unbalanced, and there’s no shame in dropping the level down a bit in order to get over any particular hump.
One thing I really liked about the combat system was how specialized your units are. You’ve only got two flexible, general purpose units. The rest are very situational. You have one unit who’s excellent at taking out enemy ryders but useless against enemy ships. You have a unit that’s incredibly powerful but can’t move and attack the same turn. You have a unit that’s great a shaking up enemy forces with status ailments, but really, really poor at actually finishing them off. In order to fight efficiently, you’ve to learn how to work your team in tandem, making use of their individual strengths and coordinating these very different types of units to cover for each other’s weaknesses. It adds another layer to combat that I found really satisfying once I learned to handle it.
The interface for the battle system could use a bit of work, and I hope it’s updated before the game leaves beta. Sometimes, you’re just not told enough to deal with the challenges you have to face. When placing your units, there’s no indication as to where you can start them or where’s “too far infield”. There’s no indication as to when you’ve exhausted your available moves and it’s time to end the turn.
If you’re clicking to skip through the way, way too long enemy turn, you’re given no indication as to how much damage they’re doing or what’s happening to your units. Nothing too major, but there’s a lot of small things that, if fixed, could make the system a lot better.
I do have three main issues with the combat system that really wore on me as the game went on.
The first, as stated above, enemy turns take way too long. You’re generally dealing with around twenty enemies at any given time. Each of them can usually attack twice each turn. Each attack can take around 10 to 15 seconds to fully resolve. That’s a lot of time with absolutely no player input. You can click through them to speed them up, losing the information as to what they’re actually doing until the turn’s over and you can read through your units, but even that can take a few boring minutes to get through everything. [EDIT: Turns out there’s options to mitigate this I just never noticed. See Drath’s combat below for more details.] Second, the game generally adds challenge as you progress not by beefing up your enemies, although it does add a few stronger unit types occasionally, but by increasing enemy numbers. This adds to the long enemy turn problem, but it can actually be worse than that. Obviously, they can’t just dump 60 enemies on you at once and expect you to reasonably get through them, so they have enemies periodically warp in throughout the battle. I have to tell you, it’s honestly painful to have the enemy on the ropes, only a few of their number left, then have them completely refill their fleet with a lucky warp before I can finish them off. I know the reasons why they’re set up like this, and they’re good reasons, but honestly it just feels like the developers are arbitrarily undoing my work when it happens. There’s no indication or warning of it either, an idea of what you’re honestly facing when looking over the initial forces you’re up against. My go-to strategy was to play conservatively, clumping my units together and overlapping their defenses while slowly drawing out the enemy forces. There were so, so many times where this was the best strategy against the enemy fleet at the start of the battle, yet the foes they had ready to warp in, that I had no way of knowing about, really called for a more aggressive strategy else they’d overwhelm me with their constantly growing numbers. That led to situations such as this:
I’ve had so many enemies warp in before I could take care of them that it crashed the game. The enemies you see on screen at any given time are no indication of what you’re actually going to fight and you’re given no warning, no indication, no chance to prepare for what your opponent truly is. I honestly don’t know how to fix it without creating more, possibly worse problems, but I found it the most irritating part of the game.
Third, there’s not a whole lot of variation to the battles. Oh, there are a few missions that change your objectives or add in new features to the fight. It’d be great to see more of those. As it is, the battle system is pretty basic and mostly the same every time, and it wore thin on me towards the end of the game. My interest in the story lasted longer then my interest in the combat, and I ended up setting the game to its lowest difficulty in the last act just because I didn’t really want to deal with the battles more than I had to. Mixing things up a bit, adding some new features, or anything else they might put into the final version of the game could easily refresh my interest, as the combat isn’t really actively bad, but I just got a bit tired of it at the end of this run.
The presentation in this game is nothing short of excellent. The ryders and spacecraft are absolutely beautiful, and it’s obvious a great deal of care went into them. The artist’s a bit better at drawing women than men and there’s a little bit of sameface going on, but honestly, those are the only two complaints I can think of over the visuals. The art is gorgeous. The game is a real treat to look at. Even the parts without any cat-suited women in them. As with most visual novels, everything is delivered through a series of still shots rather than animation, allowing the artist to build much more complex ryders and starships, and Love in Space take full advantage of it here.
The music and sound design is really high quality, and they’ve got professional-level voice actors behind all the main characters. They only do battle quotes, but it’s still a very, very nice touch. There’s a lot of talent behind making the game sound good to your ears, and it definitely shows in the final product. Some may find the battle quotes to be a little repetitive, and music transitions can be sudden and jarring, but compared to the quality of the audio included, those are really minor complaints. The game looks good, sounds good, and is really great to experience.
So, when it’s all on the table, what’s the Aether take on Sunrider? In a feeling I’m sure I share with the developers I am really happy that Sunrider exists. This is one of the highest quality freeware visual novels I’ve ever experienced. It’s easily-accessible, has great presentation, and really shows off the passion of the developers. It does have one instance of gratuitous tits, and takes heavily to the anime aesthetic, so if those are turn-offs to you, you may want to give this a pass (alternatively, if you’re looking for a sexier game, the developers have a patch available for that. No idea what it adds, but hey, it’s there). For anyone else, if you’re at all interested in visual novels, either a regular or someone interested in getting introduced into the medium, I would strongly, strongly recommend you give Sunrider a try. Everything I appreciated about the game vastly outnumbered my few complaints, and I really enjoyed my time with it. And it’s not even done yet. Love in Space is taking a break to work on the side game Sunrider Academy (check it out on Greenlight), but after that, they’ve still got the last third of the story to go. Sunrider is a great experience, and even if it’s not for you? Costs you nothing but time.