So, this review didn’t come start of my own volition. The beginnings of this one had an outside influence: Patricia Hernandez. Who is Patricia Hernandez?
To be honest, while I am aware of her and what some say about her, I don’t know her work or personality. I don’t follow her on social media and I haven’t read anything she’s written before this week. She could be a saint or a sinner or neither. All I know about her for sure is that she has written the only review of Starfighter: Eclipse I know of; which you can read here. It’s is an interesting piece: not for its structure or its content, but for its sheer audacity. Seriously, let’s really look at some of what she has to say in this review;
There’s a lot to like here. For one, the cast is full of attractive, interesting characters who aren’t just boring stereotypes
Better yet, unlike 99% of the visual novels I’ve played, it’s actually well-written.
I was also surprised at how easy it is to die—your choices do matter!
The effect of reading her words had on me was instant: like waving a red flag in front of a Spanish Bull. It wasn’t even the ‘well-written sex game’ that got to me the most. It’s the fact that she says it’s better than the majority of visual novels she’s played. I’ve played a decent amount of visual novels, both from the East and West, as I’ve tinkered with this small corner of the Internet. There are some solidly-written visual novels out there and I’ve done my best I went to point out when a VN’s writing goes over and beyond: especially when it’s Western-born. So, to read a statement like that leads me to a few conclusions about Ms. Hernandez. Either A) ‘She hasn’t played many visual novels and the one she has played sucked’ or B) ‘She has played a good number of VNs and Starfighter Eclipse is actually very well-written and her opinion is spot on’. Either way, I had to find out for myself so I went Date Nighto website, put down my hard-earned money (so at least one person has officially bought this game at retail price) and invested my valuable time playing Starfighter: Eclipse. Oh, we should probably touch on the backstory for this one before I get too far ahead of myself.
Starfighter: Eclipse was originally conceived and Kickstarted in 2014. Inspired by a popular yaoi webcomic, just titled Starfighter, the campaign raised $143,183; making it the second most successful EVN Kickstarter right now. In order to bring it to life HamletMachine, the creator of the Starfighter webcomic, partnered with Date Nighto: a new visual novel platform that was a part of the team that brought us Namco High from last year. I’ve covered the Kickstarter campaign in a commentary that, if you haven’t read, you should check out: especially if you are considering going commercial or doing a Kickstarter campaign. A year later, and unlike many of its Kickstarter brethren, Starfighter has released to the fanfare of its backers and fans. And despite being a niche within a niche, the question that is law on this site remains: is it good?
There’s only one way to find out. Oh and there’s no way to get around it, so there will be spoilers people. Prepare thyselves.
- Genre: Science Fiction, Yaoi
- Developed: Nightmareland Games
- Publisher: Date Nighto
- Language: English
- Platform: Browser-based
- Website: Date Nighto
Helios is a new fighter pilot on the spaceship Kepler. In his first mission on the ship he and his assigned navigator Selene are put on a team to explore a derelict space vessel, only for said mission to go horribly wrong. Surviving the mission is only the beginning though as this ship of highly-trained space warriors faces a threat only two rookies stand a chance against. I’ll try to do a better job of holding back my crippling sarcasm, but unfortunately the main storyline is where we have to start.
The main purported storyline deals with a saboteur on the ship shortly after the mission and it’s standard fare for science fiction. To be fair, at no point does the game expect you to investigate the issue and try to solve who the saboteur is. This is good because by the halfway point it practically screams through a bullhorn aimed at a microphone connected to the stereo system of Cowboy’s Stadium that the saboteur is Abel: another Navigator and a main character in the webcomic. I don’t know how easy it was supposed to be for everyone, but I pretty much knew at the beginning of the second chapter when Helios is visiting Abel in the medical wing and Abel can’t keeps his hands off him. The minute I saw that scene, the first thing out of my mouth was, ‘Wow. I bet that’s not how you act in the comic. You’re brainwashed, aren’t you?’
This is further confirmed a few scenes later when Helios walks in on a group of techs trying to decipher a bit of alien code they found on the derelict ship. Guess who’s the only one who seems to understand it? Okay calm down: I can you guys shouting ‘Abel’ through my computer screen. So something on the ship brainwashed him and he’ll be our antagonist for the visual novel: all 90 lbs. of him. I’ll get into specifics about entire cast soon enough, but Abel deserves to be talked about in particular because, despite what’s been marketed, Abel’s the central driving force of the story.
With the exception of the plot thread dealing with his sister, the routes and choices Helios takes during the game can all be traced to Abel’s change of behavior. Selene is investigating the sabotages (which leads him directly to Abel), Cain and Deimos are trying to hide what Abel is doing, and Hayden is useless which gives Abel more time to do damage. Is Abel interesting enough for this pivotal role? Oh Hell no. Just from the events of this game Abel is every bishonen stereotype I’ve ever verbally dropkicked on VNs Now and I’m sure the webcomic only makes those stereotypes worse. As far as this game is concerned though, by playing an antagonistic role, it changes the focal point of the entire story to saving Abel from whatever force has taken over his mind.
‘What’s the problem with that?’ I hear many of you asking. The actual force behind the brainwashing is never fully defined or explained. Because of this, we never know exactly why this is happening or even if it has happened in the past: something the game plays hide-and-seek with the entire game. Considering this is a game that spent the entire second chapter dragging its ass as you roam around the ship, five minutes to delve into even the rumors of what this potentially hostile race has done in the past would have made the sabotages, and even Abel himself, more of a threat.
And unless you make a wrong choice, leading to an automatic bad ending, there are no canon casualties. The most that happens is that one of the mechanics is a little further out of it than Abel is, but other than getting banged up over the course of the story, everyone walks away no worse for wear. Well, Abel does trounce Selene pretty good in a few of the paths, but only because Selene makes Able look like a Crossfit champion in comparison. And he gives Cain a good beating on one path, but Cain getting hurt is never bad so point retracted.
Getting back to my point, I did not expect nor wanted the game to become gratuitously violent. However, if bodies were stacking up and no one knew why, and Helios has to decide whether or not to kill Abel rather than save him, the plot would’ve reached the level of tension it was trying to get to. Or if Abel was quietly manipulating people in the background or trying to frame another crew member for the sabotages. Anything to make him an actual, active antagonist would do. While the plot probably would have still been predictable, a decent amount of tension would have at least been interesting enough to suspend the eye-rolling that comes with the situation never being outside of our protagonists’ abilities to handle it since he spends most of his on-screen time before the ‘big reveal’ preening or trying to get into Helios’ pants.
Speaking of our protagonist, Helios isn’t burning the world down with his uniqueness or ambition, but at the same time he is likable in his own way. He joins the military and the Fighter program in particular out of a desire to follow in the footsteps of his older sister: a female Fighter named Valentina. From the bits that we do learn about him, he had a hard knock life similar to any ‘colonial kid’ in any given space opera. The difference here is that said difficulties hasn’t lead to a tragic backstory. Overall, especially given the cast of characters he’s been surrounded with, he’s well-adjusted and sincere. Unfortunately, the game never attempts to develop his character beyond that.
It can be argued that Starfighter: Eclipse is, at its core, a sex game. The game itself isn’t shy about its adult content and each path you take essentially build points towards a sex scene with whoever you’ve spent the most time with: making it more of a reward for playing that path correctly. Now when this approach to sex is done right, and it can be done right, it leads to developing awesome characters and relationships that gaming as a whole needs much more of. But, in order to do it right, the characters have to be interesting and well done on their own. Otherwise, and this is my biggest issue with most games that want to be ‘adult’, they don’t bother making those characters interesting: instead expecting the audience to want to watch them have sex strictly because of their tropes and/or getting strangled by the red string.
This brings us to the merry band of jackasses that makes up the cast. The worst character, by far, is your own partner Selene who the neediest bitch I have seen in this particular medium. I cannot think of a better word to sum him up. From what I understand, ‘Fighter’ and ‘Navigator’ in this universe is simply code for ‘soul mate’, and the way they all say those terms kind of cements that opinion. So, despite having several sex options, Helios should be drooling over Selene whenever they’re in the same room and God help you if you don’t. A major part of Selene’s path is his jealousy of Abel and anyone else that gets Helios attention. If you do not find a way to constantly shower Selene with praise, Selene throws a tantrum worthy of a five year old.
There is literally nothing to this character outside of being the resident male tsundere and you guys already know what I think about tsunderes. Well, he does provide the Deus Ex Machina when the need arises. But, anything else that could distract from that and his constant, pubescent needs is pushed aside and never addressed; making him an aggravation at best. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better and bring little to the table other than their role in the final sex scenes. Hayden is a domineering war dog, so after it’s all said and done Helios gets bent over. Deimos is the quiet type but doubles as Cain’s spy and he unsurprisingly turns out to be very lithe when the situation calls for it. Ironically, there is an outlier in this conga line of pain and that is with a character whose path I think I actually liked under the circumstances: Cain.
Cain is, to be as nice as possible, a wild dog that should’ve either been put down or neutered ages ago. He’s entirely unpredictable and incapable of controlling his emotions which, ironically enough, gives him the best path in the game. Again, don’t know how this rolls in the webcomic, but I’m guessing that Abel is the brains in this particular relationship. Abel’s particular brainwashing makes him just as emotional unpredictable as Cain is and the old boy tries to handle a situation he simply doesn’t have the maturity or mindset to.
While Cain’s route has its own issues, this is where the writing team got the most right. There are a few scenes of Cain and Helios just talking and drinking: giving us the sheer covering of development for Helios I talked about earlier. Their relationship is complicated and fluctuates depending on what both are feeling at the time, which is honestly refreshing considering how straightforward and dull the other routes can be. And of all of the endings, this is the one I would hope to become canon as it leaves everyone on the best possible path moving forward. It’s salvageable and in better hands becoming friends with Cain, at the very least, would’ve been the main route with all of your romance options branching off it to ensure that ending would be canon for further installments.
Completing all five routes gives you an after credits scene of Valentina reuniting with Helios. The way it is handled is, honestly, sloppy as it makes several routes completely pointless and doesn’t leave me as a reader wanting more as much as it leads to me being annoyed. This is mostly because, if Starfighter continues following science fiction cliches, his sister is now evil and has appeared in a bid by these ‘Anglers’ to wipe out the Kepler correctly this time. Best case scenario is that I’m wrong and this all leads to nothing, meaning that all of the flashback scenes featuring Valentina and her being missing was just the plot screwing around in order to try and create a cheap dramatic device in the place of solid character development.
These are not good choices to leave an audience with.
So yeah, not exactly whisked off my feet by the story. Other factors help seal just how much of a drain this is, but its overall potential is still there. If any of those opportunities were taken advantage of, the story would’ve changed for the better. But it was actively avoided every opportunity to stand on its own in order to spin a Sci-Fi story we’ve seen a million times before drained of any of the humor or tension that kept those others afloat. And before the Starfighter fandom comes in to defend their precious babies, wait until the end of the review. I’m not even close to finished.
PRESENTATION & TECHNICAL
One thing I cannot take away from HamletMachine is that she’s a talented artist. While it has its share of problems, the Presentation can easily stand with some of the EVN community’s most talented artists. This is best seen in the background art and event graphics. In sheer numbers, I believe that this game has the most CGs of any other English Visual Novel. Not counting anything that could be considered a duplicate graphic, you are still looking at somewhere between 70 and 85 CGs for this project.
It makes a lot of sense considering HM is a comic artist first, so drawing these CGs would’ve been much easier. Still though, it being ‘easier’ doesn’t detract from the consistent quality of this artwork. Now, her sprites on the other hand, that needs some work. I don’t have an artistic eye, but something just feels off about the proportions of the sprites in the game. It does not help that their facial expressions are severely limited and can hamper a scene more than anything. I was told that it may be that the heads were drawn on last, causing everything to look out of place. I’m not sure about that one, but if HM is going to make another visual novel, more practice on character sprites would probably be her best course of action.
The backgrounds of this thing are a thing of beauty. HM actually took the time to make sure they were populated with extras when necessary, which did give the world a sense of life and activity. And the derelict ship felt like something straight out of Alien. It had just the right atmosphere and the scenes here are paced just right to take full advantage of it. Some have complained about color palette but I didn’t mind it. It gives the world a much starker feel and helps it be distinct among its EVN siblings.
The soundtrack I honestly liked a lot less. Some tracks worked out, but a lot of them felt like they’d be better played at a European rave instead of a Sci-Fi drama. It isn’t a knock against the artist because I’m sure they delivered the exact type of music the team wanted for the game. It’s just an odd choice of music that, ultimately, subtracted more than it added.
Technically speaking, this game is fairly good. The Date Nighto engine was the biggest question marking going into this one and it functions alright, although I never experienced a loading screen in a visual novel before this game. This one I don’t know whether or not to blame on them or the Internet I was using as there were several instances of the loading screen freezing and I had to refresh the game. I tried playing the game both at my home and in a location with much better Internet than my own, so I’m leaning towards Date Nighto on this one. It isn’t a deal breaking issue, but it is one that can be easily addressed if it happens again in the future or for other players.
I am of two-minds on the dialogue options and choice system in the game. It’s mostly used to unlock bad ends and direct your sexual route, along with any alternative. While I don’t mind the different options before you get set on a path, once your route is determined you really only have two choices in any given situation. The different bad ends were pretty fun to watch play out, but it doesn’t change that you’re moving in a straight line after that point. This issue is much clearer in the second chapter of the game. You are allowed to roam the ship as the sabotages begin and run into various characters and conversations. Your decisions here begin to lay the groundwork for the end of the game, but on a strictly technical level it’s kind of a useless mechanic. There is little variety in the conversations where you go and once you’ve seen all of the events play out as they’re supposed to. So, again it gives the illusion of free roam when it is a mostly linear experience.
So while I’m happy to see the tech works for the most part, the abundance of choices doesn’t actually means it matters. Being more economical in the future would help the game as a whole feel like less of a grind, I think. We’ll have to see how it plays out in the future, but overall it works as advertised and there are no bugs or glitches to report.
This one is going to be tricky. If you focus on each route, you can knock them out in between forty-five minutes to an hour. Simply put, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. By my third route (Deimos) I was pushing through on sheer spite: determined not to let this one beat me. This is one of those titles where issues with the plot and the overall pacing of the game,are compounded the more you play and for me it was almost too much to bear. I got through it, thank goodness, but I cannot see a scenario where I would willingly play through it again: which means I cannot in good conscience recommend it. Even if you are determined to add this one to your collection, at least wait until Date Nighto acquiesces and puts it on a sale. It is not worth $20: period.
‘Well JP, it wasn’t meant for you anyway! Just let us enjoy our games!’
Okay, fine. But anyone who wants me to just shut up and go away should realize that doesn’t change the fact that Starfighter: Eclipse is a mess. At the very best, it’s a retread of much better Sci-Fi stories with twist and turns you can literally see coming from a mile away. At the very worst, it is a grinding slog through everything you’ve ever mocked about Sci-Fi with a swamp of cliched pretty boys trying to pull you down into the troperific muck. And on that note, the majority of the cast in this has the personality of an child and the attractiveness of an fifteen car pile-up. Why does anyone like them? They’re just another weight on this lethargic plot and keeps the mess from straightening itself out.
I’m sure there will be people who love this game, because that’s just human nature. And maybe, with another bite of the apple, things could improve. As I said, Cain’s route was good and Helios is okay in his role. Somewhere in here is a decent little space opera. Right now though, it’s a good tech demo for Date Nighto and fanservice for those who like HamletMachine’s work (and even then I’d advise caution), but didn’t contribute to the Kickstarter. And again, props to her because if any other artist was working on this, the game would have fallen apart right out of the gate. Her talent, not the story in and of itself, keeps the game as a whole stable and that is as much of a bad thing as it is a good thing. Everyone not already a fan of this type of thing should definitely give a lot of thought and bide their time before putting any money to a title that just barely avoids total failure.