Considering the influence space operas and mecha anime have had on Western culture, I am legitimately surprised it doesn’t make up a large portion of the English Visual Novel community. Some would argue, truthfully, that the majority of EVN audience now is female, so their projects skew towards them. However, if I remember my youth correctly, girls loved Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop and Gundam Wing (I was more of a UC fan boy) just as much, if not more, than the fan boys I ran with at the time. And while those series set a ridiculously high bar for anyone to follow, it remains one of the most imaginative fields an author can write about.
So, considering my love for the subgenres, it will come as no surprise to you that I was excited by the announcements last year of new mecha and space drama EVNs to join the Rising Angels and Touhou Mecha series. That excitement tempered some when I saw some of the planned merchandise for Love in Space’s Sunrider. The group has down more explicit work in the past and it was clear once the body pillows rolled out that the game was going to have its share of fanservice, which I probably should’ve figured considering this is moe girls fighting in space. Now, that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. While I am more prudish than many others in this community, I don’t mind boobs as long as they don’t take away from the larger story. With that in mind, let’s take a look at Sunrider: First Arrival and see if it reaches for the stars…or the skirts…
Oh and I’ll be discussing a few things that are spoilers. You have been warned.
In a universe similar but different from our own, the People’s Alliance for Common Treatment, or PACT, have conquered hundreds of worlds in a bid to control the universe. With thousands of ships at their command, PACT begins a campaign through a neutral rim of planets, devastating the planet of Cera; home of our protagonist: Kayto Shields. The invasion happens just as Shields is installed as Captain of the new Ceran warship: Sunrider. The Sunrider manages to escape the battle just as Cera is decimated by PACT and now, with a galactic war inevitable, the Sunrider must make its way through the neutral rim and find allies to fight back.
The setting for Sunrider is a classic as far as space operas and war stories are concerned, meaning you’d think there wouldn’t be much that could be screwed up here. Unfortunately, I only described one half of the game’s story. The OTHER half of the story is classic of the harem subgenre where an average guy finds himself surrounded by a group of girls who all, inconceivably, craves his penis. I will come back to this in a moment, but let’s start off with some stuff I liked about the game’s story because there is a good bit of that.
Sunrider is rich in lore and usually finds clever ways to interweave the world’s history into the game’s narrative. I may be a sucker for this type of world-building, but here it really does make the Sunrider universe feel older and the rise of PACT more natural. Each of the characters feels more relevant since their choices throughout the game are often influenced by their personal histories. Since there is so much more history connected to the story, Sunrider screams ‘supplemental material’ more than any other EVN I’ve played to date, and I really appreciate that kind of forward thinking in what will clearly be a series.
‘Well JP, that’s good and all, but what about the story specifically?’ Honestly, that’s where Sunrider starts to fracture.
One of Sunrider’s biggest issues is that when you think about major plot points and scenes, they’re completely illogical. This is shown best during a chapter of the story where the Solar Alliance recruits the Sunrider to rescue a group of diplomats who PACT is targeting. However, a leading general of the Alliance contracted a mercenary named Icari to ensure they died and the blame would fall directly onto PACT. This would spur the Alliance, mired by political factions and an indecisive President, into declaring war on PACT.
The point Sunrider is trying to make is very simple: casus belli. The Alliance Military knows a threat exists, but also want to preserve the institutions that separate them from the autocratic PACT forces. To that end, they have to give a justification for them to act which forces our hero to better define what they feel is morally right and wrong. However, the justification for war with PACT HAS ALREADY HAPPENED. They slaughtered millions of people on Cera just because they could! If the death of so many innocent lives for the amusement of a power-mad imp (we’ll get to it) isn’t enough for the rest of the universe to come together and fight, I sincerely doubt a few diplomats will move the needle.
We see this lack of logic come back up a few chapters down the line when we are working with a planet called Ryuvia. Ryuvia once ruled the galaxy, but has long since disbanded and the planet itself has fallen into decay. In order to fend off a PACT invasion, the King promises his daughter to the PACT leader: Veniczar Arcadius. In response, his daughter disappears. These events happen BEFORE the game proper. After learning more about Ryuvian technology and nearly getting crushed by a zombie fleet lead by a biological CPU (this was my favorite part of the game for obvious reasons), the princess is revealed to be the first girl you met in the game.
Now, here’s the kicker. She didn’t alter her appearance. She didn’t even change her first name. She just slipped off and nobody in this world, where this planet’s leadership is well known due to their imperial past, recognized her as royalty. Um…BULLSHIT. This is the crux for two chapters and is built up by the story to be a major plot point, but yet again it fails to deliver based on the freakin’ obvious. It doesn’t help that before this point, we barely spend any time with Asaga (the princess in question), so the only way for the plot to have any dramatic weight is the audience likes the girl DESPITE the massive plot holes surrounding here.
Speaking of, we’ll have to touch on that in a minute. But let’s wrap up this point first.
The two chapters that focus on Asaga and Ryuvia especially grind my frontal lobe. At least with the diplomatic mission, we had the overall story of the conflict with PACT front and center. With Asaga’s forced marriage, the full focus is on her. It’s even said several times how illogical not only the forced marriage is, since PACT cannot be trusted, but also how illogical her rescue is. Not only since it does exactly what we’ve been told from the beginning is INSANE by putting one ship against an entire fleet of PACT warships, but also because it is ridiculous to risk the safety of the Sunrider for one person Kayto barely knows. Also, unlike the diplomatic mission where the player is given a choice, here we have NO choice. You have to get that moe tomboy princess out and you better strap on a cup because you are going in NOW.
Why? BECAUSE KAYTO SHIELDS NEVER LEAVES A PIECE OF TAIL BEHIND! Do you think I’m being cynical with that one? Then now is the time to discuss the cast of this game.
The bulk of this story is focused on collecting the girls that make up Kayto’s harem because of course the strongest pilots in this world are nubile young women. This leaves the story with several clichés to fill and it doesn’t waste time filling every block. Despite having entire sections of the game devoted to them, Icari and Asaga simply exist to fill out their token roles. The others exist in a similar vein and are stereotypical to a point where I barely remember their names, yet still manage to be annoying since they have to be the absolute best at something war related WHILE being cutesy and/or vulnerable. The only one to note is Sola: the biological CPU they found at the heart of the zombie space fleet. She has no interest in Kayto (yet) and is instead focused on waking up in a world where the empire she sacrificed her life for is gone. She is properly moody and distant, so here’s hoping this evolves into an actual role involving her knowledge of the past Empire and its technology is used appropriately burning away in the presence of Kayto’s dick.
Speaking of our intrepid blank slate of a hero; Kayto is unfortunately expected. He’s your atypical perfect hero who has all the answers and is always right despite his lack of combat experience. When he’s not literally ripping apart the rulebook or getting groped by the resident horn dog (pink-haired girl), he is completely silent and exists as a tool for several exposition dumps that take the place of natural character development. Now, I didn’t expect him to lose, but I was hoping for some sort of learning curve as Kayto comes to term not only with the destruction of his home, but also his new role in the coming war. But nope, he’ll just sit back and brood until needed to either be perfect or be lusted over. Thanks.
The REAL disappointment of the game, at least for my money, is the villain. According to the lore, PACT was created as a revolutionary front and is being held together by a combination of military force and a cult of personality. The ‘military force’ part of that is made clear from the start with the annihilation of Cera, however there is not an ounce of personality in anyone that makes up the PACT leadership. This is especially true of our main antagonist, Veniczar Arcadius, who spends most of their time on screen boasting about how unstoppable PACT is, how their master plan will let them rule everything and how everything exists to be subjugated by PACT. No insight into the actual plans or even more information about Arcadius other than no one knows who Arcadius is because of the mask and since they are rarely in person anywhere.
While I’m not asking for the villain to be likable, it would’ve been nice if Arcadius and PACT were more than just another blunt object to be checked off of the trope list that only drags down the already bland story and while it wasn’t enough to make me upset, it was very disappointing since a as a little more time focused on the actual conflict could have given us a much better story.
I know this because once we get past the forced wedding, everything suddenly runs smoothly. Instead of exposition dumps and awkward backstories, the girls have several scenes where they interact with one another; letting Kayto step in and choose sides a la Mass Effect. We get more details about the Alliance’s motives in the coming war, an actual strategy scene for the upcoming battle and even a decent rally speech from Kayto before the final fight, leaving the story ending on an overall high note. There is definitely potential to tell a decent war story that can carry emotional, if not a little ridiculous, moments. But it’s held down by so much unnecessary crap that I wonder if both games were written by the same team.
It’s a mess story-wise; make no mistake about it. This can be good, but we need more what we got in the final acts and less of what made up two-thirds of this game. Yes, the Icari and Asaga-focused chapters take up TWO-THIRDS of this game. It is unfortunate and hopefully in the coming sequel, it will not be repeated.
PRESENTATION & GAMEPLAY
This section, as far as I’m concerned, is the game’s saving grace. The 3D models for the ships and mechs are gorgeous and feel both original and familiar. The character designs are a little less gorgeous as they check the box of moe stereotypes and move on. While the main crew of the Sunrider is all of legal age and most are in their mid-twenties, for whatever reason they look like they’re in high school. It’s probably those school girl outfits most of them wear. I’m sure that’s standard issue.
The Event CGs mostly deals with the battle scenes, but the few that aren’t just look odd. In fact, here is one of our resident demure type for us to study. Why is she horizontal instead of vertical? I have no clue. Since the eyes don’t naturally align that way, your first instinct is to crane your neck to try and make the image look vertical. Instead of adding to the scene, it’s a distraction and it’s not the only time this happens. It’s an odd artistic choice that, in the end, does not work. Ironically, the fanservice CG of the game is vertical and makes perfect visual sense.
I wonder why that is.
Other than that the music is a treat. It’s a mixture of several royalty free selections which gives the entire game a more operatic feel and weight: especially the battle scenes. The Opening and Ending themes were made by an artist named Iced Blade and it fits perfectly within the game even though it’s sung in Japanese. Overall, I really enjoyed the score and it only added to a good presentation.
The Gameplay is excellent. Sunrider takes its role as a tactical RPG seriously. You have several classes of mechs as well as the Sunrider itself to wear down opposition forces. The battles get progressively harder and you are forced to stay on your toes and use all of your units effectively to survive the battle; otherwise you will lose and lose quickly since Sunrider likes stacking the odds against you. It isn’t an impossible task, but if it does get overwhelming you can switch game modes at any time to ease the stress of battle.
I loved the different mech types and the strategy involved to use them effectively. It is something that could have been better used with actual weapons customization, but what we get essentially creates specialists since you have to allocate your limited resources to get the best optimization possible for each mech as well as the Sunrider. This is especially key for the Sunrider, which not only has its own suite of weapons, but also gives you access to Command Points which allow you to make wider tactical discussions, as well as unleash the special Vanguard Cannon. This weapon can clear an entire row of enemies and it comes in handy for several battles with certain victory conditions. So, regardless of what you think of the story, the battles require your full attention and reward that investment.
Whether or not the choices you make in customizing the Sunrider or the mechs will be something that carries over through the series is another matter. There is simply no sign that save files will transfer over from one game to another, which means you may have to start the next title from some canon point of advancement which will render your choices here moot. However, seeing this system expanded on in future titles intrigues me and I hope that we see a much deeper battle system in future titles.
The choices outside of battle you get don’t feel quite as consequential. Most of your choices are for exposition purposes and only the options in the diplomatic mission can be considered a ‘choice’ even though both end with the same result: Icari on your ship. Like the rest of the game, it gets much better near the end as you find yourself in between conversations featuring the girls rather than taking them on one-by-one. It ultimately feels tedious and if we’re going to keep the ‘visual novel’ aspects of this hybrid intact, much more work will have to be done in making your choices feel like actual choices instead of a device to get to the next battle.
The battle scenes extended the play time a great deal, but I clocked it in around eight hours. The game has also had several patches since launch to balance the fight scenes as well as fix minor glitches and bugs. All of the replay value here comes from redoing the battles at harder difficulties and if Love in Space is still in a planning mode, they need to figure out some sort of leader board system stat. Moreover, since it is free, I can see a lot of people picking it up and trying it out just for that system alone without the moe girl attachments. So there is definite value here, ironically despite its story.
One of the biggest surprises about this game is that I didn’t walk away hating it. Icari and Asaga’s storylines just don’t fit into the larger war and actively backhands logic to try and fit. The fact that it takes up two-thirds of the game proper only serves to bring the game to a grinding halt as we have to sit through even MORE contrived scenes and Deus ex Machina to preserve the harem, instead of fighting back against the tyrannical force making Chop Suey out of the galaxy. However, the beginning and ending manages to not only salvage a serviceable tale, but also set the stage for a sequel which isn’t an easy feat. To be clear, it has a hell of a hole to climb out of, but at least they spent the time they had left on its development with that in mind and started the process before the first game ended. This allowed the final scenes to close out First Arrival on a stronger note than it honestly should have.
I will also never understand the fascination with moe characters or harem tropes, but as long as it isn’t the focus of the game, it can be managed. Sunrider’s battle system also kept the game fun long after I lost interest in the story and can be used effectively as a plot device when situations like this occur. I’m not saying it’s good because, well, it isn’t. But, its mistakes haven’t damaged its potential and hopefully that means we will be getting a much stronger game in the future.