A Quick Look At: Sierra Ops
I first found out about Sierra Ops nearly two years ago shortly after playing Touhou Mecha again and Rising Angels Reborn for the first time. I am a noted fan of the ‘space opera’ subgenre and seeing more EVNs enter this world has been one of the small pleasures of operating VNs Now. Since then we have had a few more enter the fray led by Love In Space’s Sunrider series. And while Sunrider has gotten some things right, they’ve had enough issues to where there is still plenty of room for other series to fully realize the potential of this subgenre.
With that in mind, I have been waiting to see what Sierra Ops would bring to the table and in the last few weeks, the world finally got a taste of what Innomen is working on as they released a ‘pre-demo’ onto Steam. It isn’t the full demo: just a little over an hour of story and game play to whet your appetite. I originally planned to do a video let’s play of the pre-demo, but I had to put that on hold because I realized I’d need more space and time to correctly give my first impressions of the game. Sierra Ops is definitely an ambitious game and this is only the beginning of what they want to do. But, if this is any indication, the game still has a long development period in front of it.
Oh, and to keep things open Youko, one of the writers of Sierra Ops, was associated with this website throughout 2014. She already knows that just because she volunteered here won’t equal any mercy from your’s truly and now so do you! So, shall we get started?
I think it’s only fair to start where we always tend to start with these things: the plot. Our main character, Junius Fahrenheit, is a young officer in United Terran Vanguard currently assisting in the development of an experimental mining ship outside of Venus. The ship uses a new power source, the Lomonosov Particle, which can do…something. ANYWAY, during a presentation unveiling the team’s findings, the colonies on Mars declare their independence under the banner of the ‘Ares Confederacy’ and Junius is drafted to lead a new team to bring the rebellion down.
One of the biggest issues that the demo presented deals with world-building. There are multiple flare-ups with this issue but it is best seen in the cast themselves. When I started the game, I was struck by how stereotypical everyone was. Junius was your standard-issue protagonist who suffered a traumatic backstory and has little time for anything not related to his current assignment. His former best friend Freija is on board and they share a tense, strictly by-the-book relationship just like his relationship with Rutherford: the ship’s technician. The only one who Junius has something of a positive relationship is Lomonosov and while it too doesn’t escape the bounds of cliches, it has much more potential for growth than the others by far.
It’s a very basic setup, but considering they are all on the eve of a war I was willing to forgive a lot. As I’ve often preached, conflict is the best catalyst for character development. Since the character clearly had only known each other for a short time, I figured that their journey into war would flesh them out and the audience would just have to put up with an awkward starting point for a much larger process. Then we get halfway through the demo and Junius’ revealed that his current assignment, with this very team, has lasted six years.
No. I’m sorry but no. After the halfway point we’re introduced to a new member of the crew, Claine, and her conversation with Junius was on the same level of attachment as his conversations with the crew he had known for nearly a decade on a space station millions of light years from Earth. These are people who have seen each other every day for six years: celebrated births, mourn deaths back home, possibly find intimacy, have presumably, repeatedly failed in their task but would have had to find a way to help each other back to their feet in order to succeed in creating this particle. None of that is present in the demo and without the personality or camaraderie that comes with long-term exposure to other people, it makes the entire cast feel wooden and forced them conform to cliches.
Unfortunately, it isn’t just the cast who is stuck in the box but also the presumed antagonists of the story: the Ares Confederacy. I take villains very seriously and I’m not going to bother being coy here: I don’t buy that these guys are a threat in any capacity. The demo shows AC declaring Mars’ independence and launching attacks on UTV administrative offices across the colonized planet. This causes the UTV to panic as it becomes clear there will be a larger conflict coming.
I’m not being sarcastic. Why? We don’t know what the military capabilities of the AC are and we don’t know what spurned this conflict on outside of the masked leader’s rallying speech (Very Killzone by the way. I liked it.). We don’t know who these people are except they appear to be an homage to Mobile Suit Gundam and the Principality of Zeon. But other than that, there is no stated reason in the game for anyone to be concerned that the rebellion cannot be easily dismantled. And yet, you’d think that they were the second coming of the Galactic Empire reading some of the dialogue in the second half of the pre-demo.
In comparison, in Sunrider we are made immediately clear what Kayto Shields and his new ship were up against when PACT attacks Cera by surprise and nukes its capital from orbit. Not only was PACT shown to be barbaric, but also boasting weapons that could withstand anything the rest of the universe could throw at them. They were made into an unstoppable force and the only answer to them was for Kayto and the Sunrider crew to become and unmovable object: constantly standing in the way of their plans. The key is that this is a role that has to be developed and, as critical as I am of the series, LIS established its antagonists well enough to give its protagonists purpose and room to grow. Innomen does not do the same thing with the Ares Confederacy.
The good thing for the team is that the issues presented so far can be easily fixed. Refocusing the plot, fleshing out conversations between Junius and the crew and spending more time on tensions between Earth and Mars instead of focusing on the Lomonosov Particle presentation instantly changes the overall tone of the game and how the audience connects with the characters. And, to be fair, it never gets outright bad but only because it’s on the clock. If it wasn’t for the time limit…well, that could be more than groan inducing.
But, at least with this game, the story is only half of the, well, story. Sierra Ops also has an ‘action RPG’ engine that will be familiar to pretty much. The demo allowed us a few action scenes where you maneuver your ship to avoid getting hit as you shoot down enemy vessels. There are upgrade functions for your ship and you can also pick from a roster of fighters to join you in battle. A lot of these systems are still being fleshed out, but my main issue with the game play is that it’s all controlled through your mouse. There is currently no option to switch to your keyboard. I hope that functionality is considered moving forward because maneuvering and firing all through the mouse can be cumbersome; even with a decent user interface.
Finally there is the issue with the Presentation. For the most part it is good as the art and music really fit what Innomen is trying to do and easily stands with the art and sound direction of higher-end EVNs. What trips the Presentation up is the Live 2D camera. I actually like the idea of Live 2D and I think it can be used to give action scenes a bit of kinetic energy that Event Graphics cannot translate on their own. I also like how it can animate sprites; although it, so far, has only go towards making the sprites breathe. However, it is also being used here to switch the camera to focus on whoever is speaking: constantly shifting focus and dragging the text with it. For me it was disorienting and I would’ve preferred if everything just stood still: saving the quick movements for scenes that called for it to ramp up tension.
I know it sounds like I have very little positive to say about the Sierra Ops ‘pre-demo’ and that is, unfortunately, because I have very little positive to say about the Sierra Ops pre-demo. The story presented so far is bland at best: hoping to corral an audience with a familiar setup and characters and little else. The gameplay can be good, but there is no way to know that until we can do more than a handful of exploring. These are the legs the game attempts to stand on and without them, the demo falls apart. I’m not saying that I’m no longer looking forward to playing the full version because I am. As a fan of the subgenre, I really want for Sierra Ops to learn from the pre-demo so that the game itself can fully realize it’s potential. However, after playing the demo, I have tempered my expectations a lot.
We’ll find out in the weeks and months ahead how Sierra Ops will end up. If you want more information about the game, you can go to the Innomen website here. JP3: OUT.