What Went Wrong (For Me) With Sierra Ops, Episode 1
Sierra Ops was a title with a long development history: originally getting its legs under it as a concept in 2012, achieving a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2014 before a troubled production history put it through the wringer for six years. I’m not here to comment on its development history, although I will applaud Innomen for actually launching a product instead of allowing it to stay stuck in development Hell. However, in my review I gave it a 3/10 for various factors including issues I had with the demo that carried over into Episode 1. I have been asked to deepen my comments and that is fair enough. I do not do reviews like I used to so unless I specifically decide to go into details, most people just get the highlights. As a fair warning, this is not a re-review. The score stands for reasons I’m about to get into. Hopefully the next installments of Sierra Ops are solid because I do not want this team to fail, but I’m not going to lie to them either. That said, let’s get into what went wrong (for me) with Episode 1.
So, let’s put aside our fine tobacco, go for the hot tea instead and have a fresh start: or at least as fresh as possible. Mmm, Darjeeling.
The question of the narrative quality of this episode hinges on its objectives. For any beginning chapter of a serial or episodic story, the first episode exists to give the audience an idea of who the main characters are, how they fit into the larger world and why we are following this particular set of characters through said world. For this example, let’s age myself incredibly and use the 1998 anime series Trigun as an example. In the first episode we meet Meryl Stryfe and Milly Thompson. Meryl and Milly are insurance agents who have tied several incidents being claimed through their company to a wanted fugitive called Vash the Stampede. Despite the apocryphal nature of the stories surrounding Vash, it turns out he’s kind of a goofy himbo who is a fantastic marksman and the damaged is caused more by the people trying to collect the bounty on his head than him. So by the end of the episode, it is established that the series will be about Meryl and Milly following Vash and figuring out who exactly he is…and hopefully keep the claims their company has to file to a minimum.
So Example Given: the goal of a writer is to establish in the first part of a serial story everything the audience needs to keep watching/reading/listening/etc. You can call it a ‘hook’ or whatever narrative term I’m sure fits here. This brings us to the question, does Sierra Ops Episode 1 accomplish this? No. But why not? Well, let’s go through the checklist to see if we can find the issue.
Who are the main characters? Well, Junius Fahrenheit. How do they fit into the larger world? Junius is a solider on the Earth side and has been drafted into the larger effort thanks to his work in the development phase of an experimental weapon. Why are we following this character? I….don’t know. Several options for following Junius are given why we should empathize with Junius as a character and we’ll get into that shortly, but virtually no reason is given for why the story should take place from his perspective. For what he brings in larger perspective to the world, the story’s main character could have been anyone. It could have been no one even. Put a pin into that one: we’ll come back to that too.
But, let’s roll with it. For reasons to be yet defined, we are following Junius through this world and conflict. So what knowledge or insight does Junius has of his world that we can use as a baseline? One of the thing Sierra Ops wants to attempt is a scenario where the Mars faction might have legitimate grievances with Earth, but in order to determine whether that is right or wrong, or even if their grievances are worth consideration, we need to have a moral baseline to start from. Junius lives in this world and is a functioning member of the military. He does not have to be an expert on the subject, but he should have a working knowledge on the subject of his world’s history and current events. Using an old site axiom, if I had to spell it out, it didn’t happen. Most of it legitimately just floats over his head.
This point feeds into a larger issues with Sierra Ops: no genre savviness. Space Operas have existed since the 1940s and the most influential for our generation came within the last fifty years AKA Gundam. Characters like Junius do exist in Gundam universes and they are just as frighteningly ignorant. HOWEVER, usually they are young students who by circumstance are pulled into the war effort, should not be expected to have the knowledge or awareness of a soldier and part of the story is them accepting that their ignorance was something granted by another world filled with death and suffering. If the developers wanted to go this route there are legions of examples on how to do it right and the myriad of ways to do it wrong. I don’t know if this is a decided point of his character where he’s just kind of floating in the wind, which is bad on its own, or if it the team did their research only to toss it as irrelevant outside of a few broad world-building strokes.
But, let’s shelve that. Let’s put it aside and allow for the deeper conceit of the character to come forth so we may measure it for what it is rather than what it is lacking. One of the things that is clear about Junius Fahrenheit is that he is dealing with some sort of trauma from an event that supposedly killed two of his friends and caused another character, Freiji, a head injury that gave her low-grade amnesia. One of my early complaints is that it was very unrealistic for Junius to be apart of this project with multiple departments requiring coordination and people involved he’d have to know for years to establish the trust necessary to get the best work out of them to deliver. I’m also terrified to say that since a developer reached out to me to say they thought they had addressed this point, which means that this version of Junius’ brooding anime boy archetype is the response.
So, this is something a lot of developers struggle with because mental illness doesn’t always translate well in media. I’m working on another post on a different subject but there is a similar throwline in that the audience has to accept the context a character is written in for the developer or writer to make their point. Here though, Junius’ issues are not presented as issues. They are presented as manageable stress. Every time he has a flashback to this event, he sucks it up and goes about his day. There is even an event where they are landing and the gear gets stuck. Junius has a panic attack, gets over it and manages to land their craft correctly. This nullifies any potential interests in his mental or psychological wellbeing, being we are repeatedly shown throughout the first episode it isn’t a problem: it’s a plot device. The game isn’t pointing our interest at Junius’ issues, they’re point us at wondering who Junius’ friends are he thinks died that day.
And I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but when you’re getting lapped by G Gundam on this plot point, you’ve got problems.
When I said in the review the game would have been better off just playing their cards face up and not try to invoke any sense of mystery, this is what I meant. If you want to have a character that is actually defined by mental issues they struggle with and trauma from their past they have to resolve, make them struggle. Junius doesn’t struggle. He is presented as just another ‘Too Cool for the Room’ anime everylead and everyone in this world but Freija treats him like a glass egg: putting up with his insubordination, his ignorance and his clear inability in his current military role. If you really want us to care for him that badly, then you need to start from scratch or, as I hinted above, just have no main character. Split the POV between separate characters with different levels of knowledge that can fill in the gaps that Junius cannot do alone. When done right, it works very well. George RR Martin has built an entire career around the technique.
But, I’m willing to bet any response I get to that point will be that the script is finished and due to the unfortunate management of the project for the last seven years, the development team agrees it is better to put out a product instead of going back and risking the same developmental malaise that stalled the project before. That is fine. Like I said in my original review, if people decide to put $18 on a Season Pass strictly because they want to support Innomen Team: okay. I’m not here to browbeat you on that one. But it doesn’t change the state of the game and it doesn’t even get into any of the technical issues. Let’s tackle that as quickly as possible then I’ll close.
Choices in this game are irrelevant. The key choice of the game happens when you reach the overworld map and you have a choice of where to send Junius. Of these two options, you can either send him and his annoying friend to the détente meeting that they will have to fight out of, or you can send them to a fair off checkpoint that has a small problem. The option here should be, essentially, which team are you taking with you for the rest of the game since the survivors will join you in your exploits. But that isn’t how it plays at all. No matter what point you go to, at the end of the game, the previews make it clear you will meet whoever you did not run into yet eventually. So then why have this useless choice? Well, to expand the playtime by thirty minutes as the audience backtracks to explore the choices. I could be wrong and Episode 2 can take it a completely different direction. However, for now, I’m stuck with the unfortunate reality our choices are their to run the clock, not because they have a diegetic reason to be there.
This feeds into a larger technical issue with the game in which gameplay during the combat sections is smoother, but has yet to be tactical. Your best option is still strafing your targets and focusing fire. There doesn’t seem to be any real difference in damage in weapon types and, in fact, you can activate several weapon types at the same time: sort of defeating the purpose of using specific ammunition for a specific enemy. The energy management system is also in its very early stages, so I’m hoping future chapters will require you to think a bit more how you redistribute your power at certain times during a battle. However, I purposely did not set it during the détente skirmish and saw no practical effects in shields or anything else. Perhaps in larger battles we can see more of the functional of the game, but we are going to have to wait and see on that.
Even if the game wasn’t going to fundamentally change, the fact that it is still so short is insulting: especially in a four part series. I understand and accept the developers are now in a mode of ‘Just Get It Out’ and they are pushing to release day with no other concerns. But if the script is as large as they have bragged they wanted it, at the very least the script could have been equally distributed. The fact that we now have three chapters that will all need to pull a bigger load to make up for Episode 1’s shortcomings is unfortunate for all of the reasons stated above. I wish them the best, but I’m not going muzzle myself if the road we’re on goes the way I think its going. Oh and one correction to the review. According to the team member who tweeted me, Innomen Team are the ones who decided to push an $18 season pass, not Sekai Project. So, I would like to publicly apologize to Sekai Project and all I really have to say is if the developers want people to pay $18 for their product, you’ve got to put out a product worth the $18.