A few hours in
You know, I’m actually a little upset with Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius. When I installed this free-to-play visual novel game from the makers of Sakura Spirit, I was expecting something… you know, light. Some dumb little game I could blow through in two hours or so. Some over-wrought dialogue, a few one-dimensional characters, maybe a little hilariously out-of-place nudity. I’d play it once, finish it, write about it, and then move on with the rest of my busy week.
And while Sunrider definitely has all of those things, it’s also so much more than I gave it credit for. And that makes me angry. Where does this game get the gall to be actually really good?
Sunrider is by no means flawless, of course. I have plenty of criticism about its writing, its characters, and several quirks of its combat systems and design. But if you want a single-line take-away from this whole review, make it this one: Sunrider attempts to be both a fun-to-read visual novel and an engaging tactical combat experience, and somehow it manages to succeed at both. The writing is usually funny and sometimes even gripping, the various romance plots don’t feel too much at odds with the larger saving-the-galaxy storyline, and the tactical combat gameplay is varied, interesting and challenging, with meaningful difficulty levels for every level of skill and masochistic challenge-love.
Let’s talk about the writing, first. You’ve already seen a glimpse of the larger storyline: the evil People’s Alliance, PACT, is hell-bent on conquering every Neutral Rim world this side of the Solar Alliance. Yes, those terms are all meaningless to you right now, but Sunrider does a decent job of world-building throughout its narrative. PACT is lead by the enigmatic masked Veniczar Arcadius, hence the game’s name, whose plans involve… well, that’s actually unclear at the start. But let’s just say ancient superweapons from the past factor in at some point.
Against the backdrop of the larger socio-political struggle of PACT and the Solar Alliance, the Sunrider forms a smaller hub of personal narratives and character interaction. Like any visual novel protagonist worth his salt, Captain Marauder quickly manages to surround himself with a gaggle of attractive twenty-something women with differing looks and personalities. Asaga, the always-optimistic Hero of Justice. Chigari, the shy technical mastermind. Icari, the tsundere warrior with a dark past. And so on, and so forth.
Sunrider’s storytelling has to juggle both comedic and serious tones because of this. The larger universal war story is obviously played straight, and almost all characters’ stories seem to play into this in some way or another. But simultaneously, character interactions on the ship and between missions usually have a lighter tone, fleshing out interpersonal relations and injecting some much-needed humor in what would otherwise be a very grimdark space story. I mean, there’s a whole Beach Planet section, for Steve’s sake.
Most of the characters are pretty-well written: while all of them seem to have originated from a single-line stereotype description — ‘the geek one’, ‘the slutty one’, ‘the serious one’ — Sunrider tends to manage to avoid pigeonholing them too much. I’m not a major fan of Claude, whose entire arc up until this point has been ‘she has big boobs and she wants to bone the Captain’, but other characters definitely go places.
The women you pick up on your travels aren’t just capable starship personnel, of course: each one of them is also an accomplished Ryder pilot. ‘Ryder’, here, is a fancy word for ‘mech’. Every girl in your harem pilots her own colour-coded giant robot, is what I’m saying, and I’ll be damned if that doesn’t make most of them even more attractive.
It’s actually a little amusing how gender-equal Sunrider ends up being. While most of the faction high commanders are all men, the Sunrider is almost exclusively run by capable, competent, non-sexualized women. Sunrider pulverizes the Bechdel Test, stomping it to dust with giant robot feet. I consider this an interesting direction for a game that had soft-core nudity on clear display in the intro movie.
There’s actually very little of that sort of stuff in Sunrider. While characters often candidly talk about sex, love and attraction, very little is actually shown. Bikini and panty shots, nothing more. I’ve only encountered one explicit nude scene so far, which was hilariously and jarringly out of place for being an actual full-frontal nude shot of one of the characters talking about how horny she is for the Captain. No, really. I’m not putting the screenshot up in the review proper, but it’s behind this link.
But yes, all the girls you meet are Ryder pilots. Except Ava, who just commands the Sunrider flat-out during battles. And this segues nicely into my next talking point: Sunrider’s tactical combat.
Of all things that tripped me up, I was probably most surprised by how good Sunrider’s combat is. A typical fight puts you in tactically interesting scenarios, the (Standard) challenge level is balanced to make your wits the deciding factor between winning and losing, and it’s kinesthetically pleasing, too.
Battles play out more or less the way I described the opening fight on the previous page. Your side gets a turn, then their side gets a turn. All your units have an energy supply that they can use to move, attack, and use skills. Most fights revolve around defeating either all enemies or certain key enemies, with a few battles throwing movement-based spanners in the works.
While your very first battle is fought with only the Sunrider, you very quickly build up an assortment of supporting riders. And what I find most interesting is that each combat unit has a pretty distinct feel to its style, which is communicated almost exclusively through gameplay mechanics. The Sunrider itself is a slow, powerful weapons platform, loaded with different attack types. Asaga’s Black Jack is a multi-purpose offense Ryder, packing assault guns and melee attacks for enemy Ryders and missiles and lasers for larger ships. Chigara’s Liberty and Claude’s whatever-it-was-called are support Ryders, with skills that manipulate and debuff enemies and heal and empower allies. Icara’s Phoenix is a fast melee-focused Ryder-killer, as emphasized by her low movement costs and high evasion rate. Sola’s Seraphim is a glass cannon capital ship sniper, who by design can’t move and attack at the same time.
You quickly get a handle on how to employ each unit in each situation, and what each decision means. Black Jack and Phoenix need to get up close and personal, which puts them at risk of destruction quickly. Liberty can either heal allies or disable one enemy completely; which is the better choice, when? The Sunrider can hang back and fight with missiles and lasers, or she can advance to bring her powerful kinetic weapons to bear.
And related to that: what I really, really like about Sunrider’s combat is that the weapons all feel different. That’s the kinesthetic appeal I was talking about just now. The audiovisual impact of each weapon firing suits its theme very well. Long-range lasers feel like a sure-but-weak shot. The shorter range main cannons, on the other hand, have the definite feel of packing a major punch: they may be more unreliable, but anything hit by those saviors is gonna feel it. Assault guns and pulse cannons trade power for volume, which is reflected both in their lower damage on capital ships and in their ability to actually hit enemy Ryders. And the limited-use missiles and rockets feel like the battle-deciding factors they’re supposed to be. Particularly the rockets, which cost $300 per warhead, pack both a literal and a metaphysical weight: when you fire one of these bad boys, it’s because you want that enemy to be gone in a single hit.
And that’s not even talking about some of the special Command Point orders you can give, like firing the
Yamato Vanguard cannon. That one even comes with its own cutscene, and theme music.
In individual combats, each battle basically boils down to ‘figure out which targets are the most dangerous, then take those suckers out’. On a larger scale, battles are tied together by a monetary upgrade system. The more enemies you kill and the less damage you take, the more money you gain. Story-wise, you can also occasionally do side missions for more cash. Money is used to purchase powerful torpedoes and new powers, and to upgrade the Sunrider and your Ryders. And there’s a lot of upgrade potential, here. You can upgrade health, energy, armor, shields, shield range, flak strength, flak range, kinetic damage, energy damage, missile damage…
Not every option is born equal, of course. Upgrading Chigara’s shield range more or less precludes giving anyone else shields. And the Sunrider’s kinetic weapons and missiles are so much more powerful than its lasers that it was never really a choice for me. But still, there’s more than enough room here for meaningful individualization.
Sunrider’s combat is pretty good, but that doesn’t mean it’s not flawed in places. I often have the sense that a lot of important information is hidden, for one. Damage numbers for identical attacks, on identical targets, can vary wildly between shots. And I have no idea why? I think maybe armor degrades over time… and I’m also pretty sure that in salvo-shots with a low hit chance, the hit or miss for each individual shot is calculated separately. And everything related to flak is a giant, mysterious black box, where missiles go in and damage numbers come out.
And while the initial fights are balanced and fun, later fights suffer a little from the game trying to up tension by just throwing more and more enemies at you. Which is not bad in and by itself, but almost every enemy I’ve encountered starts off combat by firing missiles. And while enemies sometimes vary their shots, more often than not, they all follow a hive-mind approach of targeting the same Ryder to the exclusion of all other ones. Phoenix and Black Jack, mostly, because they’re so close to the front lines. And no matter how good your strategy and how well-chosen your upgrades, no single target is going to withstand twenty missile volleys. Just… none of them.
Later fights also increasingly follow the convention of having more enemies just ‘warp in’, without any kind of advance warning. I understand it’s supposed to represent the chaotic nature of space combat, and the overwhelming power of the PACT fleets. But it’s also frustrating. If I warp the Sunrider in close to take out key targets, I do that based on the idea that the remaining enemies can’t kill it in one turn. If over a dozen enemies then warp in close the next turn, that means I’m dead. Sorry, wrong choice! TRY AGAIN.
In effect, what happens is that a lot of Sunrider’s later combat becomes a game of save-scumming trial and error. At least on Standard, enemy volumes and enemy power mean that you can’t afford to make the wrong tactical decisions, and you can’t afford to have any shots miss on the correct ones. Combat can still be fun this way, in its own way: trying to figure out the correct course of action to navigate tricky puzzles, and deciding when and where to employ your game-changing superweapons. But it definitely gets less free-form later down the line.
Still, I had a lot of fun with the combat at the beginning, and it’s still relatively entertaining right now. The silly English voice dubs for combat taunts alone are worth gold: tsundere Icara literally yells ‘I’m-I’m not doing this because I like you!‘ occasionally. And the story definitely has me interested to continue. Maybe I should just turn the difficulty all the way down? I’m curious to see what that does to the gameplay.
I played a little more of Sunrider at Visual Novel-level difficulty. This… trivializes the combat, honestly: damage numbers get jacked way up, money rewards are high, and you get enough Command Points to fire your Vanguard Cannon like five times per battle.
Still, the combat in and by itself takes up quite a bit of time. And if there’s one major point of contention between Sunrider’s combat and visual novel elements, it’s this: the high saturation of combat precludes easily replaying it to see the effects of choices. For instance, I’m curious if Chigari always falls in love with you? Or is that just the result of me picking particular choices? I’m curious, but playing through dozens of trivial combats to find this out isn’t really all that appealing. The repetitive voice taunts alone would drive me mad. I know you’re-a firing your lazor, Asaga! I know by now! STOP MAKING THAT JOKE.
Honestly, Sunrider is at its best if you enjoy both the storytelling and the combat. Both are good, in their own way: the story is decently-written and gripping, competently mixing a larger serious narrative with a smaller silly harem story, and the combat presents a persistent tactical experience with a lot of audiovisual appeal and room for smarts. If that sounds like your cup of tea, remember that Sunrider is free to play on Steam a time of writing.
If you’re in it for just the combat or just the story, I don’t know if I’d recommend Sunrider as quickly. But still, you could always give it a shot. Who knows? It might surprise you the way it surprised me.