Indie Wonderland: Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius

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.

For instance: if you’re doing this particular battle on Standard difficulty, you’re either a mad person or a wizard of some distinction.

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.

Gotta catch ’em all.

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.

Icari, here, taking her tsun game to a new level.

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.

Instead, have an image of these two giant robot pilots talking smack to each other.

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.

It also looks really cool.

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.

Blammo.

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…

There’s a lot of percentages to tweak, is what I’m saying.

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.

Well, what did *you* expect? Missiles to Black Jacks?

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.

Final thoughts

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.

<< Back to page 1.

Jarenth totally didn’t play way more of Sunrider than he intended *just* because he hoped there would be more boobs. Sympathize with his non-existing plight on Twitter or Steam.

17 comments

  1. “Accompanied by a woman’s voice singing what I assume to be Japanese lyrics and bombastic musical overtones…”

    Instant response from my brain: “Snaaaaake Eaaaateeeer!”

    I posted a comment a couple of weeks ago about being satisfied already with the amount of VNs I owned. As of now, I want to play this, but I have acquired a couple of others since then, so I actually have a VN backlog now. To paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson, “Games? Bloody hell.”

  2. I’m definitely checking this one out.

    Also to spoil the joke, isn’t ‘auto forward speed’ the speed at which the text cycles when you set it to auto-play? (Which is different to skip. Sometimes)

  3. I’d like to pose the correction of sorts that Sekai Project is the publisher of both Sakura Spirit and Sunrider, but they are both developed by completely different people.
    Sunrider is created by Love in Space
    Sakura Spirit is created by Winged Cloud
    the people from Sekai Project had nothing directly to do with the design or creation of either game – they basically just get it on steam.

  4. A few comments on the review:

    EV stands for Evasion and represents the agility of the vessel. Large vessels tend to have lower values (this may even be negative), to represent them as easy to hit targets, whereas smaller/speedy/highly maneuverable units like certain Ryders (Phoenix, PACT supports) have high values, to represent them as hard to hit targets. Chance to hit = base accuracy + 50 – (accuracy degradation * distance) – Enemy Evasion + (buff or debuff).
    Details on this at gamepedia, which is the game’s manual in a sense. (http://sunrider.gamepedia.com).

    You have interpreted a good number of things correctly: armor degrades over time (its value is doubled for assault/kinetic shots), which is why damage numbers can sometimes vary; attacks with multiple shots (Assault/Pulse/Missiles) have hit/miss calculated separately for each shot. As for flak and missiles, the red squares when you mouseover an enemy unit indicates flak coverage, the strength of which is denoted by FK value which is essentially the % probability of intercepting an enemy missile. Details once again provided in the Direct Combat page in gamepedia.

    The developer for Sakura Spirit is Winged Cloud (http://winged-cloud.com/) whereas the developer for Sunrider is Love in Space (http://sunrider-vn.com/). Sekai Project is more of a distributor/promoter for both games and as far as I know, is not directly involved in actual game content.

    As for Phoenix and Blackjack being frequently targetted, this is indeed true and it is partially because they are outside flak cover and the AI interprets this as a “vulnerable” unit. Retreating inside flak cover after melee strikes will help improve survivability for these ryders. Having the tougher units (Sunrider, Paladin) generate more aggro by increasing damage output can also help shift aggro from Phoenix. Blackjack can fall back on lasers/pulse, if melee options are iffy. Also this may be changed a little (the targetting part of the AI) in the final release of the game. The game up to this point is only about 2/3rds done, with the final 1/3rd due next year, in either late Q1 or early Q2 2015.

    Do join us at the official forums. (http://innomenpro.com/forums/)
    I’ve enjoyed and appreciate the review. :)

    1. Hey Drath. Thanks for the comment!

      I figured out EV a little while after writing, actually. It wasn’t as obtuse as I first thought, in hindsight: the negative values for capital ships make it somewhat obvious. But anything in service of a dumb joke, that’s the Indie Wonderland credo.

      I hadn’t figured out the rest of what you said, but looking back, I can totally see how these systems would work. I think some clarification on how flak, flak coverage and aggro work wouldn’t be amiss in the earlier levels: as it stands, my main interaction with flak was ‘whenever I want to fire a quantum torpedo, make sure to un-flak everything that has it with Liberty’. I never felt like my flak had any significant impact on battle outcomes, particularly because there are so many more enemy missiles than there are mine. But maybe I should’ve just upgraded the Sunrider’s flak?

      To you and Vaendryl both: yeah, I see how the developer/distributor thing works, now. I was going on Steam’s official listing when I wrote these things, but those aren’t always correct.

      Thanks again! Curious to see what you’ll craft next.

      P.S.
      Black Jack is usually okay, but Phoenix is a major glass cannon. All of her options are short range and anti-Ryder, with her Assault guns doing nothing more than plinking hits against capital ships. It feels a little off to me that she wouldn’t practically be able to do what she seems made to do — zip through enemy lines and take out high-value targets — particularly since her opening battles paint her as a pretty powerful target overall. Have you seen this sentiment more often, or am I just bad at using her correctly?

      1. Rockets have intrinsic 10 flak resistance so deflaking enemy units with 10 flak or lower is not needed. As for your own flak values, these tend to be less effective than on paper because of flak degradation (each enemy missile whether hit/miss reduces effective flak value by a small amount for the particular turn when flak tries to shoot down missiles). Therefore upon a prolonged missile barrage from enemy ships, the later missiles will have a better chance of connecting with the target.

        I agree that some in game explanation for these game aspects would be nice, such as a scripted tutorial or in game help/library. Some of this is already in planning and may make the final release. As stated above, the game is a work in progress and making an early tutorial may mean changing quite a bit of it later on.

        The Phoenix IS indeed a glass cannon, especially with the AI targetting changes for this release. Perhaps the next beta will see some changes and she won’t receive so much aggro. Until then, some Hull upgrades are vital to improve survivability. Upping her armor to 4-5 will let you brush off most assault counterattacks, obviating the need to stealth. Increasing reactor energy and decreasing melee cost requirements allow more melee strikes per turn while still being able to retreat back to safety of flak cover.

        Despite all this she may still die. Thats why you have a Resurrect order available ;)
        And yes it is a common complaint that she isnt effective against capital ships. This design decision is fully intended to be so by the devs, they have defended it many times and is something very unlikely to change

        1. I actually just made it to the fight where you get the Resurrect order. Maybe that would’ve changed the dynamics. But given that the order costs Command Points, and I need Command Points to fire the Vanguard Cannon… :)

          1. Basically what I’m saying is that I like Icari a lot, she’s refreshingly straightforward and I respect her no-nonsense approach to life, but if it comes down to keeping her in a fight or firing a giant turbolaser she’s gonna have to learn to appreciate the sick bay.

          2. Indeed. CP is a precious resource in the game, doubly so on higher difficulties when CP gain is reduced. You are also not meant to fire the “giant turbolaser” every turn unless you’re playing on VN or Casual. Of course you are also not meant to be Resurrecting Phoenix every battle but there will be some battles where it may be difficult to avoid this.
            The vast majority of battles can actually be done without use of Vanguard Cannon and on higher difficulties it is not cost effective in terms of CP to use it. Currently, the best order in terms of “bang for the buck (or CP)” for damage is generally accepted as Full Forward (this may change in future game releases as further tweaks are brought to bear).

          3. But firing giant lasers is fun. You see my dilemma. Plus, it’s one of the few times you get to see Captain Shields himself. From everything else related to battle, you could actually be forgiven for thinking Ava’s the one flying the Sunrider.

            Maybe Ava is actually flying the Sunrider? And she’s just keeping Kayto around as a figurehead? Man, that’d be a plot twist I could get behind.

          4. Lol can’t really argue against the fun part. I’ll admit it has its charm :)
            You seem to have quite a few things in mind and perhaps some additional issues to voice out so I would like to again invite you to join the official forums. (http://innomenpro.com/forums/)

            Maybe even say hi to the devs (Samu-kun and Vaendryl). ;)
            As they frequent the forums every day it is more likely that your suggestions/ideas will be heard that way, for the next release. :)

        2. I found her pretty effective against cap ships, but you need to know when to use her. Her machine guns ram a lot of damage and are hellishly accurate against ships, but they get stopped by armour, so what I often do is to hit the target with lasers and kinetics and use her as a finisher once the armour is sand-scoured off. Once you knock down the armour to 1-3, you can easily get 50-200 points of damage on a cruiser.

          1. This is entirely possible. Once again, I refer you to the paragraphs where I admit that I’m very probably super bad at this game.

  5. Oh wow this game _is_ involved. I wasn’t expecting to spend so much time on each mission, and I’ve died in one of the first encounters because I assumed I’d be able to kill everything instead of completing the objective

    1. Did you get to the Agamemnon escort mission yet? I ended up just rushing that ship to the exit. And even then, the final enemy wave damn near blew the ship up.

      1. Rushing Agamemnon to the exit edge is indeed the intended strategy for that particular battle. However with the use of CP/orders, its not uncommon to see players clearing all reinforcements on lower difficulty settings, including Captain, in order to “farm” for more credits.

      2. Yeah that’s the one I died on. I beat the first two waves easily and I figured I’d farm myself some credits instead of trying to get the target towards the end of the map. Then the next wave was 6+cruisers and a ton of flak, which absolutely annihilated me =D

        I’m going to try again using my command points more this time to see if I can do it, but maybe I’ll get one away from the edge of the map first

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