Indie Wonderland: Sunrider Academy

A few hours in

Well, the good news is, I didn’t hit any Bad Ends yet. Those of you who had ‘he manages to hold on, somehow’ in the pool, congratulations! Collect your winnings. Everyone else, I’m very disappointed in your lack of faith. I’d find it disturbing if I was more of a cliché.

Of course I haven’t hit any good end either. Or any kind of end. Or even the bloody narrative halfway point. Remember when I said that Sunrider Academy 10-month-5-week-10-day structure made it look ridiculously, encompassingly big? And then later I backpedaled and said that, no, the way the days and mandatory activities are structured don’t actually make it that bad? Turns out I was right the first time, not the second. I have played for what feels like hours, and all I have to show for it is month five, week one, day three.

Hour six.

So, if I put that much of my precious time of life into Sunrider Academy, that must mean it’s good, right? Or at the very least fun to play? Well… I’m gonna say, yes and no. Because things can never just be easy in these hyper-complicated Denpasoft stat-storms.

Parts of Sunrider Academy are good. At its heart, the visual novel core of it, is a collection of fairly interesting stories driven by strong characterization and coherent, if a little outlandish, worldbuilding. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I came to care about these characters, but at the very least I had their measure. Asaga’s laissez-faire attitude that masks so many insecurities that her genuine emotions start getting covered too, Chigara’s unwanted genius and the great responsibility that comes with great power, Sola’s detached utilitarian view that hides an unfairness greater than herself. And Ava’s… okay, I haven’t really gotten anything out of Ava yet, she just looks like an ice queen any way you slice it. But the thing is: almost all the story beats that I remember spring from these character interactions and are driven by them. There are, let’s say some plot-heavy dei ex machinae, and I won’t pretend the whole thing is an organic narrative evolution throughout. But I liked spending time with these doofuses, if nothing else.

Chigara is pure and precious and I will not deign any of you to sully her with *lewd slander*.

The game is particularly in love with its own meta-plot, or rather, Mask of Arcadius‘s meta-plot. References to the previous game abound, hard and fast. At first it feels like harmless fourth-wall breaking. Lately, I’ve been feeling like it’ll actually factor into the overarching plot here as well. Both are possible, I’m not super sure. Either way, it’s neat if you’ve played Mask of Arcadius: Sunrider Academy at the very least acknowledges the silliness of recycling these characters into a completely different setting.

This is one of the points where it starts hinting at a more serious interpretation.

And initially, the stat-based gameplay is interesting enough. I won’t claim total impartiality here, having fond memories of my first-ever VNADS outings. But especially early on, Sunrider Academy seems like a kind, generous stat management game, that provides you with dozens of options and throws happy chibi stat gains at you any time you think about doing anything.

Science club, yeah!

Early on.

It doesn’t quite last.

From a strong enough early start, Sunrider Academy… declines, over time. While the character stories are still good and the larger plot actually has some interesting developments in store — as well as pointless nudity, because that’s just how visual novels tend to roll — everything about the gameplay becomes less and less interesting over time. Early on, I played Sunrider Academy with intent. Later on, it became podcast fodder: something to fiddle with and click through while something more interesting was happening on the auditory channel. Which was harder than you’d think, nut just because of all the reading, but also because Sunrider Academy‘s audio sliders are terribly calibrated — Windows Volume Mixer, you’re my one and only friend.

So why does Sunrider Academy lose its luster? Four reasons. First, it’s mechanically opaque. I cracked at the start that I didn’t know what most of the stats did at character creation. But here’s the joke: I still don’t know most of them. Only a few stats are self-evident: intelligence is important for studying and grades, homework must be completed, stress is something you want to avoid, and money is good for buying things. But others? Why do I care about fitness? Or luck? I think charm is probably related to building relationships with the girls, but…

So much of Sunrider Academy is predicated on raising Kayto’s stats. But I don’t know what most of them do. In turn, that makes it really hard to get invested in anything; why would I care about Kayto’s fitness in the first place? Let him eat chips all day, I don’t care. I found myself throwing nominal efforts at increasing the unclear stats, just to keep them at what I perceived to be a decent number. Key word ‘perceived’: without any knowledge of how stats influence things, it’s functionally impossible to judge what any given stat number means in the first place. 100 points in a stat is not the limit, so it’s nothing as easy as that. Even in the stats that are overtly tested every now and again, like intelligence, there’s no clear relation between metric and success: I’ve done four ‘monthly exams’, passing at different ranks each time, and I have no idea how my intelligence scores at the time influenced the outcomes.

Yay, I guess.

Club stats are similarly opaque. Each club has the three stats of readiness, membership, and morale, and those do… something?

Now, if you’ve read the review, you might remember from the previous page what those stats actually do. I’ve mentioned it, I’m pretty sure. Readiness determines success at competitions, membership acts as a multiplier to readiness, and morale determines to what degree readiness is counted in the first place. I think. But here we hit Sunrider Academy‘s second weak point, and it’s this: it has a weird content introduction curve. New mechanics and new fail states are introduced almost ad hoc, via more of those clunky tutorial prompts, as late as five months into the game (when I was told that ‘final exams’ work differently from ‘normal exams’). One month in, suddenly there’s homework. Two months in, now you get exams, which are connected to ‘academic warnings’, which can lose you the game. Three months in, and suddenly the ability to give girls gifts becomes an option. Mind that you could already buy those gifts earlier, if you figured to check the shopping mall more than once. But actually giving… I think that might actually be connected to a character-specific mini-story that I just didn’t trigger until very late in.

This one. Maybe you’ll get it much earlier? Maybe you won’t ever get it. There’s no way of knowing.

Similarly, there’s a pretty big gulf in time between when clubs are introduced (almost immediately, as you read), and when club contests are introduced (month two, week two, day nine). That’s more than enough time for a casual, intermittent, or absent-minded player to totally forget what is what, exactly. Worse, it can lead to the adoption of what I carefully tend to call ‘stupid heuristics’. Each contest has three rounds, and the introduction (such as it is) mentions that the three stats are all important. Which obviously means that each round tests one particular stat, right? That makes sense, right?

*Is* that right? I’m literally asking because I have no idea!

With the benefit of hindsight — and a sizeable log of screenshots — I can look back and make the educated guess that ‘club performance’ is some sort of aggregated stat of readiness times membership, limited by morale. I think. In fact, with that same hindsight, I think I’ve also just found the purpose of the Fitness stat! But in-game, all these disparate bits of information are introduced once, hooked into the UI never, and then quickly brushed under the rug again.

Case in point: the aforementioned club contests. There’s a few of these each month, and you need to win a certain amount at a certain level to gain ‘prestige’ — or else risk a Bad End. Sunrider Academy does mention that the contests will get more difficult over time. But it doesn’t actually say how difficult, or even what the difficulty level of any contest is. Or how your stats measure up (or don’t) to the other competitors’. Contests have four outcome ranks: gold, silver, bronze, and failure. But the (club-stat) input and output are connected via black box: numbers go in, something happens, and then you win or you don’t. If you lose, there’s no telling by how much; if you win, there’s no telling what kind of a lead you have on other clubs.

‘Well, maybe they want to keep you on your toes! It’d turn into a boring number optimization game if you knew exactly how much better you were doing!’ Fair enough, straw-reader, that’s a valid point. But the consequences of that opacity are twofold. First, it seemingly forces you to spend as much of your free character time on club development as you can. Not an immense issue, since that time is mostly ear-marked, but do you know how much homework I could have been doing instead? And second…

Some activities in Sunrider Academy can fail. I’m honestly not sure which ones; I’ve never seen a Raise Morale go bad, for instance. But doing jobs can fail, and working out can fail, and recruiting can fail, and so on. In most cases, the ‘fail’ state is essentially a weakened, less useful success state. If you fail at a temp job, you’ll gain less money (say, 4 instead of 9) and accrue more success (3 instead 2). It’s annoying, and the chibi sprites look sad, but you still more more or less in the direction you wanted to.

Unless you’re talking about club recruitment. Recruitment actions fail much harder than anything else: instead of gaining 1 new member and 2 points of stress, you gain 0 new members and 2 points of stress. And you lose your hour either way.

There’s an expensive in-game item that gives you limited second chances on these activities. But not only does that tend to not work, it doesn’t so much ‘re-try’ the activity as fully ‘re-do’ it — meaning two failures in a row get you double the stress.

Are you seeing the shape of things? Sunrider Academy‘s stats are opaque, so it’s hard to just intuit what they do. Mechanics are introduced haphazardly and at weird times, which limits mechanical mastery and leads the game to assume the player knows things they might not. Fail states are explicitly mentioned, but the conditions for not losing with a bang are kept vague. And to top it all off, one of the elements that you would assume are crucial to success is prone to complete, time-wasting failure.

I’ll tell you how that plays out for me: I turn into a madman. If clubs are important, then I better spend as much of my time as possible on raising club stats. If membership is the hardest one to raise, I should focus on that, just in case I need it later. But since membership recruitment can fail, before every single application of the action, I… quicksave. Every time. And then I reload if I fail, and try something else… or try again, since (at least sometime it seems like) success or failure on any given activity is totally randomized. On several occasions I spammed recruit actions until I made them stick.

‘Jarenth, are you going to keep re-using that picture?’ WELCOME TO THE SUNRIDER ACADEMY EXPERIENCE

And, you know. All of this would be forgivable, or at least a minor annoyance, in a focused game that knew what it wants. But Sunrider Academy isn’t that game. My fourth and final issue is that Sunrider Academy is long. Five hundred days, five thousand hours. Even if they were all near-instantaneous decision points, it’d be a massive game. But every single Sunrider Academy hour has the potential to be a ten-minute story beat. Or a mad quickload-bonanza, if you’re that-inclined.

I am currently in month five of Sunrider Academy‘s school year. I’m coming up on the ‘final exams’, which you’d think would indicate an end to the game. But no: after ‘final exams’, there are two months of holidays, then more school years, followed by more final exams. It’s not just that this game is long: it’s long to the point of intentional stretching for time. It takes what little good ideas it has, and streeeeeetches those out over an interminable eternity. Club management would be okay, but you have to keep doing it and keep doing it and keep doing it, forever raising your stats to keep up with an invisible marker line you only ever see if you fail. You have to do several homework assignments every week. You have to keep your intelligence and your fitness and your luck up, because these have a chance to drain every night that you sleep. And every time you randomly run into a person at a location, say goodbye to at least ten seconds of your precious time to repeated banter, selecting a meaningless chat options, and more meaningless banter.

My starting worry with Sunrider Academy was that I’d mess up, and suddenly trip a scary and unexpected Bad End. My current most salient worry is that I’ll never get to see an end at all.

Final thoughts

Nope! Still not an end. This is like, a week into Month 5.

Sunrider Academy is three parts interesting idea to four parts limiting execution. The club management focus is a fun narrative justification for stat raising, the character-driven stories are pretty okay, and I really like the idea of basically playing a Mask of Arcadius AU — even if I did get the feeling that the storytellers seemed to be more interested in the metaphysical implications of this emergent Sunrider Cinematic Universe. But opaque, repetitive, failure-prone mechanics stretch over a too-lengthy time span to produce an experience that that ultimately feels diluted. There’s fun in here, but you have to grind to get to it.

Is Sunrider Academy worth ten Steam bucks? If you really enjoyed Mask of Arcadius, or if you’re starved for what I will charitably call a meaty time-and-stat-management VN, it could be up your alley. Me, I couldn’t get through it in the end. Just like the previous game, Sunrider’s academic demands managed to best me. And not even the promise of interesting story beats and softcore anime pornography can entice me to take up a third PhD.

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Jarenth has a hypothetical real future PhD in software design for low-literate learners, and a terrible fake PhD in Sakura games. Suggest other study topics on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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