So last week I picked up a little free to play game of Steam called Sunrider. This kickstarter funded Visual Novel quickly hooked me in with its solid game play, writing, and characters. So where exactly do I start talking about this? Why in a proper Ranger Rant, that's how!
Sunrider takes place in the far future in an alternate universe. You play as Captain Kayto Shields, an officer in the Cera Space Forces. Cera, a well developed world in a string of neutral systems is caught between various powers such as the The Solar Alliance and the People's Alliance for Common Treatment or PACT for short. Basically NATO on one side and on the other space Communists.
Feeling threatened Cera builds a new type of warship, the Assault Carrier. It's kind of like Galactica meets White Base. This new ship is the eponymous Sunrider, a ships so advanced that Cera had to train a whole new generation of officers to command it due to the differences it has from conventional vessels.
On the day the Sunrider is just beginning its shakedown run the PACT attacks Cera. Using a big new Super Dreadnought the PACT overwhelm Cera's defenses rapidly, with the Capital being nuked from orbit by the Super Dreadnought's main gun. All of Cera's remaining military either runs for it or dies rather quickly.
With no government or high command to report to, Captain Shields and his first officer and high school friend Commander Ava Crescentia decided to keep fighting the PACT, rally allies and try to defeat PACT before things can get any worse. This is no easy task as the PACT makes power plays in the Neutral systems and the Alliance government is hesitant to go to war with the growing power.
What's great about Sunrider is that like the original Gundam series it is able to ground itself in a very real story of war and politics without going over board into being noble bright or grim dark. The Alliance for example may mean well but it often resorts to questionable methods to bring about these ends. PACT meanwhile may be the aggressors and the enemy but it becomes clear that many of those in PACT feel they are genuinely doing the right thing. Right and wrong are what you make of a situation.
It's like taking a Gundam series but telling it from the perspective of someone like Bright Noa or Admiral Adama. Sunrider's story is being released as the production team Love in Space, complete sections and upload them onto steam. At this point the story is anyone's game and lucky for me I started playing the day before a new chapter was complete.
On the down side this can mean nasty cliff hangers and enjoy the long wait as they get everything ready.
Oh and did I mention most of your units are giant robots refereed to as Ryders? I guess a certain show was right, chicks dig giant robots.
Sunrider has a fairly large cast so first I will focus on the crew of the Sunrider. Starting with Captain Kayto Shields. A bit like Commander Shepard in Mass Effect you can play Shields along various paths. Do you always do the right thing even if I makes things harder or do you accept the difficulties of war time? Shields isn't a complete blank slate however according to Ava he has history of failed relationships with various women. Cue the dating sim elements.
Commander Ava Crescentia, your second in command and Shields' right hand woman. Ava is a by the book military brat, a solid first officer, and old friend (or old flame) of Sheilds'. While she has the professionalism and devotion of an experienced officer she lacks the charisma of a real leader. Ava is the rock of sanity amongst the clashing personalities of the Sunrider's crew. She has a softer side but she usually keeps it under a tight lock. Dig deeper and you find a young woman who questions her own worth and importance in the grand scheme of things and rarely allowed herself to actually enjoy life. While you command the tactics and over all battle she handles the rest of the Sunrider. The Sunrider is the most important and powerful unit you have so try to not break it.
Asaga Oakrun, the first pilot to join the crew of the Sunrider and a self proclaimed Hero of Justice. A skilled pilot she takes up the role of the Sunrider's flight leader. Asaga is spirited and and extroverted, but from the get go you get the sense she isn't telling you everything. Asaga fills the jack of all stats member of your team piloting the Blackjack. She can take on most enemies with a little help but lacks the specialize equipment of other members of the team.
Chigara Ashada; shy, bookish, good with expensive equipment, and adorable. Chigara is Asaga's friend who takes over as the Sunrider's Chief Engineer. She is the last survivor of a high tech world called Diode which was destroyed in an experiment gone wrong. Chigara clearly has a crush on Captain shields but then again most of the crew do as well. In combat Chigara pilots the Liberty, a support unit. While she has limited offensive capabilities she is a life saver in battle with very simple but practical abilities which can give you an edge such as her repair power or by turning off enemy point defense guns and shields.
Icari Isidolde, an aggressive mercenary and contract assassin who joins your team. Icari is devoted to destroying PACT for killing her family as a child. Somewhere along the way her morality got tossed aside though you can help her find it again. Icari is pragmatic and slow to trust often arguing for the most efficient if not the most pleasant solutions to a problem. On your team Icari pilots the Phoenix, a high speed interceptor unit. Icari can shred enemy light units with ease but she's next to useless against heavily armored targets and has very little armor herself.
Claude Triello, acting medical officer and walking argument against double standards for sexual harassment. No seriously. She got her medical license revoked for getting to frisky with patients and during a "routine medical exam" basically starts giving Shields a handy. On the plus side she is actually good at her job, although you still should stick her in the brig for a while just to make things clear. On the battlefield she pilots the Bianca which is similar to the Liberty in its support abilities though it focuses crippling the enemy. Given her weapon of choice is basically a kinetic blunderbuss she works well for taking out ships as well.
Sola vi Ryuvia, as the production team put it The Ayanami. Sola is found after having been in cold sleep for two thousand years. Being the sole living survivor of a brutal civil war has left her cold and aloof. She is a good person however and you can help her open up. On the battlefield she pilots the Seraphim and acts as your sniper. Sola's abilities give her a massive damage potential but this hampered by her low movement speed, limited arsenal, and low defenses.
Last on the Sunrider's team is Lieutenant Kryska Stares, your liaison to the Solar Alliance. Right from the get go you know she isn't telling you everything. While she is friendly enough if again a very by the book officer you get the feeling that she's there partly to spy on the crew and the ship. She is an Alliance Patriot sincerely believing that the Alliance has the Galaxies best interests at heart. On the battlefield she pilots the Paladin, and is the mighty glacier of the team. She's packing heavy armor and capital ship grade weapons but she is slow as molasses and has limited intercept options.
Now aside from the crew of the Sunrider you have a variety of other characters on the table. Admiral Grey of the Solar Alliance for example, who commands the Solar Alliance Fleet. While he talks a good game it becomes clear that he's willing to do whatever it takes to achieve victory in this war no matter how shady it might be. Its not if you can trust him its just how far can you trust him is the real question.
Then there is Cosette Cosmos, a feared pirate from the world of Ongess. Due to massive pollution on Ongess many people from there have mutations or birth defects. Cosette stopped growing at age twelve and while she has the body of a preteen she is mentally a deeply disturbed woman. Violent to the extreme, cruel and vengeful. Despite her reputation for ruthlessness she is a hero for her own people who after years of being abused just want to be left alone.
Commanding the forces of PACT are the Veniczars; Cullen, Fontana, and Arcadius. Cullen is a hold over from the previous Imperial military that PACT overthrew and is basically the bumbling disc one boss. Not really a threat beyond the sheer numbers he tends to throw around in battle. Fontana meanwhile is far more dangerous, being the head of PACT's weapons research and probably the second most powerful man in PACT. Fontana commands the Legion and always has several new toys to throw at the player from new warships to new Ryders. While Fontana is ruthless and ambitious he does have a strong sense of right and wrong and doesn't simply throw the lives of his soldiers away like Cullen does. Last is Arcadius the mysterious masked leader of PACT. Arcadius supposedly once fought for equality and social justice but now seems intent on galactic domination. Apparently he's been the leader of PACT for decades and should be in his mid sixties yet when we first see him he can't be more than 18 so something is clearly up.
Despite seemingly like having very stock characters Sunrider's writing and story telling keeps them all believable and many of them likable or at least respectable. Exceptions being Cullen who is nicknamed Porkchops by Captain Shields and Claude who I'm still trying to get a restraining order for. Seriously, that girl has issues.
Sunrider's gameplay is divided up into two sections one being the visual novel half and the other being the turn based strategy elements. In between missions you can interact with the crew, preform research upgrades, and purchase special supplies such as nukes and in the second chapter friendly ships. To get money to research upgrades or buy supplies you need to destroy enemy units in combat missions.
Interactions with crew via conversations can effect future missions as well as your relationships with those crew members. You can pursue romance options or simply get on someones nerves. There is no in game tracker for gauging your relationship with one character compared to the next so you have to go with what you know about that character and what you feel is the right thing to say. A bit like real relationships to be honest, reminds me of Dragon Age: Origins a bit seeing as in Dragon Age you could be friends with some one but not necessarily love them, or Dragon Age 2 where you could love someone but not necessarily agree with everything they do.
Combat missions take place in turn based format. All of your units have two primary stats to worry about Health and Energy. Health is self explanatory but Energy is more interesting. Any action your units take costs energy to use and not every unit uses the same amount of energy for every action. Some like Icari only use ten points to move one space while others like the Sunrider use thirty points to move one space. All units start with a base one hundred energy though with research you can increase the energy pool and decrease the costs of actions.
More complicated elements of Combat include flak, armor, evasion, accuracy, and shields. Flak allows your units to intercept enemy missiles but it works both ways as the enemy can intercept your missiles as well. Armor reduces damage received from attacks though after a certain amount of damage is taken armor stops providing protection until you repair that unit. Evasion increases the odds of your units avoiding enemy attacks completely. Accuracy tells you how likely your selected weapon is to hit a target different weapons have different accuracy scores; energy weapons tend to have higher accuracy and missiles are guided projectiles while kinetic weapons usually need to get in close to be most effective. Shields help balance out the accuracy disadvantage that Kinetics have as they drastically reduce the damage dealt by energy weapons, only a few units have shields and shields can overlap to provide extra protection.
During combat Captain Shields can issue executive orders that can drastically alter the course of a battle. These can take the form of buffs for all of your units, emergency repairs for the Sunrider, reviving fallen units, and using the awesome Vanguard cannon. The Vanguard cannon is the most powerful weapon you have able to hit multiple targets and dealing massive damage to enemies. With a simple upgrade it can one shot pretty much anything but the heaviest of enemy ships. Executive Orders draw upon the command point pool which are awarded based upon your performance in previous missions. Knowing when to use these special powers is vital in missions.
The second chapter also introduces a simulator to play custom battles in between missions. Sadly this is not a feature that can be simply accessed from the main menu nor is there any multiplayer which is sad because I think this game could do a very good job at both.
Sunrider's gameplay has a bit of a learning curve for more complicated elements of gameplay however this is never unfair it just has fairly limited hand holding. Because of your limited numbers the game encourages strategic play and deployments. With some practice it is easy to get the hang though difficult to master.
Sunrider's graphics are decent considering the budget and the experience of the team. If you're not into anime style art design you may not like it but I found no issue with it. There is a fairly limited amount of animation in combat or out of it. Still they get the job done and whats more is that because of the low end graphics the game is much more accessible even on lower end PC's. That is always a plus in my department. The unit designs are also very good reflecting their role and mentality perfectly.
Sunrider is partially voice acted with every unit under your control having some voice acting. You want find any big names on Sunrider's cast but that's not a real problem, nothing against the likes of Steve Blum or Jennifer Hale but its nice to see some new talent. A few of them have experience with other projects before and they all give solid performances.
When I say partially voice acted however I mean that all of the dialogue is in text format rather than voice acted. There isn't a real problem with this its just a personal complaint as I would like to hear some of these rather excellent bits of dialogue being preformed. A kickstarter budget is a kickstarter budget though.
The sound effects are pretty stock but they work for what they do. In the music department Sunrider has an excellent score. The Opening theme sets the tone very well harkening to proper mecha anime like Gundam, Code Geass, Evangelion, and many others. The rest of music also works well and is placed precisely where it needs to be to set the tone for each scene be it somber and slow or aggressive and hard.
Sunrider is a solid game still in its development stages. Based on what has been presented thus far however I can assure you that it only gets better from here on out. More importantly this is yet another example of the western Visual Novel suggesting that there is indeed a viable market for such games here in the west. I would highly recommend anyone with a Steam account pick Sunrider up if they have the chance seeing as how it is for free. If you have some spare cash you could also donate to the project and help it keep going. For now though, I'll see you all in space.