Friday, 6 July 2018

Sunrider: Liberation Day Review (Visual Novel/Strategy Game Hybrid)

After the impressive success of the freeware VN/strategy hybrid Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius the game’s developer, Love in Space, soon started working on a sequel, doubling down on their policy of directly imitating the Japanese visual novel formula and apparently devoting much of their newly-found resources and experience to exactly that end. When the highly-anticipated Sunrider: Liberation Day finally released, on March 2016, it came armed with Japanese voice-acting, Japanese theme song and extra amounts of fanservice, ready to conquer the Western-otaku audience with its bombastic facsimile of Japanese eroge. Thus, one of the most amusing chimaeras in the history of the OELVN scene was born, once more to a decent commercial success and mostly positive reception.
            Setting the slightly-absurd “Japanization” aside, Liberation Day is, above all, a sequel of a well-known and, for the most part, respected game, that did much to promote visual novel formula in the West. Mask of Arcadius, as I think most people would agree, remains to this day one of the best VN “space operas”, especially among those officially released outside of Japan and fills a niche mostly unexplored by EVNs. As a sci-fi fan, a good continuation of the Sunrider story was something I really wanted to see and Liberation Day promised to offer just that, in an even grander and more compelling style. Did it deliver on those promises though and does it stand the test of time as well as its predecessor?
The very average female cast and forced romance that ignores player's previous choices are at the center of the story in Sunrider’s sequel, taking the focus away from its strongest part – the galactic war drama 
The already mentioned “remodelling” of Sunrider even further into an imitation of Japanese VNs is the first thing you notice after running the game – the pompous theme song, combined with Japanese voices of the heroines and gimmicky opening sequence, with tons of “cinematic” cuts and animations are simply overwhelming. It’s something I honestly haven’t seen in any other OELVN and which makes Liberation Day a quintessence of a “weeb game” – trying to be more Japanese than actual Japanese VNs themselves and ending up laughable in its obvious over-stylisation. Thankfully, after the initial shock passes, it has a lot of campy charm and can be very enjoyable if you don’t take it too seriously.
             Besides that though, the game retained the general formula of its prequel, which only minor changes to the dialogue system (talking to the crew between missions, through a ship-map interface) and the turn-based strategy segments. The hex-based combat was slightly streamlined in the graphical department, removing some animations and effects that overly prolonged every move, while adding a few new ships for player’s use (as mercenaries, because the core mecha squadron didn’t receive any expansion) and some new enemies. This, however, shouldn’t bother the people that enjoyed Mask of Ardacius that much, as the tactical depth and challenge they know is still very much intact and should be probably the most important factor of their enjoyment of the game. For those less interested in strategy aspect, the story-oriented difficulty from the first game is still present, this time shamelessly labelled as “waifu mode”. 
The game’s strategy elements are as solid as in the first game, but disappoint slightly with lack of innovation
However, the actual problems start with the game’s story, which this time is even more linear and leads the plot in directions that are simply alienating to the player. While the first game mostly offered an illusion of choice (dialogue options didn’t influence the ending and have only a minor impact in the sequel), the moral dilemmas did a lot to enhance immersion and make you empathize with Sunrider’s captain and crew, even if their characterisation was not always the best. Here, you have no control over their actions and can only passively observe their obvious mistakes and protagonist’s forced romance with a character I personally didn’t care about at all. What’s worse, all this leads you into a horrible ending, which simply nullifies everything you worked for the whole duration of the two games and leaves you with little hope or satisfaction, adding a clunky cliffhanger on top of that.
            This would be an absolute deal-breaker for me – and probably was for many people playing the game at its release. However, the authors most likely understood their mistake and released a DLC which at least partially mitigated this blunder – an alternate timeline scenario, focused purely on VN-style storytelling and sending the protagonist back in time to fix his failures. This content, now available for free with every purchase of the game, not only opens a way towards a more satisfying conclusion, but also provides the player with an opportunity to pursue romances with the girls other than the one from the main plot (along with h-scenes unlockable with a free patch). While I was sorely disappointed with the main story of Liberation Day, I was positively surprised with the quality of this “bonus” content, especially because it directly answered to my disgust with original conclusion, making averting it both mine and protagonist’s main motivation to go forward. It was even written well enough to make the characters I previously completely didn’t care about somewhat amusing – the cast, of course, remained pretty flat and generic, but I’ve warmed up towards even the most annoying members of it after finishing their respective routes (although the first officer, Ava, is still the only character I really ever cared about in this game). Against all odds, it let me leave this game with purely positive feelings.
The alternate-timeline DLC offers a more classic VN experience and does much to salvage the otherwise underwhelming story 
The game’s visuals are at the same solid, but never-impressive level of the first Sunrider, with decent-looking, but simple sprites and CGs (I honestly couldn’t force myself to unlock the h-scenes and assess their quality, but I would expect them to be at a similar, average level) and backgrounds. The battles, while less flashy than in the first game to overcome some engine limitations, still have quite a lot of impact to them and are generally nice to look at. The new additions, Japanese voice acting and the theme song, are of very decent quality and can be appreciated after the initial cultural shock passes.
            In the end, Sunrider: Liberation Day felt like a step backwards from the original, initially offering much less variety and weaker immersion and only later somewhat making up for its shortcomings. It’s a strange example of a misguided attempt at boosting the appeal of an OELVN not by offering something unique, but through clunky mimicry of Japanese games, which in the end only proved counter-productive. It also contained some absolutely awful pieces of contrived, depressing storytelling, leading the main campaign’s plot into that awful place of “baiting for a sequel you never want to see”. But it was also, thanks to its DLC and fun game mechanics, an ultimately positive experience and decent point of closure for the Sunrider franchise. With all its flaws, I still wholeheartedly recommend playing it, especially if you’re into sci-fi or the space-opera formula.

Final score: 3,5/5

+ Still solid and challenging strategy game mechanics
+ Good quality of voice acting and sound design
+ Compelling DLC content with traditional VN storytelling and romance
- Alienating main story with no player agency
- Lack of meaningful innovation in strategy sections
- Horrible ending for the main campaign
- Over-the-top “weeb” feel

VNDB page
Buy Sunrider: Liberation Day on Steam or GOG


  1. Just a few clarifications I'd like to make:

    - Liberation Day is technically part 3 of the main Sunrider story. (First Arrival was rolled into Mask of Arcadius when the latter came out.)

    - Not sure if this information is still accurate, but the series is planned to have more parts. A prologue to part 4 was added to the main game with the update DLC.

  2. Hey, a first comment on my humble blog, how nice (I guess it's also my fault for not anabling anonymous commenters earlier)!

    Thank you for the info, but this also confuses me a lot. What use is there for that prologue at end of Liberation Day's main campaign after you take [RE]turn DLC in consideration with its vast changes to the galactic situation? Would the new part just ignore it and start where the main game left us? I would definitely not want to see that, that ending was not just depressing, but plain awful. Anyways, I wasn't really expecting a new Sunrider by this point, but I'm sure open to playing it - I just hope Love in Space let us all forget the Liberation Day Massacre, I was too satisfied with averting it to ever go back. ;)

  3. Honestly, the stuff I've read from Love in Space makes me worry about post-Liberation Day Sunrider. I don't have sources handy, so I only have my memory, but here's a few notes to try to answer your questions:

    - [RE]turn is an alternate universe, like Sunrider Academy. Like that game, it technically ties into the main series, but does not directly affect it.

    - Tying in with the above, Sunrider part 4 (Return of the Ryuvian Empire or something like that, last I remember) will carry on in the universe with the Liberation Day Massacre. Thus the prologue of part 4 being implemented in Liberation Day, to offset the fan dissatisfaction and the assumption that Liberation Day ended the series. (To be fair, early on Sunrider was billed as a trilogy. You can't end part 3 on a cliffhanger that appears to kill the lead and then assume people will know to buy part 4 of the trilogy.)

    - A particularly odd comment from the founder of Love in Space on a forum somewhere (wish I had a link of this, because it sounds so strange without proof) made me a bit disillusioned with the way the main series treats the love interests. Basically, the developer said that the original plan (which may or may not be in place anymore, after Liberation Day's backlash) was to provide an H-scene with each potential love interest before the player had to choose one to stick with. Ava was for MoA, Chigara was for LD, and it was hinted in the patch content for LD that Sola is next. To me, this feels like an excuse to promise a chance to "pick your waifu" while only writing one storyline with a harem. And it gets weirder when [RE]turn and Academy exist to show that this developer can make several (divergent) romance routes.

    Honestly, I fell off keeping track of the series after seeing information like that last bit. Liberation Day's main story was really, painfully bad. As in, I knew the "twist" as I finished MoA. Which would have been fine, if leading up to that wasn't 90% of the plot of Liberation Day. The patch content did more with that plot point than the entirety of the main game. I really wanted to like the game, but so many little things added up that I felt like it just wasn't worth dealing with. (Though I may one day try [RE]turn, see if that's at least worth the entry fee.)

    At this point, not only am I uncertain about the future of Sunrider (it may well have been cancelled after I stopped following the forums for it), but I'm not too big on the next Love in Space game. Many of the characters share designs and personalities with Sunrider characters. While I'm under the opinion expies can be perfectly valid characters, it feels so lazy to see it from this developer after the huge backlash from Liberation Day. To an outsider like me, it seems like they jumped ship on the series and took the characters to go make something else with them.

    I feel like I got really harsh to Love in Space once I got going, despite the fact that I came here to try to clear things up in their favor. But whether you like the team and their projects or not, it's hard to argue against Liberation Day being a misstep. There were so many things going for it that it's really hard to deal with how it fell apart. At least Love in Space admitted fault and released the patch content and [RE]turn to tide us over, but it might be too tittle, too late for a lot of the former fans...

    1. Aye, I'm at least thankful that you confirmed my impression on how frustrating playing the vanilla version of Liberation Day must've been for people that really enjoyed the original. This makes me very skeptical about another Sunrider title appearing in the future, the whole thing is a mess both from the marketing standpoint and when it goes to storyline. Making a direct sequel sounds like a very risky idea and it's hard to say whether another spin-off would be well received - but, only future will tell. :)

      And yeah, I also had the feeling that Shining Song Starnova characters felt samey - it might just be the rather generic artstyle though. :>