Friday, 3 August 2018

Sunrider Academy Review (dating sim)

The Sunrider series is one of the most successful OELVN franchises – one which not only spawned two highly-appreciated VN/strategy game hybrid titles, but even made a rare attempt at expanding to the Japanese market (at least successful enough that the games’ developer, Love in Space, apparently works on making their upcoming title, JP-idol themed Shining Song Starnova, into another export product, with Japanese voice acting and other elements rarely seen in western-produced VNs). Both the freeware Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius and it’s commercial sequel, Liberation Day, got much recognition for their space-opera storytelling, solid game mechanics and good production values.
            One thing the mainline Sunrider games definitely lacked, however, was satisfying romance – while the cast followed typical harem tropes, with male protagonist and vast, female-only crew more or less visibly in love with him, the character development for most of the girls was extremely basic and, at least in the first game, player was left with no ability to pursue any of them. To remedy this sorry state of affairs, Sunrider Academy was created – an alternative universe dating sim spin-off, placing the protagonist and the main four heroines of Mask of Arcadius in a typical high-school setting (although without abandoning the sci-fi elements or the Sunrider universe itself). So does this game, published by Sekai Project on April 2015, really remedy mainline Sunrider games’ omissions?
The slightly smaller cast serves the game well, as every character can receive more meaningful screen-time and development
The alternate storyline follows our usual protagonist, Kayto Shields, as a second-year high school student in the prestigious Sunrider Academy. Many elements of the setting match the already established lore – Kayto's close relationship with his younger sister Maray, his role as student council vice-president and the presence of Ava as both his childhood friend the overly strict council president are all known from the flashbacks in Mark of Arcadius. The game, however, places three more Sunrider heroines, Asaga, Chigara and Sola, as fellow students within the Academy, while other characters from the main games, like Admiral Gray or Veniczar Fontana, make cameos in setting-appropriate roles. While you could expect some of these appearances to be just excuses to reuse visual assets (that is admittedly done a lot with sprites and backgrounds), it's not really the case – Fontana for example only shows up in two unique CGs and many other references to mainline Sunrider games are fairly clever and elaborate, definitely not done in a lazy way you could expect from this kind of spin-off.
            The plot itself involves Kayto being ordered by Ava to act as a manager for the three "trouble” student clubs (swimming, science and kendo), each led by one of the heroines. During the school year, his tasks are to save the clubs from being closed, lead them into progressively harder competitions while keeping up with his own studies and (hopefully) finding a girlfriend. All this is achieved through pretty involved and extensive resource management gameplay. Apart from managing three club's morale, readiness and member count, you have to work on your personal stats, earn money and fight for the affection of the girls through events and random encounters (during which you choose from a list of topics, that might or might not be appreciated by the heroine). From the technical standpoint, the game is definitely a dating sim before anything else, as the dialogue choices are pretty much just an extra factor influencing the affection meters, while everything else is determined by the stats and the schedule you set up for yourself every day.
Fanservice and h-content are important parts of the game, but never overwhelm the actual story Winged Cloud-style
The heroine routes take some of the defining themes of the girls’ original stories (like time travel for Sola or forced marriage for Asaga) and give them a spin that makes them compatible with the new setting. After the introductory common route, that makes you familiar with both the characters and the game mechanics, you can choose to enter the romance arc with any girl with whom you have high enough affection level (the arcs are, of course, mutually exclusive). All stories are similarly enjoyable, doing a decent job when it goes to character development and making the heroines likeable – Academy is, admittedly, much better in this department than the main Sunrider games. The arcs themselves are however not without some heavy flaws when it goes to writing and pacing – the drama, especially in Chigara’s and Asaga’s route, feel forced and the resolutions to it rather anticlimactic. Dialogues also suffer a bit from Love in Space’s persistent mannerisms, which not always fit the characters and situations involved (including the ever-present “Mou...” and “Fufufufu”, which I have yet to find in similar quantities in any other VNs).
            Obviously, the stories themselves are not meant to be taken too seriously, as much of them is more or less excuses for h-scenes and fanservice. This does not go into the over-the-top territories some ecchi VNs take it to (like for example Sakura games with boobs and panty shots attacking you at every corner), but every route offers three lengthy hentai scenes and some additional “sexy” moments. As I’m not a fan of h-content in general, I’m not a good person to judge the quality of it here, but I was generally positively surprised with how the scenes were done – they were mostly very vanilla and nicely drawn. Story-wise, some of them definitely came out of nowhere and not necessarily fit the characters, but not to the point of completely taking me out of the story. What I also didn't really expect, the sex scenes definitely worked the best in Asaga’s route, as they simply went completely in-line with her characterization and were also a pretty important part of the narrative.
            One thing that proved to be definitely a negative surprise was the relative lack of interesting events and meaningful interactions with heroines other than your current love interest after the common route (which goes on for the first 1/3 of the playthrough) – even the achievements such as winning the galactic-wide competitions with your clubs or acing the final exams don’t reward you with proper celebratory dialogue, making the effort put into the gameplay mechanics quite hollow. This, along with the lack of variety when it goes to endings, definitely reduces the replay value of the game – after one or two playthroughs there’s literally nothing new to uncover apart from the strictly route-specific content, which isn’t expansive enough to nullify the boredom of replaying, for the most part, the same linear story.
Dating-sim mechanics are extensive and fairly fun during the first approach, but become unbearable with repeated playthroughs
While the game offers around 12-15 hours of story content between all routes, most of your time with it will be spent on resource management, choosing your activities at 6 different points of every day over the pretty overwhelming, 450 days-long school year of Cera. The gameplay elements, while rather well-balanced and initially as addictive as in other well-crafted dating sims, are sadly unskippable and become a real chore after the first playthrough. This is connected to both how time-consuming they are and how the game’s goals are set up – as you can’t fail in any aspect of the "simulation" without receiving an instant game-over, there’s really not much space for different goals or unique play styles apart from some very arbitrary/pointless Steam achievements. Even though there is a “waifu mode” difficulty, which renders most stats irrelevant and makes the game pretty much impossible to lose, it still leaves you with hours of mindless clicking, maybe even more frustrating than it would normally be, considering its utter pointlessness. This led me, after the first playthrough, to giving up on the game itself and looking up let’s plays of the other three routes on YouTube – and it was, sadly, a much better experience than trying to replay the whole thing even from the end of the common route. 
            The game’s visuals are kept exactly the same level as in the rest of the Sunrider series – with average artstyle and level of details, but the very consistent quality that makes the end effect reasonably appealing. The CGs (not very numerous, when we consider the overall size of the game), backgrounds and UI are just as solid as the character designs and sprites already know from Mark of Arcadius, while they also never go above the expectations. Music consists of typical dating sim background tunes, with enough variety to signify shifts in the climate within the story and not drive you insane with repetitiveness, but once again keeping it at a perfectly average and generic level. 
            In the end, is Sunrider Academy worth playing? For fans of the series, it should be an enjoyable experience, especially on the first playthrough – if does a decent effort at remedying the lack of romance that plagued the Sunrider at least until the Liberation Day’s [RE]turn DLC. Beyond that, it’s still a fairly fun and well put-together dating sim that might be enjoyable on its own and can be found on Steam nearly for free, with frequent -80%, -90% sales. Beyond finishing it once, however, there’s just not enough depth in its gameplay mechanics or variety within the story content to make it interesting – if you really want to explore all the routes, or you’re not interested in the resource management mechanics in the first place, watching a let’s play, at least after experiencing the game for yourself once, might actually be the better option.
Final Score: 2,5/5

+ Decently enjoyable heroines
+ Well-done references to main Sunrider games
+ Well-balanced gameplay mechanics
+ Good-quality h-content
- Unskippable busywork makes replaying the game a chore
- Poor story/gameplay ratio beyond the common route
- Inconsistent quality of the writing

VNDB page
Buy Sunrider Academy on Steam

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