How often have you played a game, watched a film, listened to music or read a book and felt totally emotionally involved with it?
For the past number of years you have probably seen a meme along the lines of "The Feelz!" and in recent years I have seen this applied to countless games including the Bioware cash cows of Mass Effect and Dragon Age. Personally however, despite greatly enjoying a number of these games my emotional involvement was marginal.
Enter Sunrider Academy, a game which managed to unlock my stonewalled heart and for the first time in years feel empathy for fictional characters.
Now this game was recommended to me by a friend who after watching a stream of me playing Corpse Party and going bright red from embarrassment of having to narrate the line "butter my pooper" on air, thought having me narrate this game would be a laugh riot. After only twenty minutes of trying this game however I was sold on it!
What is it?
So Sunrider Academy (SA) is an adult visual novel or VN. What this means is that most of the events of the storyline are pre-written and require minimal input from you as an audience to read. It still requires reading however as all dialogue and narration is written but appears in easy to digest chunks displayed over the top of a static image depicting the scene going on. More often than not this is in the form of a background with a character or two imposed in front.
You may have noticed my use of the word adult and I will come to that in a bit.
What is the story behind SA?
So SA follows the story of young adult called Kayto as he starts his second year at Sunrider Academy; a school set on a fictional scifi world where as well as managing his social and scholastic lives he also has to somehow achieve the impossible in the form of a bet he made with his younger sister to get a serious girlfriend before the end of the school year.
So far so much normalcy. We've all been young once where the idea of being single, getting a girlfriend and all that jazz was the most important thing ever, so it's not as if it is hard to relate to.
What is more however is that the character and his exploits are almost a parody of real life. He isn't just a loser, but he is a mega bumbling loser. When he tries to impress a girl, he will almost always say the wrong thing, and the few times he actually does come across as suave and intelligent that is always when his younger sister arrives to put him down.
This parody carries on further, but again - more on that later.
Is there any actual 'gameplay'?
Yes. At it's core SA is a statistic management game.
Thought the events that unfold you will have a series of things you need to do, like overseeing club practice for the school Swim, Kendo & Science clubs (all of which are captained by the girls who go on to be your friends and girlfriend(s). Everything you do that furthers your statistics increases your stress levels, and you can reduce your stress by doing certain activities like playing games at the local arcade. Doing so however reduces your intelligence (another example of parody right there, losing intelligence in a game by playing another videogame) so at every stage you need to keep your beneficial stats like intelligence, charisma, fitness and luck as high as possible, while keeping your stress levels as low as possible. If you get too stressed you will get sick, and eventually die.
At times this mechanic can get repetitive and even a little boring, but that is inter spliced with story and interaction with the other characters, and it is those stories which keeps you carrying on, not the game play itself.
What's all this about 'parody'?
Ok so before I go any further, this game is actually a spinoff of another game, that game being Sunrider: Mask of Arcadius. In Sunrider you are a spaceship captain who has to save the galaxy with a crew comprised of the same girls you have as friends in SA.
The idea here is that SA is not a sequel to Sunrider, but instead a "what if?" in another universe.
Throughout the game references are made back to the original game, sometimes as knowing nods to the audience, other times as self mockery of itself. An example of this being when you confront the captain of the Kendo club about how much her club is in arrears, which she declares in an exaggeration is enough to buy a nuclear warhead. Obviously in this reality it is nothing like that, but the joke being that in the original Sunrider that was how much it cost to buy the Nuclear Warhead Upgrade.
A lot of these references past me by due to the fact that I have not played the original Sunrider, but do have it queued to play in future, however with this knowledge as an audience member you can still clearly see what is meant to be a nod or joke and I did not find that detracted any from the experience.
At the same time the game is very much self aware, often joking about the lead character (Kayto) and how his whole life previously was spent in front of his computer playing dating sims, while I as a player am sat in front of my computer playing a dating sim.
Sunrider Academy is very much aware of this, and will on regular occasions bash itself and it's own genre; like how if you impress your sister with a certain dialogue option she will make a joke about her approval rating increasing to which you will reply about it not being an EROGE (erotic or hentai game) which this game is.
These continuous tongue poking at itself leaves a strong sense of light heartedness running throughout the entire game. It never takes itself seriously and in doing so encourages you as an audience member to do the same.
What about humour other than self parody?
Sunrider Academy is a freaking hilarious game! Between the polarised initial attitudes of the characters and the eternally perky personality of your little sister, there are moments where I actually had no choice but to laugh out loud.
The writing is so fluid and organic that jokes and moments that in other situations might feel forced and put on instead feel natural and genuinely funny.
Maybe it is because I am male myself, and so the constant pathetic nature of Kayto is less observed and more felt, but on more than one occasion his situations were ones that I too had gotten myself into at school, or if given the same circumstances could see myself getting into.
Despite being a fictional setting in the far future this game is still relatable and that is where it's humour stands strong as it mixes the ignorance and naivety of youth with the pressures of growing up.
What about other emotional involvements?
Ok so I said earlier that I have not been this emotionally involved in a game in a long time, and that is not just from the humour.
As the storyline progresses you learn so much about the other characters as they organically shift from the extremely polarised personalities into rich in depth characters, and on more than one occasion I caught myself getting swept up in the emotional turmoil of teenage romance and even shed a tear or two as the storylines progressed and characters grew closer or were torn apart.
But of course each story is different.
You see there are 4 girls in the game you can attempt to romance;
Asaga - The hyper ball of energy leaving a whirlwind of destruction in her wake.
Chigara - The shy intelligent girl who was forced to run the science club but wishes she could spend her time baking pastries.
Sola - The quiet mysterious girl who works in the local shrine and appears lost in her own thoughts 99% of the time.
Ava - The stern strict friend you've had since childhood. She looks down on you for being a bit of an idiot but clearly has more going on in her life than she is letting on.
You can only romance one of them, and each story will provide you with a different experience. Some are truly sad and emotional, others are funny and uplifting while others are just total headfucks!
To get all of these reactions out of a single game not only requires replay but means that for at least the first 4 attempts, your story will play out differently.
What about the adult content?
Ok so as I mentioned before; Sunrider Academy is an Adult Visual Novel. There's no getting around this, there is plenty of T&A and other adult content, to the extent almost as soon as you start the game you are presented with a hyper-happy opening sequence with an over-the-top-upbeat Japanese song and suspect imagery meaning that you are under no illusions of just what you should expect from this game.
Just how adult the game is, is up to you the player.
As the game is available on Steam, and as Steam has a rule about not selling any sex games, all the scenes in SA have been stripped out and replaced by either censored content or removed altogether. It is my understanding that while the game is still playable in this form that certain scenes do not make so much sense without the adult version to make sense of it all.
That however is not something I can personally vouch for. As I hold two copies of the game on my computer, one uncensored and one censored, this way when I build up the courage to actually stream this, with hope what I will be streaming will not be XXX rated, but to date I have yet to play the uncensored version.
But like I said, as a user you can control the adult content by visiting the website for the developer (Love in Space) you can easily download a patch to put the missing content which also adds additional game modes and further options.
- In short the uncensored version is how the game is meant to be played.
So it is a sex game?
I am shitting you not when I say that simply labelling the game as a 'sex game' is putting it down too much. Yes there is (graphic) sex content within, but what makes the game strong is the depth of character and storyline and I honestly believe that if the game was built to not have any of that content that it would still be a strong game.
Saying that, I must also admit that as someone unfamiliar with the whole 'Waifu' scene, I do not know other people's expectations or standards. Perhaps there are reasons that these scenes were included that I as a stranger to them is unaware of, or maybe it is simply as the creator put it on his Ask.fm:
Does this mean you are now a fan of VNs or EROGEs?
To me that question is like asking if liking one book or film makes you a fan of a whole genre, or books!
No I am in no way sold on the idea of dating sims or visual novels, enjoying one does not mean I am a fan of the genre, and I mean this simply due to a lack of understanding and exposure.
What I am sold on however is the writing talent of this particular writer/author and as such as mentioned before I have already downloaded the original Sunrider game (which as it turns out is free on Steam) and depending on my experiences with that may be looking forward to the sequel Liberation Day.
Would you recommend this game?
As always this is a difficult question for me.
I found this game really emotionally involving and as I opened with; for the first time in a game I felt "the feelz". But as with everything, not every game is for everyone.
If you have never tried a VN and we're interested in giving them a go then I probably would say that for me this was a good introduction, largely due to the combination of storyline and stat management so you feel like you are doing more than just letting a story play out on your screen. I think that without this extra mechanic the game would have still been enjoyable, but perhaps I would have taken more for granted and not appreciated the story based breaks as much as I did.
If however you are familiar with VNs then of course I have no idea if I should recommend it as I do not know how this compares to what else is on the market. Instead I would welcome you to reach out to me and let me know what you think is the best you've played and why.
On that note, as always; stay safe and be excellent to each other!
- Your friendly neighbourhood Doctor Loxley