Monday, March 10, 2014

Review: 'The Sun at Night' by Minicore Studios

Alternate-history fiction is a fairly common genre: put a twist on a well-known event or figure and your audience suddenly finds themselves in a world slightly parallel to the one they know and love. It's usually something small with massive repercussions, like a certain person did or didn't die, a battle was won instead of lost, someone didn't quite make it to where they should have...

...or a talking dog returns from outer space decked out in robotic armor to combat superpowered Soviet forces.

That's the premise of The Sun at Night from Minicore Studios, and it makes the Cold War (ALERT: bad pun) very, very cool. Many people know the real life story of the space-bound Laika who sadly died in orbit. In the world of The Sun at Night, though, the Soviets have discovered a new energy source and Laika descended back to Earth to help resistance units combat the tide of war.

That summary only just scratches the surface, which brings us to the first great thing about The Sun at Night: it builds its world so well that you can't help feeling invested in it. Taken at face value - sci-fi dog action platformer - the premise can sound absurd (but awesome), but the game embraces this absurdity and builds around it. Yes, you play as Laika, a talking dog who fights robots and soldiers and science experiments gone wrong. But there's so much more going on that this world feels like just that - an actual world.

Example: when you start out in a rebel camp, you can speak to dozens of people to get a feel for what exactly is going on in this crazy scenario. Most conversations have branching dialogue trees so you can really dig in deep and learn everything you want to know - maybe more than you ever thought you wanted to know. But even that only scratches the surface, as you can find journal entries and books and computers to learn even more. It's like a real-life history lesson, only with substantially more robots. Minicore didn't create a game with a surface-level paint job of "sci-fi Cold War"; they've built a history to the world, and it gives the game a weight that makes it stand up even in the face of "sci-fi dog action platformer."

This complexity extends past the story and into the gameplay of The Sun at Night. It's pretty straightforward - you control Laika and the gun mounted on her back independently to fight through levels - but it quickly gets more complicated. You're able to upgrade Laika's armor with offensive-, defensive-, or ability-based capabilities, letting you choose how you want to play. Maybe you're the type to supe up your gun first, or maybe you'd like Laika to be quicker and more nimble to avoid enemies. No one will judge you. Each upgrade node unlocks others, so you can really plan what shape you want the game to take. There are occasional hacking minigames, too; while those don't make up a bulk of the action, they're a nice break nonetheless.

The levels are fairly open so you're free to explore to find items, equipment, and the aforementioned world-building documents. It also makes it pretty easy to get lost, and while there is a map system, it's as complex as the rest of the game, but in an unhelpful manner. C'mon, guys. I'm not Magellan here. Still, it's easy to overlook this small flaw if you consider it under the context of "exploration" instead of "lost" and it just gives you more opportunity to uncover small details that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

You know how everyone likes those kinds of games that look and sound awful? What? No one likes games like that? Well good, because The Sun at Night is just as good on its surface as it is underneath. The game looks almost like an animated film; the characters are 2D and move fluidly, and the backgrounds are crazy detailed. More of that world-building at play: if the Cold War involved mad science, it would definitely happen in places like this.

The Sun at Night is the first in what Minicore is calling The Stray Series, so you won't get the full story just yet. Honestly that's fine, because on its own this game has enough to process. It's refreshing to see this much work put into a game on more than just the aesthetic elements. It's like the Cadbury Egg of video games: sure, the chocolatey outside is pretty and delicious and you'd probably be fine with just that, but then you get to the creamy center and you wonder why every candy isn't like this. And it does so in a manner that isn't nearly as clumsy as that analogy.

The Sun at Night is out now.

Special thanks to Minicore Studios for providing a review copy of The Sun at Night.

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