The Sun at Night asks a lot of you. It asks that you buy into its alternate history plot, one that takes an oddly flavored turn with the apparently pliable truth. It asks that you often fight against systems you can’t possibly fight against. And it asks that you dig through a lot—a lot—of words that strain the eyes like a staring contest with the sun. But if you can accept these (and other) things, you might find something worth playing.
The Sun at Night, formerly known as Laika Believes, is the first non-mobile release from the small Austin-based Minicore Studios and the first of three installments. It tells the tale of Laika, the Soviet space pup that the Russians picked up off the streets and launched into space and history aboard the Sputnik 2. In reality, Laika shortly died after launch. In The Sun at Night, Laika crash lands back on Earth, but she is changed from her time abroad.
Namely, Laika can talk and has become at least partly cyborg, what with an integrated armor featuring a deployable shield and a Mega Buster-like energy blaster. (It kind of makes you wonder if Neil Armstrong also came back part robot.) The Russians have largely taken over the world and have begun producing radically impressive pieces of technology and monstrously disturbing pieces of organic experiments / collateral damage. Laika has sided with resistance forces to stop those crazy Soviets.
As nutso as the story is, it’s actually quite interesting. There’s a lot going on, but you have to be willing to read a lot to get anything from it. There’s no voice acting, so all of the conversations and diaries and whatnot you get are all in written word, and it can get tiring. Forcing myself to read everything for the sake of an exhaustive experience, though, showed me that there are some neat wrinkles.
Some of the writing, however, feels a bit odd. None of it is bad, per se, but it all feels singular in voice. And nearly everyone is far too upbeat for the problems they’re encountering. Maybe everyone gets super polite and happy once most of the world’s superpowers are destroyed, but it certainly comes across as a bit off.
The game itself, however, is played entirely on a 2D plane, set amidst a large, mostly open world. If it helps, think of it as a Metroidvania-style situation. Rooms lead to other rooms and you go about completing objectives while fighting dudes to the left and right (and above and below) of you. The map might drive home this point the best, where it mostly likely will remind you of Super Metroid‘s map.
The difference is that Laika’s world is actually in 3D, just navigable only in two of those dimensions at any given time. This leads to the map being a crisscrossing mishmash of translucent planes that are damn near inscrutable. It certainly looks cool, but never really is much more help beyond showing you how what direction you might be facing. You can get used to it, but maps aren’t something you should get used to. You should just be able to use them.
There’s a navigation arrow, however, that you can turn on that points to whatever your current objective is. It alleviates much of the problem with the map by simply removing the need for it, but occasionally it will lead you to a dead end. If the shortest distance between you and your end point involves a locked door, it will still point you to the locked door. Kind of frustrating when you’re trying to escape a fire.
Laika is controlled by moving about with the left stick and aiming her weapon with the right. At any time, you can press the left trigger to deploy your shield to mitigate damage, though you can’t shoot while your little bubble shield is up. It forces some consideration of offense and defense, making fights more than just dumping shots into the air. Her movements are actually quite snappy, zooming about the air and ground with commensurate control. It feels stilted, but in an precise kind of way.
Shooting, however, is a totally different story. The reticle for whatever gun you have equipped is maybe half a body length away from Laika’s core, so landing shots on enemies actually takes quite a bit of skill, extrapolating angles and distances from minimal information. I often found myself relying on the laser since it fires constantly, eliminating the need to make snap spatial judgments.
It can be fun fighting the strange and eclectic mix of foes, save for the fact that encounters never feel quite fair. Nearly every enemy will shoot on sight, and their reaction time will always be better than yours (especially since their sight sometimes includes some marginal off-screen distance). The best tactic I found was to slowly trudge around with my shields up, get shot at, retreat, and then fire charged shots in that direction.
It’s a painfully slow strategy, but it also helps avoid dying. The game relies on discretely placed save points instead of autosaves and checkpoints, so when you die, you get thrown back to your last save. You then usually have to spend seven or so minutes fighting (or fleeing) your way back to where you were before. It can hit the brakes on whatever momentum you had pretty hard.
The upgrade system, however, is pretty cool. You collect these little Nano Batteries littered about the world and spend them on one of three categories: utility, offense, and defense. Each upgrade actually seems meaningful and drastically changed how I played. At first, I wanted to get super into machine guns and tank it up, but as I realized I spent a lot of my time with my shields up, I invested in the ability to reflect projectiles, and then lowered my energy consumption. It was satisfying seeing my decisions make a real impact.
One of the superficial highlights is the art of the game, which is by and large fantastic. You’re not getting super high fidelity 3D graphics, but you are getting a very recognizable, personal style that animates fluidly and charismatically. And while the sound effects can get a bit grating after a while, the peppy bit tunes were kind of catchy.
The wrapper, however, is not the problem with The Sun at Night. In fact, it’s hard to say there is any particular problem, just some not insignificant misses. It asks you to look past a lot of these and find its better qualities, which it does have. But if at any point you can’t nod along, you go from playing the game to enduring it. All the good stuff has a lot of digging to get to the top.
+ A surprisingly substantial backstory holds up the game’s proceedings
+ Laika moves with a swiftness and accuracy that can’t be ignored
+ The upgrade system has a meaningful impact on the combat
– Fighting enemies is actually more like constantly getting ambushed by enemies
– Navigating the world can be a nightmare
Final Score: 6 out of 10
Game Review: The Sun at Night
Release: February 4, 2014
Developer: Minicore Studios
Available Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux