Review: The Sun at Night

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With the constant churn of mobile games and the barrage of in your face first-person shooters, it is refreshing to take a step back and play a side-scrolling mashup that feels retro, yet has plenty of modern game design hooks. Not merely content being a Metroidvania throwback, The Sun at Night mixes a deep skill tree and twin-stick action with a dark conspiracy laden alternate history take on the world if the USSR had come out on top during World War II. Humanity now rests in the paws of a futuristic cyborg canine named Laika, the Soviet space dog, who falls from space with no memory or understanding of how she got the way she is.

Minicore Studios starts the game off gently with a basic introduction of how to navigate around the levels, while slowly introducing how the world has become a tattered wasteland with pockets of resistance groups trying to stop a powerful Soviet government from spreading Communism and imposing ethically questionable scientific advances on the rest of the world. Each stage of the game is presented as a simple 2D image, but as the world is explored, doorways or pathways allow travel in a three-dimensional space. A map can be brought up which represents each section of a room as a flat plane in the map space. Depending on the task Laika is given, the sections of the map will appear in yellow to help guide players in a specific direction to complete the task at hand.

Along the way, enemies and environmental challenges provide plenty of conflict. In addition to the blaster that is mounted to Laika’s body, other weapons can be collected, including a laser beam, machine gun, shotgun, rocket launcher, and lighting gun, which all allow Laika to take different combat approaches depending on the type of enemy.  The skill tree I alluded to above also adds to the strength of the weapons. Nano batteries can be collected through exploration of each stage and are the currency which is used to upgrade the various skill options. For example upgrading the laser adds additional beams to the blast and enables beams to shoot through multiple enemies at one time. Another invaluable upgrade is the flying companion bot. The bot takes damage before Laika’s shields do and upon further upgrades, the bot gains a shield and a weapon as well.

In addition to the Nano batteries, enemies will drop raw Nano particles which Laika can use to fabricate ammo for the various weapons or build health kits. Conversely, ammo can also be reduced to raw Nano particles, a feature I found especially handy toward the latter stages of the game when I would run out of ammo with one weapon, but could reduce ammo from a rarely used weapon to Nano particles so that I could then make more ammo for a weapon I did use.

Laika’s travels through The Sun at Night take her from what seems like a typical Soviet prison camp, through retched animal science testing facilities, catacombs and underground caves, an abandoned mansion and ultimately a massive underwater fortress-like submarine. The size and scope of each section is amazing. What starts out as a minimal structure inevitably branches into a massive network of hallways, tunnels, elevators and chambers. During the progress of a section Laika may have one goal, but as the environment is explored side missions become available. Often these side missions enhance the overall story, but aren’t detrimental to the experience if not pursued. Like a lot of Metroidvania games, the only downside with taking on side missions is the potential amount of backtracking that then is presented. When one side mission is completed a chance to follow up often leads Laika back across to the other side of the map. If ever there was a need for a fast travel, it’s here.

One thing I wish the game handled better was the save system. Obviously letting players save at any and all points would remove any risk-reward inherent to the game; however, the only way to save is to find a point which is designated as such or hack an info terminal which can then be used as either a save point, a cache of Nano particles, or to potentially reveal unexplored parts of the map. The problem is that the save points aren’t evenly spaced, and if Laika dies far enough away from the last save point there is a chance of having to replay a large chunk of an area.

The Sun at Night is a complex title that has plenty of lore that is worth fetching. All lore is presented through short passages found in journals or computer terminals, or with minimal interactions with a rebel base. There is a good balance of action and reading. Dark humor is found in most of the journals and at the same a profound sadness is woven into this “what if..?” adventure. Hinted at mostly, humanity is at its worst prior to the events of the game, but spending time in each section there is still a sense that good will overcome the bad.

An engrossing first entry in a planned trilogy known as ‘The Stray Series,’ The Sun at Night demands attention from anyone with an interest in exploration, action and a deep story. Minicore Studios has put together a deeply compelling game that breeds old-school platforming with a varied skill tree and a fascinating tale of alternate history. After spending a good fifteen plus hours with this debut chapter, I can’t wait to see what is in store for Laika in the second and third installments.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Deep level exploration
+ Fun, challenging combat
+ Varied skill tree

Cons:
– No fast travel option
– Save points aren’t evenly spaced

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Minicore Studios
Developer: Minicore Studios
Release Date: 2/4/2014
Genre: 2D action platformer
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by developer

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.