The Sun at Night review: Bark in the USSR

Garrett Martin
G. Martin|02.07.14

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Garrett Martin
February 7th, 2014
The Sun at Night review: Bark in the USSR
The Sun at Night raises many questions. Is it moral to experiment on animals? Is communism practical, or will it always lead to corruption? How viable are old-school, indie side-scrollers in 2014, several years into the retro nostalgia indie revival? Can we accept a cybernetic space dog as the lead character in a game that is otherwise dreadfully serious?

The Sun at Night turns the real life story of Laika the Russian space dog into a rote run-and-gunner. Laika's one-way trip to space in 1957 was a show of force for the Soviet space program, and either a depressing abdication of man's responsibility to animals or an inspiring step forward for science, depending on how you feel about murdering a dog for nebulous reasons and minimal scientific gain. The game speculates an alternate history in which Laika survives, returns to Earth with a robot suit and the ability to speak, and becomes an ersatz Samus Aran.

It's not quite a true heir to Metroid – there is much back-tracking through twisting tendrils of shafts and corridors, and there are many upgrades to acquire, but the game's divided into a handful of discrete levels that don't connect to one another. Still, like Metroid, it's a sprawling adventure with re-traversal elements, and you'll spend most of the game running toward the blinking spot on your map, juggling between your guns and an invaluable shield in order to survive the Russian attack.Laika's survival isn't The Sun at Night's only deviation from history. America's been utterly destroyed, the Soviet Union is a technological powerhouse guided by a devotion to science unbound by morality, and a small group of multinational rebels are engaged in guerilla war with the world's only superpower. This is the world Laika returns to, quickly siding with the rebels against the Soviets that created her.

It's a sci-fi setting rife with possibility, and as the first installment in a planned series, The Sun at Night devotes much of its narrative energy to building this world. That's largely accomplished through a mountain of diaries, journals and stray notes scattered throughout the levels. They're well-written for the most part, and add depth and color to the themes, but if you find lore collection tedious, take comfort in knowing that most of The Sun at Night's journals are optional.

The Sun at Night starts with Laika crashing back to Earth. She awakes with her memory wiped and her body already encased in her cybernetic suit, outfitted with a weak shield that soaks up a small amount of damage and must be manually engaged by the player. She also sports a blaster with unlimited ammo that can be charged for a more powerful shot. Both shield and blaster can be significantly powered up throughout the campaign, and various other attacks can be discovered or unlocked, including five additional guns, a variety of grenades, a charging melee attack, and a floating orb that can either absorb damage or turn enemies against one another. Knowing when to attack and when to use the shield grows increasingly vital, especially since you can only do one at a time. This is all easier with a controller, but the mouse and keyboard will work fine for PC traditionalists.

Throughout The Sun at Night, you collect nano batteries that are used to enhance Laika's abilities. There are three spec trees, and you'll have to split nano batteries between offense, defense and an all-purpose utility designation that includes unlockable abilities like double jumping, power dashing and increased hacking skills. (Yes, you hack things, and in the long annals of boring and pointless hacking minigames, The Sun at Night's might top the list.) The upgrade system is extensive, and most power-ups have a tangible impact. Even minor upgrades like reducing the recoil of your machine gun or extending the length of your shield can reap immediate benefits.

These upgrades represent rare moments of concrete meaning in a game that often feels weightless and disjointed. Despite Laika's stress during the occasional dialogue scenes (which intentionally evoke Metal Gear's codec and Bionic Commando's communicators), there's little drama in the game itself. Bosses appear without build-up or foreshadowing. Some rooms will remain empty of enemies once cleared, others will randomly refill if you leave for even a second. In Metroid, it's a big deal when you acquire a new weapon – there's a bit of fanfare, the screen freezes and it's presented as an important step forward. In The Sun at Night, you'll pick up a new gun with as little emphasis as the dozens of health packs you acquire along the way.

Combat feels static and lightweight, in part because there are a few tricks you'll quickly grasp that can remove the challenge. There's a good variety of enemy types, but they all use the same basic weapons that are available to Laika, so there's not much variation in how you attack them. You're often able to shoot enemies that are just off screen and thus can't attack you, or even repeatedly shoot a soldier that's just barely on the edge of the screen without him seeming to notice. On the other hand, you'll occasionally enter a room only to have multiple enemies immediately attack you before you can respond, sometimes leading to an almost-instant death. That can be disastrous given that The Sun at Night relies on manual save points. (Seriously: The shield is your friend. Use it.)

The combat isn't just problematic – despite the many weapons at your disposal, it's too simplistic. Jumping over an enemy while shooting down at them will work in too many situations. The boss battles are uniform exercises in holding down a button while your laser does the killing. The bosses' patterns are easy to pick up and usually easy to evade. One boss charges forward in a straight line like he's an endless runner; another spirals around you in a room too large for the screen, taking damage from your shots even when he's not visible. The laser is a powerful weapon that fires continuously if you hold down the attack button, so you can just keep that laser burning while jumping or using the shield as necessary until the boss dies.

The narrative is far more ambitious than the action, but it sadly doesn't hold up well to close scrutiny. A game like The Sun at Night doesn't necessarily need themes. It could've reveled in its 16-bit nostalgia and the inherent ridiculousness of a cyborg space dog, but to its great credit it has loftier goals, focusing on the cruelty of animal testing. Early on, most enemies are Soviet soldiers or robots, but gradually The Sun at Night introduces man-made monstrosities that are part of a Soviet program that might have started with Laika. This lends a melancholy note to the combat when you first have to kill one of these animals, but you'll continue to destroy countless laser bears and shotgun tigers well past the point at which your compassion runs dry. And although science is brutal to those poor bears, Laika comes out ahead in the "what hath man wrought" sweepstakes – she wouldn't be so talkative and introspective, or as handy with a lightning gun, if the Russians hadn't shot her into space.

The Sun at Night also pays lip service to communist philosophy by portraying the rebel camp as a seemingly stable communal society, contrasting that with the bureaucratic Soviet system that deviated from communist ideals. None of these strands ever come together into a cohesive thread, though. Developer Minicore has commendable ambitions with its story, but the game pelts the player who takes the time to read every journal and note with so many ideas and asides that no clear thesis emerges. It's a smart game that poorly tells its story with a scattered shotgun blast instead of a pinpoint laser.

The Sun at Night is beautiful in a few ways. It's well-animated in a style that recalls handdrawn cartoons. The character designs of the animal-robot hybrids are striking – sad and sympathetic but also frightening and, somehow, still kind of cute. The electronic score regularly hits the emotional notes that elude the game design, from the sad yearning in the opening sequence to the frantic rush of sudden boss battles. Laika is the perfect character for its crucial themes of trust and responsibility, both a domesticated animal's trust in her master and mankind's responsibility to not mistreat the most innocent and trusting of Earth's creatures. But there's little power to the bland gameplay or awkward, convoluted story. Laika is a tragic figure whose real-life fate is depressing, but the Laika of The Sun at Night doesn't make me feel anything at all.

This review is based on review code of The Sun at Night, provided by Minicore Studios. Images: Minicore Studios.

Garrett Martin had a robot dog once. It could do backflips. He edits Paste Magazine's video game section and reviews games for the Boston Herald and other outlets. You can hear his blather at Twitter (@GRMartin) or at a variety of Atlanta-area bars.

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