By Alec Meer on August 7th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
The Sun At Night is an action platformer with a touch of Metroidvania to it, starring Laika, the first dog in space. Who now talks, fires guns and cheekily reads people’s letters. It’s out now, developed by Minicore Studios.
Double-jumping robo-dog with a spine-mounted deathray and commentary on the horrors of war? The Sun at Night aims nowhere if not high.
It is, unfortunately, often annoying in practice, with its ill-placed save points, its awkward aiming and most especially in its over-long and over-similar environments, but I warmed to it regardless. It wants to do so much. It wants to be lighter-of-touch BioShock with copious 2D platforming and starring a big-hearted laser-hound. It gets some of the way there.
It is not, in other words, more than the sum of its parts, but I am impressed by just how many parts it has. Riffing on the concept of Laika, the first dog in space (recently homaged in Guardians of the Galaxy, coincidentally), it also explores an alt-history of Soviet politics and space-racing alongside having you battle mecha-pigs and cyber-bears.
While I admire how much effort it’s put into sketching smaller details – letters from soldiers, nuggets of info about how people are affected by war, dark science and strange creatures alike – the strongest aspect of The Sun At Night is probably the upgrade tree. Using Nano-themed experience pickups collected along the way, you can tailor Laiki into a more nimble beast with rocket-paws and wall jumping, a more deadly bullet-spewer, a heavily-armoured and element-resistant bullet sponge, or a bit of all three.
Despite having a thick veneer of Metroidvania, The Sun At Night is refreshingly non-prescriptive about which abilities you need and when. More movement abilities will, in theory, keep you from harm as much as weapon boosts. Be the dog you want to be! No-one’s stopping you! Apart from all those dudes (and pigs) (and bears) with big guns, of course.
Speaking of the Metroidvania aspect, where The Sun At Night most goes into darkness is that it resolutely fails to make exploration enjoyable. Instead, it’s a headache, traipising back and forth through sprawling areas that look the same and lack strong visual identifiers to help you learn and recognise routes you’ll need to bound through several times over.
There’s a 3D map view that’s meant to aid navigation, but it’s about as helpful as a hole in the head. The other option, buried in settings, is to turn on a navigation arrow that will show you which of several dozen grey doors you’re supposed to go through next, but this then rips all sense of exploration out and turns The Sun At Night into a perfunctory sprint. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
The best reason to push on – with or without arrow – is to see what downplayed strangeness you’ll run into next. Giant creatures, giant robotic creatures, abstract death trap rooms and assorted secrets and letters. It’s a well-sketched world, rich with care and oddity, even if the overarching earnestness did keep me at arm’s length to some degree.
This is always an awful thing to say about a game clearly made on a low budget, where it’s the team’s dedication and ingenuity rather than marketing mega-bucks that have brought it into being, but I will don the cold, cruel spectacles of Buying Advice and say it anyway. An extra layer of gloss and testing, more art spend, a careful scalpel taken to over-long dialogue sections, more care on checkpoint placement – some or all of these things would have elevated The Sun At Night from merely admirable and into excellence.
While this doesn’t quite hit the mark, it’s clearly made by people with heads full of ideas. I have little doubt they’ll do something very good with ‘em before too long. Perhaps even – hopefully, even – with planned sequel The Sky Below, whose promised features do seem to address every complaint I’ve just levelled at the first game. Way ahead of me, eh?.