I am blessed in that when I first step into the world of Visual Novels, masterpieces can be found by the bulks with great new entries refreshing my interest for a minimum of 4 years. Fate/Stay Night, Fate/Hollow Ataraxia, Muv Luv Alternative, Narcissu, Clannad, Sengoku Rance, Majikoi, Ever 17 - The Out of Infinity, Mahou Tsukai no Yoru (Magician’s Night), so on and so on... These are the Visual Novels that kept me company during my university years, and I did not regret a single second of them.
Now I would like to talk about Baldr Sky Dive. Now I would like to talk about the greatest Visual Novel I’ve ever played in my life.
[I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum for those who might be interested after reading this blog post, but be warned!]
The Theme and Setting
Baldr Sky Dive is a 2D Action RPG, Virtual Reality/Mecha themed Visual Novel narrating the story of Kou, a rogue mercenary in a futuristic world hunting after his girlfriend’s (and hometown) killer for revenge while investigating the tragic genocide of an entire city called ‘Grey Christmas’.
So right off the bat Baldr Sky Dive offers an interesting, if not very popular theme among men. Indeed Baldr Sky Dive is not even the first of its series, but a spiritual successor featuring the same theme such as Baldr Force and Baldr Bullet, so they are certainly not unfamiliar with it. However, while both Baldr Force and Baldr Bullet have received a certain degree of success, they certainly aren’t stellar as compared to classics such as Demonbane or (as a matter of course) Muv Luv Alternative, which did not even feature gameplay.
So how is Baldr Sky Dive going to compete with these behemoths that stand tall even to this day as some of the best Mecha-themed Visual Novels to ever exist?
Let’s talk a bit about the setting. Baldr Sky Dive stayed faithful to its series’ theme. The setting is at a futuristic world where diminishing resources, worsening pollution, overpopulation and many wars ravaged the lands beyond recognition, and that the only natural environment people can find exist in exceedingly rare numbers (too many have never even seen a real tree in their whole lives) or Virtual Reality. Nano machinery is the norm of society, ranging from medical purposes for curing ailments and modifying the taste of food (and indeed the development of a new nano machines is what caused the Grey Christmas, but I’ll talk about that at the next blog post).
Another element that has taken over people’s lives is Virtual Reality. For most people Virtual Reality is their lives, and discarding the time where they have to physically eat, drink and excrete, most people spent their lives Diving into Virtual Reality to perform various tasks for a living, or just to escape the harsh reality before them. In fact, the latest generation of humans have microchips embedded into their brains the moment they are born. The benefits are massive: One, it allows them to stay connected to the Internet at all times. Two, they have a natural affinity to cyberspace and can perform any computer tasks far better than those without. Three, they have natural mastery of the Virtual Reality Combat Suit (THE mecha basically), Simulacram is second nature, and they can pilot them as easily as moving their own physical bodies. And lastly (I think... it has been a while), the often overlooked but also the most important is the ability to communicate with AI (Artificial Intelligence) at all times.
AI are separated into Biological AI (Such as ‘Mother’ or ‘Eve’, the AI of Seishuu Academy) and Machine AI (Baldr System). I probably won’t talk about this until much later, because it is an integral (and in many cases, very spoiler-ish) part of the entire setting. Just a note, but in game, the enemies you fight are either human piloted mechs called Simulacrum or mindless drones called Viruses.
But of course, conflict often rises when a new technology involves the modification of the human body, particularly when this modification gives the particular subset of humans a massive advantage over those who don’t. For obvious reasons the Second Generation have a massive advantage over the ones who don’t have microchips - enough to force thousands of people to live in slums, enough to create a very violent divide between the Pro-AI and the Anti-AI. The emergent of the extremely illegal artificial humans called Designer’s Child, researched by the Anti-AI to defy Pro-AIs only made it worse.
Both the gameplay and the story are absolutely critical in making this Visual Novel a masterpiece, and without one another this VN will either be a bore to go through (lacking a killer gameplay) or a tedious loop (lacking progress to make the simple 2D action loop ever-interesting).
However, I will talk about the Gameplay first because between the two, I realize that I can not replay the story and enjoy the gameplay (there is a demo I forget before Baldr Sky Dive 2 is released that I keep replaying for fun), but not vice versa (not to say that it’s bad in any sense; it’s just the same reason as not replaying Clannad because it’s freaking long).
As I’ve mentioned above, Baldr Sky Dive is a mecha-themed action RPG. You will be piloting a mecha in virtual reality called ‘Simulacrum’, equip various weapons and fight your way through Viruses, firewalls and other Simulacrums on a single map (you may transist to another map as the story progresses).
Perhaps this may sound a little boring to you at first glance. Bear with me. So first, you are start off with a variety of basic weapons like a handgun and beam sword to fight your way towards victory due to plot related reasons. You can equip up to 9 move sets and 2 ultimates. Additionally, you can test them out by selecting Training at the battle menu, or even the Equipment menu where you can change your weapons on the spot while moving your mecha around. As shown below:
Over the course of time you will accumulate credits to unlock various techs by maximizing proficiency over particular weapons, and you will grow stronger and stronger. The combo system is very interesting that, for every action/ultimate you do will generate heat that if not allowed to cool down will cause you to take massive damage or stop moving altogether. On the other hand, there are specific weapons and ultimates that consume these heat bars instead after you generate them, so your entire goal of combat is to find a way to manage heat and link these series of movesets to deal massive and continuous damage. In a sense, it is quite similar to fighting games such as Street Fighter. It takes some time and learning, but eventually you will be doing something like this:
Still, what is an action game without a boss to fight against? Let me count off my head and see: There’s the cowardly sniping bastard boss, there’s the in your face melee boss, there’s the dual wielding katana dodge master boss, and oooh let’s not forget the missile-everywhere-general, the hurt-like-hell artillery mountain, invisible boss, laser girl, split body boss, the all-in-one boss... And did I mention that there is a DUAL CHAINSAW WIELDING MAD RELIGIOUS MUSTACHE FATHER!? FAHAHAHA I LOVE that dude. Unfortunately I can’t find a combat footage of him, but below’s a boss fight for your eye candy:
Here’s the thing. You are able to carry over your credits and your techs on the next playthrough, so Kou Kadakura is just going to be more and more powerful with each run. You may think that the game balance can become extremely broken due to this function, or that there may not be enough enemy variety to keep things interesting, but I can tell you that is absolutely not true. There are enough depth to make you REGRET YOUR WHOLE LIFE for say, just sticking to unlocking ranged weapons, because some enemies have such high shields or surprise attacks that the only way to beat them safely is to kill them first ASAP. This game is ALWAYS challenging, even when you’re cheating by borrowing someone else’s fully unlocked save file (*whistles*).
There are 5 difficulty setting ranging from Very Easy to Very Hard/Insane, and if you think you’re good enough to beat the game at very Hard, I have to sadly inform you a very realistic NO WAY IN HELL (most of the time, but seriously, it’s no bloody joke). Normal Mode is hard enough (unsurprisingly, the hordes of mobs coming by the waves are the hardest to deal with) that sometimes I have to switch to Very Easy. Speaking of which, you are free to switch difficulty at any time if you find a certain level too hard for your amateur (pathetic) skills, which is great!
Below is an example of some mad players displaying some mad skillz:
By now there may be people who understand my addiction to this game. The controls are responsive, the enemies are great, the ultimates (well, some of them) are freaking badass and dashing and weaving between bullets and missiles before sending satelite lasers to burn the enemies to death while kungfu chaining the boss TO THE SKY AND BEYOND is so, SO AWESOME that I just want to drop this blog and replay it again RIGHT NOW I’M RUSTY GOD DAMMIT I NEED TO KILL THE FINAL BOSS AGAIN. The core gameplay of Baldr Sky Dive is freaking epic. When you have a single player game which gameplay can loop over thousands, or even TENS of thousands of battles against AI and STILL feel like you had to get more of it, you KNOW you’ve hit jackpot.
But that’s not all. Baldr Sky Dive features one of the best core gameplay loops I’ve ever played, but it is also intricately tied to the plot and actually AFFECTS it. For example, people usually try to achieve an achievement such as ‘clearing Stage X in X amount of time’ for no other benefit other than their own satisfaction. However, Baldr Sky Dive makes that a core condition, in addition to the choices you’ve selected throughout the story, to unlocking different cutscenes and endings of the route!
For example (Spoiler warning... ended!). At a crucial turning point, Rain Kirishima is captured by Kou’s nemesis and ‘tortured’ (this is a 18+ game you know~) for information. Kou has no choice but to fight through hordes of enemies to reach her, but here is the catch: If you do not defeat all the enemies within 1:30 minutes and save Rain, there will be a cutscene showing that the torture has ah, progressed further. By now you can NO LONGER UNLOCK THE GOOD END, which is a critical component in unlocking the next Arc of the story. Even if you manage to save Rain within 2:30 minutes, you will only get the Normal End. BUT. If you fail to save her even after 2:30 minutes, then you get ANOTHER cutscene (nope no actual NTR has happened to Rain, although the other routes will BEG to differ if you fail) then you have just defaulted into the Bad End. This little feature may not seem like much, but it absolutely spices up the battle and induce great excitement (not uh, that kind of excitement) from the players.
Unfortunately this is only one of the two conditions (the other one is whether you win or lose against a certain boss) that exists in the game and the map is non-interactable, but honestly I feel this is exactly enough to keep the gameplay fresh. Having too many interactables may affect a person’s immersion of the core game loop, which is also why there are only few critical turning points so that the player isn’t stressed out all the time about clearing all enemies within a set amount of time. All in all I find the gameplay of Baldr Sky Dive seriously attractive.
This is the end of Part 1. Part 2 will be posted next week. If you’re interested, please leave a comment below!