Sunrise (Lucky Sun Scribes) is a piece in Ren’Py, a platform designed for visual novels. VNs are a medium traditionally reliant on a lot of anime-style semi-static art (often of very high-polish quality). Sunrise instead opts for a blend of 3D models and WPA-poster backgrounds, unified by digital painting. It’s professionally-executed, although I found the mannerisms of visual novel a little jarring when transferred into a different art style.
As the forgoing makes pretty clear, this is full-on, unapologetic romance-novel material, which means that it’s very much not mailed to my address. (I enjoy romancey material in the right context, which is generally ‘when the story has substantial concerns other than the romance.’ So with Bujold, say, I am very into Paladin of Souls and the Cordelia’s Honor pair, and also the Memory-Komarr-A Civil Campaign sequence, largely because while romance is important to the characters, they have major narrative concerns that can and do trump romance, which means that when obstacles to romance appear they have real weight.)
There’s not a lot of room here for subtle characterisation: Romantic Option 1, Shiye, is a Sweet Guy, while his brother Abel is a conspicuously manipulative, abusive jerk.
The game clearly wants us to be guiltily into Abel in a romance-novel Bad Boy dominant/submissive manner: Sofia gasps and trembles a lot, while Abel is menacing, patronising, physically abusive and possessive while wearing a nice suit. Again, this is not my brand of smut-adjacent* fantasy at all, so I am not best-qualified to judge its efficacy.
However: from where I was standing, Abel was wholly unattractive, his evil ending entirely unsurprising, and Sofia’s doubts about whether she really loves Shiye did not convince at all. (If someone visibly doted on me to the extent that Shiye does on Sofia, and I wasn’t into them, my reaction would be ‘oy, this is really awkward and clingy’, not ‘he holds me like he never wants to let me go.’) There’s some attempt to make Abel feel a bit less vile by giving him an adopted child, James, with whom he appears to have something approaching a functional relationship; but this felt a bit tacked-on. There are a number of other problematic romance-novel tropes in here – Sofia is “special”, Shiye implicitly understands her just by looking at her eyes.
While the filling is romance-novel, the structure’s conventions are all visual novel: relatively long intervals of clicking through text before you get to a choice, lots of repeated content common to every playthrough, illustration that’s symbolic puppet-theatre rather than literal depiction, lengthy internal monologues from an indecisive protagonist, and a fondness for the terminal ellipsis. As with, say, SilkWords‘ output, it’s straightforward to get the story you want, although Act II does have some choices that look a little bit more like challenge. “All fairy tales are supposed to have a happy ending… This is not that kind of story,” declares the opening page. (But then I did get a fairytale ending, first try.)
It’s clear that a pretty expansive, high-concept setting was envisaged for this – dieselpunk monarchy in the North American Southwest with magic and social upheaval – but it feels as though this wasn’t given enough space. The media-res opening – these are characters with a certain amount of history – fills in some of this, but this exposition is mostly concerned with personal histories, with the world getting a look-in at the edges. That’s okay in itself, but I got the impression that the author had bigger aspirations for the world. For instance, Shiye wants to replace the monarchy with some kind of democracy (for some reason this is signaled because he’s reading The Republic, which, uh, is among the least democratic utopias ever) – but without seeing very much of the world outside the palace, it’s hard to see this as being more than an ornament of his idealistic-nice-guy status.
Oh. Right. Yes. In Act II, Sofia gets magically cursed into an owl in a little cape, which makes for some amusing/cute expressions. (She’s much more expressive as an owl.) Clearly this is horning in on the infinitely fertile avian/human romance territory pioneered by Hatoful Boyfriend. It also gives her an opportunity to spy on the brothers (which reveals them to be pretty much exactly how they appeared to be in the first place.) This kind of Howl’s Moving Castle/Ring of Gyges setup can be pretty fruitful, but only if it allows your perspective character to understand things which would not have been apparent otherwise.
Overall, this has a lot of polish going for it, but I think that it doesn’t allow itself enough narrative space to fully take advantage of all the elements it introduces. Personally, I would be much more invested in the characters if they were allowed to grow out of their romance-novel niches a bit more, but that may be outside the scope of the author’s intent.
* This is very much the kind of romance story that suggests sexual dynamics without ever going beyond kissing; it’s mentioned that Abel wanted to Take Inappropriate Liberties when Sofia was dating him, but if you want to imagine that as fully-clothed light petting you are perfectly free to do so. Shiye, as a Nice Boy, is earnestly clean-minded.
On the Graphic Violence front, one plotline does involve an off-screen murder; it’s not depicted or described in any great detail, but there’s some blood afterwards. I wouldn’t really describe it as graphic, unless blood really bothers you. At any rate, I’d tag this for ‘abusive/controlling relationships’ waaay before I’d flag it for sex and violence.