Expecting the start to another peaceful day at his dormitory, Lieutenant Kou Kadokura instead wakes up to the sound of gunfire in the battlefield. His trusted partner had dragged him to safety after being caught in an explosion. But Kou can’t remember his partner’s name; in fact, he can’t even remember what he had been doing until now – in his mind, he had been living out his high school days in peace.
So begins Baldr Sky, Giga TEAM BALDRHEAD’s 2009 entry into their series of action games known as the Baldr Series. Taking place far into the future, where humanity’s nations had united, technology has advanced to the point where humans can be connected through the internet 24/7. But peace remains elusive – though the unification of nations has stopped worldwide conflicts, civil wars, strife, and general discontent remain rampant. Wars no longer take place in the real world, but in the virtual world, fought through machines known as shumicram (シュミクラム).
After being woken up in the battlefield, Kou begins to gather fragments of his missing memories, at one point finally remembering the reason why he became a soldier. On the 24th of December, a leakage of dangerous nanomachines known as the Assembler pollutes an area near his hometown, killing Sora Minazuki – one of Kou’s most important friends (though he can’t quite remember just how precious she is to him). To prevent further damage, the orbital weapon known as Gungnir activates, roasting the city off the map.
Baldr Sky Dive 1 is Kou’s search for the truth behind the incident known as the Grey Christmas.
A summary of Baldr Sky can’t do justice to the exquisite detail behind its setting. I can’t say I’m well-read on cyberpunk novels, but I’m told that Baldr Sky makes a lot of references to several cyberpunk novels, such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Even if you don’t put in the effort to look up all the references, Baldr Sky also refers to a lot of concepts in artificial intelligence theory – such as the Chinese room experiment, qualia, and the philosophical zombie – in a way that ties deeply into the questions Kou – and by extension, the reader – encounters. Artificial intelligence (AI) is a very important concept that pervades Baldr Sky’s world; within the story, the world’s citizens are divided between those who accept or reject the presence of AI in their daily lives. For the reader, much of the mystery revolves around the observer AI known as the “Agent”, the AI who is almost definitely connected to Sora in some way. Looking up all of these concepts is not required, but it definitely adds to the reading experience.
Dive 1 consists of Rain’s, Nanoha’s, and Chinatsu’s routes. Yes, you have to go through them in that order. Baldr Sky’s setting appears to be something like a time loop where Kou retains a few bits of information, but not all of them. I’ll get to that later as I discuss the routes in more detail.
Rain’s route is the introductory route to Baldr Sky. Part of Dive 1 is Kou piecing together his past, as well as his goals for the present. Kou having lost his memories serves two purposes: first, to establish conflict between his state of mind and his current situation, and second, for the reader’s train of thought to match Kou’s state of mind as both he and the reader try to piece together the mysteries behind Baldr Sky’s setting. Both of these aspects are very prominent in Rain’s route – bit by bit, details behind the setting unfold before Kou and the reader. Rain’s route reveals the general situation of the setting: the decaying public order of Suzushiro City, the opposition between the pro- and anti-AI factions, the political and economic situation of the real and virtual worlds, and introducing what seems to be the primary antagonists of the setting: the AI-worshipping cult known as Dominion and their leader: Fr. Gregory. Though that seems to be a lot to swallow, it’s introduced bit by bit without too much expository dialogue – abiding to the ever-useful principle of “show, don’t tell”.
While the setting details are competently-handled in Rain’s route, I can’t say the same for Rain’s character. Being the business-like soldier that she is, Rain’s characterization goes in completely predictable directions – by which I mean she becomes a complete effeminate stereotype craving Kou’s manly protection. The romance in Rain’s route is boring and uninspired, which is even more frustrating because Rain is cool, and even funny, outside of her own route.
As I mentioned earlier, Kou appears to retain some of the information that he obtained in Rain’s route upon entering Nanoha’s route. With all the setting details and character-establishing out of the way, Nanoha’s route is free to go into the mysteries raised by Rain’s route. In particular, Nanoha’s route goes deeper into what Kou’s old friends have been doing after the Grey Christmas. Without going into too much detail, Nanoha’s route also answers – or perhaps just teases the answers – to the causes of the Grey Christmas, and the culprit(s) behind its occurrence. Finally, Nanoha’s route also gives the first inklings that there’s a lot mystery to the setting than simply “find out what happened during the Grey Christmas”.
Nanoha, unlike her namesake the White Devil, is not an action heroine. In fact, her defining character trait is that she’s a crybaby who’s always waiting for Kou. Despite sharing a lot of traits with the stereotypical childhood friend heroine, she’s also not a complete caricature of the childhood friend heroine. She has dreams, motivations and worries outside of getting banged by Kou – Nanoha hides a lot of secrets and bears more than a few hints of self-hatred. While she’s still not a super-compelling character, Nanoha hides some depth underneath that stereotypical childhood friend exterior, which is not ruined once she enters into a romance with Kou.
Chinatsu’s route is noticeably more action-packed than Rain’s or Nanoha’s routes. Kou’s father and his unit, Fenrir, start to become more involved in the plot. Things begin to diverge significantly from Rain’s and Nanoha’s routes; the opposing organizations start to take center stage, and their goals become more or less divulged in this route. Chinatsu’s route starts out solid, maintaining a strong dynamic between Kou, Rain and Fenrir, with its highlight in chapter 10 and 11 when Rain and Chinatsu hit it off surprisingly well – and by surprisingly well, I mean drunk shenanigans in Midspire. Things start to go to shit when Kou makes the dumbest out-of-character decisions towards the end of chapter 12, in addition to the pacing becoming too fast for comfort – so many questions are thrown at the reader with no answer in sight. The good ending has the shittiest final boss and an ending that will make you think that the author ran out of ideas at that point. In short, Chinatsu’s route is a disappointment, especially considering that it actually started out decently.
Chinatsu herself isn’t that much better as a character. It’s very difficult to talk about her without spoiling the whole of Chinatsu’s route. It’s probably enough to say that she’s an interesting idea for a heroine, but in the end, the shitty writing in her route didn’t do her any favors, and her character concept is a letdown.
As for the rest of the heroines, I’ll refrain from talking about them because there’s very little that can be said about them in Dive 1 – Makoto and Sora in particular. Aki, however, is a fun character, and a few people have said that her route salvages the train wreck that was Chinatsu’s route.
Baldr Sky’s gameplay is a mix of fighting game and beat ‘em up mechanics. In the virtual world, Kou fights in his shumicram, facing off against viruses and enemy pilots. The mecha’s equipment is customizable, allowing the player to mix and match the right moves and execute combos against enemies. The difficulty level is left up to the player – although there’s no skip function for battles (because some story dialogue actually occurs during combat), the player can opt to play on Very Easy to breeze through the combat sequences. But I think that’s a bad idea; Baldr Sky does a very good job of integrating the gameplay experience into the plot, often adding much-needed tension to the military tactics executed by Baldr Sky’s factions.
Baldr Sky’s interface has a lot of effort put into it – as the game progresses, the player is able to unlock neat interface décor such as different menu backgrounds, system voices, and chibi. Perhaps the most interesting things about Baldr Sky‘s interface are the built-in Scenario Chart – which displays the layout of the chapters and scripts the player has unlocked, as well as the way to unlock them – and the character relations chart unlocked at the end of Dive 1, which is a quick reference summarizing the factions to which each character belongs, as well as some neat character profiles.
Seiji Kikuchi (Baldr Force, Mayo Chiki!) is in charge of Baldr Sky’s character designs. To be frank, his designs make the characters look like they’re suffering from anorexia. The character designs are also not very indicative of the proportions indicated in the character profiles, and the poses the characters make for their sprites – especially Gilbert’s – range from odd to downright hilarious. Your mileage will, of course, vary, but it does add some camp and personality to some scenes.
Baldr Sky’s music is a collaboration between different music producers such as SHIM from TGZ Sounds, I’ve Sound, and Barbarian on the Groove. The opening theme of Baldr Sky Dive 1 is Restoration ~沈黙の空 by KOTOKO, an electro-pop theme that I would say fits the atmosphere of Dive 1. If you play Dive 1 through the Dive 2 install (which you should), the opening theme is instead Jihad – still by KOTOKO – which goes for a different, more “grand”-sounding direction which perhaps reflects the tone of Dive 2 better. Baldr Sky’s OST contains a surprising variety of music, ranging from the calm piano tone of 陽だまりの小部屋, to the eerie pipe organs of Pilgrim’s Blindness, to pumping battle music such as Run Through the Sky. Out of Baldr Sky’s 70-odd tracks, there is at least one song which fits the atmosphere of whatever event is happening on-screen.
Baldr Sky Dive 1 ends on a weak note with Chinatsu’s ending – bringing up so many questions which don’t have an immediate answer. This isn’t much of a problem when playing the Dive 2 version, since it’s possible to jump to Aki’s route immediately after clearing Chinatsu’s endings, but I’m sure it must have been frustrating to wait six months for the sequel. Dive 1 is only half of the story – while it’s a nice, fast-paced read on its own, it does not pretend that it’s nothing more than set-up for what’s to come in Dive 2. And I am very much looking forward to what Dive 2 has to offer. Dive 1 might just be set-up, but it’s very entertaining set-up for Baldr Sky’s plot.