Baldr Sky Zero is an entirely different animal from Baldr Sky Dive. I say this as a warning for those who are looking for a complete duplicate of the experience. Baldr Sky Dive was very much like a post-apocalypse apocalypse story in some ways, with a bunch of revenge thrown in. There is much to recommend to both duologies but they are fundamentally different in some ways.
This review is of the first half of the Zero duology, which covers the Sakura, Kei, and Fran paths. I chose to review it separately because the time between each game’s release was enough to make some differences to the experiences between the two games… enough to require me to feel a need to separate them into two different reviews.
This path focuses on amnesiac Edward, a Simulcram pilot who is discovered in a corporate virtual space by the members of Squall, the SAS (Southeast Asian Sector) branch of Fenrir. He is ‘rescued’ (he mostly rescues himself) and brought back to the base, where – after some ‘interesting’ events – he joins Squall, which is probably one of the more interesting mercenary teams I’ve seen in a VN or anime.
A few notes on the setting. This story is based a few years before the events of Sky Dive (which is why it is called Zero). The path that most fans believe to be canon to Sky Dive is Sakura’s (for reasons that become obvious during the last part of the path), and the rest of the paths are essentially parallel world paths similar to how Dive treated the non-true paths.
The SAS is a different animal from the city Dive is based in. Unlike that city, people spend far less time in virtual space in the SAS, due to a psychological phenomenon that causes homicidal paranoia in those who spend too much time confined there called Black Dog. The SAS is in a constant state of low-level warfare, with people being born and dying at an exponentially faster rate than the rest of the world.
The setting itself is in many ways far more brutal and cruel than the one you see in Sky. In the SAS, human experimentation is as common as soylent green, the body parts of debtors are sold on the open market (often by the debtor themselves before they are killed), and children are produced in lots to be trained as soldiers. Every newborn child has a chip similar to Kou’s in Dive, and the sheer rate of death has resulted in a far higher aptitude for Simulcram piloting than in the outside world.
Squall, in this harsh setting, is a rare small elite unit… of what would seem to be complete psychopaths if you didn’t have a constant window into their daily lives and personalities. Squall has a horrible reputation for blackmail, extortion, and general carnage, but their abilities make them too valuable to be disposed of. As one character puts it, ‘The people in Squall seem perfectly normal, but once they get on the battlefield, they laugh and joke as they spread slaughter and carnage.’ To members of Squall, even more than to the average citizen of the SAS, war is just a daily activity, and killing not something to get concerned about to any significant degree.
In just the common route, Edward likely kills more people than Kou does in both Dive games combined.
However, outside of battle or preparation for such, the character interactions in this game are often humorous, regardless of the subject of conversation. Edward has very little impulse control beyond a certain point, Sakura has a serious potty mouth and a gambling addiction (really, all of them are gambling addicts), Kei is constantly eating, Merrill has no common sense, Reena is constantly ragging on the Commander about his brothel bills, Dmitri is a sadist who never loses at gambling and uses invisible floating turrets to get his point across, and the Commander is a whimsical bastard who loves war, women, and alcohol far too much.
In other words, this cast of characters, and the atmosphere of the game in general, will be something of a shock to anyone coming straight from Dive or expecting a similar experience.
Moreover, the shift to polygon-based 3D graphics for the combat makes the gameplay a significantly different experience. The gameplay is somewhat less fluid and streamlined than the traditional Baldr battle system, and the Giga team obviously didn’t have the programming talent at the time to really handle Unity (which means save frequently and expect random crashes even with the last game update).
Kei... is on the surface a stubborn genkikko with an excessive fondness for food in a world that has a serious dearth of good cooking (though Riina can make soylent green palatable through nanomachine reprogramming). However, underneath that somewhat fluffy exterior is a will of iron and a typically-SAS pragmatic attitude toward the mercenary life of risking her life and killing people on a daily basis for money. I mention the latter because, while all the characters share this attitude to one degree or another, it is an unexpected element to her personality in particular, given the template she seems to fill at first glance.
Kei's route is, as should be obvious to anyone who reads through the initial encounter with her, a trip into her past with Edward (it is so blatantly obvious she knows him from the very beginning, so her efforts to obfuscate make no difference at all). It is pretty interesting and exciting, and it provides the most intimate view of what it is like to grow up as a normal child in the SAS (hint: It is horrifying even by the standards of a tin-pot dictatorship/banana republic). It is the route most often recommended to be played first, in part because of this fact. For most people who play this game, Kei is the least liked heroine, because she does better as a joke character and Merril's sidekick.
Sakura is... a surprisingly complicated girl. Your first impression of her is as a foul-mouthed wildcard who has no self-control and a horrible gambling habit (all true), but she is also surprisingly innocent about some things and sensitive about the others on her team in a way that is only rivaled by Riina, who fundamentally misses nothing.
Her path is focused on her own past and Church 22, a half-religious organization of virtual drug-addicted wounded and retired soldiers who constantly go on suicidal rampages throughout the SAS network. Let's just say that Church 22 is very much like a cult, and the Kool-aid is CGH (the virtual drug in question). It is also the canon link path to Sky Dive, for those who are interested.
Fran is Commander Goodman's daughter, an underdeveloped girl (the story calls her a loli, so she's a loli, lol) who has a tendency to take solo missions and act on her on recognizance more often than is probably wise. She is highly intelligent, but her social upbringing (in a mercenary organization that has a high rate of psychological cripples) has left her with a speech impediment when she is outside the spheres of warfare or hostile/semi-hostile interactions with her fellows.
This is the only path I'll mark for its romance, though Sakura's was interesting that way too. This path's romance is very much a seduction by Fran. She essentially wears Ed down (not emotionally, since he falls in love with her early on, but rather H-wise) over time through sheer persistence. It is fairly hilarious to watch, though this path may be the reason this game will never get brought over here.
This path is also about equal in length to the previous two combined (it adds an extra chapter and each chapter is around 25% longer). The reason for this is because the scale of what is going on is so much bigger than in the previous two paths. Elements of Sakura's plotline are included in this path, but those are incidental to what is going on, for the most part. Fran has a rather obvious grudge against Wotan and WALRUS, who are considered the most dangerous group in SAS's net wars (and that's saying a lot, considering how many threats exist). This path plows a really complicated path through the ins and outs of SAS politics, science, and history, and it has a great deal of potential for traumatizing the reader if they have a good imagination.
If it weren't for Fran's and Edward's relationship being so utterly hilarious, this path would be downright depressing. However, the comedic parts of this path serve to lighten the atmosphere just enough to strike a balance between it and the darker elements.
If you go into this game thinking to see a carbon-copy prequel to Baldr Sky Dive, then you really need to change how you are thinking. In reality, this is a drastically different story, though it is still a Baldr story at heart. Horror, humor, and warfare all in one package... so whether the reader likes it or not will depend mostly on how the reader takes in the content.
Short Guide to text-hooking Baldr Sky Zero
I'm just going to come out and say it... all games that use mono or its successor Unity (VNs, that is) have text-hooking problems, for those of you who can't wait for translations but don't quite have the skill or the patience to read the kanji or just want the furigana for reference. Pretty much your only real options are Textractor and VNR (ITHVNR no longer being workable on Windows 10). The h-code up on the h-code wiki is a fake, so don't bother.
Textractor is my recommendation for this game. VNR doesn't reliably pick up the threads that have the text in them, and it has a tendency to cause freezes, because you can't delete the excess threads that VNR continually detects, causing freezes, load problems, and general annoyance all around. It makes the game almost unplayable.
Here is the guide to hooking this with Textractor without making it crash.
1. Start Baldr Sky Zero and either start a new game or load an existing one that is in the middle of a story portion.
2. Start Textractor (whether you have already hooked this game before or not, you have to do it this way or the game will crash before you can do the next few steps)
3. Hook the game then proceed one line forward in the text. Do NOT click like crazy to try to get it to work. Click once, then leave it alone until it proceeds.
4. As soon as it has proceeded to the next line, go back to textractor and click on 'remove hook'.
5. Look through the drop down list of threads until you find ones that seem to contain most or all the text.
6. Delete ALL hooks (by double-clicking on them) that don't contain the text in question.
7. Close the remove hook box.
8. Open it again after proceeding at least once more through the text, then repeat the process on any excess hooks that might have popped up.
9. Generally speaking, the textractor thread-linking function is unreliable with mono/unity games, so you'll probably have to deal with a few cut-off symbols in the thread that contains all lines (in my experience, it usually cut off the last one to three symbols, varying upon the line).
10. Configure game does not work properly with this game, so don't use it.