So this post got way longer than I expected it to, probably because it's easier to explain something that is there than prove something is missing, especially in a VN of this length. It is the first post in what I hope will become a series where I want to discuss a couple of VNs and some their themes and how they are explored in more depth, especially ones I either have a strong emotional connection to or dislike despite them being highly regarded in the community. They are all going to contain spoilers for the games they cover, in this case Baldr Sky Dive 1&2. In this one there are a lot of footnotes where I try to explain plot points and so on well enough for someone who wants to read this review without knowing the game to be able follow what I'm talking about. In case you're just looking for my spoiler-free condensed opinion about this game, you can read the last paragraph.
At the time I finished the first route of Baldr Sky I thought it was a quite promising start. It was obvious a story of this scale would need a lot of exposition and the game handles it pretty well in always trying to tie every piece of information to a mystery waiting to be uncovered and the introduced concepts were interesting enough to be fun reading about them on their own. I wasn't to fond of the narrative choices regarding Rain's (the heroine of the route) character arc, because her family background seemed like a great starting point to explore several aspects of the setting and themes it implies (1). She grew up in the Midspire, a gated community for rich and influential people who are opposed to the organic AI (2) that controls many aspects of the outside world. Her father is a hardliner in that regard and the commander of an anti-AI military force of the world government. He has become estranged from Rain, who starts sympathizing with the pro-AI faction, and his wife, who slowly started to degrade mentally and finally joined an abusive cult called Dominion and died shortly after (3). Isn't this a fantastic set-up to simultaneously explore how certain parts of the society in this world function, discuss why the pro-AI and anti-AI faction hold their respective believes and establish an agenda for Rain that's at the same time complicated and relatable, making her a three-dimensional character? While there are two or three scenes and a little dialogue addressing each of these topics, the route focuses on how she has always been in love with the protagonist, made a promise to dedicate her life to him after Gray Christmas (4) and was friends with Sora, the true heroine who died back then. Her connection to the cult is only used to give her and the protagonist a reason to not run away before the final showdown. All of this robs her of an actual agenda beyond doing what the MC tells her, effectively turning her into a prop that talks exposition and provides military intelligence in the later routes (she becomes rivals with another heroine later on, but that is more of a small subplot rather than something that adds actual substance).
While I thought this approach was a wasted opportunity, I could also see how it aids the main story by not having Rain's personal issues interfere with the the main plot advancing and it gives Sora some more time on screen. So I didn't think too much of it, especially as there still was more than enough time left in the VN to fill its world with life and explore all the topics the first route hints at. And there are a lot, for example: Poverty vs. wealth in a highly developed society, what happens when a private company becomes so important to the world order that the state doesn't have any means of properly regulating them, the ethics of modifications of body and genes, what constitutes your personality, especially in a world where your memories get stored on some hard drive and your body can be replicated, the ethics and politics of sentient AI, even the theme of spirituality in a world where said AI sets and controls the rules for a cyberspace where people spend just as much time as in the real world, effectively turning the AI into a deity, and possible afterlife in cyberspace.
At one point in Baldr Sky I started to notice a pattern that keeps being repeated over the course of the VN in how it deals with most of these themes. Or rather doesn't, as issues rarely ever get discussed on their merits, but rather on what faction or character holds which position or what the game needs to be true. Let's take the conflict about organic AI as an example. The anti-AI people are the bad guys. You know that because they call the other side names and have a tendency to get violent. So when they create designer babies that's bad and the children turn out to become sociopaths. When the leader of the pro-AI faction clones her dead sister with minor changes to some of her genome to make the two non-identical (for reasons), it is a clever maneuver against the big bad and the child is a genius. When the anti-AI faction builds its own machine-AI supercomputer, it is possessed by an evil super-AI trying to annihilate mankind. When the pro-AI put the control of all of cyberspace into the hands of AIs they have no eefective control over, they happen to only want everyone's wellbeing. When Chinatsu (5) switches to the Anti-AI faction, it is because she has a false conception of who is responsible for Gray Christmas and not because her believes or worldview change. So it is not some deep insight that makes her overthink her position again, but her commander betraying her. And of course he does, he is anti-AI after all (6).
Whenever someone opposed to the way Ark Industries (7) does things raises a good point, it rarely ever gets addressed, and when it does, it immediately gets drawn back to the personal level. A protester criticizing their lack of accountability is not to be taken seriously because he is part of an angry mob. The leader of Dominion telling the MC that Ark and Dominion are basically doing the same thing in trying to revive people in cyberspace who died in real life is just the ramblings of a madman. Even when it turns out that Ark is in fact doing this exact thing, it is alright because Ark does it with good intentions and Dominion are evil so their experiments only produce digital zombies. The game even acknowledges that Ark doing this would be a huge scandal, because the anti-AI faction sends spies to their cyberspace to expose this and weaken Ark's political position. Still Ark doing this is seemingly OK, as they only experiment on old rich people who don't want to die and are willing to pay to reach digital afterlife, and also because it becomes an important plot device to save the world later on. I could go into how BS resolves and picks sides in the three way conflict between Ark, Dominion and anti-AI people makes a pretty weird point about faith and religion but why bother when the writers probably didn't think that far anyway?
I think I made my point about how Baldr Sky avoids making any moral or political statements beyond “torture is bad” or “making pacts with lunatics is bad” and reduces any clash between ideas to conflicts between people or factions. It cannot even bring itself to say that corruption is inherently bad. At one point the sleazy mayor Anan, whose secret cooperation with Dominion has brought the city to the brink of destruction, gets captured by the good guys. One of them points out, without it getting challenged, that Anan's shady dealings have made the economy flourish by bringing high-tech industries to the city. Which is a great point to make when all the returns enrich Anan and his corrupt pals while a major part of the population lives in poverty.
There actually is one theme Baldr Sky tries to explore to some degree, namely memories and how important they are to forming your personality. A big portion of the VN is told through flashback, most of the heroine arcs revolve around past promises, Makoto (8) has a sickness that causes her to have memories from different timelines (yes, those exist in BS) and lose her sense of self in the process, there are different ways factions try to recreate real people in cyberspace by feeding their memory data to NPCs, a certain memory is sent to the past to solve everything, the titles of the two parts of the game are “Lost Memories” and “Recordare”, and so on. To me this seems like an odd choice for a plot that mainly revolves around conflicts between political factions in a high-concept sci-fi setting. BS makes a few interesting points on that front, especially in regards to the connection between memories and what the calls soul, but as with the other themes I mentioned before, a lot of it seems to be mostly window-dressing, not something that impacts the plot or the characters' motivations in a major way. Additionally, seeing how often VNs in general use flashbacks as a storytelling technique, its not that novel of a concept.
You could also make the valid point that not every piece of media needs to discuss complex philosophical questions, and you would be right. But then why raise them at all, when all they do is serve as props to either give the setting the appearance of depth and complexity or serve as a means to introduce other plot devices that could just as well have worked without them?
Another problem this approach causes is that it does not allow the characters to have any deeper agency. They cannot have any ideals, because then the game would have to talk about those. Their alignments revolve mostly around who they have sympathy for and who could harm them. I already talked about how this keeps Rain from getting meaningful character development that ties into the larger narrative. To pick another example, Nanoha's route (the second one in the game) has very similar flaws: While she is the least interesting one of the heroines to begin with, her backstory still offers enough to create some drama that adds some depth to both her character and the themes Rain's chapter introduces. Nanoha's parents were leading pro-AI scientists who got killed by terrorists. Also the aftermath of Gray Christmas made her a refugee. She deals with this by clinging to her happier past and spending all of her free time in the replication of her college dorm in cyberspace and trying to live her life just as she did back then. But instead of being the basis for some character growth with her finding a way to embrace the present or exploring why the cyberspace is so attractive to so many people, there is another romance plot involving a past promise (9). This is especially frustrating considering that this way BS misses a great opportunity to further explore the aforementioned theme of memories. Her life as a refugee gets dealt with in like three scenes where you learn that she works in an internet cafe and has to live in an actually not that shabby love hotel (oh the horror!) and some dialogue where other people about how hard she has it. As for her relation to the overarching plot it revolves around her still trusting and being in contact with the scientist responsible for developing Assembler, whom she has known since being a child and who went into hiding after Gray Christmas, while the everyone else is trying to hunt him down. He seemingly betrays her and implants a device containing Assembler into her stomach, so she gets sad and runs away. He goes mad, so maybe he really is a bad guy? Again, the heroine's personal struggle has to take the backseat and her route mainly utilizes her as a means to lead up to another set of plot points and provide a little romance and h-content.
The other routes are not that much better either, with the exception of maybe Makoto's character arc (10). The protagonist's character arc is solid though nothing to write home about, I guess, and there are a few well written side characters, although not enough to change my overall opinion on BS's treatment of its cast. I cannot finish this review though without talking about the evil mastermind who plotted everything. I will keep it short though. Having your grand villain appear nearly exclusively through exposition by other characters is pretty bad writing, unless you want to make a very specific point. Which BS does not. He does not embody some vague concept, like fate or human hubris or whatever. He is just an under-characterized seemingly a higher intelligence that wants to kill all humans in every timeline or whatever.
To sum it up: The way Baldr Sky engages with the more general subjects it raises is, to put it nicely, fascinating. It just refuses to do it. It is a story about a conflict between political factions, yet it does not want to discuss politics or policy. It takes place in a world where the relationship between humans and technology raises tons of moral and social issues, yet it does not want to talk ethics. At the same time it does not seem like it cares that much about its characters either. So if BS wants to engage seriously with neither its themes nor its characters, what does it expect me to get emotionally invested in? That there's six women in this world who want to carry the MC's baby? In the end, apparently that is close to all there is to it. Which I find pretty disappointing for a VN of this length and reputation. I still rated both parts 7.5/10 on vndb as the pacing and overall advancing of the plot are executed well. I also liked the gameplay enough to add an extra half point.
I should probably clarify a few of the terms I'm going to throw around to avoid confusion. To borrow from wikipedia, the setting “is both the time and geographic location within a narrative”, the premise of a story is “the initial state of affairs that drives the plot”, and a theme is “a central topic a narrative treats”. To make the distinction between these three more clear with an example, in MuvLuv Alternative the setting is present Japan in an alternative history where aliens invaded earth and mankind started building mechas to fight them. The premise is a young man who keeps looping through this timeline trying to use his knowledge of coming events to ensure mankind's victory and return to his original world. Themes MLA explores include, among others: trauma, patriotism, coming-of-age, alien intelligence, comradeship and the struggle against fate.
Organic AI in BS has acquired some level of consciousness and thus can't be completely controlled by humans, but greatly surpass classic machine AI in processing power. The anti-AI faction (as in anti-organic-AI) sees this uncontrollable alien intelligence overseeing all the rules in cyberspace as potentially very dangerous, whereas pro-AI people believe the AI to be benign and thus point to its advantages.
Dominion is an end-times cult that believes the AI to be a goddess and tries to separate peoples' consciousnesses in cyberspace from their physical bodies.
An event where Assembler, a nanomachine to rebuild the earth's destroyed environment, but with the potential to wipe out all life on earth in its unfinished form, gets released from a research facility and the world government prevents its outbreak by obliterating most of the city surrounding it with a megabeam weapon in earth's orbit.
The heroine in the third route.
Actually Kirishima Isao's character arc is one of the more interesting ones in BS. Him acting against his morals by betraying and knowingly sacrificing his closest confidant because he is too focused on reaching what he thinks would be the best outcome leads to him losing not just the battle, but also his closest ally and the moral high ground he claimed. This would be way more effective though if BS ever showed any sincere interest in the morals of its characters.
The company leading the pro-AI faction. Don't get me started on them. How you could pick a company with their business model as the good guys simply baffles me. They act as mediators between AI and humans, but seem to earn their money by implanting bio-chips into infants' brains (and those of everyone who can pay for it) that connect them to the internet 24/7 and upload all their memories to the cloud (which the AI can access and use). They also built a college with high tuition fees for these people where they get taught by the AI itself and turned into an internet elite class (but which gets destroyed on Gray Christmas).
The heroine in the fifth route.
There are between three and five of those in all six routes, depending on how loosely you define “past promise”, if I remember correctly.
It involves her learning to cope with her illness in a positive way and emancipating herself from the grasp of Dominion/Neunzehn (the big bad). There even is a symbolism-heavy CG! It is as on-the-nose as it gets, but at least there is an attempt at doing something even remotely ambitious.