It starts with moving crates and ends with saving the world.
The life of the DS is winding down. As it gasps its final breaths, in what is almost certain to be its last significant holiday season, I find myself a bit wistful. While the little system that did might be on the way out, it hasn’t quite kicked the bucket yet. I’ve been holding out hope for one more strong holiday season, and a major cornerstone of the lineup has been Solatorobo: Red the Hunter. Now that I’ve played through the title, I can conclude that while it isn’t destined to join the elite of the DS library, Solatorobo is charming enough to still be a significant release for the system in the latter part of this year.
Developed by CyberConnect2, under the publishing auspices of Namco Bandai (and released in Europe and North America by Nintendo and XSEED, respectively), Solatorobo tells the story of an anthropomorphic dog-man (the titular Red), his mech (Dahak), and a journey of discovery across islands in the sky in order to put a stop to an ancient weapon of war. An action RPG, the game is broken up into a series of episodic missions and optional quests. The actual story missions each start with some exposition prior to the gameplay, which tasks Red with his objective for the stage. At the conclusion, an additional story segment sets up a “next chapter”-style tease.
Easy there, Red
The gameplay mostly takes place with Red riding on the back of Dahak, whose primary role is lifting things. It might seem a strange construct to build a game around, but really all Dahak can do is jump, dash, and lift/throw. This means progressing through the dungeons involves a fair deal of platforming and switch puzzles, some of which require Red to get off his mech to operate. The combat utilizes this core functionality in a sort of robo-judo. Enemies need to be grappled and hurled about in order to hurt them. In some cases projectiles can be lobbed back at enemies. While gameplay generally works well in all cases, it does mean the overall experience can feel very repetitive. An untold number of rooms simply hold waves of the same enemies to be dispatched with impunity using identical strategies. There are cases where the gameplay is changed at a core level; for example, when Dahak is transformed into a flying machine in order to fight enemies—Star Fox-style. However, those are too few and far between.
Much of the game’s twenty hours comes from quests that become available after each chapter of the story. While ultimately they are almost all optional, completing the game requires that a large percentage of them be completed in order to raise Red’s hunter level (a distinct construct from Red’s general level) so that he can accept mandatory story missions that require said level be at least a minimum number. Some missions might find Red flying Dahak in a race, participating in a combat tournament with rules such as “do not jump”, or doing such mundane tasks as moving crates around. While many of the missions do accompany dialog that provides insight into the characters, as well as solid material rewards, it feels like many of the missions lacked creative use of Dahak. I struggle to accept that anyone who owned a mech like Dahak would willingly take jobs moving boxes. Overall the quests feel unbalanced; while some are quite fun (manning a turret to shoot down flying pirates, for example, or pursuing a colorful band of thieves on vacation) others are boring (fetch quests, manual labor) or are too often repeated. Sometimes less is more, and about a third of the quests could have probably been done without.
Bugs and crates...
The game is also quite easy. I don’t believe there were many moments where it felt particularly challenging. The most I failed any one mission was in a trivia contest about the world of Solatorobo. Even then, the quiz was multiple choice and eventually I could just sort of force my way through. I would have liked to see the game become more of a challenge; there are many options to customize Dahak but they never feel like they’re worth exploring, as vanilla Dahak is more than up to the challenge most foes present. Even the boss battles, which are actually quite creative, are still rather easy.
Still, the structure does mean that each mission or quest can usually be completed in less than twenty minutes. This makes it very easy to jump in and out but still feel like something was accomplished. It makes the game a good fit for the “play when you have a few minutes” style that is so well suited to a handheld system.
As far as stories go, Solatorobo seems to be a mix of things we’ve seen before, and yet there’s undeniably a bit more to it than the sum of its parts. This isn’t the first game with dog and cat people, or with floating islands, or with ancient weapon systems that can doom the world. Even the game’s twists feel a bit paint-by-numbers. However, the game’s bite-size episodes make each event of the overall plot a self-contained story, which helps make it seem to be progressing much faster. On top of that, the overall world and its characters are creative and in many cases memorable. The writing isn’t the greatest I’ve seen in a game, but it does have some of the most surreal characters I've seen in a while. Red’s repeated run-ins with an older gentledog who seems more interested in Red than the work he hired Red to do might not be politically correct, but they are amusing. Being hired to hand out safety pamphlets around town, only to have each one read back to you, was either the work of a twisted genius or of someone a bit too concerned that DS owners know how much bottled water should be in their emergency kit.
This makes all the emergency preparedness seem like a good idea
Visually, Solatorobo is a stunner. The artistic designers clearly spent a lot of time crafting the rather large cast and the places they pass through. Each of the vibrant, nearly-fully polygonal settings features a visual density that would be hard to best on the DS hardware. The game experiments with placing 2D sprites in the background to provide more movement and, in some cases, foreground images that make the setting feel more alive. Solatorobo does feature a handful of fully animated sequences that are nicely done, but they’re a bit grainy—presumably due to the DS hardware. It even features two different “openings,” swapping them at the middle of the game, as if it were the second season of an anime.
This really is a lovely game
The audio doesn’t fair quite as well as the visuals, but it’s no slouch. The sound effects are capable and varied. There is some very limited voice acting, but it isn’t much more than a few phrases for each character, in Japanese, that are recycled throughout the game. The music is the strong point here, with a soundtrack that features a few really memorable songs, a well-done opening theme, and no poor entries.
Solatorobo is a bit of a tricky game to summarize. There are moments where it can feel more than a bit uninspired, and many times the tasks Red and company have to take on seem beyond trivial. The difficulty is sorely lacking. The gameplay needs more diversity. And while the story is enjoyable it’s hardly award winning. Yet, at some point in the second half of the game I found myself having a pretty good time. When it was over I was a bit sad to see it end. Solatorobo is not without its flaws, and some people will probably lose the will to finish it, but in the end it’s a fun ride most of the time. If you can get past the boring bits, it’s a worthy title for helping give your DS a good send-off.