"If you can overlook one or two little mats and tangles in this dog's fur, you will find a lively, cute, and charming companion with loads of personality in Solatorobo."
Solatorobo: Red the Hunter is the spiritual sequel to Tail Concerto, a Playstation action-adventure that I adored and felt was criminally overlooked in the gaming community. That's why I was more than a little excited to see its spiritual sequel, Solatorobo, make its way to North America and Europe. Admittedly, it's difficult not to compare the two, but even though they share plenty of elements, Solatorobo is a different animal entirely and one of the most delightful games I've played this year.
Solatorobo takes place in an archipelago of floating islands populated by anthropomorphic animals. Airships are the primary mode of travel between the islands and a particular airship called Asmodeus is home to our hero, a cocksure fox named Red, and his sensible sister Chocolat. Red is a hunter who takes on quests for coin (the more dangerous the better!) and Chocolat supports him by piloting and performing mechanical maintenance on the Asmodeus, as well as helping Red tweak his bipedal mech Dahak. During a seemingly routine mission to retrieve a confidential file from a cargo ship flown by the nefarious Kurvaz regime, Red encounters a mysterious boy and inadvertently activates a medallion that awakens a very ominous looking giant. Uh oh, it looks like Red's now found himself embroiled in an RPG quest to keep the world safe from this ancient threat while thwarting the attempts of the Kurvaz to try to control the giant for their own misdeeds.
Ah, but that's only half the plot. Although I saw the Kurvaz storyline to the end after ten chapters, I still had a ton of unanswered questions and thought I'd have to wait on that semi-cliffhanger endnote for a sequel. But the game proved as sly as a fox with a fantastic trick up its sleeve. What I thought was the whole game was only the first half, and the ten chapters in part two of Red's adventure are really where the story opens up like a pearl-bearing oyster. The plot, characters, and world become deeper and more involving. Red and his friends get fleshed out, the seemingly nonsensical world begins to make sense, and the cartoony villains from part one give way to more threatening ones in part two.
Like Tail Concerto, Solatorobo has personality in spades, and that personality won me over. But where Tail Concerto was more lighthearted, Solatorobo is edgier and a little darker while still remaining cartoonishly fun. More extensive voice acting could have further developed the characters' personalities; what's there is just the occasional Japanese voice clip. Even simply having the cutscenes fully voiced would have been icing on the cake. However, I can't hold this against Solatorobo since a DS cartridge can only hold so much data, and the developer went for broke on all areas of the game, such as its beautiful aesthetics and varieties of gameplay.
There is no denying that Solatorobo is a fantastic looking game with a terrific sense of style. The towns are especially impressive with all their toon, cel, or whatever shading and all kinds of motion in the backgrounds. I can't tell what's prerendered and what's polygonal in the towns, and that's quite a feat. The towns all look uniquely beautiful and I enjoyed hanging out in them. The characters consist of shaded polygons and look pretty smooth. The character designs themselves are adorable and expressive without being too cutesy, and I like how Red chomps on a chew bone like it's a cigar. Dungeons are fully polygonal and have great detailing as well. In terms of cutscenes, most use the in-game engine and they look great with their dynamic sense of framing and sweet camera angles. The anime intros are worth watching every time you boot up, especially for the music.
The Japanese vocal number has been kept in-tact for Solatorobo's anime openings, and I'm very pleased about that. The opening song is heady and rich, unlike the kind of breezy bubblegum J-Pop that one would expect in a game like this. The rest of the music is beautiful orchestral fare with more complex melodies and harmonies that may not immediately get stuck in your head, but will definitely not bore you upon the umpteenth time hearing them. I could spend an inordinate amount of time in the sound test mode listening to the game's music.
Players could also spend an inordinate amount of time engaging in tasks that are off the beaten path. Engaging in quests increases Red's Hunter Rank, and sometimes that rank needs to be at a certain level to access plot-relevant quests. Sure, those necessary objectives to advance the plot are clearly spelled out by the town's quest brokers, but opportunities to engage in side quests and extracurricular activities are ample and often necessary to wring the most out of the game. Finding a photographer's lost photos allows Red to seek out even more pictures of game art to put in the Asmodeus' gallery. Helping a music lover find his groove earns Red a tape recorder to record music from jukeboxes to put into the sound test. Earning a special book opens up the Asmodeus' library where a database about the world and characters is revealed. Buying souvenir plates allows Red to view previous cutscenes. Those are just a few examples of how rewarding exploration and getting to know the world can be; some quests even have Tail Concerto cameos. There is also a battle arena and mini-games, like racing and fishing. The racing mini-game can be accessed from the title screen as well, and up to four players can play it ad-hoc.
The general action-RPG gameplay also travels a path less worn. Red's Dahak doesn't swing a sword, fire a gun, or throw punches. Its mechanical arms grab enemies and objects, lift them up in the air, and slam them down. It's pretty satisfying to toss an enemy in the air, grab it, slam it down, and grab it again when it bounces up for a double or triple air-grab combo. It's also fun to toss an enemy into his cronies for mass destruction. And don't worry if an enemy shoots projectiles; the Dahak can just grab them in midair and toss them right back.
Although Red gains levels as he defeats enemies, upgrading the Dahak is what really makes the difference in combat. Red has to find crystals throughout the world to open up slots in his Dahak to install parts, Tetris style. The various parts Red can install enhance attack, defense, hydraulics (how quickly Dahak can lift heavy loads), mobility, and even auto-recovery (though those parts are single-use and are not sold in stores.) Be warned, though, that crystals are not always easy to come by, so when you do collect them, redeem them wisely when opening up install slots.
Dahak controls pretty well, especially when jumping, and since most dungeons have a fixed camera, platforming is hardly an issue. The only places where platforming is an issue are a couple of areas where Dahak is given the ability to fly over short distances with a rocket booster. Here, the rotatable camera doesn't always go where it should and character movement becomes floaty, making for imprecise landings. These are also not the most visually impressive areas, so I generally didn't go to those places for extracurricular quests.
The interface does its job well with menus being both aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate. The game can be saved at save points, in the Asmodeus, and the game also prompts players to save after completion of a quest or major events. Normally I'd harp on a handheld game not having a quicksave feature, but opportunities to save are ample enough and the game can be played in short enough chunks that it's not as big an issue as it would be in other games. Since this is a DS game, it should be noted that there is absolutely zero use of the stylus. I'm actually happy about this because some DS games try to shoehorn stylus elements into them, but Solatorobo has the integrity not to go that gimmick route.
The only major flaw I would lobby against the game is that its difficulty is skewed toward easy, but even that may be a blessing for many gamers. Considering that I'm downright horrible at action-RPGs, platformers, and action games in general, I'm okay with the game being easy. However, a lot of gamers out there would want an optional harder difficulty setting.
If you can overlook one or two little mats and tangles in this dog's fur, you will find a lively, cute, and charming companion with loads of personality in Solatorobo. I certainly enjoyed the twenty or so hours I spent with the game and hope that players will give it a chance. I thought Tail Concerto was a criminally overlooked game and hope to see Solatorobo work its charm on others as it did on me. This game has the potential to be the sleeper hit of 2011.