Monday, 24 October 2011

REVIEW: Solatorobo: Red the Hunter

Solatorobo: Red the Hunter
[DS] [Cyber-Connect2]
Despite being Nintendo's most successful video game system, the DS has been living through a somewhat declining age recently. The dinky dual-screened handheld has since been bested by the much-superior 3DS, leading to loss in sales of DS games, particularly new releases. By next year, the handheld that has sold so many units and lasted for a rather long seven years will most probably have passed away after experiencing a few last hurrahs. Professor Layton and the Last Spectre is one of these games, as is Solatorobo: Red the Hunter, an absolutely excellent RPG released just a few months ago only to be overshadowed by the 3DS and that newer system's tall-standing games. This ace DS title, developed by Japanese RPG experts Cyber-Connect2 who crafted this game a rather long time ago, was finally released in the UK after Nintendo decided to publish it. Yes, it's actually been a number of years since the release of Solatorobo: Sorekara Coda e (that's the fancy Japanese name of the title) in its country of origin, and while it's quite possibly the worst time to release the game in the UK now, what with Nintendo's latest handheld completely hijacking the spotlight from the poor old DS, they really couldn't have picked a much better game on the last-generation handheld to see an English release after so many years of practically nobody waiting for it, because they've never actually heard of it.

It's a shame that Solatorobo: Red the Hunter waddled along onto UK shelves without much hullabaloo surrounding it, because this overlooked title really is one of the dying handheld's hidden gems. While not the system's best RPG, this tale of a humanoid dog who rides around on a mech with stretchy arms is packed with colourful characters, very varied gameplay elements, a ton of well thought out content and some of the best visuals you'll see on the DS, if not the best. Being a role-playing game, you'd expect this title to have some kind of deep plot. You'd be right in thinking that, but what you probably wouldn't expect is for the game to feature not one, but two adventures each lasting about 8 to 14 hours, depending on how often you sit back and take up some of the many side-quests that offer a surprisingly dialogue-filled distraction from the game's main adventure. The protagonist you'll be taking up these quests as is Red, a hunter  (as if you couldn't guess that from the games title) who takes the form of a humanoid doggy. This character is enthusiastic about his work as a travelling quester, who takes up jobs in order to make sweet, sweet cash in order to make a living with his younger sister, ridiculously named Chocolat Gelato. Both the main dog and his feline sibling are very likable protagonists, who are also joined by another character early on in the game, the mysterious Elh, who acts as the individual who sets up the epic quest you play through in Solatorobo thanks to the promise of a rather massive sum of money on this young, loner's behalf. Of course, things get a lot more complex and a lot more brilliant later on down the line, but I wouldn't want to spoil any of that for you guys and gals! Let's just say that, while Solatorobo's plot isn't quite up there with the genius writing found in say, The World Ends with You, it's still a very enjoyable adventure spread across two whole stories, featuring many likable characters and some great twists and turns that will keep you sucked-in. The art style found in the game is particularly awesome too, representing a Studio Ghibli film. Great art, charming characters and a well-written plot add up to make Solatorobo's indisputable and unique appeal, and it's this charm that you'll mainly be playing this title for.

How you advance through Solatorobo's plot is through the Quest Broker. There's one of these small kiosks housing a woman who will happily let you accept quests on or below your 'Hunter Rank' in pretty much every location you visit throughout the game, allowing you to take on aforementioned side-quests to not only take a break from those that would advance the story, but also to increase your Hunter Rank if need be. The 'urgent' quests that advance the plot may be the funnest of all, but you'll often be too low a rank to participate in them so it's a good idea to often get a little sidetracked with the sub-missions on offer. It may be a very odd comparison to make, but this system of questing is a lot like Monster Hunter Tri's online mode, where you also increase your Hunter Rank to take part in tougher segments of the game, working your way up the hunter tree. It never feels like you are straying away from the plot in Solatorobo when taking part in side-quests, however, as the narrative and fun-factor found in these levels is just as rich and enjoyable as that of the main story, where you'll often be asked to do some quests to increase your rank anyway. Where you'll be initiating the many quests found in Solatorobo is a collection of floating islands, each of which has there own distinct look thanks to some of the best visuals on the DS. A mix of 2D and 3D rendering makes for an interesting art-style and graphical approach, making Solatorobo one of the best-looking games on Nintendo's previous generation handheld. The art-style also seeps into the many interesting individuals you'll encounter throughout the game, from Red's friends and enemies to everyone in between. The kiddy look of the games furry animalistic humanoids is more of a trick of the eyes at points too, as the story can often get more serious than you'd expect, giving Solatorobo yet another layer of character.

This was the only decent screenshot I could find of the game, and even this image far from does Solatorobo's great visuals justice. If you want to see the game for yourself then buy it!
While story and characters are a big focus in most RPGs, the gameplay is also very important no matter what the genre of game. You'll be exploring Solatorobo's world, as the hunter Red Savarin, in the Dahak, a strange mechanised robot that proves to be very 'handy' in battle situations. I say handy because, rather than using weapons and ridiculously high stats to beat your foes, you'll simply be lifting them from the ground and throwing them to destroy them and loot cash and whatnot. As uninteresting as this method of enemy-bashing sounds, it's actually very satisfying to spam the A button to lift up your targeted opponent, throw them up into the air after getting a firm hold on them and slamming them back to the ground, possibly into one of your other opponents. What's more, just as this battle system is getting uninteresting towards the start of the second story, many new techniques are added to differentiate from what was previously starting to become a little boring, changing things up in a surprising and very much welcome manner. It's this method of surprising the player that really sucks you in to Solatorobo: Red the Hunter. Often the gameplay will change thanks to the inclusion of newly introduced elements, the odd minigame (one of which is a Mario Kart-esque flying racer that could pretty much be a game in itself) and the many twists and turns in the games plot. Unfortunately, this is where the first of Solatorobo's few flaws comes in to play, as you'll never really get much time with some of the newly introduced gameplay elements. At very few points throughout the adventure you have to defend a character or go all-out against a huge boss by hopping on a gun turret which launches rapid-fire bullets in a very satisfying manner, and I honestly feel like more of these segments should have been included, at least in more of the sub-quests. The aforementioned (in brackets) racing game is actually only played in two quests throughout the entire game, with little motivation to race on the tracks direct from the games menu as you don't even get any prize money, let alone no prizes at all for winning races.

And this underused content isn't the only flaw surrounding what is ultimately a brilliant game. Oh no, what's most infuriating about Solatorobo is its criminally easy difficulty, no doubt. Throughout the 22 hours it took me to finish both of the game's tales, I died an insanely low amount of times. Twice, to be precise. This is ridiculous, as I'm sure you'll agree. You still have to concentrate on what you're doing, otherwise you will take hits from enemies rather easily, but Solatorobo's punishing lack of actual challenge is the game's only real flaw, without a shadow of a doubt. You can potentially get around this poor difficulty by forcing yourself to not customise your Dahak mech, which can be upgraded via an involving attache case-esque minigame, but without knowing the game would be so easy I ended up wanting to build up my stats more than anything leading to me realising Solatorobo's shockingly low difficulty. This is meant to be a Japanese role-playing game, not Barbie Horse Adventures! Still, without waffling on about the lack of any real challenge, Solatorobo: Red the Hunter is still a very, very fun and involving game that features a charming cast of characters, is packed with loads of well thought out content and two whole plots to play through. It still saddens me that not enough many people have experienced this gem yet, so take my advice and add it to your DS collection as a sign that you still care for your handheld, at least until the next Professor Layton game is released anyway. While it's not the longest RPG ever, nor is it the hardest (in fact it's probably the easiest RPG I've ever played), this is honestly one of the best games on DS so you might want to do yourself a favour and purchase it.



super yoshifan_ONM said...

I've been meaning to get this game, though never got round to it yet. Might well do so now though.

Noodle said...

I'd recommend it. Really a brilliant game that, despite holding the burden of an insanely easy difficulty, is one of the best and most charming titles you can play on the DS. One thing I declined to mention in the review also, is the soundtrack. Some truly awesome tunes and ditties to be found in Solatorobo.

Anyone with a DS, even if you hate RPGs, buy this game!

George said...

This was very interesting to read for me because i've heard barely anything about this game. Now that i've read your review, though, i'm really interested in this game - definetly gonna buy it!