Despite being advertised as something your Gran might like for Christmas, Nintendo’s DS is home to some extremely ‘core’ titles. Dragon Quest, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, Children of Mana, Disgaea, Chrono Trigger; these are but a few of the large selection on offer, and each one will offer you hours upon hours of entertainment without calculating your brain age at the end of it. Look a bit harder, though, and it’s also a console where you will find many hidden gems, and that’s where ‘Solatorobo: Red The Hunter’ comes in.
This action RPG takes place amongst the floating Islands of the Shepherd Republic which, oddly enough, is home to anthropomorphic animals rather than humans. You take on the role of Red Savarin (a dog) who, along with his sister Chocolat, takes on Hunter Quests for money. You start the game smack bang in the middle of one of these quests, sneaking aboard a giant airship known as the Hindenburg. Your mission sounds simple; collect some secret documents, but things deteriorate quickly once you are discovered. Managing to snag the documents, Red also stumbles across what looks to be an old medallion which seems to activate when he touches it.
It’s at this point where things really do kick off, as an absolutely huge creature appears in the sky, batting the Hindenburg around like a toy plane. During his escape of the rapidly descending ship Red finds an unconscious child, Elh, who seems to have also come aboard in search of something. Putting his own life in danger, Red rescues this child and brings him aboard his own ship. Who exactly is Elh, though? What’s the deal with the creature in the sky? And why are Red and Chocolat now being hunted down? So many questions…
Although it has been billed as an RPG, Solatorobo doesn’t play how you might imagine. For starters, Red traverses the environment in a smallish robot known as ‘Dahak’. This gives Red greater than average strength, which he puts to use by moving obstacles and fighting enemies. Speaking of fighting, the combat system used in the game is one that is bound to be divisive.
Rather than epic, drawn out hour long turn based battles, the combat in Solatorobo can be over in seconds. The idea is when you get close enough to an enemy you hammer the ‘A’ button until a bar fills, and when that happens the enemy will be flipped over onto their back. You can then pick them up and throw them, causing damage – sounds simple, right? Of course, some of the tougher enemies aren’t exactly going to let you stroll up and flip them over, so it’s a case of timing, or at the very least spotting a weak point.
You also come across enemies that fire projectiles, and these can be snatched out of mid-air and tossed straight back over. Personally I really enjoyed the way combat is dealt with, as it gives Solatorobo a snappy feel and you never really get stuck at one particular point.
As well as the main story, you’ll find yourself spending a fair amount of time partaking in various Hunter Quests to gain money and increase your ‘Hunter Rank’. Again, these will perhaps not be what you’re expecting. The word “quest” conjures up imagines of long treks in search of mysterious artefacts, but in Solatorobo it means something completely different. Moving cargo, pest extermination, solving crimes, searching trains for suspicious packages; expect to do this and much more to earn a living.
There really is so much to do, and not half an hour goes by when you aren’t introduced to something new. Ever fished for giant, island carrying hermit crabs using a harpoon bigger than a person? I hadn’t either until I came across that particular quest. There’s even a Gladiator style battle arena where you can fight for cash!
Dahak is also an interesting addition to the game. Whilst Red can dismount at any time (and on occasion he has to), he is far more vulnerable and armed with only a stun gun. You almost get a feeling of panic when you’re asked to cross an enemy filled room without your robot, such is the level of confidence it inspires.
You can also upgrade Dahak using a system akin to a game of Tetris. Let me explain; at the start when you go to upgrade you are presented with a limited amount of black squares, surrounded by blanked off squares with numbers on them. Each upgrade you buy is represented by a shape (for example, a rectangle made up of two squares) and you can only fit it to Dahak if you can rotate and fit it in the space with the black squares. Foraging around levels uncovers power cells which can be used to open up the blanked off squares, giving you more room to fit additional upgrades. On paper it sounds odd, but in practice it’s easy to grasp, and an additional incentive to explore every last nook of a level.[drop2] Dahak doesn’t just fight though, oh no. There are times when you need to take to the sky and in these instances Dahak transforms into something resembling a giant metallic bird. It’s a nice change of pace, although it isn’t explored nearly enough. If you fancy taking a break from the main story you can also take part in aerial races which are like Mario Kart… but in the sky.
These are nice little treats, but nothing compared to the big surprise that came at the end of the story. In fact, I’ve been chewing over whether to spoil it for you, but it’s a factor that may well push you over the edge into buying it. What I will do is put a *spoiler alert* here for the next paragraph.
When you complete the game (about 8-9 hours long) you unlock a brand new story to play though. This isn’t like a new chapter or anything, but a fully fledged game with a new threat, new powers to unlock and Dahak MK 2. You also learn a lot more about Red and his mysterious past. Suddenly the game doubles in length, and opens up new options to play with.
Graphically, and you’ll have to take my word on this, Solatorobo is extremely impressive for a DS title. The backgrounds have a hand drawn look, and are combined cleverly with 3D character models. The anime inspired cutscenes are also a joy to watch. The game also seems to be on a mission to use every effect the DS can muster; the most notable being the use of level rotation (like the SNES’ Mode 7). The sound is also worthy of praise, with catchy tunes that capture the essence of each new location perfectly.
After all this, the game does have a couple of niggles that may annoy some. For starters, it’s a fairly easy game, and I don’t think I died more than a handful of times. This didn’t really bother me, but I know for some it’ll be a real sticking point. Ironically enough the next issue can occur once you have died. This is usually during a boss fight, and if they do kill you the game forces you back to the very start of the fight cutscene, meaning you have to read through several minutes of dialogue all over again.
There were also a couple of times I thought I was going to have to reload the checkpoint as an item I needed got stuck in the environment. Luckily, with a bit of trial and error, I managed to get them in the end.
- Looks and sounds fantastic.
- Interesting story.
- Great characters.
- That surprise at the end.
- Low difficulty may be a sticking point.
- The combat will divide opinion.
- Takes a good few hours to get going fully.
Solatorobo: Red The Hunter is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The game is full of flair and charm, and is one you’ll be more than keen to see through to the end. It starts off almost generically, but get past the first few hours and you won’t want to put your DS down.