Solatorobo: Red the Hunter isn’t a game title that is likely to storm to the top of the sales charts. There are no well-known franchise names, no mainstream marketing campaign, and no hint of generic, dull gaming characters and designs. Being a Japanese action RPG, this game is different from the vast majority of titles out there and, in this case, different is most definitely a good thing.
It's difficult to summarise the storyline in Solatorobo, especially as we want to keep this review as spoiler free as possible. The storyline is, however, an integral part of the game, rather than a vehicle to allow the developers to throw levels together. The main arc of the story is lengthy and full of twists, surprises and unexpected tangents. This is all reinforced by strong writing, with high quality localised text exuding charm and wit; often funny, at other times sentimental and often touching, on other occasions full of serious storytelling. Considering that the storyline is set in a world of floating islands above the clouds, with dog and cat-like denizens flying spaceships and riding robots, it’s impressive how the plot draws you in.
You play as Red Savarin, a ‘hunter’ who rides his robot, Dahak, through a variety of environments and challenges. His main companions are his adopted sister Chocolat, and mysterious feline friend Elh. Red’s duties as a hunter for hire draw him into a series of events that, ultimately, rest on saving the world. The ‘save the world’ storyline is a staple of gaming, but it’s executed particularly well in Solatorobo, as it develops into a tale about Red himself, his origins and how he came to be a robot-riding hunter. The cast of other characters is impressively varied, with some that are friends, others who are enemies, and a few that are a bit of both. As the 20-hour-plus campaign progresses, the storyline maintains its momentum, and you’re more than likely to be anxious to know what happens.
Storyline is imperative, then, and you do spend long periods reading text and watching cutscenes. Thankfully, the gameplay integrates well within this presentation. This may be an RPG, but as an overall experience it is simplified, with many of the genre’s elements relegated to a secondary role. That said, there is levelling up to be done in multiple areas — in terms of Red’s abilities, you can increase your health allocation by gaining experience points from battles, as well as purchase upgrades for your robot. You can boost Dahak’s abilities, gain extra slots for items with power cell pick-ups, and later in the game even purchase multiple robot models. Red’s hunter rating is also increased by completing quests, which becomes necessary to progress in the adventure.
These upgrades are important and have a noticeable impact on your robot’s performance. Your actions in the game are mostly performed with Dahak, with some puzzle oriented moments running around on your own, and it is always intuitive and easy. Movement is with the D-Pad, you jump with B, while the X button gives access to a useful sub-menu where you can customise Dahak or view an objective reminder. It's the A button that will get the most use, as the combat mechanics require repetitive tapping to lift and throw items and enemies. Rather than turn-based battle, the action-infused combat in this title requires you to wait for an opportune moment and then flip the enemy over, after which you can throw them into the ground, walls or other enemies. You can perform combos to increase damage, which require good timing, but the overall process basically involves tapping the A button; good exercise for your right thumb.
This fight mechanic sounds extremely simplistic and, in essence, it is. It is surprisingly satisfying, however, and brings dynamism to the many battles that you’ll fight. Such is the nature of the system, most battles are over very quickly, so you’re not mashing the A button for long periods. If, however, you do encounter a lot of battles in a short space of time a feeling of repetition can set in, though it's short-lived, as the game has more up its sleeve than merely fighting enemies.
In fact, it's the variety in the game’s 80 quests that serves as its strong suit. Some quests, such as puzzles involving moving crates or catching photo-stealing kittens, still involve running around and tapping the A button, but the focus is sufficiently varied to keep you interested. In addition, there are some major departures in gameplay; these include a well-implemented but underused free-flight mechanic, quiz events that test your memory skills, as well as hovercraft racing sections that involve flying through a variety of tracks while picking up boosts and weapons to disrupt opponents.
In fact, these racing sections are included as an extra mode, Air Robo GP, which features unlockable vehicles and six tracks to choose from. If you have friends who own the game, there is a multi-card multiplayer option for up to four players, allowing you to race against each other. Within the adventure itself, there’s a myriad of items and pieces of lore to buy, unlock and discover: these include music tracks, photos, descriptions of the world’s history and cutscenes that can be viewed at any time. Another extra feature is downloadable quests, the first of which was released on 15 July. In order to play these you need to finish the main adventure, but they're a nice bonus.
If there is one complaint to be made about the gameplay, it's the difficulty. Experienced gamers may breeze through this game, potentially without seeing the ‘game over’ screen once. On the positive side this didn’t detract from our enjoyment of the title, and does mean that less experienced gamers should be able to pick up and play, but some may pine for a greater level of difficulty.
Solatorobo, as we’ve shown, provides a substantial amount of content and gameplay variety. Developers CyberConnect2 have successfully brought this content together in a package that is pleasing on the eye. In-game graphics and cut-scenes are impressive for the DS hardware, and the multitude of island locations are a particular standout; mining towns, shipwreck sites and grand cities all come alive with detailed backgrounds. Also included are a couple of attractive animated sequences that set the tone for the adventure ahead, though the perceptive among you may pick up a few plot spoilers. Sound design is mixed: music is excellent and has a nice chiptune style, but there are a few sound effects, such as when Red jumps, that sound slightly compressed and distorted. Finally, special mention should go to the game manual, which includes gorgeous colour artwork and plenty of background information.
Solatorobo: Red the Hunter is a game that we highly recommend. It has been crafted with care and in painstaking detail, incorporating a lengthy, well-written story with engaging battle mechanics and an impressive variety of quest styles. The only negatives are the occasional dips in sound quality, and some gamers may bemoan the relatively low difficulty. Likewise, if text-heavy Japanese RPGs don’t appeal to you, then this may not be a fit. However, fans of the genre or those seeking an original, enjoyable experience on their DS or 3DS should hesitate no longer; hunt this game down and enjoy.