Yuji Naka is a legend in the world of game design. He has worked on notable series such as Sonic the Hedgehog, NiGHTS into Dreams and Phantasy Online for nearly 30 years. His newest creation, Rodea the Sky Soldier, has been stuck in development limbo for over five years, but the time has finally come for it to see the light of day. Naka has already expressed that he would like to work on a sequel to Sky Soldier, but does the flying action title deserve such an honour?
Sky Soldier is first and foremost a Yuji Naka game. It looks, sounds and plays like many of his previous forays into the realm of 3D platforming. This is both a gift and curse, as it shares their charms but also their aggravating gameplay flaws. If you've ever played Sonic Adventure for the GameCube or NiGHTS Journey of Dreams for the Wii, then you'll have a good idea what to expect from Sky Soldier.
With the titular character, Rodea, knocked unconscious for a staggering 1,000 years at the beginning of the game, players have to stitch together his sordid past as his memories return and the story progresses. Why was he built? Why does he have a human heart? What happened to all he knew and loved in the last millennium? It's a decently compelling story that keeps players guessing, as Rodea encounters those from his past who seem to know more about him than even he does. In classic Naka style it's a bit too corny and over the top, though that's just the kind of charm you would expect from a title like Sky Soldier.
If there's one issue that holds the story back it's that one of the two main characters is unfathomably annoying. That would be Ion, the robo-mechanic who fixes up Rodea after his 1,000 year dirt nap. She will yammer on throughout almost every single stage, adding such important dialogue as, "Fwooosh!" and "Go get'em!" over and over. Her shrill screams of elation and terror are comical at first, but players will soon find themselves reaching for the volume control of their TV remotes. Luckily this small issue can be remedied by turning down Ion's "chattiness" in the game's sound options.
When it comes to controls Sky Soldier is one wild ride. It's not that the controls are necessarily terrible, it's just that they are very precise and a bit difficult to master. Rodea can hop into the air with the simple press of button, though to get him truly flying players will need to use his trajectory cursor to find a nearby target. Apparently sky soldiers can only fly towards solid objects (who knew?), as pointing your trajectory cursor towards the heavens or any blank horizon won't have any effect. Once you've locked on to a target Rodea will sail off towards it at slow cruise.
In the beginning his speed can seem a bit too sluggish, as players will have plenty of time to take in the floating world of Garuda. This issue can most likely be attributed to the fact that the game wants to give players plenty of time to get used to the flying mechanics. Players can switch their direction and target at any time, but Rodea can only fly so far before running out of steam. It will certainly take a bit of practice before players will be able to sail through an entire stage without error, and even then it's easy to lock onto the wrong target or section of land.
Aside from flying, Rodea can also attack foes using a spinning charge attack very similar to a certain blue hedgehog. This can be performed on baddies both on land and in the sky, though it works much better mid-flight. Instead of simply blowing enemies to bits, Rodea will always bounce away in a dramatic fashion. This can cause some unintentional problems, as it's very easy for players to lose their spatial bearings as they rebound away.
Ion will also outfit Rodea with different sub-weapons as the game moves forward, the first one being a machine gun; such a serious weapon seems out of place in such a goofy fantasy setting. Rodea is a solider after all, but it has the same feeling as Sonic team giving Shadow a gun. Which totally happened, and was certainly a bizarre move. Odd weapon choices aside, the machine gun and other sub-weapons work much better on land-bound enemies than Rodea's normal charge attack.
One of the best aspects of Sky Soldier's combat is the fact that players can actually upgrade Rodea's abilities and weapons as they conquer more stages. Soon players will find Rodea flying with a bit more speed and purpose, which meshes nicely with the fact that players will likely (hopefully) have a better grasp of the game's flight and combat controls by that point.
Though the stages involved are nice and open for Rodea's flying pleasure, they almost feel a bit too empty at times, with sparse enemies and large expanses of sky between platforms. This is to be expected as the component of flying is obviously key to the game, but the creators certainly could have beefed up the levels with some more challenges and obstacles that truly tested Rodea's abilities further. Players can interact with special star chains as they fly, and if they connect Rodea with the first star they'll be whisked through the line at sonic speed. The issue here is that the lines usually end at the edge of a floating land masses, dropping unsuspecting players into a freefall. Only after adapting to the quick start and stop of the star chains will most truly begin to enjoy linking them all together for a fast pass through the stages.
The weakest aspect of Sky Soldier, by a wide margin, is it's rage-inducing camera. It's an issue so amazingly essential to gameplay, and so poorly done, that it will certainly have some swearing under their breath. Since Rodea's sky battling and main form of movement all center around targeting new opponents and objects, a wonky camera can be very troublesome. If players try to find a solid point to lock onto they may have issues, especially during some of the game's larger battles where the range of flight is enhanced. It's easy for the camera to get stuck behind walls and enemies as they fly into view, putting us (and Rodea) at a huge disadvantage. This doesn't always happen, but it happens enough to make the game feel a bit too off kilter on a regular basis.
With two dozen chapters, decently long stages, as well as plenty to collect and unlock, Sky Soldier is just about as lengthy as one would hope. Each stage ends with a dazzling display of various letter ratings that are linked to players' chains, star collection, completion time and more; this adds some extra challenge for those who want to truly master the game. Those who simply want to complete the main campaign may not find as much meat, but there is much to explore if you're up for a little sky sleuthing.
Rodea the Sky Soldier is an interesting game. When it comes to unique gameplay and classic Yuji Naka charm the title truly soars. Unfortunately it also suffers from frustrating camera problems, a steep learning curve and some frequently aggravating combat. Players planning to taking to the skies with Rodea will likely enjoy most of their journey, but they are in for a bumpy ride.