Review: Solatorobo: Red the Hunter

When I first started telling people I was playing Solatorobo: Red the Hunter, the usual response I got from those who’d heard of it was, “Wait, the furry game?” The only real things I had heard of the game myself were that it featured some characters from Tail Concerto and Mamoru-kun, both of which I had heard of but never played, and that “I’d probably like it.” Why the hell not? I thought, and started playing it, figuring I could at least get a review out of it. Chris agreed, so I kept going.

I’m going to attempt to be as spoiler-free as possible in this review, simply because if I did reveal any spoilers, it’d probably confuse the hell out of people playing the game for the first time. There’s a lot of stuff that happens in this game and until it actually happens, it just… doesn’t make sense when you talk about it. Trust me. I tried explaining the plot to a friend, and he just stared at me. So we’ll leave it at that.

Solatorobo: Red the Hunter
Systems: Nintendo DS
Developer: CyberConnect2
Publisher: Nintendo (EU) – reviewed, XSeed Games (NA), Namco Bandai (JP)
Release Date: July 1, 2011 (EU), September 27, 2011 (NA)
MSRP: $34.90

In Solatorobo, you play as Red, a hot-headed teenage Caninu (dog-person) who is a Hunter, a guy who goes around doing quests for people in exchange for payment. When he takes on a quest with his sister, Chocolat to, uh, “retrieve” some documents from a ship, he swipes a medallion along the way that turns out to be worth a lot more than he expected. He meets Elh, a teenage Felineko (cat-person), who makes a deal with him to protect the medallion in order to receive a salary of one billion rings. Naturally, Red finds this extremely enticing, so he takes the deal. The story goes on from there, and you end up flying through the Shepherd Republic, meeting sky pirates, rescuing snotty kids and even snottier sky pirates, finding lost items, and generally fighting evil and uncovering mysteries.

Solatorobo definitely has an anime vibe thanks to beautiful graphics and music. There’s a bit of voice acting, but it’s mostly limited to laughs and mumbles. You would think that these little chirps would get annoying, but surprisingly, it seems to add character to the game. I even found myself mimicking them even late into the game. The cutscenes are beautiful and play just like an anime you’d see on television. If there’s one thing CyberConnect2 did extremely well on this game, it’s that it’s great in both appearance and sound. I don’t think there’s one track on the game that got on my nerves, and it did a good job of setting the mood for whatever particular goal you were trying to achieve, save one or two.

The tutorials mesh well with gameplay and are concise. Most are optional, which is great for people playing it the second time around or those too impatient to sit through a tutorial. Controls take a little getting used to but aren’t terribly difficult to do once mastered, with the exception of some of the combos you’re sometimes forced to use in fights (triple air combo, anyone?). My only real complaint about the controls is that B does both dash and jump, depending on when and how you hit it. This was a bad idea, especially when you have to avoid things like acid or a moving laser beam and need to jump up onto a platform, but instead of jumping, Red dashes. Super annoying.

Oh, and flying. For whatever reason I could not get used to the flying mechanics, whether I was on a ship or flying with Dahak, your robot. The sucking-at-flying thing really, well, sucked when I realized that one of the flying quests actually helped with character development, and I’m pretty into that. Thankfully, none of the quests that require flying on the ship are necessary to continue and finish the game, but for that 100% completion? I think I’ll find someone who can figure out how to actually fly these stupid ships to finish up for me.

Speaking of quests, at each land you go to you have a number of quests you can take. Some are required but most aren’t. Despite that, it’s a good idea to take them as they give you money that you can use to buy parts and mementos (more on these later). They also give you experience points, which comes in handy near the very end of the game when you need a relatively high level to do some required quests. Some of the quests are funny, and some are actually pretty touching. There’s one in particular that stood out to me. You’re given a quest to look for a book on a ship you have to fish up (it makes sense in context). Once you find it, you can’t find the quest giver anymore; instead, you see someone that looks a lot like him. It turns out that this new guy is the quest giver’s son, and that the quest giver has been dead for quite some time. The book you found is actually the captain’s log, and in it the captain talks dearly of missing his pregnant wife. He figures at this point he’s going to die  and hopes that his wife gives their son or daughter a certain name, depending on the sex of the child. The wife never actually saw the captain’s log, so she named their son a different name than the one the captain hoped. The son is very touched by his father’s obvious concern and love for him and his mother, and as it turns out, his wife is expecting, so he decides to name his child one of the names his father had wanted for him.

There are quite a few quests like this, but they’re not limited only to searching for things. Sometimes you’re meant to do cleanup of an area or to defeat a certain amount of monsters. There’s also a duel ship where you can fight for money. They switch up the rules or enemies, so it’s not just “fight these three matches” over and over again. There are other quests where you might have to solve a puzzle, rescue someone who’s been kidnapped, or do some task within a time limit. You can also download quests via a menu on the starting screen. All in all, there’s a lot of variety to be had here, which keeps the game interesting. The only real complaint I have regarding this is that if you fail a quest—or, say, a match in the duel ship—you may or may not actually have to go find Flo again to retake the quest, but you have to sit through all the text you sat through the first time no matter what. This is especially annoying on the duel ship because there are introductions for each of the characters, and if you have a special rule for that match, you have to sit through those explanations as well. It’s weird that tutorials are optional but viewing these explanations isn’t.

You’re limited to save points (which also heal you) and when the game decides you should be given the option to save (usually after quests), but there seem to be enough to not make it inconvenient… most of the time. There were times where I cursed the game because I really needed to go somewhere and I wanted to save the game and turn off my DS instead of just putting it in sleep mode and the save points just would not come. I could post a whole rant about how much I hate save points and find them to be outdated features of RPGs that just won’t die, but I’ll spare you the details and say simply that this particular feature wasn’t nearly as annoying just because I could resort to shutting my DS if I really needed to get off the game, but had this been on an earlier system where that wasn’t possible, well… you’d be getting the rant.

One important part of this game is the customization of Dahak. You’re given parts (attack, defense, hydraulics, mobility, and revive) in various shapes and you have to find a way to make them fit into the square provided, and later, a kind of plus sign. The good thing is that you can remove parts, rotate them, and buy extra slots with P crystals. Be warned, though: If you die while a revive piece is in, that revive piece is actually consumed after giving you your health back.

During the second half of the game, you get an upgraded version of Dahak, Dahak Mk2, which also allows you to focus on different specialty moves and focus on particular setups. For instance, one form might have increased hydraulics but decreased defense. I found that after getting the Dahak Mk2, it really didn’t matter what I did: I could kick ass a lot easier than before. So in a sense, the game actually grew easier as you went on, at least as far as battles went. You eventually learn how to do something called Trance, but I found it to be pretty useless as far as defeating enemies went, so I didn’t bother with it.

This game really rewards exploration. For instance, you can buy momentos of your previous adventures in the form of china plates with paintings on them. These go into the cabin of your ship and you can use the plates to watch cutscenes from the game any time you’re on the ship. There are also kittens hidden around the world, and if you find and catch them, you can retrieve a photo fragment. Find the four fragments of the same picture and you complete that picture for your photo album, also on the ship. And if that isn’t enough, you can also find tunes throughout the world, which give you points that you can use to buy in-game music that you can listen to at any time while on the ship. Later on, you also get a memory book, which is basically an encyclopedia. The more you explore, talk to people, break things, fish up ships, etc., the more your library expands, and you get to learn about the world Red inhabits, including races, clothing, food, technology, and history.

There are no real loading screens, making the game quicker and easier to play. Every time you finish a chapter, there’s a screen that says “To be continued…” but other than that the only thing breaking up gameplay are cutscenes. Speaking of, at times the game does play more like a movie than a video game. For the most part, cutscenes happen at the beginning or the end of chapters to help flesh out the storyline and let you know what you need to do with important details showing up in red. However, some chapters have pretty long cutscenes, and you may find yourself feeling like no matter how many times you press A, you’re never going to reach the end. I didn’t mind them too much, but I also appreciate a fleshed out storyline. Those who don’t care will probably find this annoying.

I’ve mentioned first half and second a few times. Let me explain: I got to chapter ten, which was labeled Final ChapterWow, this is a pretty short game, I thought to myself. I found that chapter to actually be really easy; even the final boss was… not that hard. And the music seemed off. Normally when fighting a boss the music is upbeat, tense, and urgent. This music was slow, calm, and quiet, just like when you were exploring the last area before the boss. I defeated the boss in what felt like record time, there were ending scenes, ending credits, and then I see something else: text that basically tells me that peace came to the land, but it was short-lived. Oh, okay, so they set this up for a sequel. Cool. As it turned out, I was only halfway through the game. There was a whole other game to be played!

By whole other game, I don’t mean that you’re literally playing a different game: you’re still Red and you still have Dahak, just upgraded—but the game totally changes pace and tone. There’s even a new opening scene when you start the game. Three new bad guys come into play, you learn some pretty interesting things about some of your teammates, and you start to learn more about Red’s past and the history of the world you’re in. You even start to find out about a race other than Felineko and Caninu that you hadn’t seen up until now.

The plot becomes a lot more interesting and deeper in this second half. In the first half of the game, you’re Red, you’re a sarcastic but lovable protagonist who can’t take much seriously, and you stumble upon this medallion that turns out to be an integral part of this method for sealing away a monster that if released will destroy the world, blah blah… basically your typical JRPG. I found myself putting the game down for a while because I’d lost interest. It wasn’t that the game wasn’t fun to play, but the storyline really didn’t catch me. However, toward the end of the first half, as is also typical of JRPGs, the game changes, and you start to notice that something’s different about Red. That becomes an integral part of the second half of the game. Red starts to have layers, starts to mature, and I actually started to care about him as a character. Even though the second half isn’t without its clichés, I feel like it’s done well and is believable, if you’re able to suspend your disbelief for things like technological advancements and canine and feline people.

The plot becomes most interesting one or two chapters from the end, when Red is struggling with a side of himself that neither he nor his friends knew existed. For me, it was tough to not be able to control Red’s character at this point, or for my hand to be forced to do something I didn’t want to do. The ending, if a bit cliché, drives home a point about Red’s personality and origin that I honestly hadn’t thought about too much. And of course, there’s a lovely little ending scene, bringing your memento count up to 42. After you finish the game, there’s a little intro scene the next time you play it, and then you’re free to do as you wish. There’s even a quest where you can challenge yourself to beating a lot of the old bosses in a row without healing.

This game started out a bit slow, and to be honest, I wondered if I was going to finish it. It picked up quite nicely, though, and I found myself eager to finish the last few chapters. The game gave me a good solid 20 or so hours of playing time, and you can continue to play the game after you’ve beaten it, so if you’re a completionist like I am, you can do quests, get P crystals, find music, find picture pieces, complete your library, and all that jazz to your heart’s desire afterward. The quest pickings are a bit slim if you’ve been doing them all along, though. I’m assuming the Quest Download option was made to help alleviate that issue, although if the DLC quests come with the game in North America, I wonder how that will affect the amount of DLC that will be available. All in all, I had fun playing it, and I think it was developed pretty well. It’s a cute game and a great time waster.

PROS
* Pretty graphics and music
* Tutorials mesh with gameplay and most are optional
* Variety of quests
* Cute extras keep game interesting and reward exploration
* No real loading screens
* Surprises in second half
* Second half of the game more interesting

CONS
* Two different commands linked to B Button
* Flying mechanics are awkward
* Save points
* Failing quests leads to having to redo entire thing
* Trance is useless
* Cutscenes can get long/frequent
* First half of the game a bit slow

FINAL SCORE: B

Disclosure: At the time of review, the writer completed 100% of story mode, clocking in at 21:42:55 for completion. By that time, she had collected all 42 mementos, 72/78 discovered songs, 44/52 discovered photo pieces, and approximately 75% of geography, 80% of history, 85% of culture, 80% of ecology, 95% of technology, 90% of races, and 90% of lifestyle library entries.

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