If there is one thing I've learned after playing "Sakura Taiten V"
, it would be that I'm apparently into seemingly imposing, ambiguos Japanese guygirls.
"Subaru is always watching you..."
For the sake of my reputation, I'll just pretend I never said that. So, let me just press the reset button.... and here we go!
If there is one thing I've really learned after dating a Japanese guygirl from a dating sim/JRPG (blast it!), is that I should never get used to certain predetermined role-playing games' archetypes. Who said that Level Grinding has to be an essential core element to a JRPG by law? "Sakura Wars" got around that gameplay impediment pretty smoothly by substituting the need for grinding with a system that allowed me to improve the characters' stats by actually performing successful dialogue interactions with them (a la Dating Sim, precisely), thus creating a strong link between the narration and the gaming experience. On the contrary, the need for Level Grinding is what usually transports your mind away from the in-game plot, which is, in turn, drifted away from the actual interactive environment - and the turned-based combat doesn't really help on the seemless immersions’ side of things. You may refer to this conundrum as the “Final Fantasy” paradox.
Now, romantic dates with Subaru aside, wouldn't it be fabulous if a JRPG (maybe an action-based JRPG, so to speak) was able to focus more on the story it wanted to tell and less on the necessity of the obsessive/compulsive leveling-up addiction? And, since we're at it, wouldn't it be outstanding if said story revolved around something a bit more original than the usual Japanese Fantasy Anime-oriented plot? Something like, let's say: anthropomorphic animals riding steam-powered battle mechas and a realm of floating islands above a sea of clouds with no trace whatsoever of any remnants of the human civilization?
Today I'll be reviewing this very sweet Nintendo DS exclusive's Dog-on-Robot Action better known as Namco Bandai's "Solatorobo: Red the Hunter" (also entitled "Solatorobo - And Then To CODA"), latest installment of the semi-known "Tail Bronx" series!
(Click on the image to see the animated intro)
Now, in truth, completing this game took me longer than I expected, not because of its difficulty, mind you (on the contrary, this is probably one of the easiest games I've ever played in my life), but simply because I didn't want to finish it, I wanted to prolong the experience as much as I could.
"Solatorobo" is one of the best JRPGs currently available on the market, not to mention one of my personal favourites of all time - despite its lack of any real challenge. Why is that? Simply enough: it had an engaging plot, good characters and also a gameplay that, albeit linear (or rather, because of that), did a great job in making my Suspension of Disbelief tingle in joyful ecstasy.
Just how good the story is, you may ask? Well, let me answer like this: the last time a JRPG managed to hook my attention span with its plot at such an amusing level, I was playing "Chrono Trigger".
Yes, it's that good.
"I'm falling off the plane, Tails! oh wait... wrong game."
What caught my curiosity in the first place and never let it go in the ever-after, was the game's basic concept; namely the presence of anthros and robots, two of my favourite fictional elements merging together in one place for my nergasmic joy - that's basically what my dreams are made of: cartoon animals and Japanese mechs. For that reason, as I played the first 10 hours of the game (which felt kind of dull and repetitive, actually), I found myself wondering if my undeniable bias towards this particular gaming concept did lead me astray from my ability to judge things rationally - in other, less conceited words, I was starting to have some doubts. Then, just like that, without pre-warnings, the second part started, and my mind was blown away by the sheer magnitude of its untimely greatness!
Let's proceed with order. Here's a brief but sufficient description of the gameplay, the story and the characters.
(Click on this image for a general overview)
The game is set in the world of Shepherd, a steampunk-designed republic of floating citadels inhabited by dog and cat-looking people that use robots in a daily fashion - this synopsis amuses me. Also, for some reason, the local language seems to be French - that's weird but cool none the less. You take control of Red Savarin, an ace-of-all-trade canine hunter and expert robot pilot, who also happens to be the furry version of pretty much any generic Shounen Manga hero ever conceived - so if you like "One Piece" you'll be just fine with him.
As you might expect, Red and his sister, professional mechanic Chocolat Gelato (just go with it), find themselves in a pinch when they accept what it only appeared to be a "simple" data retrieval job. The game begins as Red lands on a flying ship named the "Hindenburg" - wow, I wonder if it's going to crush and burn? After retrieving a strange medallion from the ship, thwarting an attack from a large group of mercenaries known as the Kurvaz, and just before the Hinderburg crashed and burnt (well, blow me down!), Red manages to save a weird, little cat girl (cat people are called Felineko, by the way) named Ehl that he initially mistakes for a boy - which, naturally, leads to a “hylarious” turn of events. Ehl is actually an immortal 300 years old being with mysterious magical powers and one of the only two survivors of an extinct clan of ancient McGuffin-ish guardians called the “Paladins.”
Really now, the "Paladins"? You’ve got a whole tribe of anthropomorphic, magical cats that never age and the best name you come up for them is "Paladins"? That's kind of lazy, if you ask me.
Anyway, Red ends up stipulating a contract with the Felineko: in exchange of riches and fortunes (which he will obviously never get), all he needs to do is collecting a bunch of sacred crystals, protecting her life and the medallion from the Kurvaz and, while at it, saving the whole bloody world from being destroyed by an ancient living weapon known as a "Titano-Machina"... you know, the usual.
There is not an overworld exploration in this game: you travel from place to place with your ship (the Asmodeus) and you walk around the cities and dungeons aboard your personal robot - although you're allowed to descend from it in order to open treasure chests and retrieve semi-hidden collectables.
The core gameplay element revolves around your mech's ability to grab objects (or enemies) and launch them, which is a concept that I deeply enjoyed because it mildly reminded me of "Klonoa" - although, don't get me wrong, this is isn't nearly as mind-blowingly perfect as that particular gaming bonanza.
Still pretty cool though...
As already mentioned, the story-telling has a linear pace but you are free to slightly deviate from said path by partaking in side-quests (available from "Quest Brokers" in any of the places you visit), upon which successful completion will reward you with money, mission ranks (to access more quests) and, if there's any enemy to defeat, experience points. Quests can go from pirate-thwarting to time-challenges to fighting tournaments, and so on. All is good in theory, but it starts to feel a bit repetitive after a while. Levelling up is a minor focus in the gameplay (it will only slightly increase your health bar), while other physical power augmentations can be achieved by customizing your mecha with additional components, that can be bought from shops, and by utilizing randomly-found spirit crystals to create more space to place said components (it's a cool mini-game, all in itself). Of course, the fact that the game tends to be epically unchallenging, won't require you a great effort in those fields - at least not in the first 10 hours that is.
Speaking of which, in the first part of the game you'll be fighting against the Kurvaz and their insane leader, whose bent on world domination for non-specific reasons and has the least threatening name in the history of any fictional content: Bruno.
Oh my, I'm so scared! Please don't kill us, oh mighty Bruno the Destroyer!
Yes, that almost put me off from this game. Almost!
Thank the Hyrule Goddesses, everything took a totally uncalled-for epic turn for the second part, where the game truly struck my consciousness like a Death Ray of Awesome! From a seemingly light-hearted, harmless setting, the narration fell into pitch-black deep waters of mature story-telling by adding super-powered humans to the mix!
Yes, you heard me right! There are going to be humans along with apocalyptic doomsday devices, hidden secrets about our hero’s past and the world of Shepherd itself and Red even gains a super form!
Now I can’t tell you much about the plot at this point because it would spoil you the fun, but it's just fantastic, let me tell you! It's as if they took the best parts from "Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann" (only without the childishness, the testosterone-driven shenanigans and the not-so euphemistical drills) and crossed them with the 1993's "Sonic the Hedgehog" cartoon - the good one, mind you!
It's just that amazing! It's filled with themes revolving around evolution and legacy, the constant struggle against fate in the name of arbitrary freedom and necessary will to overpower one’s own weaknesses and fears in order to save the things that are important... plus, it has animals fighting against humans on their robots with the destiny of the whole planet hanging in the balance!
As the plot drastically improved, everything else followed suit. Suddenly, my Suspension of Disbelief was in full force as I found myself having more fun with all the quests and growing more fond of the characters, as they managed to evolve from their archetypical status. Red and Ehl have pretty much become one of my favourite couples (much like Simon and Nia from "Gurren Lagann"): the former becomes a more likable and endearing protagonist once his bravado facade makes way for a slightly more complex development (after his background is finally revealed, that is), without going drastically out of character. Ehl, from being portrayed as a tomboyish emo, gains my undivided sympathy over time as the tragedy of her never-aging condition becomes more clear and compelling. I really liked how their relationship matured over the twenty chapters of this game.
Am I the only one who notices a slight resemblance? Probably yes...
Another character that I loved was Marveille, a mysterious female canine scientist whose role in the life of Red is more profound than he could imagine - to the point that I was half-expecting her to die some time in the story.
There are other characters worth mentioning, like Belùga, Ehl's long time friend and the other only Paladin around (he's kind of a feline version of Vincent Valentine with white hair, if you ask me) and the Bruno's successor in the Kurvaz lead, Lady Opèra.
Deviantart is going to have a blast with these two...
What else is there to tell? The design, artwork and visuals are simply outstanding, the soundtrack is great and the narrative pacing is appropriate. Sure, the game as a whole might have been unbearably easy, but I was so delightfully drawn into its world and characters that towards the end I felt like yelling "Who The Hell Do You Think I Am!" from the bottom of my lungs, such was my level of catharsis.
All in all, “Solatorobo” is an inherently good game. Even counting out its several flaws (the lack of difficulty, the first 10 hours, a few plot points feeling a bit out there), I wouldn't be able to forget the fact that I've been basically playing the videogame version of this:
Conceptually speaking, the only thing that could possibly out-cool this one would be a genetically altered, super-powered, super-fast angry rodent fighting off robots and alien invaders with guns and---oh wait!
Epic Foreshadowing (ha-ha, I'm funny)
Now, if only they could make a crossover, it would be titled: "Mecha Furries to the Top! ShaodowBuster"
If you're craving to play "Solarotobo" (and you don't leave in PAL regions, ha-ha), I've got some good news: the game will be distributed in North America this fall. You just need to be patient. In the meantime, allow me to gloat for a few minutes.
My score for the game is:
Shut Up and Take My Money: Good enough to be worth all my hard earned savings.
On a related note, "Solatorobo" wins the award for the silliest-named city in gaming hystory: "Sealyham". Try to say that name out loud. It will make spilt milk from your nose.