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Solatorobo: Red the Hunter provides an incredible journey in a huge fantasy world with a great story. This is one of the biggest adventures by far to be had on the DS.
The hallway echoed with my booming steps as the heavy metal feet of the DAHAK carried me forward. As I continued on, two robot security drones came to attack me. I leaned the DAHAK down and picked one of the droids up by its feet. Leaping into the air, I hurled the terrified machine into its partner, destroying them both in a shower of sparks. Reaching the darkened end of the corridor I saw that the way forward would be impassable for the suit. I gulped and stared bleakly at the tiny ladder, as I realised I would have to dismount and continue on foot. I took with me a small hand weapon. In comparison to the DAHAK's mighty form, I knew I represented a pitiful opposition to any enemies lurking the darkness. I felt very alone. I gripped the pistol tightly and began to climb into the shadows...
The pleasure I got from playing this game speaks most strongly to my love of animated Japanese movies. Not so much the building-destroying, explosion-leaping or motorbike riding anime, but more the wistful, child's-dream fantasy of Studio Ghibli, the company behind Spirited Away and Laputa. While resolutely science fiction, the floating cities in Solatorobo are stone-cobbled and the next character I meet may as likely be a pastry chef as an amorous cargo-trader.
Solatorobo creates a fantasy world of sky pirates, brigands and treasure. The costumes are flamboyant and operatic and the action equally melodramatic. Red, the hero, is a (ed: Dog) mercenary looking to earn a living from taking on jobs for the menagerie of interesting supporting characters. He fosters an intense rivalry for the local security forces and before he knows it he is embroiled in a bigger plot with conspiratorial twists and a magic secret. It's like Han Solo's journey in Star Wars if it had been directed by Terry (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) Gilliam.
While Solatorobo's quests are largely variations on being sent to find an object or kill a certain group of enemies, the basic mission structure is kept lively and enjoyable by the brilliant fiction and cast of memorable characters. The settings are varied, from a giant-bee-infested jungle to a subterranean sewer. The game's narrative always manages to keep bringing fresh ideas and locations and remains an engaging adventure throughout.
Solatorobo features a highly unique combat concept
It also benefits from a fairly open-world structure. While there were certain quests which advanced the story, I found that being able to explore each new location at my leisure helped connect with Solatorobo's world. A clear sense of location is a hugely important factor in immersing a player or audience in a narrative and this game achieves it.
Another element which reinforces that sense of space is the requirement for Red to dismount his powerful robot suit occasionally to explore less traversable terrain on foot. Compared to the god-like robot, Red on his own feels very small and vulnerable. As my story above suggests, I found these moments were loaded with sympathy for the character along with a real sense of suspense.
The game's unique selling point is also its weakness. Solatorobo features a highly original combat concept. Enemies are fought in real-time by lifting them and throwing them to cause damage. Multipliers can be added by jumping into the air before hurling and hitting another opponent with a flying victim. Red's robot suit, which allows for these activities, can also be upgraded to increase lifting strength, speed, attack and defence. The battles are kept interesting by a variety of enemies that have to be approached in different ways to allow Red to get his cunning claws into place to lift the enemy.
It's like Han Solo's journey in Star Wars if it had been directed by Terry Gilliam.
But, despite that stream of varied encounters the basic approach of lifting, throwing and returning attacks becomes repetitive very quickly. I can't put my finger on it, but I feel that somehow the combat needs a couple of extra strategic elements to provide a truly addictive experience.
In true Zelda tradition there are also some mini-games which can provide a welcome distraction. The mech-fighting and fishing games are highly enjoyable. However, there is an aircraft racing side-game which I found to be fiddly to control and is visually messy and unsatisfying.
The air racing does opens up into 4-player races for players over Wi-Fi and this may provide a more entertaining challenge than I was able to experience. However I couldn't help but feel that the basic handling lacked fluidity and the collectible weapons never seemed to be as finely tuned as a combat racer like Wipeout or Mario Kart.
Those flaws are minor, however, in the face of Solatorobo: Red the Hunter's undeniable charms. In addition to all that this game has to offer there are even 12 additional quests to download, providing even more adventures. With sun-bleached fantasy castle towns and pantomime characters it feels every bit like getting immersed in a dreamy cartoon escape.
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