Version tested: DS
The character Red the Hunter is an anthropomorphised dog in a hat, a kind of cross between The Fantastic Mr Fox and Biggles, who pilots a robot and chews a bone like it's a cheroot. Every ounce of his wiseass charm is needed: after all, he's in a game called Solatorobo. Come again? The spiritual sequel to Tail Concerto, a PlayStation title that sold so poorly it's taken 13 years to get this made, you wonder if the developers at CyberConnect2 are idealists, plain crazy, or just don't like selling games.
It's a crying shame, because Solatorobo deserves much better than obscurity. This is an original adventure-RPG that's clearly a labour of love as well as a fine piece of craftsmanship. It's built around a snappy real-time combat system and a quick-fire quest structure that pings Red around the world, breezily throwing new ideas to the fore before abandoning them just as quickly. And it has that magpie quality all great games have: the eye for something shiny that worked elsewhere, appropriated and slotted in without a second thought.
The main storyline unfolds over a series of chapters to be taken at your own pace, while around these, plenty of standalone quests are available to up Red's Hunter rank and fill the coffers. Solatorobo doesn't really do grinding, largely because of its frantic combat, favouring instead snack-sized challenges and levelling so laid-back it's horizontal.
The game doesn't have a hub per se - you switch between towns instantly using the Asmodeus, Red's snazzy ship, a vessel with endless capacity for the junk and treasures accumulated on your travels. All of the towns have their own layouts and camera tricks as well as some of the most gorgeous background artwork you'll see on DS; each location looks and feels like its own place.
In towns or on quests, Red's usually riding Dahak, a mech around three times his size used for manhandling enemies and the environment. It's a beguiling creation with an organic feel, thanks mainly to its fluid animation and clanking, whirring SFX; when puzzles demand Red dismount, he feels a fragile thing by comparison.
The Dahak's main ability is lifting and throwing things, with the puzzles and combat overwhelmingly built around these talents. Hitting A near an enemy starts lifting it, and depending on factors like weight and position a certain number of presses are required. A successful lift flips the foe, which can then be thrown at other enemies or simply dashed into the floor. In addition, once enemies are flipped, you can start using jump to mid-air combo and get up to three throws in.
It's all about timing, positioning and giving the A button a damn good mash when you've got something by the backside. Fights are often over in seconds and this, combined with the generally small rooms Red's working through, makes most quests snappy and to the point. Later enemies demand more considered tactics and have a little bit more nous about avoiding your giant metal arms, but even the most strenuous boss fights only last for a few minutes.
Fighting isn't the only part of being a Hunter: it's a varied career, with Solatorobo throwing new features and ideas up throughout. An excellent free-roaming flight ability feels underused, while fishing sounds all Zelda but involves harpooning house-sized crustaceans with a gun bigger than you are. Odd little quest types turn up, never to be seen again: investigate a burglary, fight off sky pirates, clean up sewers. 80 quests may not sound like a lot, but when you realise they're not all reskinned variations on the same theme, it's a much healthier number.
Solatorobo is comfortable on this smaller scale, offering variation in the moment-to-moment of its quests rather than throwing everything at a big set-piece. It's a game full of detail, not only on the visual side, where a room's pictures and hidden crevices are as interesting as a treasure chest, but in its concept of an adventurer as part-time hoarder. So many games ask players to collect things these days, and in so few is it worthwhile.
Solatorobo's pictures, music, mech components and gradually-revealed library of lore and clues may not sound different from the usual, but their integration with Red's ongoing adventure is masterful. One of your first quests is to help a photographer who's had his snaps stolen: chasing down the thieves recovers one torn-up photo, but the others are gone. For the rest of the game you'll keep an eye out for these cat-burglars, noticing the telltale shake of a barrel and quickly chasing down the miscreant for another scrap. Every time it takes maybe five seconds of hide-and-seek, but it makes that growing photo collection a little more valuable.
Everything is integrated: a quest's goal is one thing, but exploring during it will nearly always contribute to some other aspect of the adventure. Such interlocking design is essential for Solatorobo and mitigates its biggest problem: for the most part this is a cakewalk rather than a challenge.
Partly it's the generous health allowance, and partly the enemy tells being far too obvious, but the upshot is that for yours truly (full disclosure: total badass) the game over screen is still a mystery. Things do get tougher once the first story arc is complete, and Solotarobo reveals one of its greatest tricks. [Snipped for spoilers! -Ed.]
Still, Solotarobo is a game that washes over rather than taxes the player, gently pulling you onwards rather than daring you to overreach. Only a lunatic would suggest all games should be Ninja Gaiden, but you'd be equally crazy to undervalue challenge and depth.
There are other missteps. For one, Solatorobo's story and visuals have epic moments that rarely tie in with the action: too often you'll watch a huge battle take place in a cut-scene that could just as well have been in-game. The narrative's also a little too lacking in subtlety. At one point, you're fighting a battleship that's trying to blow up an orphanage.
But for everything Solotorobo could have done better, there's far more that's done just right. The combat may lack depth, but its knockabout crashes and bangs never get boring. The story's simple, but Red and the rest of the cast are charming characters and the witty translation does wonders.
Solotarobo is a great surprise and a breezy pleasure to play. From the constant Nintendo motifs in the game's own brilliant chiptunes to the recurring minor characters, its world is crammed with touches that add texture, that give a little more detail, that make you play through just another quest before bed.
It feels familiar, but it's unlike anything else - and even on DS, where good RPGs are plentiful, this is in the top tier. It should have been called Awesome Robot-Riding Dog Adventures, of course. But you can't have everything.
8 / 10