Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: Solatorobo: Red The Hunter

See that sword-gun? There's no reason for it to exist, because Red never once uses it in the entire game.


I can pretty definitively state that there a certain things that I hate in a videogame, and sassy, back-talking, anthropomorphised animals are pretty close to the top of that list. Earthworm Jim gets a free pass, for obvious reasons, but the likes of Bubsy The Bobcat, Conker the Squirrel and even Crash Bandicoot just grind my gears: they feel more like brand-mascots than genuinely likable videogame protagonists, and always remind me of that one episode of The Simpsons where the network execs assemble Poochie The Dog to raise the edge-factor of the Itchy & Scratchy show.

But those are western games. Japanese games featuring anthropomorphic animals have a more authentic pedigree (no pun intended), right? I mean, there's a whole artistic tradition in Japan of kemono, dating back hundreds of years, that in its modern form has given us such brilliance as Usagi Yoyimbo. Except that the term kemono is less about artistic tradition and more about furry culture in Japan nowadays, and the insane popularity of what have been colloquially-termed "Petting Zoo People" - comprising everything from cat-eared girls to Star Fox - has a profound, indelibly creepy vibe underscoring it.

All of which leads me to Solatorobo: Red The Hunter, and my expectations going in. Cutting away all of the expository chaff, Solatorobo is a game about anthropomorphised cats and dogs riding giant mechas in a fantasy world of floating islands, where supernatural and technological elements co-exist without any sort of friction or discord. Even considering the great deal of slack I'm willing to cut Japanese RPGs, the game demands a lot from you on this premise alone, simply because it's been done to death elsewhere.

Let me say, for the record, that other than the whole Furry thing, Solatorobo manages to pretty enthusiastically embrace a handful of other elements that I dislike in videogames: yawn-inducingly long cut-scenes, unskippable mini-games, and pointless hunt-and-gather quests. Let's start with the cut-scenes.

It took me approximately 40 hours to complete Solatorobo: Red The Hunter. This is an impressive game-length for any handheld RPG, until you take into account the fact that half - and that is not hyperbole, literally 20 hours - of the game are actually cut-scenes. These cut-scenes are either animated or, more often, simply pages and pages and pages of text-based dialogue, most of it drawn out and utterly unnecessary. Whoever translated this game severely dropped the ball, and just about every time I put the game down and walked away was after dialogue-fatigue. Any RPG that asks you to save TWICE during a single cut-scene (and this was something that happened frequently with Solatorobo) is one that is treading the fine line between game and interactive manga, and needs to do some soul-searching. If any of the dialogue was even remotely interesting, I might feel differently; as it is, I was left with the feeling that I'd been suckered into wasting my time. Literally every single fight and change of scenery prompts a conversation between different characters, and at some point this starts to feel like a game designer padding out the length of the game to make it seem more substantial than it really is.

Less irksome than the unskippable cut-scenes, but still obnoxious, are the unskippable arcade mini-game sequences. This would not have been nearly as big of an issue if these mini-games had been designed and implemented better. I don't mind a temporary break from an established style of play, especially if the game in question is a turn-based RPG (my favorite example of this would be the mini-games in the Dragon Quest series, particularly the Treasures & Trapdoors "boardgame" in Dragon Quest V), but when progress in the main narrative of the game is hampered by having to beat a poorly-designed arcade sequence, I lose my mind. Solatorobo is particularly schizophrenic when it comes to its mini-games, trying to cram in at least half a dozen different ones, many of which are required to continue on with the game. Most egregious of these were the races: the flying mechanism was so poorly handled, and the barriers for the track so difficult to determine thanks to a wonky camera and the questionable design choice of making the track borders semi-transparent, that I very nearly quit the game in disgust right then and there. Other mini-games include fishing (bizarre, overly-sensitive controls make it a confusing endeavor at best), duelling (which is basically repurposed combat), trivia games (which are, as a rule, the random-guess-and-memorize-for-next-time variation) and beat-the-clock platformer challenges (which were challenging at their best, and infuriating the rest of the time).

Let's be fair, though. Nearly every RPG has the tendency to get bogged down in its own blabbermouthed self-importance, and mini-games are par for the course in just about every genre of videogame released nowadays. Neither of these two aspects, alienating as they can be, are enough to qualify Solatorobo as a bad game. No, Solatorobo's greatest offense is that despite its best efforts, it is inherently inconsequential. It does not give you any good reason to play it.

Case in point: early on in the game, you're given a side-quest involving a seemingly inexhaustible number of young ragamuffins, who have stolen a tourist's photo album, torn up all the pictures into quarters, and then disappeared off into the wilds of Shepherd Republic. Occasionally, you'll find one or two of them hiding in barrels, and if you manage to scoop them up (which, with enough patience, you will, otherwise they'll just continue to barrel around that room endlessly) you get that piece of the photo. If you get all four pieces, they'll assemble into a full Solatorobo-related image which you can view from your airship cabin. These pictures have no benefit other than that they're kind of nice to look at, I guess. There's a similar side-quest where you search the world for organs and musical plants to somehow 'harvest', and then use to purchase in-game music. There's a shop you can buy commemorative plates, which take the form of cut-scenes. ALL of these things are things you've already experienced in the game and add nothing new. They do not give you any sort of internal benefit or edge. Your gameplay experience is not enhanced by them in the least. And yet, Solatorobo makes a big deal out of them, and you'll be finding photo-carrying waifs and musical plants right up to the end of the game.

Solatorobo designates itself a role-playing game, and indeed it does have many of the trappings of an RPG, but most of these are more aesthetic than functional. There are three separate, and as near as I can tell, wholly unrelated levelling systems present. First, there's your actual level, which increases as a result of XP earned from combat; this system appears to have no actual impact on the game whatsoever, and exists no further than a number in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. Second, there's your Hunter rank. Ostensibly, your rank determines the tier of quests you're able to undertake, but again, I could find no evidence of this being the case; rather, new quests are released after each chapter that you complete, and never once was I turned away from a quest because my rank wasn't high enough. Finally, there's your mecha, the DAHAK, which can be levelled up through the use of a grid system. Powerups for speed, attack power, defense and "Hydraulics" (the speed at which your mecha can lift objects and enemies, the central mechanism of the game's combat system) can be purchased at shops around the world, and new grid squares can be unlocked through the use of P-Crystals which are found hidden in various corners of different rooms and terrains. This last system is the only one that actually has an effect on the game, and hunting for P-Crystals is one of the few highlights of Solatorobo.

Combat can be generously described as repetitive. Again, this is a criticism that could be levelled at just about any RPG; the difference in, your standard RPG has special attacks, magic, weapons of varying attributes, and so forth. In Solatorobo, there are two types of combat: regular fights and boss battles. In regular fights, you'll dodge an attack, run up to an enemy, tap 'A' quickly to lift it up, and then throw it either on the ground or at another enemy. Repeating this three to four times is usually enough to finish off any enemy you come across. Boss battles, on the other hand, involve tapping 'A' at the right time to grab a thrown projectile, 'A' again to toss it back at the boss, and then a quick dodge out of the way as they attack with one of a handful of designated patterns. There is no variation with this. Every boss battle functions identically.

But let's get back to my original point: Furries. The main character of Solatorobo is Red, a Caninu, or dog person. His 'sister' Chocolat is a Felineko (I'll leave it up to you to decipher that one). Everyone that they meet, with a couple of notable exceptions, are Caninu or Felineku, and until very late in the game, they all behave exactly like their human counterparts might. It's perhaps a testament to Solatorobo that the main storyline does eventually delve into the origins of these two species... And without getting too spoilery, humans do make an appearance. More importantly, Red gains the ability - again, quite late in the game - to transform at will from Caninu to human, a transformation that, AGAIN, seems to have no practical effect on how the game is played, and seems to be present simply for the novelty factor. And by novelty factor, I mean "appealing to creepy Furries" factor.

Solatorobo does not shy away from its inherent creepiness. There's a transvestite Caninu who shows up periodically in the first half of the game to creep on Red. The secondary protagonist, Elh, is a female Felikenu disguised as a male - not because there's any societal pressure or stated purpose for this, mind you, but because once it is revealed it will make Red react with typical Japanese red-faced, temple-sweat-beaded embarrassment. Repeatedly. Opéra, who starts out as an antagonist but later joins forces with Red, is a semi-sexualized Felineku, and there is a pop star named Cocona who represents the sort of sexy-cutesy Japanese idoru thing. It behooves me to say that there's nothing wrong or unpleasant or gross with any of these things taken on their own, and Solatorobo is far from the only game (or cartoon, movie, or comic book) aimed at kids that includes one or more of the above. What is creepy is that Solatorobo includes all of the above things AND a knowing wink at Furry culture. This is not Bugs Bunny dressing up like a girl and smooching Elmer Fudd for laughs; this is a world that explores bona fide sexual orientation and lifestyle choices of anthropomorphised, cartoon animals.

This, in itself, does not make Solatorobo a bad game. I think there could be more games exploring sexuality and alternate lifestyles and perspectives and we'd all be better for it. I can't even damn Solatorobo for dancing around the edge of Furrydom, no matter how creepy I personally find that. No, what I hate about Solatorobo is that it is a frustrating gaming experience, and allows itself to get bogged down by - hell, it wholeheartedly EMBRACES - its flaws and even tries to present them as intended features.

Graphics: 7/10 - Not a fan of the anime style, but for a DS game they're consistent and look pretty good
Audio: 7/10 - I've heard worse, but not a soundtrack that will stick with me
Gameplay: 4/10 - The novelty quickly wears off and becomes repetitive with occasional forays into frustration
Design: 3/10 - Too much dialogue, too many cut-scenes, and what little game there is feels half-finished

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