The sign of a great console is surely its ability to continue to attract support long after it has been superseded. The PSone’s frankly ridiculous install base – as well as an extremely controlled launch of its successor, meant we were seeing PSone games long into the following generation and with the odd PS2 game sneaking out even today, it’s clear that the second generation of PlayStation still enjoys similar late-game success. So with its equally obscene sales figures and a slow start for 3DS, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that DS development would overlap into the life of Nintendo’s new handheld – the firm itself released the new Pokémon duo just before 3DS, and continues to publish DS titles even while Wii development clearly winds down this far in advance of its replacement. On Nintendo’s part though, it’s obviously only the high-profile stuff that still gets pushed through on DS – Pokémon, Dragon Quest, Kirby and… a sequel to an obscure game that never got a UK release? Oh.
Solatorobo is the sequel in all but name to PSone oddity Tail Concerto, a charming adventure in which anthropomorphic canine hero Waffle… well, it doesn’t really matter what happened. It had a dog-man called Waffle in it. CyberConnect2 continues its silliness some 13 years later, this time following the adventures of Red, a carefree dog-fox-boy-thing who rides a robot that isn’t quite big enough to be properly awesome. There’s certainly more of a focus on characters and story here than Tail Concerto ever had, though it could hardly be called integrated – the majority of the game is spent tapping A to skip through dialogue sequences which, if it weren’t for the awesome character portraits (some of which will probably be enough to push borderline furries over the edge) replete with inexplicable bubbles of French speech, would run the risk of quickly growing dull. The story meanders along, mildly patronising and with a naïve doggy poker face that can’t hope to conceal any of the plot’s twists and turns, though the animal cast makes it an enjoyable enough ride all the same.
And it really is a ride, too. Seldom have we seen a game so shy about flashing its Game Over screen, and anyone paying even a modest amount of attention to their mech setup and the insistent combat advice given would have to go out of their way to get killed, which isn’t how many people play games. It’s partly due to the aforementioned exposition but, primarily, it falls down to the fact that combat itself is so incredibly basic. Red’s little mech, the Dahak, is a robot made for lifting, and lifting is basically all it does. You mash the A button a lot to fill the Lift Gauge then toss your foes around like oversized juggling balls, hurling them into one another and returning projectiles to their sender about as complex as it ever gets. However, it’s only used in brief bursts, which makes it quite hard to get too sick of it, and it’s chunky and well-executed enough that it still manages to raise a smile from time to time. Still, it would definitely have been nice to see the action side of the game spiced up with a little more variety and depth to the confrontations.
That said, variety is never exactly proven to be Solatorobo’s strong point. Raising your Hunter Rank by performing quests certainly gives proceedings an air of freedom, but it doesn’t take long to see through this once story missions start requiring a certain Rank. Pretty much all non-story missions retread old ground, a few extra enemies here or crates to shove around there about as exciting as things get for the most part. Curiously, the more interesting tasks seldom reap the same kinds of rewards (at least in terms of Rank advancement) as their cut-and-paste brethren – arena battles come smothered in stipulations to make combat more interesting while races and fishing challenges help mix things up beyond grabbing things and throwing them.
The floating archipelagos of Solatorobo’s world make for a beautiful backdrop but, outside of a few freeform missions – where the Dahak gets upgraded with boosters that allow it to thrust between islands – this potential isn’t really tapped. It just doesn’t seem to have the conviction in its more original ideas to grow them, instead repeating tried-and-tested box puzzles and dialogue-heavy fetch quests while more interesting interactions are shunted down the bill, left as one-offs and optional extras. The upside is that such areas feel fresher and more exciting when they do show up, though it naturally places more importance on the ability of the story and characters to draw you in. Which, unless you’ve got a heart of stone, they probably will.
It could be argued that Solatorobo’s ambitions are greater than its reach, artistry evident in the game’s overall aesthetic (not to mention the all-too-infrequent anime cut-scenes) pushing the DS hardware but still never quite doing the style justice. The intricacy and detail of this world cries out for more graphical muscle, concessions leading to some confusing locations and ugly characters (the cast is a curious mix of sprites and 3D models). But somehow, in spite of its shortcomings and some questionable design choices, Solatorobo’s spirit and charm mean it still manages to entertain, especially when played in brief bursts – the focus on short missions really proves to be a wise choice and the constant signposting doesn’t grate nearly so much when you’ve been away for a few days and your brain could do with the nudge. Rich in character while on minimum wage mechanically, Red’s simple adventure is basically a steampunk Sylvanian Families game, and is every bit as good – or bad, depending on your mindset – as that sounds.