I'm surprised Tail Concerto didn't sell millions based on its ridiculous box-art alone.
Though in my younger years I made it a point to collect most Playstation One games of renown, I was somehow never able to find a copy of Tail Concerto, the strange action-RPG about anthropomorphized characters (see: furries) riding battle mechs. So while it's a bit of a stretch to say I've waited thirteen years for the chance to play as a dog in robotic battle armor, I will admit that I was pretty excited to get my hands on Solatorobo: Red the Hunter, especially since CyberConnect2 has apparently waited years for the chance to develop this spiritual sequel. Apparently, the original Tail Concerto didn't sell so well, but after a decade of making their overlords at Namco-Bandai happy with a slew of profitable .hack sequels and Naruto titles, CyberConnect2 was finally allowed to return to their "pet" project.
Having now played Solatorobo, I can definitely see why CyberConnect2 was so eager to return to this charming colorful animal world. Unfortunately, I can also see what it is that made Namco-Bandai so hesitant to do the same, and why both they and Nintendo (the European publisher) both passed on the right to localize this game in America.
Combat involves grabbing enemies and spiking them like a football.
Solatorobo: Red the Hunter follows the story of titular character Red, a cocky smuggler with a heart of gold: basically the Han Solo of dog people. Along with his pilot/sister Chocolat (a cat, inexplicably) and his personal robot-vehicle Dahak, Red travels the world performing bounty missions, trying to eke out a living in this humanless world of airships and floating sky-cities. Its during one of these bounty missions that Red stumbles across an ancient medallion, accidently activating the relic and awakening a giant world-devouring beast. In short, it's your fairly standard "save the world" plotline, though the tired plot is saved by the game's colorful cast of characters, as well as a few interesting bits regarding the history of this strange animal world, including what exactly happened to all the humans.
Solatorobo's action focuses largely on the bounty-board system. By accepting and completing various quests found posted in different towns, Red meets and befriends the game's impressive character roster and advances the plot, while also earning coins primarily used to purchase various stat-boosting ability blocks for the Dahek. Most of these quests are your standard dungeon-crawling affairs, though the game also features a variety of intriguing side quests, some air-combat missions, and even unlockable 4-player mini-games. Though these offerings, such as the game's sky-racing mode, aren't as fleshed out as say Mario Kart, they're still an enjoyable distraction, and a great example of how much stuff has been crammed into the little DS cart.
Memories of Diddy Kong Racing abound…
A shining point for the game would have to be the graphics, which are a rather attractive mix of 2D and 3D hindered only by the Nintendo DS's limited resolution. The town areas are especially gorgeous, using the forced perspective common to PS1-era RPGs, allowing CyberConnect2 to cram stunning amounts of detail into each frame without having to laboriously construct a fully 3D environment. The game's plot sequences are also graphically impressive. These are primarily handled through small character skits, kept interesting by the expressive character portraits. However the game also showcases some very well animated character art during more crucial plot moments, as well as some impressive 3D sequences with the two-screens-tall world-destroyer boss a sight to see. Even famed anime studio Madhouse steps in to provide some brilliant fully-animated sequences, with the opening movie really giving some life to this anime-inspired world.
Various animated sequences and cutscenes really bring the game's world to life.
Seeing just how well designed the game world is, it's a tragedy that the actual gameplay is so dull. Though there's so many different things to do, none of them are particularly interesting or challenging. The dungeon sequences, the core of the game, definitely feel like a missed opportunity. Red is often forced to leave the safety of Dahek's cockpit in order to hit a switch or pull a lever, which contrasted with the Dahek's ability to pick up and throw larger objects, seems as though it should allow for some interesting puzzles. Though sadly, the game rarely forces players to do anything more complicated than pushing some crates around.
P-Crystals found in dungeons are used to unlock additional enhancement slots, which can then be fitted with tetris-like pieces for different stat bonuses.
Then there's Solatorobo's unique combat system, which again, is sorely in need of some added complexity. Interestingly, Dahek has no actual weapons, only able to damage foes by lifting and tossing them. Players are additionally encouraged to throw enemies at each other, with chain-throwing an especially useful skill: catching an enemy after they richochet off the floor and slamming them back down again. The problem again is that the combat is just too simple. Sure, there are foes that can only be grabbed from behind, and attack patterns that require some use of the dash button for dodging. But beyond that, most fights involve simply waiting for a break in the enemy's attack, then quickly grabbing them and slamming them into the ground. Repeat, ad-nauseum.
If bear-hugging enemies sounds like a good time, this is your game.
Solatorobo: Red the Hunter sets itself up for a sequel, and rightfully so. With a bit of work spicing up the combat system, and the addition of some true Zelda-style dungeon puzzles, Solatorobo could be a truly great portable franchise. As is, this game is something I'd definitely recommend to the 8 to 10 year old market, with the light-hearted plot and simplistic gameplay is perfectly suited to act as little Jimmy's first RPG. But beyond the primary school crowd, there's just not enough challenge here for seasoned gamers.
Again, I want to love this game, which seems to offer so much potential. Though I honestly wouldn't blame Namco-Bandai if they put CyberConnect2 back to work on another Naruto game following this disappointing experiment.