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Solatorobo Red The Hunter

Man's best friend or dog's dinner?

Like all the other games about a bunch of cat and dog people living on a series of Gallic floating islands, Solatorobo isn't afraid to hit the ground running. In fact, it doesn't stop running until it runs out of steam - and then it starts flying instead.

Red The Hunter tells the story of Red - a hunter - in the magnificent airborne isles of the Shepherd Republic. There's some loose, mainly thematic connection with PS1 cult favourite Tail Concerto, but it wisely doesn't rely too heavily on an obscure action game that only seven and a half people have played.

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Red's tale kicks off on the Hindenburg airship, named after a real blimp that crashed spectacularly back in 1937. Turns out that was as dumb a decision as naming your new cruise ship 'Titanic', or your newborn kitten 'Carproof', as the aircraft is attacked by a God Of War-style behemoth mere moments after you sneak your shuttle on board.

Dogboy Red's there to nick a file for a client, Quebec, but he finds a mystical amulet and an unconscious stowaway instead. There's some hilarious anime-esque confusion 'comedy' over the gender of the latter, but it's the medallion that drives most of the game's plot forward.

Before long, a group of predictably perky, moody or secretly good bad guys start tailing you, in an effort to grab the medallion back. It's a shame that such a novel setting couldn't give birth to a more original plot, but it gets the job done, in the manner of a late '90s RPG.

RUFF AND TUMBLE
Speaking of RPGs, that's an acronym you may have noticed a lot in discussion of the game in previews. However, while Red levels up, does quests and customises his robo-suit, these elements have been applied with the lightest of touches. Increasing your level only adds a small bonus to your health; quests, main or otherwise, are generally short and dialogue-heavy; and the customisation element is satisfying but straightforward.

We don't say this as a slight on the game's RPG nature, but to highlight that this is a strange chimera of a game. There's a heavy focus on fighting and talking, but it finds the time to fit in a fully fledged racing minigame, optional arena battles, on-rails mine cart sections, fishing bits, and the exhilarating-butfiddly free flight moments (see 'Mecha Bingo', right). It's a bold, huge and often gorgeous adventure, but it can be damn hard to pin it down when it's so busy zipping from one activity to the next.

Let's start with the combat, as it's the activity you'll be spending the most time with. Red seems to live most of his life in his stompy mech, Dahak, which has giant hands capable of picking up and chucking most things. The core of combat involves grabbing nearby enemies by hammering the A button, before hurling them into another enemy, or at the ground. Repeat until the bad guy/annoying insect/wooden crate is dead/shattered into a million tiny pieces. Later on your repertoire will expand, but it's not long before fights start to feel repetitive.

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You know those dull boss fights that consist of following an obvious pattern, over and over? Solatorobo's regular battles often feel like that: pick up enemy, chuck it, do it again. Fights are usually too brief to really grate, but it's telling that, after only a short while, we began to face them with a grimace rather than a grin. The combat's not bad, exactly, it's just a little too one-note for our tastes.

But that's okay, in a way, other stuff to be getting on with. The game uses the quest structure of Monster Hunter to provide a near-constant stream of diverse activities. Accessible by Flo, the omnipresent quest broker, each mission grants Quest Points that increase your Hunter Rank when you get enough. A higher rank means you can take on better side quests, which get increasingly involved the further you play.

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