Houston, we have a problem
Rodea The Sky Soldier has had a long and difficult journey. Created by former Sonic Team boss and NiGHTS Into Dreams creator Yuji Naka, the Wii version of the game’s development wrapped up way back in 2011, though the game struggled for years to find a publisher. Now, NIS America has taken up the reigns, publishing developer Kadokawa Games’ rocket-powered adventure in North America on the Wii U and 3DS. While the game’s pedigree is certainly enough to make platformer fans take note (Naka is, after all, the man who programmed the original Sonic the Hedgehog, and lead SEGA’s Sonic Team during the studio’s best years), this airborne adventure has burned through quite a bit of fuel in the years since it was first announced, and the end result is a game that never quite manages to reach the stratosphere.
The story of Rodea The Sky Soldier begins 1,000 years ago on the sky kingdom of Garuda. Emperor Geardo of the Naga Empire assembles a mechanical army to invade the floating realm and ransack its resources. Not content to sit idly by and watch her father destroy the peaceful kingdom, Princess Cecilia, the pure-hearted princess of the Naga Empire, instructs the machine soldier Rodea to protect Garuda, and he successfully manages to beat back the invasion and save the land from Geardo’s forces.
Flash forward to the present day: a young inventor named Ion discovers Rodea amid the dunes of a sprawling desert. Ion repairs the battered robotic hero, who is shocked to find himself in the future, with the battle between Garuda and the Naga Empire nothing more than a distant memory in the minds of the people who’ve known peace for a millennium. As you can probably guess, this peace is quickly shattered when the Naga Empire’s army suddenly returns to Garuda to finish what they started, throwing Rodea into the forefront of a fight to liberate the kingdom’s floating islands from Geardo’s forces once and for all.
At first glance, it’s easy to see that Rodea The Sky Soldier is greatly influenced by Naka’s previous work with the aforementioned Sonic the Hedgehog series, as well as the popular airborne epic NiGHTs Into Dreams, which is fondly remembered as one of the Sega Saturn’s finest offerings. While Rodea can run through the game’s varied 3D environments on foot, the star of the show is the robot’s ability to take to the skies. Pressing the jump button twice will cause Rodea to hover, allowing you to aim to a target location or enemy. Another press of the button will send Rodea gliding towards the targeted area. Tapping the attack button mid-flight will send Rodea dashing towards targeted enemies or other destructible objects in the environment, which proves to be Rodea’s primary means of dispatching enemies. However, you’ll also unlock a variety of equipment, including a machine gun that allows you to dispatch targets from across the screen, though the weapon’s serious lack of stopping power makes it best suited as a last resort for picking off particularly nagging enemies from a safe distance.
Sounds simple enough, right? Sadly, it’s that’s the case, as you’ll likely find the game’s sloppy controls pose more of a threat Rodea than any of Geardo’s mechanical monstrosities. Everything, from targeting baddies to simply flying from point A to point B, is mired by unwieldy controls and a staggering degree of unresponsiveness that hampers your progress at every turn. Jumping is erratic, making the simple act of picking up floating power-ups a battle of attrition as you fruitlessly hop back and forth, futilely attempting to snag an item that should be easily within your grasp. Additionally, the game’s lock-on functionality is atrocious when using your gun, often outright targeting enemies in the opposite direction of the enemy you’re locked onto. In short, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that little was done to optimize the game for the Wii U’s Gamepad, making it abundantly clear the title was designed from the ground up with the Wii nunchuck and remote in mind; a feature the Wii U version of Rodea curiously does not support.
Rodea The Sky Soldier‘s adventure takes you across familiar terrain as you soar above a variety of floating environments including crystalline snowfields, sweltering volcanic ruins and deserts plagued with sweeping sandstorms. Each of these areas brings with it new enemies to face and obstacles to overcome as you work your way to each area’s Chronos Tower, which serves as the backdrop to each region’s boss battle. As you explore these various landscapes you’ll collect Gravitons (Rodea‘s version of Sonic’s Rings or Mario’s coins – a crucial collectible for scoring extra lives) and hidden medals which can be used to purchase bonus collectibles and areas to explore. You’ll want to try to cover as much ground as possible, too. The items you collect and scrap you scavenge from fallen foes can be used to upgrade Rodea’s stable of abilities and enhance your speed, as well as the damage Rodea can take and dish out upon his enemies. The stages themselves are relatively barren, though they do offer multiple paths for progression, which is a nice touch. You’ll also find tucked-away bonus doors which can lead to treasure troves of goodies.
Rodea‘s boss fights often put you toe-to-toe against gargantuan guardian creatures. These monolithic monsters look as if they were torn straight out of the pages of the Shadow of the Colossus design manual, and could have proven to be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. Unfortunately, these battles quickly devolve into wrestling matches with the camera as you struggle to find your character, who is often completely obstructed by these hulking opponents, or simply stuck clipping through an object in the environment. It’s a shame, too. Because the monsters themselves are otherwise interesting, and could have served as a fantastic way to cap off each chapter in Rodea‘s story.
As you’ve probably gathered from these screenshots – Rodea the Sky Soldier certainly isn’t going to win any awards for its visuals. Quite obviously a relic of another era, the game is riddled with jagged architecture, flat texture work and some underwhelming particle effects. Truth be told, even if this were to have launched alongside the Wii back in 2006 the game would have been fairly underwhelming visually. Of course, style can oftentimes overcome technical limitations, which makes it all the more disappointing that Rodea fails to even get that right, especially when considering the visual flair of Yuji Naka’s previous releases. Combine the lackluster visuals with rampant clipping issues and it becomes very evident Rodea could’ve used a bit more time in development.
Despite the game’s lackluster presentation, Rodea The Sky Soldier‘s musical score is actually pretty solid. Composer Takayuki Nakamura does a great job of complimenting each area with sweeping melodies fit the high-flying action very well, and the boss themes do a great job of getting you pumped for the action at hand. The game is also the latest entry in NIS America’s growing number of games that support dual audio, which is a plus, because the English dub is pretty stiff compared to the original Japanese voice work.
As a huge fan of Yuji Naka’s work at Sega, I really wanted to like Rodea The Sky Soldier more than I did. Unfortunately, the nagging specter of a seemingly endless stint in development purgatory haunts Rodea’s experience from start to finish. While it’s great that Rodea is finally seeing the light of day, it’s a shame that more wasn’t done to optimize the game for Nintendo’s latest generation of hardware. The lack of remote and nunchuck controller support oftentimes makes Rodea feel almost unplayable on the Wii U, and while you can purchase the special edition now to get your mitts on the original Wii version of the game, it’s really disappointing to see Kadokawa Games seemingly arbitrarily omit such a feature that’s so obviously ingrained into the foundation of the experience. Even still, if you’re a particularly patient player who’s desperate for a new platformer on the Wii U and happen to be a big fan of NiGHTS and Sonic the Hedgehog, you might find some enjoyment in this unique airborne adventure. However, anyone else may want to steer clear of Rodea, as the game’s myriad technical missteps and overall lack of polish cement this one firmly on terra firma.
Final Verdict 2.5 / 5
Available on: 3DS, Wii U (reviewed), Wii ; Publisher: NIS America ; Developer: Kadokawa Games ; Players: 1; Released: November 10, 2015 ; ESRB: E for Everyone; MSRP: $39.99 (3DS) $59.99 (Wii U)
Full disclosure: This review is based on a Wii U review code provided by Rodea The Sky Soldier’s publisher, NIS America.