I write reviews because I sincerely enjoy playing video games. I think that’s kind of central to the whole thing, really – if you’re more concerned about the politicization or business side of games than whether or not you’re having fun playing then, what’s the point? As a result, I tend to be pretty lenient with my scores, as the act of gaming is enough for me to have a good time and I can find some redeeming value in most of what I play.
Sometimes, though, I’ll run into a game that seems dead set on locking fun up in a safe and keeping the key far away from the player. Today that game is Rodea the Sky Soldier, an aerial platformer from the creator of Sonic the Hedgehog that’s spent over five years in development.
Rodea stars the titular Sky Soldier, a flying android that takes to the skies in service of the conquering Naga Empire. When the empire sets their sights on the sky island nation of Garuda, though, Rodea and the princess of Naga rebel, but the plan goes awry and Rodea ends up in the far future. Now, with the help of the gratingly talkative girl genius Ion, Rodea stands as Garuda’s last line of defense against the Naga Empire’s destructive plans.
Rodea has a long and storied development history. Normally I completely disregard this kind of thing, but it’s relevant here. What we’ve got here is another of Yuji Naka’s brainchildren, a game in the same family as Sonic the Hedgehog and NiGHTS, and it was originally going to be a Wii game; physical copies actually come with a copy of that build on another disc. I wasn’t able to try this build out, so I can’t really speak to it. Maybe that one would be more fun to actually play.
The game’s development history is relevant because the biggest problem that faces Rodea is its controls, which are honestly kind of awful. Rodea tries to hit the same sweet spot that NiGHTS did: it focuses on the use of a unique control scheme to emphasize the degree of mobility hat flight offers. You might remember NiGHTS as one of the first games that made analog controls “work” and Rodea clearly wants to do the same for the Wii Remote. You don’t have one here, so you’ll have to make do with the stock Wii U Gamepad.
Making Rodea fly about is a bit of a chore. Jumping again while in the air puts our hero into a spin jump called “pre-flight mode” where you can point at targets and blast off like Team Rocket; you’ll fly until you hit the target or run out of fuel, then regain any spent fuel when you hit solid ground. Here’s our first problem: your direct control over flight is essentially nil, as what you’re doing here is pointing at a spot and clicking go. If there’s no surface in the direction you want to go, well…sorry, not happening. If it’s too far away and you aren’t over solid ground when you run out of fuel, well…sorry, hope you’ve got some extra lives.
This isn’t nearly as easy as it might sound. You need to understand how far you can go before running out of fuel and falling to your death, along with getting a handle on how Rodea will approach a target that you point to and retargeting in mid flight so you can avoid attacks and obstacles. Any degree of grace in the sky is only going to come after some grueling practice and plenty of deaths. Don’t expect much in the way of precision either, as a thumbstick just isn’t the right tool for the job. Oh, and those extra lives? Those aren’t restored between levels or even resets of the game, so you’d better learn to fly fast, preferably before you run into any of the game’s giant boss encounters.
The basics of combat are similar, having you point at an enemy, go through the motions for flight, then hold the attack button as you collide with them. When performed correctly this plays out a little like Sonic’s Homing Attack as you smash one enemy, rebound to another and repeat until everything’s dead. This, of course, relies on you not accidentally clicking anything but another enemy, as if you do you’ll start rocketing off toward whatever you clicked. There are upgradable guns as well, but they tend to be piddly peashooters and their lack of impact seems to be a subtle hint to use the ram attack instead.
A lot of the aggravation here would be solved if you could just use the Wii Remote, which would offer the speed and precision necessary to make this game work. It’s not like the Wii U can’t use the Wii Remote. It’s fully supported, and in fact the Wii U is backwards compatible with Wii games so it HAS to be fully supported. The option just isn’t there, which is a critical error that stains everything about Rodea. Perhaps the Wii version of the game addresses this and is a much better game for it, but it’s not what I played so we’re not looking at it here.
The taint of Development Hell lingers in the graphics as well. Despite running on a relatively contemporary console, this is an original Wii game through and through, and we all know that the Wii is basically a half-step above the Gamecube in terms of visual fidelity. The Wii U isn’t the most powerful system by any means but it’s possible to make visually impressive games on it – see Yoshi’s Wooly World, Hyrule Warriors and Bayonetta 2 for examples. Rodea, meanwhile, is a muddy mess the second you get up close to anything, presumably because you’re meant to spend the majority of your time in the open sky. At least the voice acting and character designs are solid and worthy of Yuji Naka’s name.
There are hints of a good game here. Rodea has an intriguing concept, some decent gameplay mechanics (that are ruined by the controls) and, above all, it genuinely wants the player to have a good time. Sadly, it largely serves as an example of how Yuji Naka lost the plot some time ago. The last really good game I can remember coming from this guy was the Gamecube sleeper hit Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg. Twelve years later, Sonic Heroes was disappointing, Shadow the Hedgehog was disappointing, Phantasy Star Universe was disappointing and now Rodea the Sky Soldier is disappointing. Maybe we’ll see another game that opens the mind and broadens the horizons as NiGHTS did – this just isn’t that game.