At this point, Yuji Naka’s place in video game history is secure. As one of the key figures behind all the early Sonic the Hedgehog titles, and later Nights into Dreams on Sega Saturn, Naka has brought gamers countless hours of high-speed fun. But many also lament what is most likely Naka’s greatest failing—the inability to recapture many of those feelings we had from his 2D Sonic games in his 3D ones. Sonic’s failed transition away from side-scrollers partly led to Naka’s departure from Sonic Team in 2006, driving him to create his own studio, Prope, which has seen moderate success in the mobile realm. Unfortunately, like a pro athlete who refuses to admit the best days of his career are behind him, it seems that Naka still wants to find a way to bring the mechanics that made him a success in the 90s to modern audiences. As Rodea the Sky Soldier proves, however, knowing when to move on is sometimes more noble than never letting go.
Rodea the Sky Soldier begins by explaining that, every millennium, a cross-rift between two dimensions opens. One dimension is driven more by organics and nature; the other, more mechanical and industrial. King Geardo, monarch of the industrial dimension, wants to use the cross-rift as an opportunity to rule over both. His daughter, however, is tired of her father’s dreams of conquest, so she programs her android bodyguard Rodea to stop the king and his robotic army at all costs. It sounds more like the plot of a JRPG than an action game, but it does its job in setting the stage as to why the organic world you fight in is overrun with mechanical enemies. Meanwhile, from a design standpoint, Rodea looks like a cross between a Sonic game and a Nights game. Item boxes, enemies, even world layout, although simple, has the feel of Naka’s later failed works at SEGA.
Before we continue any further, it needs to be said that Rodea the Sky Soldier was never intended as a Wii U game. In fact, it sat in development purgatory for four years, originally planned on being released on the Wii back in 2011. Why the game was delayed so long is beyond me, but it looks like nothing has been done with all that extra time—causing a lot of rust to collect on Rodea’s visuals and gameplay.
Graphically, the game is a mess—it would look bad even as a last-gen title. Barely populated worlds, wide stretches of land painted in the same bland color, and even large segments of a stage flickering in and out of existence as rendering fails to keep up when Rodea reaches a decent speed mar the the experience. All this makes Rodea easily one of the ugliest games I’ve played in a long time.
Rodea is also a joke in terms of gameplay, seemingly taking all the worst elements from Naka’s previous games and mashing them together. Rodea can fly around a level or run around the ground, moving his fastest when he’s in the air. He has only a limited meter once he takes flight, though, so Rodea will need to find a solid piece of land to settle on to let the meter quickly refill—sans grabbing certain items mid-flight that refresh his flight power. This actually provides a nice challenge in stages where lots of bottomless drops abound, forcing you to balance how you get to the end of each level.
The flying could have been so much more fluid and fun had the game’s controls not turned out completely unintuitive. Instead of allowing you to just fly around using the control stick, you have to aim at where you want Rodea to fly, then press a button to set a marker on a safe spot. Once you’ve done that, Rodea will move along the path toward the marker you’ve placed. If you want to course correct, attack an enemy, or deviate in any way from the original path, the entire concept falls apart. I could see where, if you had to use the original Wiimote, pointing at the screen constantly, this might not have been as bad as it is. But using the Wii U gamepad’s control stick to aim instead caused rerouting Rodea in mid-air to become a chore, especially with the overly sensitive camera swinging around trying to correct itself. Never before has flying in a game ever felt so restrictive.
The combat is also a sad state of affairs. When targeting an enemy, you can lock onto them like you would in one of the 3D Sonic games, with Rodea even spinning around to gear up for the attack. If enemies are grouped together, though, the inability to easily link attacks was a sad realization. I often had to individually target them—which, admittedly, was still easier than flying—but I lacked the speed or rush that even the worst 3D Sonic games were able to produce.
The weakest element of combat, though, is easily something I thought I’d never see again in a game like this: guns. Channeling his inner Shadow the Hedgehog, Rodea has machine guns and other firearms that he can earn over time, allowing him to slowly aim and take pot shots at the enemies around each world. It was at this point that I nearly threw the Wii U controller out of sheer frustration because, while the gun mechanics work, they destroyed any semblance of pacing that the game was trying to achieve.
Rodea isn’t a complete letdown, though. Showing at least a semblance of evolution from the projects of a decade ago, the game features a fleshed-out upgrade system for the titular hero. Killing enemies rewards Rodea with spare parts that he can then use to upgrade his armor, attack, speed, and other attributes between stages. He can also unlock new moves and better weapons—should the whole machine gun mechanic not bother you as much as it did me.
Surprisingly, the game’s boss battles are also a fair amount of fun. Since most of them are mammoth in size, set in the game’s larger arenas, it’s easier to target their weak points and bring them to their knees—even if many fall into the classic “three hits and you’re dead” gaming trope. It’s such a shame that getting to the bosses is such a grind, leaving them feeling like a brief respite instead of the culmination of a well-designed level.
It’s sad that Rodea the Sky Soldier stayed buried for so long. Had it released in 2011 like originally intended for the Wii, this might’ve been a much better handling game to play, and wouldn’t have looked nearly as bad as it does next to the Wii U contemporaries it now has to contend with. The saddest part, though, is that Yuji Naka doesn’t seem willing to completely let go of his past—and, if anything, accidentally makes the case for why the beloved characters and gameplay he created in his early game design days no longer fit in the modern gaming realm.
|Developer: Kadokawa Games/Prope • Publisher: NIS America • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 11.10.15|
Horrid visuals and unintuitive gameplay make Rodea the Sky Soldier one of the worst action games I’ve played in a long time.
|The Good||Massive boss battles, deep character upgrade system.|
|The Bad||Difficult to control Rodea in flight, last-gen graphics, lots of glitches.|
|The Ugly||Didn’t we learn anything from the disaster that was Shadow the Hedgehog?|
|Rodea the Sky Soldier is available on Wii U, Wii, and 3DS. Primary version reviewed was for Wii U. Review code was provided by NIS America for the benefit of this review.|