Rodea the Sky Soldier on the Wii U is an unfortunate case of too little too late. For one thing, this was originally intended as a Wii game which then switched to the Wii U and not as a port either, but instead it was completely reworked in terms of gameplay systems and mechanics. Within the first moments into the Wii U release, you can’t help but admit that it looks like something that should have been released 4 years ago. Still, better late than never as the old saying goes, and the release of Rodea the Sky Soldier is most certainly welcome in Wii U’s ever expanding library of unique exclusives. That being said, Rodea the Sky Soldier is a very,very flawed release. It has moments of brilliance for sure, but for every moment of bliss there are at least five moments of irritating frustration to dampen the experience that Rodea the Sky Soldier intended to provide.
Rodea the Sky Soldier tells the story of a great war between two kingdoms: Naga the Machine Empire and Garuda the Sky Kingdom. The hero is a mechanical soldier named Rodea, who is tasked with protecting Princess Cecilia. Things get ugly fast, and Rodea gets separated from Cecila and also finds himself shut down for 1000 years. Upon awakening thanks to the efforts of his new friend, Ion, our hero finds himself in a state of stoic amnesia (although in this case it’s more of a factory reset!) but he slowly but surely regains his memories, and more importantly his colourful personality, as he interacts with his new friends. His awakening could not have happened at a better time, as around the exact same time the evil Emperor Naga, and the four towers, emerge after a 1000 year slumber to conquer Garuda. It’s now up to Rodea and his friends to take on the Naga forces, and more importantly slay the colossal guardians that protect the towers. The story is light hearted and charming, the characters you’re introduced to are likeable (except Ion who can get mighty irritating during gameplay). It’s a classic story of unlikely hero overcoming himself to save the world, and it’s executed soundly in a way that one cannot find too much fault in.
One thing that needs to be said right from the outset is that Rodea the Sky Soldier looks horribly dated on the Wii U, from a visual, graphical, and even a technical standpoint. Sure, there is a bit of artistic flair in some places, but generally this game looks offensively bland and boring. By now, we are all aware that the Wii U can produce some mighty fine graphics in games like Super Mario 3D World, Bayonetta 2, and the upcoming Xenoblade Chronicles X. Rodea the Sky Soldier started out as a Wii game, and that’s exactly what it looks like. The lazy textures and clunky character models all make Rodea the Sky Soldier look like a game that is still in the middle of development, the particle effects and use of colour doesn’t really help either. To make matters worse, it doesn’t even perform smoothly as it suffers from constant framerate fluctuations, pop-ups, short draw distance, wonky collision detection, and slow-down dips during busier sections of the game. Quite simply, Rodea the Sky Soldier is underwhelming in its looks and performance, and these issues also hurt the gameplay in many ways.
Rodea the Sky Soldier on paper (and in its many trailers) appears to be a game where you can blissfully traverse the skies, but in reality it’s the exact opposite. The problem with Rodea on the Wii U is that there are far too many unnecessary elements and mechanics that take away from what the game really intended to do. There are just too many meters and gauges that are not very intuitive or helpful. How the core gameplay works is rather simple: you point the reticle on an object/enemy using the analogue stick, press A to have Rodea fly towards it, press B to initiate a homing attack, but the distance you travel is limited by a flight meter, and so if you run out mid-flight it’s pretty much lights out. Having a flight meter defeats the whole purpose of being a sky soldier, given that very little actually happens on the ground. The flight meter can make the flying experience feel restricted and cumbersome, especially when the game can’t seem to decide when you’re allowed to target something, as you can only fly towards something if you’re locked onto it.
Now before you think that this is exactly how it was intended to be, that’s actually not true because all these little gauges and bars are completely absent in the original Wii version. The flying system simply falls flat in the Wii U game as you don’t feel like a sky soldier at all, but rather a tank with a barely functioning jet pack. The combat doesn’t help matters either, with a hit or miss lock-on system and inconsistent collision detection, not to mention the flight meter interferes with the flow of battles. The health system is oddly counter intuitive as well, with too many collectibles often contradicting each other.
Rodea the Sky Soldier has a rather extensive character upgrade system, where you make use of parts collected from fallen foes in order to upgrade abilities and weapons of the sky soldier himself. Does it feel helpful to have this elaborate system? Not really, as the supposed improvements can feel like taking a placebo pill for the most part. Much like all the aforementioned gauges and meters present during gameplay, the upgrade system also feels like unnecessary padding.
It only gets worse from here, as even attempts at recapturing the magic of games like NiGHTS into Dreams fail because of the mechanics. There are certain moments where you can fly into stars and initiate a chain of graceful flying sequences… when it actually works that is, because more often than not the chain either fails to initiate or simply stops halfway, which then prompts you to lock onto it again. The erratic camera makes sky navigation far more confusing than it should be, and this is especially problematic during combat, in particular during boss battles where you’re not only battling a giant behemoth, but also engaged in an even greater battle with the game’s camera system.
To get the most out of the Wii U version, you absolutely need the Wii U Pro Controller because otherwise it is impossible to get any enjoyment out of it if you are using the Game Pad. Rodea the Sky Soldier certainly does become bearable over time, and like I said it has moments of brilliance, but for every moment of brilliance there are far too many shortcomings to deal with.
The pacing and design of Rodea the Sky Soldier has a number of problems too. While some of the levels can be fun, and the boss battles are always a treat because of their interesting design, unfortunately, the gameplay systems and mechanics do not complement the overall design very well. The levels themselves are also a mixed bag, with largely similar ideas in each, and more often than not they outstay their welcome by slogging on for too long. A game like Rodea works best when levels are short, tight and action packed, but unfortunately most of the levels in the game are far too dragged out, with objectives that are boring and interrupt the flow of the already cumbersome flying action. The true highlight however, are the game’s epic boss battles that are smart in their design and take a page out of the behemoths found in Shadow of the Colossus. Unfortunately, as I mentioned before, the camera system takes away from the brilliance of these epic boss encounters.
Rodea the Sky Soldier has a nice soundtrack going for it, and the fully voiced cast and character banter are decent for the most part, but there are some major issues in the sound design that at times make you reach for the mute button on your TV remote. Ion is a nice character who has some fun exchanges with our hero during cutscenes, but outside that she is constantly present inside the Game Pad yapping away to the point where you wish she would go away (thankfully she does get kidnapped at one point during the story… albeit briefly). The most horrible thing about the sound design are some of the sound effects, especially the one you hear when an enemy locks on to you, no sound effect I’ve heard can ever compare to this cringe-inducing atrocity. It’s so bad that I had to mute every section of the game where enemies were locking on to Rodea. Oddly enough, this sound effect is completely absent in the Wii and 3DS version.. go figure!
Rodea the Sky Soldier is an experience that intended to be something special and magical, but has far too many flaws that prevent it from being the experience what it wanted to be. If you want to call it a steep learning curve, then it will take at least ten levels for you to grow accustomed to the confusing and counter-intuitive gameplay, and to work around the many technical and mechanical issues. You will also, eventually, find yourself tackling levels with less frustration. However, that has nothing to do with getting better at the game or learning how it works, but rather it’s more to do with growing more tolerant of the flaws, and just learning to work around the design and gameplay issues through trial and error. Rodea the Sky Soldier may have moments of creative brilliance, but you have to go through a lot of trouble to even stumble upon them.
Journey into the skies with Rodea the Sky Soldier via NIS America.