E3 2015: Rodea the Sky Soldier Brings Freedom to Platforming

For the longest time, platformers have been mostly about running and jumping gaps. Sometimes, you do it quickly, other times, you need great levels of precision. But nearly all the time, platforming has been about more running than jumping, even if the jumping is the star of the show. Rodea the Sky Soldier, the latest from Sonic the Hedgehog and Nights designer Yuji Naka with a collaboration between Kadokawa Games and Prope, seeks to do away with the abundance of time spent running around in platformers and simply replace it with straight-up air time.

Rodea the Sky Soldier is essentially about the barest defining feature of platformers: jumping off of things. When I got my hands on the Wii U version of the game at the show floor, I was initially confused by it. For starters, levels are fairly open and large, the three levels I tried were composed primarily of floating platforms scattered across a great expansive sky. As such, my first instinct was to jump; but it was strange. A jump propels main character Rodea vertically into the sky at a steady pace, almost floating him up. The jump itself also used part of a circular meter of “Gravity Energy” that surrounds the targeting reticule present on the screen which replenishes when you hit solid ground. The idea at that point is to target something solid – anything – and Rodea propels himself towards it at a lateral free-falling speed. At the very beginning of my flight, an arc is displayed that previews the direction Rodea will be flying to get to the target. Once I reached what I targeted, I then immediately kicked off of it and targeted my next platform. This is the lifeblood of Rodea: free-form, long distance platforming in a three dimensional space.

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Each time I reached a platform, I was immediately leaving it to fly towards another one. Then enemies come in, killing them is a matter of knowing whether or not you can spin into them Sonic-style. Some enemies need to be shot first, others require you fly at them and spin into them with a small jolt of last-minute speed. The spinning melee attack will use the circular meter I mentioned that surrounds the targeting reticule. For enemies who can take a punch, there is also a lock-on to focus your fire. Shooting is very easy and shots even curve to hit their mark. The enemies are never alone so I enjoyed racking up a relentless but systematic kill streak of exclusively air combo hits. There are also lines of yellow collectible “Gravitons” that I could zoom through if I came in at the right angle; getting these things replenished my Gravity Energy meter as well and gave me access to a special attack. When I collected 50 Gravitons, I could perform a Graviton Attack where I enter a multi-targeting mode and do a quick auto-attack where Rodea pierces through every enemy I marked. This was a good way to clear an area, but was less satisfying than attacking an enemy manually to feel the impact of the kill. The game plays similarly to Nights, and for those unfamiliar with that, think of it as Sonic the Hedgehog where you manually homing attack everything. It takes getting used to but eventually I was soaring through the sky easily, essentially flying with the occasional wall-jumping stop. I pulverized everything kill-able in my way, and shot down those I couldn’t touch. With a primary destination objective and liberally provided checkpoints, Rodea‘s levels gave me a sense of vertical and lateral freedom in how I wanted to get where I needed to go and what I wanted to do on the way.

However, at this point, it lacked the satisfaction and adrenaline that all the good platformers tend to instigate. Since the levels are so big, I spent a fair amount of time just waiting to get to what I targeted, as Rodea does not move very fast even once he boosts his speed after flying at something for a few seconds. The best way to gain speed was to use the melee attack that drains meter. That is not to say staying airborne is problem-free either, the Gravity Energy meter I mentioned that drains when you jump and attack also drains slowly after propelling Rodea in a direction or kicking off a platform. Therefore, managing meter is very essential to smooth and consistent air time. Kicking off a platform to regain meter, and then turning around to target the next kick-off point is a go-to method. So it didn’t help that the time I didn’t spend flying towards exactly where I wanted, I spent wrestling with the camera to see above, below, behind, or even in front of me. There is no means of quickly centering the camera either, so I spent more time than I’d have liked essentially flying blind. If I could not see, and therefore target, where I wanted to go, I grounded myself to re-adjust. In a game like this where you get places by being in the sky, running around on solid ground almost felt like failure. That and the poor camera controls made staying in the air and getting where I wanted needlessly difficult at times.

Most of my gripes with the game went away however when I hit the first boss fight. The encounter was with another person like Rodea who could wall-jump and fly around like I could. We were in an woodland arena that had large branches that came out from the sides and along the middle; kick-off points. The arena was more tall than it was wide so our battle was an air-borne omnidirectional exchange. This was what sold me on Rodea.

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Locking on to the boss, I dashed off the nearest platform to soar into him, keeping track of his position as he traversed the stage with a supernatural level of agility and freedom that I realized I could easily match. It was liberating and thrilling to navigate in any direction I wanted while chasing an enemy that did the same. We fired shots at each other, dodging up and down and side to side while pursuing each other in the dynamic ebb and flow of our cat-and-mouse. In the enclosed space, Rodea’s modest speed was more welcome and the generous homing nature of my projectiles was nice to have. I had to pepper the boss’ shield with gun shots to make him vulnerable, and then intercept him in the air to deliver a clean melee hit. Rarely is such a supernaturally agile enemy confronted in a game where the player has the same impressive level of agility and environmental freedom that the enemy does. After weakening his defenses enough, I noticed that my enemy had hidden away. Tracking him down, I found him charging an attack just for me. Maneuvering to his flank, I kicked off a branch and nailed him mid-charge, this took a nice chunk from his health. I smiled, I was floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee. I felt in control, I felt dangerous, and I felt even more agile than my capable target.

In the future, it will be nice to see if Rodea offers more in terms of character upgrades and enemy variety. Whereas I loved that boss fight, the levels I played were mostly lukewarm at best. Strangely enough, the game was also running on a Wii U but looked like a Wii game. The frame-rate even seemed to buckle when particle effects filled up enough of the screen and the Wii U’s gamepad screen was not utilized. Given the manual targeting necessary in getting anywhere, I would hazard a guess that Rodea‘s Wii version could offer a different experience, at least in the navigation and camera control which bogged down my experience with the Wii U version. It is fortunate then that the Wii version is set to come out for free when you purchase the Wii U version of the game.

Rodea the Sky Soldier is nicely creative and novel, providing several different angles to the platforming genre. The game can definitely stand to grow, and I look forward to seeing how satisfying it is to master the traversal and targeting. Hopefully, Rodea gets a real speed boost later on in the game. At the very least, this game lays down some interesting groundwork that a sequel can really push over the edge and into the sky.

Rodea the Sky Soldier will be on 3DS, Wii, and Wii U in the US this October 13.