Rodea the Sky Soldier Review

Rodea is a game that apparently went through a troubled development. Blah blah blah. Every time I’ve seen the game mentioned, that seems to be the first thing people go out of their way to mention because drama is more important than the end product for a disgusting number of people. Basically, the whole brouhaha means that the 3DS and Wii U versions of Rodea are different than the Wii version (which isn’t even sold, only being included as an extra with the first batch of Wii U copies). I haven’t played the Wii original, but I watched some gameplay of the differences between versions to get a feel for the changes between all three. Consider this a review for the 3DS and Wii U versions, which are more or less identical save for some graphical differences between the two.

A terrible start, great middle, and okay-ish end

I wasn’t exactly enamored with the game when I first started playing. Rodea goes through a tutorial type of mission that also fills in his back story a bit, but the heavy-handed dialogue fell entirely flat because I wasn’t familiar with any of the characters yet. Once that finished, however, some scrolling text helped explain what was happening. From there, the game started to become irritating. Main character Rodea randomly reverts to being a robot completely lacking in personality despite it already being established that he has a heart (though what this actually means is never clear—several scenes make it sound more like a literal thing than something metaphorical, but it’s never actually explored in any depth). The end of the second chapter/level sees him finally snap back to having a personality, and the game’s characters begin to demonstrate a sense of humor that’s sometimes misguided and that doesn’t always land, but that lends a welcome lightness to the story anyway. Eventually Rodea and Ion, the mechanic who reactivated him 1,000 years after the events of the prologue, begin to become enjoyable in a strangely familiar kind of way despite initially coming across grating. The game’s plot begins to meander and focus on meaningless details about Rodea’s past life toward the end, however, and when combined with some seriously questionable design decisions I’ll get into later, it causes the later portions of the game to wear out their welcome long before you’ve finished.

Very… strangely… familiar

Around the seventh or eighth level, it dawned on me: this game has serious similarities to the MegaMan Legends games. Both prominently feature an upgradeable male teen robot and his quirky female mechanic sidekick and feature a will-they-or-won’t-they undercurrent. Both have voice acting that’s charmingly over the top. Both have control issues and revolve largely around locking on to an enemy and waiting for the right opportunity to strike. Both feature airships because of the world’s state (Legends’ world is covered by water, whereas the part of the world Rodea spends most of his time in is a series of airborne islands). Both have a similarly weird sense of humor. Even Rodea’s colorful art style reminds me of Legends, though this is less true in the Wii U version thanks to some ugly filters that make everything look weirdly drab. When this hit me, I started to fall in love with the game and I couldn’t fathom why so many people were being so harsh on it.

Rodea the Sky Soldier

The intermittent humor is actually kind of charming after awhile.

That only made its failures hurt so much worse

I remember the first time I completely lost patience with Rodea. There had been some annoyances up to that point, but it wasn’t until I had to fight something like 5 snake-type enemies who would curl up into a ball and fling themselves at me (several at the same time, and invincible all the while). Attacking them while they were in ball form caused me to take damage, so the only way to stay alive was to stay high up in the air. This meant timing my attacks to land when they weren’t in ball form, something that proved nearly impossible. There’s just no good way of figuring out how far you are from an enemy and determining how long it’ll take to reach them. Defeating all of these enemies was required to move on, and I ended up using the machine gun you can switch to (again, much like MegaMan Legends) to slowly finish them off one at a time. Once I finally finished the level, I went back to the second level to pick up some gravitons—which basically serve the same function as coins in a Mario game, giving you extra lives when you collect a lot of them—and replenish the lives I lost. Then the weirdest thing happened: the frame rate dipped into the single-digits and eventually froze my 2DS entirely. I couldn’t exit the game or get the system to respond in any way, so I ended up having to hold the power button to hard reset it. This happened to me on one other occasion, and it’s simply not acceptable. A PC game can be forgiven for freezing because there are a million possible system configurations that can’t all be accounted for, but a handheld game that only works on the 3DS and 2DS? Absolutely unforgivable.

Let’s talk about the gameplay

The story of my love for Rodea turning to white-hot rage continues, but first it’s important to understand the way the game actually plays so that you can understand how it ends up screwing you. Rodea’s kind of like a 3D Sonic game mixed with MegaMan Legends in terms of gameplay, with you running around semi-open levels, usually toward rainbow markers or switches that have to be triggered to proceed. There are robot enemies littered throughout, most based on aquatic life (because if you’re going to build a bunch of robots to take over a nation, why not rip off your prom’s “under the sea” theme while doing it?), and these can be attacked either with the machine gun you gain early in the game or by using a boost attack against it. Boost attacks are kind of like the ones in Sonic games where the playable character shoots himself toward enemies to damage them, and this is the main method of attacking enemies in the game because of the machine gun’s relative weakness and the fact that some enemies are immune to its attack.

For example, there are armored tank-type enemies that have to be tipped over with several quick boost attacks to expose their hidden weak point. Those aren’t the only enemies who have to be approached in a unique way, either. There are squids that electrify themselves at timed intervals, shielded enemies that can only be damaged from the back, giant spiders that are only vulnerable from beneath, blowfish enemies that occasionally grow metal spikes, the annoying-as-hell snakes I previously mentioned, and a few others with their own gimmicks.

Flight energy and upgrades

You spend a good deal of the game in the air thanks to Rodea’s penchant for flight, but can only remain airborne for as long as your flight energy meter remains full. This can be filled in air by collecting gravitons or flying into a wall (which causes Rodea to bounce up), but you expend flight energy quickly enough that you’re bound to land every once and awhile. Boost attacks cause you to move faster, but burn up your flight energy quicker than normal flight. Once your flight energy runs out, you can use up your saved gravitons to get a little more flight time, but these rarely propel you forward any significant amount. Should you run out of flight energy/gravitons while there’s ground below you, you’ll fall to it. If there isn’t, you’ll lose a life and start over from the last level checkpoint.

Over the course of the story, Ion unlocks 3 special secondary functions for Rodea to use. One allows him to use special boost pads that automatically speed him across certain areas. Another is the machine gun feature I mentioned earlier. The third—and most questionable—is a lock-on feature that allows you to target several enemies or weak points and automatically boost attack into all of them. Again, automatically. As in, “no player control whatsoever.” This is important for later in the story. Also important is how the game shoehorns in an upgrade system; using parts automatically collected by defeating enemies, you can upgrade your base damage and health, tack on fairly insignificant features to your moves (like causing your ground stomp to damage enemies, something I used maybe once in the entire game), and upgrade your other upgrades in similar ways. For example, you can upgrade the lock-on upgrade so that you can target more enemies at once, or increase machine gun damage to be slightly less pitiful. It’s worth noting that I didn’t really upgrade anything until level 19, and the game still played fine.

Rodea the Sky Soldier

AND VOLCANO GOD WAS PLEASED BY YOUR OFFERINGS

Problem 1: a timed fight

And then level 19 happened. After going through the rest of the level, you’re treated to a boss fight at the very end. This isn’t just a difficult fight, though—no, it’s timed, and failing to beat the boss before the countdown finishes is an automatic death. However, this boss is only vulnerable at certain points and can do lots of damage to you if you try to attack her at any other time, and with my pathetic not-upgraded damage output, I couldn’t take her energy bar down all the way in the allotted time. It’s just not a realistic expectation without a huge, miraculously rare stroke of luck. I lost 7 lives to her in a row and ended up getting a “game over,” which fortunately only meant that I had to restart the stage from the beginning with 2 lives. For some reason, I had suspected that I’d have to start from the beginning of the game again because the consequences of a game over were never explained.

I wasn’t relieved so much as irate, but once my anger subsided, I went back and grinded some levels for enemy parts so that I could upgrade my attack power. When I finally went back, I beat her in a single attempt. It dawned on me afterward that this boss fight must have been designed to not-so-gently force players to use the upgrade menu, and suddenly forcing part of the game on the player toward the very end (there are 26 levels if you count the prologue) with a massive artificial difficulty spike is beyond the pale. My love of the game began to wane.

Problem 2: awkward targeting and camera

Let’s start with the lesser problem of the camera, which is incredibly awkward. You can spin it with L and R on the 3DS or by using the gyroscopic whatsit that allows you to aim by physically moving the system, but neither work particularly well. This is something you eventually adjust to, however, and the camera was much less of a problem toward the end of the game. Targeting is an entirely different story. See, the way you move in Rodea is by targeting something, whether it be a platform, enemy, graviton, or whatever else. From there, you fly toward that thing, and you can change what you’re aiming at mid-flight to alter your trajectory. This is difficult to get used to early in the game, but it works well enough in practice so long as things aren’t too chaotic. It’s when levels (boss fights toward the end mostly) require you to quickly readjust what you’re aiming at that things start to become incredibly frustrating. The problem mostly shows up where you have to hit a moving object while managing your flight energy; some enemies, including annoying tentacles in the final boss fight, move in strange ways that make them difficult to reach, and you can sometimes spend all of your flight energy just getting to them and end up running out of energy right as you’re in position to attack. I can’t even count how many times this happened to me in the final boss fight. The final boss is an absolute nightmare (more on that next), and you have to time when you hit distant towers so that you can regenerate your flight energy to barely make it to the moving tentacles’ locations. From there, you can only hope the game decides to recognize that you actually hit said tentacles, and that’s if you made it there in the first place. The hit detection toward the end is incredibly spotty, requiring that you hit things at a weirdly specific angle that often comes down more to luck than skill.

Things are somehow even worse when you factor in the lock-on upgrade. After being helpful in one or two levels and boss fights (ones with ground to land on, tellingly), it suddenly begins to become more trouble than it’s worth because of how it takes all control out of your hands. Once you designate targets and use it, the game is on autopilot as Rodea boosts toward those things. At least, he does so in theory. In practice, it’s more like he boosts to the side of those things, takes a second of burning flight energy to turn around, overshoots again, wastes all of your flight energy above a chasm, and kills you. The path detection for the lock-on upgrade is abysmal, and for this to be the case for something that completely takes control out of your hands and doesn’t even let you cancel out of it, that’s a huge problem. This is especially true in the final boss fight, where you’re not able to touch the ground because the vast majority of it is hazardous.

Problem 3: terrible ideas at the very end

Before I get to the nail-pulling, system-throwing abortion that is the final boss fight, I have to mention another terrible idea that came out of nowhere. For example, level 21 randomly turns into a rail shooter where you’re dodging through obstacles like in Star Fox while shooting enemies with your machine gun. I had upgraded my machine gun by this point to ward off further annoyances like level 19, but I’d imagine that this level is even more annoying if you’re doing little damage to the screens full of enemies who are attacking you. You also have full control of Rodea for this section, and the controls prove far too touchy to quickly maneuver him through tiny openings without it coming down to blind luck. It’s just a terrible idea for a level all around, and how something so random and annoying ended up being included in the final game is beyond me.

And now, the pièce de résistance: the final boss fight. What makes its poor quality so strange is that it’s preceded by 2 fights against difficult opponents of a smaller size, both of which manage to be pretty decent. You learn their patterns, dodge and attack when appropriate, and it’s all enjoyable enough. Then the final boss comes around and fairness goes out the window. See, the final boss is this giant robotic monstrosity. The first phase is simple enough, with the ground being purple stuff that hurts you and there being towers all around that you can bounce of off to regain flight energy. You quickly figure out that you have to hit these moving tentacles, though, and they move in large circles that makes hitting them from the right side (and you can only damage them from one side) incredibly difficult. Once you figure it out, the boss sucks you up inside it and you have to shoot its weak points while avoiding touching the walls, ground, ceiling, or anything else. If you manage to destroy all of the glowing weak points without dying, it spits you out and the tentacles come back. For the second phase, it wraps robotic tentacles around any tower you aim at, electrifying the entire thing so that it hurts you. This messes up your timing and forces you to move on from a tower as soon as you bounce off of it, and that’s assuming you even managed to get the timing right to bounce off of it when it wasn’t electrified in the first place.

Again, you have to bring down a bunch of tentacles while avoiding running out of flight energy and losing a ton of health falling into the purple stuff, and the second phase is when you begin to realize that the towers are just far enough away from each other that a simple mistake can cause you to run out of flight energy when you’re so close to the next tower that Rodea could reach out and touch it with his hand. Once the tentacles are dealt with, you get sucked back inside and have to repeat the “shoot the glowy bits without touching anything” bit of the fight. Finishing that gets you to the third phase of the fight, which is where the badness is cranked up to 11 and the knob torn off. Not only does the boss electrify towers you’re aiming at, but he periodically shoots a giant laser that creates a shockwave you have to be at a certain height to avoid. This means wasting flight energy moving up instead of toward the next tower while trying to hit yet another batch of moving tentacles from just the right angle so the game actually recognizes the hit. Once you’ve lucked your way past this part, you get sucked in yet again for the final bit of “shoot the glowy bits without touching anything,” completely identical to the last two.

Then the final part of the boss fight starts, where a weak point opens up in its chest and a ton of debris comes flying at you. There’s health you have to aim at to reach his weak point, and you have to time this to avoid his completely random and unnecessary chest laser that can kill you in one hit even if you’ve upgraded your health. Seriously. Once you’ve—again—lucked your way past this part and hit his chest, the boss fight finally ends. You don’t feel relief. No, you can only wonder what possessed anyone to put the towers so far apart when they added the flight energy mechanic. Or who thought to include a one-hit kill beam in the final stage of an already tedious boss fight (remember, if you lose all your lives to this thing, you’re starting the whole boss fight over again rather than starting at the latest phase). It’s just not fun. It’s the absolute worst elements of Rodea being put front and center for no conceivable reason, and the entire game suffers for it. My opinion of the game had already been tarnished by this point thanks to level 19, level 21 and the freezes, but I was still wavering between a good review and a bad review. It wasn’t until I spent all night fighting with the last boss and swearing at the tiny 2DS screen that I realized that this game has moments too painful to be a “good game.” It’s close to being a flawed gem, but it just isn’t, and the way it suddenly disregards everything that made its mid-game stages wonderful makes it absolutely devastating. A potentially amazing game was lost here.

Rodea the Sky Soldier

This is what the screen is supposed to look like…

Rodea the Sky Soldier

… and here’s how it was glitching for me.

Bugs, and some weird dialogue at the end

Obviously we have the two 2DS freezes that required a hard reset. That’s definitely a piece of ugliness that goes in the “bug” category. There’s also the visual bug in the picture above where this weird corrupted version of the map sprite would show up. That’s about it for bugs, though, and what I really want to talk about is some weird dialogue that takes place during the final boss (because obviously it’s not painful enough already). Said boss spends a great portion of the fight screaming for his daughter, and that would be fine given his less than stellar treatment of her, but then Rodea goes, “Has his heart been overcome by his desires?” That’s a direct quote, and it reframes his screams to be super incest-y. I’d love for this to just be a poor translation, or for me to be reading too much into it, but I lack the requisite language knowledge to determine this for myself. All I know is that the line doesn’t fit at all with the rest of the game, and that makes it bad writing no matter the case.

Colorful visuals

Graphics are one of the few things that differ between the versions, with the Wii and 3DS versions being really bright and cheery and the Wii U version having a bunch of strange filters applied that make the game look much darker and less colorful. However, the 3DS version also suffers from significant pop-in, with enemies and faraway buildings/landscape features only appearing when you get close enough. This never affected the gameplay, but it’s nevertheless a bit of ugliness. Both the 3DS version and Wii U version (though I’m going off of what I’ve heard of the latter rather than firsthand experience) also suffer from sudden frame rate drops. The 3DS version definitely dipped down into what I’d guess is around 15 frames per second in the more action packed scenes, and even the less busy scenes couldn’t be running at anything above 30. It’s bearable most of the time, but that’s coming from someone who’s played really taxing PC games at low frame rates before and learned to deal with that kind of problem. Your mileage may obviously vary.

The music’s good, too

The calmer, more cheery parts of the soundtrack remind me a great deal of the music in MegaMan Legends (yet again) when you’re wandering around that game’s city. When the action starts to ramp up in Rodea, however, the music is more reminiscent of the upbeat electronic stuff in Freedom Planet, which is also very good. I really have nothing but good things to say about the soundtrack.

Rodea the Sky Soldier

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