The adventure takes place in a country named Shepherd, a neighbouring territory to the Kingdom of Prairie where the story of Tail Concerto was set. The game world is set among islands floating in the skies and is inhabited by two races, the Felineko (Feline characters, “neko” meaning cat in Japanese) and Caninu (Canine characters, “inu” stands for dog). The hero, a dog named Red Savarin, is a Hunter who makes a living out of taking on quests that people post up at Quest Offices. As he is taking on a quest aboard the flying ship Hindenburg, things go wrong after he touches a medallion he found inside, causing a stone giant called Lares to appear and damage the ship. Before Red escapes, he finds a Felineko child (that looks like it would fit very well into the .hack series) unconscious and decides to save it from the ship that was about to crash. It turns out that the child was after the medallion to prevent anyone from using it to awaken the Lares. Now, to avoid a catastrophe, the heroes need to collect ancient stones that when added to the medallion have the power to neutralise the Lares.
Although the narrative is light-hearted at first, it grows into something more serious towards the end. From the outset, the game world seems to be heavily inspired by the concept of floating islands seen in the likes of Skies of Arcadia and Baten Kaitos, amongst others. However, the most obvious source of inspiration appears to be the anime movie Laputa: Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli, as the art style appears to be taken straight from one of his productions. The game mixes highly detailed hand-drawn 2D backgrounds with fully-rendered 3D that is also highly detailed for a DS game. The mix of the two is almost seamless and is a technical masterpiece given the low specifications of the humble Nintendo DS, especially considering it is all running at a high frame-rate. Everything looks gorgeous, except perhaps for the 2D sprites used to represent most of the Non-Playable Characters, which tend to look heavily pixellated. This was most likely purposefully done, though, so that the incredible environments could be rendered without any slowdown occurring.
According to the game's box, the faster CPU of the DSi and all subsequent models (DSi XL, 3DS) is put to use (making it a DSi-enhanced game), probably to help suppress slowdown in the rare occasions when they occur on an original DS or DS Lite. When tested the game indeed seemed to be running even more fluidly on a Nintendo 3DS. Playing the game on DSi/3DS also allows for the player to use the camera in order to take a picture of themselves and one of their surroundings so they appear in the game at some point.
Several characters from other Little Tail Bronx material make cameo appearances throughout the game, such as Waffle, the hero from Tail Concerto, or the Black Cat Gang, also from the same game. Even Mamoru-kun is there. He is a mascot character designed by CyberConnect2 as a part of the Little Tail Bronx franchise and used in Japan in a campaign to raise child awareness about what to do in case earthquakes, fire, floods, etc...and fulfils this role again in Solatorobo: Red the Hunter to warn people in Shepherd about those situations.
The adventure is divided in chapters. Typically, each one has you visiting a new region (island or archipelago) within Shepherd where you take on one or more quests that may appear to be linked to the main narrative...or not. These involve lots of different activities, which is a definitely strength of the game. Chasing giant insects, protecting cargo from sky pirates, racing in flying machines, fishing, rescuing people trapped in a mine, arena battles; the list goes on. It never gets repetitive and they are all kept interesting thanks to funny dialogue between the clients and Red. Most, if not all, of the quests, whether compulsory to advance the story or not, help developing the credibility of the game world and reveal more details about the NPCs’ lives, including the characters from Tail Concerto, which further ties together the Little Tail Bronx universe. Multiple subtle references to the .hack universe and characters can even be found.
Travelling the world is done while riding a robot called Dahak. Red can get off it at any instant at a press of the ‘Y’ button to closely examine certain items, switches, as well as navigate narrow routes. The robot helps Red carry around heavy objects, as well as fight off enemies. The combat mechanic could be summed up in three words: ‘lift,’ ‘catch,’ ‘throw.’ However, there is a bit more to it than that in reality. Throwing a foe in the air is not done instantly, as the player must mash the ‘A’ button in order to lift it, sending it flying in the air, and the time it takes to lift it depends on its weight and a statistic called “Hydraulics.” Once in the air, Red has to catch the enemy and may throw it against walls, the floor, or even another opponent if so desired. Chaining combination moves together is also possible by catching an enemy in the mid-air multiple times in a row as it rebounds against its target. New possibilities open later on, such as swinging the enemy around, hitting everything around you in the process before sending it flying, or you can even do a piledriver. Those additional moves arrive late in the game, but just before it gets to the point that the more basic moves get too repetitive. When on foot, Red can use his gunblade (Squall Leonhart-style) to stun enemies with electric discharges (Zero Suit Samus-style).
There are only so many RPG elements in Solatorobo: Red the Hunter. Defeating enemies rewards Red with experience points, which in turn make his level rise. However, the only effect this has on his actual statistics is that it extends his health bar. Other aspects, such as attack, defence, hydraulics or mobility are augmented by setting machine parts in a grid-like interface on the Dahak. The parts are like Tetris-shaped objects that have an effect on one particular area, like Defence+8, Mobility+4, and so on. They differ in shape and size and may be spun around so that you can fit as many as possible into the small space. This interface has some free squares to begin with, but most are locked and require P-crystals that are scattered throughout the game to be collected and spent to expand usable area on the grid, thus allowing for more parts to be used at the same time, and also larger ones that typically better improve the statistics. Think of it as a variation on the arm-force system from Arc Rise Fantasia since it is so similar.
P-Crystals are not all you have to look out for in the game. You will need to catch mischievous kittens who stole pieces of photographs (that unlock pictures in a concept art gallery) as well as music notes from flowers and musical instruments that serve as currency to purchase the game's original soundtrack in a sound test section of sorts. Speaking of the soundtrack, the music is incredibly good throughout the whole game, ranking among the best on the DS in general. Characters mutter some voice clips in French too, which is quite a surprise and adds a nice cute touch to the game (all in-game signs are also written in the language of Molière), although the strong Japanese accent of the voice actors often makes it impossible to understand what they say. Even when it is intelligible, the French expressions are being used in totally wrong contexts half the time, like a character says “Yes” when its line of dialogue clearly reads “No.” That being said, most players will not even notice unless they actually speak French properly, so this will go unnoticed to most.
As if this was not enough, there is even more to Solatorobo: Red the Hunter. Completing certain quests unlocks more racing flying machines that become available for use in an extra Aero-GP mode, a racing mini-game where you fly different machines in tube-like tracks, à la Diddy Kong Racing. This mode awards you with money for use in the main adventure. In those races, items comparable to what you would expect from a Super Mario Kart clone are usable, although there are not many of them. The machines also have a boost gauge that is filled by collecting capsules on the track. It can even be played in local multiplayer, requiring each player to own a Solatorobo: Red the Hunter game, though. There is no online multiplayer, however, the game received 15 downloadable quests in total in Japan. The first two are already available for download in the PAL version of the game at time of writing, and the rest should be released, on a one quest a week basis, until we eventually catch up with Japan, which should last us until late October 2011. Those quests play like most other quests in the game, except they only become playable in a post-game save file.