Solara is a rewarding blend of sim, strategy and fantasy RPG games.

We reviewers love our labels, but some games just won’t cooperate and wear them. Solara is one of those non-conformists, since it has sim, strategy and fantasy RPG traits, but not enough of any of them to neatly classify. It’s also free and fun, though in a way that creeps up on you gradually more than it smacks you in the face – which is good, since that would probably cancel out the fun.

At first glance, Solara follows a pretty familiar script when it comes to mobile games with a fantasy setting. You start out with a small castle, quickly learning how to spend gold to add shops, pubs and other rooms, which in turn generate more gold at regular intervals. It’s like a medieval circle of life.

Solara

The other resource to concern yourself with is food, which is needed to send the heroes under your employ out on quests. As it turns out, the serene, almost idyllic world suggested by the game’s hand-drawn people and laid back soundtrack is populated with dangerous monsters (over 80 types in all) who want to make life difficult for your castle dwellers.

Fortunately, the first few heroes you receive are joined by others as the game progresses. They run the gamut from melee fighters to ranged attackers and support characters, each with their own strengths, weaknesses and special abilities. Some get added to your group when you complete certain rooms, while others come aboard at the completion of quests.

Every quest involves at least one fight, which doesn’t require anything from you except for picking the heroes you want to send and their order on the battlefield. Then you simply tap to spend the required amount of food and watch the action play out – unless you’d rather skip it, of course, but then you’re missing out on a big chunk of the gameplay.

Solara

The strategy is primarily picking the right combination of heroes and getting them in the right order. Occasionally you’re thrown a curve in the form of an NPC that takes up one slot of your party, making you take his or her presence into account. I found that it didn’t take much thought at first, but became more challenging the further I went. There’s no penalty for losing except that you have to spend food again to replay the fight, so you can afford some trial and error to get past tricky battles.

Gold and experience points for your castle are earned by completing quests. Your castle level raises the maximum level of all of your heroes and periodically unlocks new rooms. Training heroes costs food, putting yet another strain on your resources, until level 10 when it suddenly costs gold instead. It’s difficult to keep all of your heroes trained to the maximum level at once, but food regenerates over time at the point of oneā€¦ um, food every four minutes.

Upon reaching level 13, PvP play opens up, permitting you to pit your heroes against other players of similar levels. This mode uses a ranked ladder system where you gain points for wins and lose them in defeats, but the combat itself is much the same. It doesn’t add much to the overall experience (and it forces yet another decision on how to use your food) except for providing an alternative to quests.

Solara

Solara definitely isn’t a game with a lot of complexity, but there’s a certain charm in the way all of its parts work together. It grew on me the more I played it, and it felt perfectly suited to short sessions in-between other activities on the iPad. Sticking with it after a relatively slow start definitely gives you more of an appreciation for the writing, which isn’t usually a highlight for this type of game. The small team at Esper Labs clearly had some fun coming up with clever ways to describe each leg of the multi-part quests in particular.

It’s probably worth noting that even though the game has a hard currency, you could easily go without it and still play Solara on a regular basis. That might not make Esper very rich, but it’s the cherry on top of a very pleasant mobile gaming sundae.  Come to think of it, maybe I should have used that analogy from the beginning. Can I start over?