We all love giant robots. From the Shogun Warriors to Voltron to the Iron Giant, our enormous metal pals have stood by our side as loyal guardians, our only protection against the millions of giant monsters just waiting for the right opportunity to swoop down to Earth and eat our public transportation.
But what about their vertically-challenged brothers, the TINY robots? You don't hear much about them. And when you do hear about a tiny robot, it's almost always some useless pet or sly promotional tool.
Custom Robo attempts to change all that by giving tiny robots a more significant role in our lives, but its good intentions are thwarted by oversimplified gameplay and the worst video game story since, I don't know…Burger Time, maybe.
The game takes place in an alternate reality in which nearly everyone has the ability to manipulate tiny robots called custom robos. However, they aren't real robots, but little virtual ones that can only be used inside virtual battlefields called Holosseums. When two people battle it out using their custom robos, they're really just standing there staring at each other, locked in a sort of mind duel.
Curiously, you don't need to use much of your mind to control the bots. Battles take place via an isometric view in the small Holosseums. Each robo comes with a Gun, a Pod (homing missile) and an area-effect Bomb. You've got one button for each weapon and an endless supply of ammo, so once the match starts, you basically launch everything you have at the other guy until he stops moving.
Lucky for us there's the "Custom" part of the title. After each match you acquire at least one new part, be it a new weapon, new legs or a new body type altogether. By mixing and matching parts, you can create pretty specified robos, from classic tank bruisers to agile fliers or stealthy snipers. With close to 200 parts in all, there's a lot of depth to discover as you play, which is easily Custom Robo's strongest suit.
The level design certainly isn't. The Holoseums are all way, way too small. Some destructible buildings provide cover and occasionally you'll encounter moving platforms or lava pits, but you'll play it the same way every time: button mash like mad while avoiding enemy fire.
Unfortunately, that's pretty much all you do in Custom Robo. Since there are no drawbacks to shooting (such as ammo concerns, overheating, etc.), matches boil down to very basic slugfests. The whole customization element is rendered somewhat useless once you find a gun you like, as even typical strategizing winds up taking a backseat to just dishing out as much damage as you can before taking too much yourself. Compared to games like Virtual On and Armored Core, it's kid's stuff.
Part of the problem is the fixed isometric camera, which makes the small bots look even less imposing as it zooms out to accommodate the entire battlefield. I would have much preferred the option to switch to a third-person behind-the-back view, but no such luck.
Plus, the customization doesn't mean much until you've acquired plenty of parts, and the only way to do that is to trudge through Custom Robo's inane Story mode. This isn't just a single-player option – you MUST complete the Story to open up most of the other game modes, including such basic options as the cool first-person camera view, the part library for examining parts up close, and, amazingly, VS. matches against the computer. The fact that this isn't available from the start is an unbelievable oversight.
So clearly, someone decided the Story mode was worth your time. And clearly, that someone is an idiot.
You play as the son of an ex-robo commander out to fulfill your father's wish that you'll grow up to be just like dad. You wander around a map of a small town, though it doesn't matter where you want to go because you are shoved from one location to the other down a linear path – at times, the game even takes control of your avatar and moves it to the next place while you watch it walk. The bulk of the time is spent wading through endless strings of awful, nonsensical dialogue as you uncover the world's worst plot, which involves the second ending of the world, a secret government cover-up, a lot of spiky hair, the true meaning of friendship and your innate talent to not understand any of this hogwash. The pacing is terrible, often forcing you to sit through a good 10 minutes of text scrolling by before you get a chance to try out some new part you just found. And until you beat the Story (which should take about 10 hours), there is no other way to play the game by yourself.
Which brings us to the game's the multiplayer, but once again, the lack of gameplay depth sucks the battery life out of these robos. Up to four can play at once in kill-or-be-killed brawls, which gets pretty hectic, but is little more than a party diversion.
Custom Robo even has a hard time maintaining Nintendo's historically solid graphical track record. The framerate is fine and the bots look nice and creative, but the boring vector-based Holoseums paint a different picture. Unsurprisingly, the Story mode elements look pretty bad, with cheap models and outdated, stale animations.
I'm not sure if Custom Robo is supposed to be an action game or an RPG or a bit of both, but no matter how you want to categorize it, just don't stick it in the "full price" section. Its interesting customization feature is effectively buried underneath the mindless fighting and mind-numbing Story. Save me, giant robot!