The steam of the crop.
While most people think of Square-Enix as the foremost publisher of all things RPG, Atlus can stake claim to that title, too. Again and again we see this small, well-oiled company port seemingly un-portable Japanese games to U.S. shores, and every so often, we’re psyched about it.
Steambot Chronicles is a good example of such a mind screw. Creative and artsy, the game offers a pretty entertaining trip through a whimsical, robotic world. Though held back by technical issues, it’s refreshing to see giant robot action in something other than the post-apocalyptic, interplanetary, smell-of-warheads-in-the-morning theme that pervades most anything Mech-like.
The bizzaro Industrial Revolution setting revolves around the fact that after inventing cars, we kept going and made the Trotmobile, or your basic walking mech. These superceded cars as transportation, and are now used for everything. Fighting, agriculture, taxis, delivery, excavation - you name it.
In fact, if you named it, Steambot Chronicles probably lets you do it. The open-ended nature of the game lets you do all kinds of stuff, most of which is good, clean fun in a super-customizable giant robot. The list of possible ways to trick your ride and spend your time is staggering, but not at all complex or imposing.
It’s apparent this isn’t your typical robo-stomper from the beginning, when you wash up on shore as Vanilla, the amnesiac protagonist. You’re soon discovered by Connie, a cute little love interest out picking some herbs for her mom (because presumably, she has glaucoma
). You immediately proceed to hijack a dilapidated Trotmobile together and head out to get Connie to band practice. On the way, you run into a gang called the Killer Elephants and fight your way through, highlighting the basics of Trotmobile operation.
These buckets of bolts are steered like tanks, using both analog sticks together to control lateral movement and rotation. With the shoulder buttons you can use a variety of arm weapons like claws, sword and cannons, as well as jump and dash around. Even better, you can pick up objects like trees, boulders, or other Trotmobiles to bash, toss, or hide behind.
The real-time combat is definitely fast-paced, but the control can make it a bit tricky. The lack of tightness in the analog sticks presents some difficulty in navigating through certain parts of the environment. Maneuvering across small bridges or through narrow surroundings can be an exercise in twitchy patience. Also, using the lock-on button (Square) while moving should only be attempted by sideshow freaks with several additional thumbs.
Once you work it out and get to town, barring some slightly drawn-out plot activity, you’re set free in the world and its myriad mini-games and side-quests. Talking to people clues you in on activities, like excavating fossils to restock the local museum, rocking out with Connie’s band, jamming on the street corner alone for loose change, duking it out in the Arena, grilling steaks, shooting pool, or helping the Killer Elephants land on the moon. You heard me right. Stop and mess with the roses or move the story along; it’s up to you.
It’s also up to you whether or not you want to be a jerk about it. When responding to others, you’re offered much better choices than the typical ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Far more entertaining options like “Be obnoxious,” “Answer vaguely,” “Lie,” or ‘Pretend you know what he’s talking about’ provide different ways to deal with every situation. What you say and even how you happen to be dressed affects how people interact with you, and, to a degree, what path the story takes. I even got people to start referring to me as “The Polite Kid” because I’m so damn nice all the time. It’s a character flaw, I know.
No matter how nice you decide to be, though, some of the technical issues will get you to swear like a sailor. Framerate stutters pop up often, especially when you’re dealing with several objects on screen or staring off into the distance. Most of the characters look bright and fine, but the background textures fall flat in comparison. Clearly the bulk of the graphical power went into the the Trotmobiles and assorted other robotics, as they all look slick with wild, cartoony designs.
While we’re talking about technical performance, I’m sure this Connie is a great girl, but man, her band sucks. Someone needs some songwriting lessons. The various instruments you can play all present different takes on rhythm games, but unless you actually like crappy anime love-themes, steer clear. When she’s not on stage creating a vacuum, expect a slight upgrade to standard town/quest themes that don’t really impress or grate, but whirr along nicely.
And Steambot Chronicles does just that. It’s a quirky, refreshing mix of action, sandbox, and mini-games with enough style and charm to Trotmobile past its aggravating technical flaws.