It’s been an interesting generation for RPGs, one that has seen more innovation than any other in the past decade. We’ve seen the genre’s standard bearer in Final Fantasy go online, while more obscure series like Shin Megami Tensai have climbed the ranks to set new standards for what an RPG can be. Between the usually bleak atmospheres of the SMTs and somewhat utopian worlds in FFs lie Steambot Chronicles - a game that allows you to choose your own path and determine whether you want to be a conquering hero (like in FF) a rogue (ala SMT), or something in the middle. Your actions decide your personality, and in an age where many games struggle to pull of any one of them well, SC managers to make the main character (Vanilla) believable in any role.
Exceptional writing and voice work made this possible, and I enjoyed seeing a plot that didn’t revolve around the entire universe being destroyed by some magical being. Melodramatic stuff has its place in the genre, but its out of place in many games, and I’m glad that it isn’t an issue here. The major issues plaguing the characters are TOWNS being invaded, destroyed, and lost friends, memories and loves. This simple approach works perfectly, as it results in a lot of simple story progression told in a fittingly simple way - you get text, some voice, and usually options for a character-determining. You’re an amnesiac found unobvious on a beach, saved by a beautiful girl (Connie), and then the two of you team up for many adventures. Some happy, some sad - and just about all of them are exciting.
The open-ended play also feels fresh, although it isn’t quite as “non-linear” as you’ll hear in the energetic title screen. You’ve still got a set path to follow; there are just a few major character turning points, along with hundreds of smaller ones that give your character depth. It’s non-linear in the sense that you can do many other things like play the harmonica, piano, pool, swim, and even become a band member when you‘re not progressing the plot. It’s also fun to just wander around amongst the townspeople. Doing so lets you get to know them, gets you more into their lives and the overall story, and also provides you with some chances to learn the geography of the area you’re in. Each setting has its own look and atmosphere, and it allows you to feel for the people within it. Without that ingredient, you’re left with a sterile land filled with characters you don’t care about - leaving you with little reason to be concerned with the fate of either. Irem made sure to let players soak in the local people and customs to prevent that, and Steambot is much better for it. Thanks to their hard work, we’ve left with a game full of characters I can relate to, and it’s rare to see that in a game nowadays.
It’s also rare to see something new in regards to RPG battles. Steambot lacks random battles (THANK GOD!) and also gives you complete control of your mechanized trot mobile. This combined with the lack of leveling up makes this more of an action RPG than a traditional one. The story elements are right out of RPGs of old though, allowing Steambot to effectively merge the best of both types of RPGs. Unforunately, not everything works out perfectly.
While the battles are often fun, they can also be frustrating due to a spastic camera and slow-moving mechs who have to quickly dodge missiles while maneuvering around the terrain to get close to foes for attacks. These problems are amplified when you get 2-3 foes on-screen and are left with a camera that flies everywhere, forcing you to take multiple missiles until it stops spazzing out. This becomes less of a problem later on when you can use similar long-range attacks on their slow-moving craft, but it still shouldn’t be an issue, especially in such a battle-heavy game.
Beyond the camera problems, battles are incredibly fun to partake in. You control your trotmobile like a katamari (using each analog stick to control a certain direction, and moving forward and backwards by pushing both sticks in the same direction). Adding to that, you can also block by pushing both inwards, while dashes, jumps, and attacks are smoothly controlled with the shoulder buttons. Clicking both sticks when near a foe lets you toss them around. There are a great many things you CAN do during battle, but fortunately, you won’t need to make use of all abilities in battle with the exception of some boss battles. If you had to use every single tool at your disposal for each, it’d get old quickly. As it is, you can attack different enemies different ways, and see which strategies work best for you and against them.
This mentality can also carry over into how you customize your trot mobile. If you want one that looks more like a car then an anime-styled mech, you can attack wheels to it. Each leg part (and yes, the wheels count as legs) changes how you maneuver. With the wheels, you gain a lot of speed, but you lose a little maneuverability in the process. The spider leg option gives you a nice mix of the two, but also results in a grating sound effect for each leg that hits the ground. You’ve got similar choices in regards to other parts of vehicle.
You can have a sword for one arm, and a ball and chain for another. If you prefer long-range combat, a missile/ball and chain combo for arms works. Conversely, if you prefer short-range fights, a couple of sword arms are just what you want. I love the level of power given to the player. If I don’t like the colors on my trotmobile, I have the freedom to change it. The same goes for its license plate - which can be fully customized down to the pixel. There’s nothing quite like defeating a group of bandits in a black and red trotmobile with a TNA Wrestling logo for a license plate, and being able to have so much control over the vehicle gave me even more incentive to play.
In spite of the many things done right in Steambot Chronicles, there are also some glaring issues that should have been addressed, and hopefully will be if the series continues. The most obvious one is the overlysimplistic visual style used throughout the game. Irem used a thin black outline for the characters, and for some games, that imitation cel shading style works. Here, it just showed a lack of detail in the models. Choppy animation (highlighted by some hilarious two-frame running which is always good for a chuckle) only serves to compound the problem. There is also some great animation (the spider-leg movement is impressive), which makes it an even greater mystery as to why other parts look so crummy. This isn’t to say the Steambot looks terrible - it just isn’t up to par with what we’re used to seeing in 2006. There are also some slowdown snags that hamper it at times.
Music is also a cut below the high standards for the genre. While there are a few memorable songs (including the catchiest menu music I’ve ever heard), Steambot is also plagued with some of the sappiest, and corniest stuff I’ve been subjected to in a game. The songs that Vanilla and the rest of the Garland Globetrotters have to perform (and that you have to listen to) sound like B-sides from a love song collection. Without words, they’d actually be nice to listen to, but when you hear the “too corny for kids shows” lyrics, you’ll cringe. It’s a shame that the lyrics are so dreadful, since the voice actress for Connie really did a magnificent job singing.
Fortunately, the sound effects are well done, and the voice work is tremendous. Given the many ways your character can turn, I was expected the dialogue to sound disjointed on multiple-choice question/answer portions. That isn’t the case there, and there are very few instances of that happening throughout the adventure. These positives save the sound from potential disaster.
Overall, Steambot Chronicles is a tremendously ambitious effort that sometimes falls under the weight of its own innovation. You’ve got many choices available to you throughout the game, and most of them are done well. The rhythm game sections are done far better than expected, while simply running around towns to meet people has its own charm, too. Negative elements in the battle, camera, graphics, and audio hurt it - but they don’t cripple it. This is still a touching story with in-depth characters that you have a hand in crafting as you progress. The emphasis on player involvement in most facets of the game is what I find the most enjoyable. Not everything is done perfectly, but it’s impossible not to applaud the effort behind Steambot Chronicles. You can tell people poured their hearts into this game, and it’s usually a pleasure to enjoy the fruits of their labor. If you’re tired of the usual RPG fare, buy Steambot Chronicles.