Version tested: DS
Conceptually, games should function as entertainment on two levels: firstly, to make the impossible possible, and secondly, to make the mundane enjoyable. The GameCube's Chibi-Robo happened to swing more towards the latter of those, with its little robot helper putting the fun into picking up litter, cleaning floors, and other such drudgery in the middle of solving a bit of domestic strife. In other words, we liked it a lot, recommended it to all and, as is our luck, saw the world largely ignore it. Blame that on the game being given a low-key release in the GC's twilight hours (and there were certainly a lot of them), but chances are you missed out on what, given developer Skip's heritage, was one of those rare non-first-party games that epitomised the cute, colourful aesthetics of Nintendo's own work on the fated purple box.
This DS off-shoot, then, wants to give us another chance to see why. This time Chibi's out of the house and into the fresh air, tasked with turning round the fortunes of an empty, run-down park for no more reason than an in-built servitude chip in his tiny silicon brain.
The chief way to do this is to plant and water enough flowers to regenerate the barren soil. Playing music and dancing (by spinning a dial on the touch-screen) makes flowers spit out new seeds which float onto new patches of ground, and pumping water onto them lets them bloom, and so on until you've revitalised each section of the park. Plant a set quota and you gain access to new items and upgrades which make the work easier. More blooms also advance the story; as your nature-hating nemesis tries to scupper your plans by constantly unleashing little monsters that like nothing more than to drain the colour from your hardy perennials.
As well as new items, you'll also earn happiness points, which you can then use to spend on upgrading the park. Talk to and befriend the various characters around town, and they'll pitch in and do the dirty work while you get on with the gardening. Aside from raising or lowering the land, you can add benches, fountains, and other such features, all designed to attract citizens to the outside world. This, in turn, brings in even more points until you've eventually built up a healthy park for the whole town to enjoy.
Don't expect it to all happen at once, though. Like its GameCube cousin, Park Patrol puts you on an imaginary leash which stretches just far enough before pulling you back. At first, it's your power supply which ticks down far more rapidly than is fun, forcing one eye on its dwindling value and not on enjoying yourself as you run home to recharge before it's too late. Then, when you eventually upgrade your battery, it's the day itself, which never lasts longer than about ten minutes before drawing to a close. We wouldn't have minded quite so much if it hadn't meant listening to Chibi's house companion constantly going over the exact same things every bloody morning. No, you stupid robot, we don't want to save; we'll come to you if we want that.
For all its exterior charm, Park Patrol is a game built largely on repetition and slow steps. The flower-growing aspect never really changes; it just gives you a wider expanse to cover. Also, the park renovation is hindered by the ever-ticking clock and the fact that the NPCs keep running out of energy, forcing you to search around and recharge them (and listen again to their inane conversations).
Beyond that, there's not much depth. The swings, cannons, and other toys are mere distractions, and the evil beasties that pop up occasionally are dispatched easily by running them over in your mini-vehicle or splashing them with water. There's a town, so to speak, but it's nothing more than a couple of shops and a back alley to fetch new items and talk to characters.
It also lacks the exploration element of the original console version. Gone are the nooks and crannies to scale and traverse as your power supply permitted. Instead, nearly everything is apparent in the first hour of play, and the mysteries are in the items that get the job done rather than in the environment itself.
Nevertheless, Chibi's a pleasurable draw. If you don't have the name of that significant series that Park Patrol resembles in your head right now then you've not been paying attention, but Harvest Moon springs easily to mind as a comparison. Its sow-reap-repeat dynamic, set against the pressures of a quickly diminishing day are easily mirrored here. And while Park Patrol lacks the extra-curricular entertainment of the best of those titles, it gets the core right. For starters, it's not too shy in giving out rewards every time you quickly reach another flower-growing milestone. And for all the frustration you could aim towards night-time abruptly halting what you've been trying to accomplish, it's ironically the shortness of the game's time period that convinces you that one more day tending to the park can't hurt. Until it's several hours later and you've watered enough flowers to keep a nation's put-upon girlfriends in insincere gifts.
6 / 10