Version tested: PlayStation 2
Even if the game turns out mediocre at best, you have to admire publisher Atlus for repeatedly taking risks in bringing some of the most curious, interesting and leftfield Japanese games to a western audience. Having scored its greatest coup with Strategy-RPG wunderkind Disgaea, bringing Nippon Ichi to a quickly enamoured audience, Atlus has gone on to champion titles such as surgeon ‘em up, Trauma Centre: Under the Knife to become one of the most notable diminutive publishers today.
As you might expect from a company that cherry picks strange Japanese games no other publisher wants to take a chance on, the translations are usually lovingly transposed from the original text with wit and flair and each game has a unique hook to make it stand out from the competition, at least in terms of ideology or execution, if not sales.
Steambot Chronicles is the latest title to fit this bill and, brilliantly, it's far from mediocre. Originally known as Bumpy Trot (or, more comprehensively, Poncotsu Roman Daikatsugeki Bumpy Trot) in Japan, Atlus, when trying to decide how to rename the game for the West, first settled on "Relaxing Non-Linear Adventure: Be A Bad Guy If You Want". It's not a great joke - evidenced by the change to the easier on the oxygen, Steambot Chronicles but it encompasses the game's primary aspiration: GTA meets Harvest Moon.
The titular Steambots, or Trotmobiles as they're called in game, are essentially two-legged, armed-to-the-jaws mechas (although curiously powered by petrol and not steam). The chronicles are what unfold as you steadily build up your adventure from the layers of in-game choices the game throws at you. Despite what Atlus/ Irem might like to tell you, it's far from being really non-linear, but the abundance of side-quests, mini-games, behavioural choices and world inhabitants-with-problems-that-only-you-can-help-iron-out certainly give a pleasant illusion of freedom as you trace your own story through the game's various diverging pathways.
Protagonist Vanilla Bean (all the good guys are helpfully named after herbs, plants and spices) opens the game lying clichéd in a huddle, washed up on a beach with amnesia. Passer by and future love interest Coriander helps you to your feet and, thanks to an abandoned salty Trotmobile, the two of you make our way to the nearest city engaging in a couple of sweet robot fights along the way.
From there on the game opens up considerably, allowing freedom to explore the city wooing hot girls with dates and gifts, collecting various outrageous outfits for Vanilla, mining for fossils to restock the local museum a la Animal Crossing, or developing your musical skills and busking on street corners for money in the various rhythm action style mini-games.
Control of your Trotmobile is based wholesale on Katamari's twin analogue stick set-up but sadly lacks quite the kinetic precision of that game. Trigger buttons control each of your bot's arm equipped weapons independently. The control scheme generally works fine for smaller foes, but when faced with the game's towering bosses boasting specific weakspots that need careful targeting, its effectiveness crumbles. Targeting is handled by the square button, the directional pad then switching between targets, and since you've already got your thumbs on the analogue sticks to manage motion and your other fingers on shoulder buttons for abilities, you're quickly thumb-tied and irritated.
Almost immediately you're able to upgrade your machine a la Front Mission attaching all manner of slightly different swords and lasers to your frame as well as applying new colours schemes and decals. With enough cash and ingenuity it's possible to create some extremely diverse set-ups. Battles are slipped into seamlessly from the main exploration with no dissolve screen - they simply occur in the same sphere as the rest of the game - and this Zelda-like coherency helps the game flow pleasingly smoothly. During battles you must play to your strengths (offensive or defensive, short-range or long-range) dictated by how you have equipped your bot. However, what lifts the whole vehicular section of the game above mere Virtual-On head-to-head fighting is the fact that many of the upgrades to your machine are not simply for military purpose.
Pickaxe arms can be equipped to mine for fossils, or a trailer can be equipped to the back to transform you into the proverbial white van driver delivering carpets and goods from town to city or even providing a bus service. You can also tear up the scenery by simply grabbing hold of trees or rocks or even cars and buses and launching these either at enemies for offensive advantage or just because destroying things in games vents some of your real life frustration and delays the inevitable criminal damage charge that little bit longer.
Tearing up of scenery isn't always player controlled sadly. Indeed, comfortably the weakest element of the game is it's shaky production values. It seems heartless to kick a game for looking a bit ugly when it was probably made entirely on Dragon Quest VIII's boxart budget but the polygon tearing, frame skipping, awkward animations and grainy vistas seem dishearteningly out of kilter with the generosity and ubiquity of its internal ideas. That's not to say the cutesy designs and flat shaded sunsets aren't charming, but the scope of internal ambition clearly strains the meagre graphical clothing to ripping point and, frequently beyond.
But, while the visual language is limited, the gameplay languages here represented are vast and diverse. Even the rhythm action mini-games are clearly distinct with each different instrument Vanilla tries to master (starting with Harmonica and moving through organ, piano and trumpet and beyond) enjoying a different control scheme. Indeed, you can push your gameplay experience in any number of ways before choosing to inch the narrative along.
So it's undeniably the variety and colour of characters and jobs you interact with throughout Steambot Chronicles that gives the game its real sweetness and charm; something desperately missing from so many modern JRPGs. Much of the enjoyment comes from enjoying the mix of genres squeezed into its framework - even if the game excels at none of them in particular. Nevertheless, the sum of these parts makes this a fun place and all the raw materials provided to put together your own unique adventure are imaginative and enjoyable - all you can really ask for in a sandbox.
7 / 10