Not many people played this one, so here's the cheat sheet. Steambot Chronicles, aka Bumpy Trot, aka That Weird PS2 Mech Game Set In The Twenties Where You Play A Harmonica Or Something, is the story of an amnesiac boy who finds a big robot, but don't hold that against it. By now no-one's more allergic to this particular brand of immorally predictable Japanese storytelling than me. Steambot's different. For starters, your robot is not just used for fighting. It's also lorry, a taxi, a stage, whatever you need. And if I was going to compare Steambot to anything in order to make people sorry they didn't buy this, it'd be Harvest Moon.
Those of you who did play Steambot might call bulls*** on that one. Some of you might even have opened a comment box and are typing a rude word into it right now. Take a breath! Eat a biscuit.
Harvest Moon is a series that's about sinking yourself into a nice world as you would a warm bath, and building something. It's about making friends and petty grudges and taking part in events and strolling through towns. It's about finding a girl and making her fall in love with you through rude mechanics and routines. And that's Steambot Chronicles! The only difference is you're not building up a farm, you're building up a robot, and instead of watering crop after crop as assorted unpleasant thoughts and worries about your real life creep into your head, you're taking part in awesome fights.
(And finally, and this is a big plus-plus for some of us, unlike Harvest Moon Steambot hasn't yet been ploughed into the ground under the weight of 20-plus sequels until the vision of the original games has been lost and the IP resembles a corpse made to dance with steel wires and glue.)
Irem's thinking, I guess, was that people would come to its game for the robot and stay for the world. You can see this scheme run its course in the first half hour of play. After being woken up on a beach by a girl and answering a few questions about yourself, your character wastes no time in claiming the rustic mech ('Bumpy Trot') that washed up alongside you. By the time you've taken the girl home you've defeated bandits (and been given the adorable option to hand the girl over to them so they'll let you pass) and busted up a giant bandit river dog robot thing, and then been told how to customise your bumpy trot and design a licence plate for it.
You've also discovered the combat is pretty fun, like one of the decent Armored Core games but a bit slower and more rooted to the ground. It's all about getting into the right place with the right weapon, which allows for satisfaction when you manage it and tension when it starts happening to you (or you're approaching an enemy you've never seen before). The many arena battles in the game work as well as they do because you can rarely be sure what you're going up against. Your heart pounds as your bumpy trots are raised into the arena, and then just as you're squinting at the figure in the distance he begins raining cannonballs on you like confetti, or leaps up to you like a panther and begins hacking you apart with two swords. And you dash away, you think, you adapt, but mainly you wish you'd gone with a different configuration damnit why didn't you go with a different configuration.
At some point you'll also probably wonder why these robots that putter around towns like elderly gentlemen are capable of blasting around battlefields and arenas like pissed-off rockets. It's best to file that one under S, for 'Shhhhh'.
Steambot introduces you to all this first so you grow fond of your robot and have something concrete to care about. It's only afterwards that the game introduces you to the world, throwing open the dozens of menial tasks and decisions that secretly make up the body of the game.
And this is where Steambot Chronicles gets interesting, because over the course of the next six hours you come to understand that the game isn't trying to be something you play through, it's trying to be a world you live in. Wandering through town you find out the local bumpy trot arena is looking for fighters, but also that the local theatre is desperate for movie reels and the museum wants fossils from the big dig site nearby. The two sides of the game, the robotic and the personal, are completely intertwined. As you go around finding or earning parts for your robot and engineering plans to make new parts, you're also collecting food items, musical instruments, tunes, clothes, souvenirs, friends and happy memories. In time you get a place of your own and start collecting furniture, too, and in a further and completely unacceptable amount of time you finally get to take girls back there where the frigid things will most likely not actually sleep with you because you failed to perform the ludicrous arbitrary tasks required to make that happen.
I do like this game, honest.
Looking back, what I don't think the reviews of Steambot picked up on is the quiet and honest sense of magic the world has. It's full of the kind of stuff you'd expect to see in a great kid's book, and tends to shuck traditional game storytelling. The first couple of times you get captured, one of the bandit leaders locks you in his kitchen and tells you to make him dinner and the other just lets you go because she likes you.
Without wanting to spoil anything, the game's full of this kind of stuff. And although the dialogue seems to represent translators doing their best with inconsistent material it sometimes manages to be pleasingly eccentric, and the plot itself bobs and turns pleasantly. But the unpredictability is the main thing. In avoiding traditional plots, mission structures or reward systems, Steambot keeps you guessing, and that's all too rare these days.
It's fun, because if you squint really, really hard you can see a vision of the future where Irem didn't have to include the robots in Steambot Chronicles. The mundane side of things often manages to be so compelling (and when the plot kicks in it can be so annoying) that it's easy to imagine a similar game where you simply play a boy with a knack for musical instruments who washes up on a shore one day and you control him as he searches for his place in the world. A kind of more grown-up, itchy-footed Animal Crossing, where Tom Nook is actually the sinister tight-fisted bastard all those gaming webcomics have made him out to be. And who wouldn't want to play that?