If only real life science would catch up with sci-fi and invent domestic robots that aren't fundamentally a bit rubbish. Years of research, and what have we got to show for it? Sony's silly robot dog, and that Honda robot which can walk up stairs - as if that's going to get the washing up done and your tax return filled out. It's pretty obvious who'd win in a fight out of those two versus K-9 and Robocop. Or even C-3PO, for that matter.
But while we're waiting, here comes Tokobot - a new puzzling platformer for the PSP which lets you pretend you have a whole troop of clever little robots at your command. According to the game's introductory sequence, they were invented in prehistoric times by an ancient civilisation which mysteriously disappeared. Now some old buffer has discovered them, renamed them tokobots, and set up a lab from which to study the ancient ruins.
Which is where you come in. Playing as a young lad called Bolt, it's your job to go off exploring the surrounding area and raiding a load of tombs. To start off with, you're aided by just six bots, but you acquire more as the game progresses. They come in very handy, since Bolt is a bit weedy - he can't kill enemies on his own, or even double jump to reach high areas.
However, he can control the tokobots, and order them into three different formations. The circle configuration makes the bots surround Bolt, and perform a jumping stamp move which boshes enemies and activates ground switches. In the V formation, the tokobots will arrange themselves into a straight line behind Bolt, and by "jointing" - i.e., holding hands - he can throw them to create a bridge or ladder. Then there's the U formation, where the bots line up on either side of our hero, and he can spin them round like a helicopter blade to activate gears or sideswipe opponents.
There are more moves later in the game (the tokobots can throw Bolt up to high ledges, for example, or push and pull blocks) but those are the basic moves you'll be using most of the time. However, as you wander around, breaking open pots and crates and decking enemies, you'll come across bits of machinery - officially known as Karakuri Combination Parts. Collect enough of these and you can activate Karakuri Combinations, which means the tokobots will assemble themselves into an entirely new machine (tokobots in disguise!). The Samurai Hover combo, for example, turns them into a giant floating robot which can smash enemies with a huge amount of force, while Crane-O-Matic lets you lift heavy objects.
At the start of the game, this is all quite exciting. It's fun to experiment with the different formations, working out what you can do and the best way to defeat the various enemies you come across. It all feels very well designed and generally like someone's had a great idea for a game here, and you look forward to finding out what's coming up next.
Unfortunately, after playing for a while, you realise that what's coming up next is pretty much just more of the same, the odd new move or Karakuri combo aside. It's ancient ruins all the way, so expect lots of stone pillars, lots of futuristic wall carvings, lots of doors and switches and not a lot else. It's nicely done, but a few levels in it all starts to feel rather bland and a bit empty.
There's not much variation in the level layout, either. Each one follows the same format - your objective is to make it from the entrance to the exit, solving a few puzzles and defeating some enemies along the way. Which is fair enough, since this is a platformer, but the key elements just aren't quite balanced well enough.
Let's start with the puzzles, which are a bit of a mixed bag. Many are simply too easy - it's obvious what you have to do right from the get-go, which makes them a chore. Others are too hard, but not because they're fiendishly designed.
Take the first crane puzzle, for example. You enter a room to find a diagram on the wall, and some kind of electronic circuit made up of stone blocks. Three of the circuit blocks are missing, and there are a bunch of spare blocks to one side. Since you've just learned the Crane-O-Matic combo, you can take a good guess at what you're supposed to do, but just in case you're not sure there's a Crane-O-Matic symbol in the vicinity and an on-screen message to boot.
So, yes, it would seem that you have to use the Crane-O-Matic, and chances are you have to work out which blocks go in which holes to connect the circuit. Which is all fine, until you start attempting it, and realise that the Crane-O-Matic has utterly stupid controls. There's only one button for up and down, and one for left and right - so if you overshoot, you have to go all the way to the edge of the puzzle, at which point the crane will start going back in the other direction.
This makes it all awfully tedious - and the problems are compounded by the fact that you have to be in precisely the right position to accurately pick up a block or drop it in a hole. Oh, and you have a limited number of moves, so if you mess it up you have to start all over again. Oh, and you can't start all over again if you don't have the right amount of Karakuri parts to make up the combination, which means you'll have to backtrack through the level until you've found a load more. Which is rubbish, obviously; but to be fair, not all the puzzles are like that, and there are just enough well-designed ones to make you want to push on through.
The combat system is also hit and miss - it's fine when you're facing an enemy which can be defeated from the top down, since you just use the circle formation and the stamp move. But things aren't so easy when you need to attack from the side, since it takes time to get your tokobots to do their spinny helicopter thing, and if any get knocked over you have to wait for them to pick themselves up and get back in line before attempting the move again.
The speed at which characters move is a general problem throughout the game. Bolt and the tokobots just don't move fast enough, and their enemies tend to slope around, too. You can't do super-fast running, jumping and boshing as with most platform games, and just walking around - particularly in the sections which involve backtracking - can get very dull since you're moving so very slowly.
But perhaps the game's biggest problem is that it lacks any real charm. The tokobots are very cute, but they have no personality - so it doesn't feel like you're part of a team, more that you're simply controlling bits of machinery. Yes, all right, they are robots, but it would have been nice if they engaged with you a bit more, or behaved in slightly different ways from time to time.
All in all, Tokobot is not a great game; but it is a good game, despite the problems outlined above. The fundamental concept is an interesting one, and for the most part, playing through the game is an enjoyable experience. Some of the poorer puzzles and the shonky combat moves do spoil it a bit, but not enough to put you off the whole thing entirely.
If you're not a fan of platformers in general, Tokobot isn't for you; but if you are, you should find some entertainment here, especially since there's not a lot else out there for the PSP. Here's hoping they'll do better with the sequel, if there is one, and produce a game with real charm, inventive level designs and plenty of fast-paced action - the game Tokobot should have been, in other words.