Dr. Lloyd Steam: And what would men do with this new technology? Plunge the world into war and chaos?
Dr. Eddie Steam: But that very chaos would transform us. The heart adapts to reality.
Dr. Lloyd Steam: [points a gun at Eddie] But the heart comes first, Eddie!
Irem is probably more well known for their shmup series, R-Type, than they are for the incredible number of other titles that they have worked on in the past two decades. Taking a break from saving the universe, they’ve put together an action adventure in the form of Steambot Chronicles, as it has become known in North America. By putting people in walking mechs that are a part of life in a fictional sandbox world of steampunk, Steambot Chronicles almost sounds like what would happen if Mechwarrior and Grand Theft Auto were to suddenly collide in Japan.
Steambot Chronicles had its frame pimped out on the PS2. It is currently not available for any other console.
Set in a 1920’s inspired world where technology has taken a radical direction, Steambot Chronicles takes place during the start of an industrial revolution that is sweeping an unnamed country. Early steam driven machines have paved the way, providing railroads and inspiring the construction of the first autos and people moving machines to take to the cities. Then came the invention of the Trotmobile, turning autos into walking mechs with interchangeable parts, capable of doing everything from mining to battling each other in the local arena.
You start the game off as Vanilla Beans, a young man washed up on a beach thanks to an untimely shipwreck languishing in the rocks behind you. You’re soon found by a girl named Connie and the first question that she asks you is something you’re not at all sure about. Suffering from Hero’s Sickness (amnesia), Vanilla doesn’t know what had happened, who he really is, and what he was doing before he found himself on the beach. That’s up to you to find out and literally shape who he is as you interact with the world around you.
The gameplay of Steambot Chronicles involves between being on foot and being a Trotmobile rider. Most of the game is centered around the Trotmobiles, however, and they are the keys to pushing the story forward. The on-foot segments are there to interact with the NPCs, explore the cities and farms, and generally experience the world of Steambot as its seen on the ground. Shops, bars, and other locales are found everywhere for you to experiment with and spend your hard earned cash on. You can even rent your own apartment once you’re further into the game, decorating it with a variety of items that you can find in your adventures, earn from side quests, or simply buy from stores. Trains run between all of the major cities, although in the beginning of the game, the story keeps you from jumping too far ahead of the scripted events in the title, opening up those areas once you’re at certain points.
But the only way to take part in the action and to really explore the world around you is on a Trotmobile, and players that have experienced Katamari Damacy or arcade tank sims may feel the most at home with the controls. Both analog sticks are used to maneuver your Trotmobile as you walk about, explore, and generally fight other Trotmobiles that get in your way. A tutorial outside of the main game will help you get a grip on the controls through a few simple exercises as well as with the combat which can be pretty challenging. The controls, while easy to understand, can still feel pretty cumbersome creating some of that challenge.
You can also change up how your Trotmobile looks right down to being able to create your own license plate through an in-game editor or renaming it completely. Parts, such as arms, legs, or even the grill and roof, can be swapped in and out with whatever you can purchase, find, or are given as a reward. Garages and independent mechanics are scattered about that allow you to make these changes…for a small fee. You can even combine some parts to create unique ones that you can use, ranging from more powerful weapons to speedy legs that can keep you out of danger.
Saves are handled at parking cones that indicate where you can leave your Trotmobile. These are usually found at the entry points to settlements out in the wilderness or within the cities at certain locations. The game also keeps track of other statistics, such as how far you’ve traveled, how many bets you’ve made at the Trotmobile Arenas, to how many foes you’ve dispatched in case you were curious. There’s even a photo gallery that the game keeps track of, showing all of the outfits that you’ve worn (along with certain other friends) as well as the people that you’ve met in many of the locales throughout the game. Not only can you view these pictures, but you can also scroll through the people in them to get a short description of who they are. It’s a nice extra in a game filled with so many others, many of them hidden throughout the world. Even if you finish the game, you might find quite a few slots in your album empty as well as short a few collectibles begging you to return to try and find them all.
Outside the Main Quest
Quite a bit is available to the player within the game to make the experience as personal as possible with a lot of little extras that are found throughout the game outside of the main quest in trying to discover your identity and become wrapped up in something far more serious later on. These side quests are optional, but they can be occasionally fun…especially when Vanilla needs to fill up his wallet. One of the things that you’ll need a lot of in the game is cash. Fortunately, it offers quite a few ways on how to get it.
Your Trotmobile can be configured to carry cargo if that’s your thing, transporting carpets, fish, and other items to those that will pay top dollar for them. Or, you can roam about and pick fights with the countless numbers of robbers and thieves in their own Trotmobiles out in the wilds or explore the dungeons that are hidden out there for the treasure that may still be within them. You can even bet on fighters at the local Arenas and watch them duke it out, hoping that your pick wins. You can even test your own skills against the best in these Arenas, winning medals to improve your ranking as well as being able to trade them in for some items not available in the shops.
You can also buy stocks, trade in stories for cash at a newspaper, or simply take a variety of side quests. It’s up to you, but the freedom to take part in most of these activities only comes after spending several hours with the scripted events in the beginning to help push the story a little further ahead and unlock more areas where you can ply your trade…whatever you decide it should be. One thing that you can do almost right off the bat is to take up a spot next to your Trotmobile and start playing the harmonica you were found with.
The game offers quite a few musical mini games, all of which play a little differently. As the music plays for whatever instrument you have, you have to match up your button presses and D-pad or analog stick movements to the cues that come across the screen. Each instrument offers their own interesting set of challenges, but don’t expect anything on the level of a Guitar Hero. You’ll eventually get to learn a few songs if you decide to tag along with the in-game band that Connie, the girl who found you on the beach, belongs to. You might even get a chance to lead the band and decide what instruments everyone should play at one point.
Playing in the band will help get you paid, but you can’t sign the band for any gigs. That part is scripted as one part of the main quest. What you can do, though, is stand next to your Trotmobile and play to whoever might be passing by on the street and get tipped for your performance…depending on how well you do, of course. You can even hit up the pipe organ at the local church if you want and hope that the congregation is as giving to you as they are to their faith.
So why do you need all of this cash? Cash is important for a variety of things, especially for taking care of your Trotmobile. Depending on your Trotmobile configuration, you’ll either burn quite a bit of gas while going from city to city, or find yourself in a bind against some tough…and incredibly massive…foes when you don’t have the right weapon or a beefy enough machine to withstand their attacks. It’s also used to keep Vanilla fed as he’ll get hungry during the course of a typical day, or purchase a variety of items from shops to pimp himself out depending on how you want him to look. Want to look like Michael Jackson from Moonwalker? You might be able to pull it off with what you can buy in the stores. You can even give him a haircut if you want, sporting almost anything from a mohawk to a full ‘fro.
The interesting thing about what you can buy is that Vanilla has no personal statistics of his own to speak of to improve this way. It’s all just for show. There’s no dexterity to worry about aside from your own, charisma to improve his chances in talking to others, or levels of any kind to earn for himself other than being ranked in Trotmobile Arena fights. The only stats you really have to worry about belong to your Trotmobile, such as the maximum weight that it can carry (determining what kind of parts you can put on it), durability of certain Trotmobile pieces and your fuel efficiency.
You can also rent your own place as noted before, although it can get pretty expensive since rent is due every day within the game. You can’t own your own property outright so finding a way to keep it fed with money is a bit of reality that might surprise some players not expecting to keep up with bills inside of a game. But because you can sleep the night away in an inn without having to pay for anything except for food if you don’t want to wake up with an empty stomach (which is optional), the whole property thing was kind of useless. Later (much later) in the game when I finally had some money and earned enough from stocks to offset the cost of literally living in Steambot, I bought a place and pimped it out with the stuff I had. Still, though, the sense of accomplishment at finally doing this simply wasn’t there.
Being the Evil Band Leader
Steambot Chronicles offers up the opportunity in interacting with certain characters to respond in a variety of ways. You can salute like a soldier or be a gentleman and kiss the hand of the lovely lady that Vanilla is being introduced to, for example, or respond in conversation either as a nice guy that’s everybody’s friend or as an anti-social bastard with a lecherous eye for older, more mature, women, dumping the girl who found you by the wayside. It’s up to you to take Vanilla’s personality where you want it to go, although not all of the choices will result in a lasting repercussion on how things might turn out. There are enough, though, that can really open up certain venues for you as you play the game.
Vanilla can pursue a romance with certain characters as hinted above, for example, giving them gifts that you can buy with your hard earned cash, and complimenting them when you can (or turning them off by being an ass). He can also encourage certain characters to do certain things by giving lending them advice during certain conversations or crush their dreams by telling them that they’re better off staying away from their love interest…because Vanilla’s already in the picture. Vanilla can even join a super evil society of doom and perform diabolical missions for them against polite society that will help you skyrocket through the ranks, although your former friends might wonder why you did such a thing. It’s up to you in how you want to present Vanilla. While it might not drastically change the story as a whole, although it can certainly change the impression Vanilla will leave those around him, it’s something that lends some replayability to the game once you finish it as one version of Vanilla.
As for the main story itself, bits and pieces were entertaining but on the whole, there wasn’t much there. There are quite a few anime cliches in store for the player which some may not like, especially if they’re not fans of anime in general, and you really don’t get a sense of any of the characters outside of the caricatures that they are presented in the game as. Even Vanilla has no personality of his own aside from the one you eventually give him, which is all well and good as it’s up to the player to shape who he is, although it still can tend to leave him pretty ambiguous. As for the ending, let’s just say that it was typically something that I would have expected from anime, complete with its own secret supervillain. Even after the credits roll, the title picks up a year after the end as you explore a land that…still seems pretty much the same as when you left it only with a few surprises in store for those that like exploring.
Much of the game is set up as a light hearted action adventure and the setting reflects it everywhere you go as well as in the foes and friends that Vanilla will eventually confront, presenting a unique world that is saturated with quite a few anime conventions as noted above. The world of Steambot Chronicles bears a close resemblance to the kind found in Katsuhiro Otomo’s Steamboy, the anime short story anthology, Robot Carnival, or Gainax’s Nadia and the Secret of Blue Water. Fans of the genre should feel right at home with its characters and situations, while those who really aren’t fans of the genre may find the game to be something that might grate on their nerves.
All of the characters share a distinct cartoony look to them and many of the areas and locations also follow in the same vein. For the most part, the graphics show off the kind of happy friendly design that permeates everything with a fun, whimsical edge to many of the Trotmobiles and enemies in the title. This also extends down to the characters, most if not all of them fitting right into the stereotypes that anime otaku will recognize immediately. Although the graphics won’t leave you in awe, they’re functional enough to be practical.
The sounds in the game are also pretty minimalistic, with simple tunes for most areas with the exception of the music that you’ll play. None of the music in general is particularly memorable, aside from the ones done by the in-game band. The singing talents of Nadia Gifford, however, nicely translate the songs that will be sung throughout the game and it’s one of the shining points of the sound design for Steambot, with a few odd lyrics here and there. The localization of the title felt extremely well done and the notes in the manual by Tom Hulett (Project Lead) do a great job in describing what was done to help make it happen. He’s not kidding when he says that they spent some quality time in getting the voices right. Many of the characters in the game sound much as you would probably expect to be and say their lines as well as you’d hope them to.
The sound effects in the game are also part of this minimalist approach, with heavy clunking noises for your Trotmobile echoing in your speakers to the smashing sounds of metal on metal as your fist connects with the faceplate of the machine in your way. Aside from that, there’s not a whole lot that will follow you around, but it does the job of at least providing some ear candy for what is there.
The manual itself sports the original cover art of the game as it was presented in Japan, with a new case cover designed for the North American market. Well written and informative, the manual does a great job in going over the world of Steambot Chronicles and in describing what you can and can’t do in Irem’s own humorous way as translated over by Tom Hulett and his team. The localization work for the title as a whole was nicely done.
Steambot Chronicles starts off as a charming, sometimes humorous, action adventure title that soon starts to feel like a series of chores thanks to several annoying shortcomings. The game touts itself as a “relaxing, non-linear adventure” on the title screen, something that can easily turn into something that isn’t so relaxing as it is taxing on your patience. In trying to be a sandbox RPG, there are a few things that can unexpectedly tie you up.
As soon as Steambot starts up, one of the first things I wanted to do was break away from the main story and start exploring. You really can’t do that until you reach a certain point, much like how certain cities won’t open up until you accomplish a set of goals first in GTA: San Andreas or Vice City. But the small areas in Steambot can make the game feel particularly linear early on, a feeling that occasionally crops up when you least expect it with scripted events, especially when you arrive at your first city and find that certain destinations are not even offered until you finish up what you need to do first there.
Although the localization was pretty great overall, some of the dialogue choices that you’re presented with aren’t that all clear or make much sense, causing me to expect one result only to get something else completely different. For example, at one point, I was given the opportunity to ask about several different people. Thinking that asking about one of the people on the list meant that I’d find out more about them, Vanilla instead asked a stupid question about who they were…even though Vanilla already knew them. This kind of vagueness extends throughout more than a few dialogue choices in the game adding a layer of unintentional challenge.
Scripted events are everywhere in Steambot Chronicles. You may suddenly find yourself part of a strung together series of events during your wanderings with no way to save or get out of them until you complete whatever mission you’re on. Although the game is forgiving in some respects such as giving you a sort of “sorry you lost, but don’t worry” speech if you fail at a certain part, if you didn’t save before it jumped you with an unexpected side trip back into the story and you’re not happy about how it turned out, be prepared to repeat it. The only way you can save is at a parking cone and sometimes you’ll find that they’re not exactly in the most convenient of places.
One of the things that made the last few Grand Theft Auto titles stand out was in how seamless they were as you traveled across their vast 3D cityscapes and, eventually, across the hills and highways between them. Steambot’s world is far from being as seamless and load after load screen will greet you as soon as you pass from one tiny area to the next. Many of these small places aren’t even large enough to fit in the shirt pocket of a Grand Theft Auto so it was confusing to see why they would need to load at all.
The loads themselves aren’t particularly short, either, taking quite a few seconds to almost a minute for each one. This is made worse with repetitive loading thanks to how small some of the areas can be. This is even worse within the cities themselves, divided along invisible lines of loaded areas that ambush the player when they least expect it. Turning the corner in one city had me go through two different load sequences in the space of only a few seconds of freedom between each one.
As with many urban themed sandbox titles, they let you ignore the traffic rules for the most part allowing you to get hit with the consequences later if you decide to share your road rage with others. Steambot takes that away from you. As soon as you trundle through those gates in your Trotmobile, you’re stuck in picking your destination from a list that comes up and are forced to watch your walking car go there while following all of the traffic rules and submitting to the loads that inevitably come up.
Watching this was about as much fun as it is in real life. Just to give you an idea of how annoying this had become, I managed to watch the last fight in Batman Begins on another screen while waiting for my Trotmobile to get me from one point in a city to the next thanks to the combination of traffic signals and loads. You can walk around the city without regard to the rules, though, once you park your Trotmobile, and you can also ride a bike to get you around faster once you find it, both of which I did extensively as soon as I was able to.
There are also invisible walls everywhere you go. If not because of the traffic laws that your Trotmobile is forced to abide by, then by the blatant fact that you can’t jump over a fence that doesn’t come any higher than Vanilla’s knees. There are certain areas and sites out in the wilderness that are farms or isolated areas where you have to debark in order to explore them on foot with an invisible wall protecting them from you simply hopping into their backyard. This is made even more obvious by enemies that you might have ignored on the outside when you left your Trotmobile, as they hop angrily against the invisible barrier protecting you and everyone else from vehicular invasion like a glass wall from which you can observe them. While I can understand that we can’t have Trotmobiles landing on houses and such, these invisible fences didn’t help what immersion there was.
Then there are the quests. Most of the quests and jobs that you can do for extra cash involve a massive amount of Fedex’ing to the point where I began thinking of taking some time with the editor to make a FedEx license plate to go with my Trotmobile. Someone will almost always ask for something, whether it’s food or carpets, and guess who gets to play delivery boy? Even when you go hunting for fossils to sell to the local museum, you’re still Mr. Delivery Guy. These jobs get boring in a hurry, especially when you factor in the loads and traffic rules that you usually have to follow. In a nod to how aggravating it can be for Trotmobiles to simply travel in cities, at least there are ways to get around them to avoid having to deal with it, but it’s still a small consolation especially when the time spent in getting the measly payback from these trips will make you wonder why you bothered.
The quests themselves as they pertain to the main game aren’t all that special, either, and are exceptionally shallow. They don’t do a whole lot other than point you to what you have to do next which isn’t much and are also guilty of the same Fedex’ing that many of the other side quests are involved with. At least there’s some action to break up the monotony, but after fighting the same enemies over and over again, that can also get pretty boring.
Speaking of combat, it can be both fun and frustrating. Once you get a handle on the controls and have the right mix of parts for your Trotmobile, you can almost lay waste to many of the enemies in the game since most of them have the intelligence of a tire iron. You can see this in watching some of the arena matches that you can bet on. If the AI is armed with a ranged weapon, it will try and use it no matter how close the other enemy gets. Occasionally it will try for a melee attack, but that’s only if it loses its ranged option. This makes it exceptionally easy to get in close and predict how many of these enemies will react.
Combat can surprise you, however, and if an enemy can throw you it will try its best to…sometimes reaching through a boulder between you and it to do so. You can turn the tables by being cheap and taking potshots at your foe before it can get up to fight after throwing them or getting in a last minute shot, something that can make many of the fights all too easy. The game doesn’t believe in giving temporary invincibility to anyone if they get knocked down or thrown down, something that can also make some fights cheap as it will relentlessly attack you as you struggle to get to your feet…sometimes throwing you again as soon as you get up to try and escape. The odds that are set up in the arena aren’t all that accurate, either, and it’s not unusual to see an extremely low ranked Trotmobile gladiator defeat the champion on occasion even though the champion is said to be ‘undefeated’ thanks to some of this odd AI behavior.
The camera is also something that you’ll have to get used to. During combat, you can flick one of the buttons on your pad to lock onto your foe and track them as you slide, jump, and maneuver to get a shot off or in trying to get close to them. But don’t expect too much out of it. For whatever reason, as soon as you throw an enemy, it breaks the lock leaving you at the mercy of the dodgy camera which you may end up fighting at the same time to re-align and get your foe back in your sights to lock back on again.
I’m also not too keen on the whole ‘feeding your hero’ thing in Steambot, especially if it feels as if it has given the player a real life chore to perform in an escapist piece of entertainment. Many action adventure games today as well as RPGs eschew the need for the player to simply feed and water their hero, while others have attempted clumsy implementations that have either been tangential to the immersion factor or simply shatters it altogether during the climax when someone complains about food. It can also be done well and blend quietly into the gameplay, such as in GTA: San Andreas where it at least serves some useful purpose and doesn’t nag the player morning, noon, or night.
In Steambot, it’s practically obnoxious because if you ignore it, Vanilla clutches his stomach and starts to limp about, slowing you down as a penalty. At the speed that the day can potentially pass through its phases within the game, you might find yourself hungry once or twice at any given moment…enough to make it aggravating if you don’t happen to have pockets full of food. Fortunately, it doesn’t affect his bike riding or Trotmobile skills, so it’s more annoying than helpful and serves no other purpose other than to feed Vanilla a variety of foodstuffs. While some might get a kick out of stuffing him full of donuts from time to time, it really doesn’t serve any other purpose than to imagine what he might be tasting or to keep him from stumbling his way around.
I really wanted to like Steambot Chronicles, especially in taking the risks that it did to come over here, the excellent presentation values that the localization had brought with it, and the unique world that Irem had envisioned. It offers a unique experience in an anime inspired world with many genuine moments of fun to be found within, but when the novelty wears thin and the technical foibles begin grating your nerves, even the genre’s most dedicated fans may find themselves challenged to keep going until the end to find them. It’s an odd mix of on-again off-again sandbox style action adventure whose stylish gameplay becomes lost within too many problems and cliches making it something that started off as something fun only to eventually lose steam at the end.
– World 1-1