In the meantime, I'm just a guy who writes about videogame theory and how the medium can achieve better cinematic emulation (while keeping its own indentity). Though, if that's too boring, you can always find something delightfully fluffy in the following:
If I could sum up Steambot Chronicles in one snappy sentence, I would say itís like the Studio Ghibli film that never was. Just about every offbeat element in this game, from the eco-friendly steampunk themes to the travelling band of musicians, could be lifted from every one of Hayao Miyzakiís movies. Usually, I tend to find games emulating films a bit of a moot point because of their immaturity to do so, but here the emulation feels so cohesive and yet so familiar that you almost think youíre playing a tie-in of an existing movie.
Steambot Chronicles AKA Bumpy Trot is bizarre concept from the off; you traverse the country in a walking robot-car-thing while earning a living with a travelling band. In between, you battle not-so evil pirates, help out the locals, stop a catastrophe befalling a city and find love with your singer/guitarist companion. It sounds sickeningly cute but if you scratch the saccharine surface, thereís something undeniably dark underneath. Much like Gregory Horror Show, thereís a schizophrenic feel to the game, which makes it more difficult to pin down the intended audience.
The story starts with Vanilla Beans and his friend earning their place on a ship called The Juniper Berry. Early on into their journey, theyíre shipwrecked by an unknown trotmobile off the nearby shore. Everybody has abandoned ship and an amnesiac Vanilla is found by Coriander, a local aspiring musician. Using an old scrapheap of a trotmobile to get home to Nefroburg, Vanilla and Connie meet up with her band mates, Basil and Marjoram. The group encounter some local thugs called The Killer Elephants but manage to dispatch them ease. On the night of The Garland Globetrottersí show in the Town Square, The Killer Elephants return for payback, but are once again defeated by Vanilla and The Globetrotters. Since heís both gifted as a musician and a trotmobile driver, the band decide that Vanilla can join them as they travel across the country, playing gigs and meeting up with old friends. After this, itís up to the player how the story evolves as Vanilla searches for his shipís captain and the band become wrapped up in a sinister conspiracy involving the fate of Garland City.
As I mentioned before, the whole thing sounds like one of Studio Ghibliís fantasy movies, say Porco Rosso or Laputa: Castle In The Sky. At the centre of the story, thereís a conventional travelling band, but at the same time their transportation isnít conventional at all; much like Kiki and her broomstick in Kikiís Delivery Service.
For all the weirdness of mecha-fortresses and trotmobiles, their presence is grounded in a 1920ís European world. People still use existing instruments (though the electric guitar hasnít been invented yet), even use public transportation like cars and buses (flight hasnít been achieved) and thereís things like the stock market, cinemas, mills, farming etc. Itís interesting to see how the advancement of one outlandish technology has stunted the growth of others. All in all, itís a well realised world despite the fantasy elements.
The main draw is the trotmobile; a highly customisable, bi-pedal vehicle that can be used to fight and travel. A majority of the game is essentially you traversing from A to B and fighting random (re-spawning) antagonists along the way. How you fight is entirely up to you. You can customise the speed, the strength, the weapon range, etc. of your trotmobile; all reminiscent of Front Missionís load outs. You can even change the colour and create your own license plate. Getting the balance right is a top priority too, since early on itís really easy to die.
It doesnít help that the control system isnít something you can learn instantly. The analogue stick movements control both the upper and lower body and itís easy to just flounder around for the first hour trying to walk up some cliff side. Somehow it all eventually clicks and youíll learn your strengths and weaknesses. I eventually ended up with a rifle on one arm and an extendable smashing arm on another, with a medium chassis and legs to enable a quick getaway (complete with a Domo-kun licence plate and a tasteless green paint job). You donít have to follow my template to the letter either; the customisation is tailored mostly to your needs and sometimes certain jobs. For example, a flatbed chassis and heavy legs for carrying lumber and rocks.
Of course, to pay for all this equipment youíll need a job. You can find work anywhere; from taxiing fares and battle tournaments to working in a quarry and hustling pool. You can even make money from the aforementioned stock market. But Vanilla also comes armed with a secret workshy fop of a weapon...the harmonica. Yes, you can be every pedestrianís worst nightmare and busk on the street. Eventually, youíll get more money to pay for new instruments, which you can use in your band or on the street corners. Each song is performed as a rhythm game, with each instrument played in a specific way to their real life counterparts. As an obvious example, the guitar and bass are strummed using brushes of the analogue sticks. The better you are at getting the notes, the bigger tips youíll get.
The whole musical aspect is the one that stands out the most in Steambot Chronicles. You donít have to do it, but youíll find yourself wanting to play a gig (which is just two chosen songs anyway) most of the time because itís actually quite fun and the songs are memorable ballads. You do eventually feel some connection with your band through playing shows, which is necessary concept since the plot hinges on their actions towards the end. I tell you, I wish I had been in bands that were as fun as The Garland Globetrotters, maybe then I wouldnít be some guy who turned up to acoustic benefit gigs with an electric guitar and an amp turned up to 11.
The love story (if you decide on it) between Vanilla and Connie is a decent immersive element and a well written crutch for the skeletal framework. Itís not saccharine by any means; Connie and Vanilla are old enough to know how relationships work (another part of the gameís visual deceptiveness). None of that ĎOh, itís love at first sight and everything is greatí nonsense. Itís clear that they Ďdo ití very early on (especially since the translators made a Hot Coffee in-joke about it) and the story letís you decide the rest.
As youíve probably noticed, I mention customisation a lot. It permeates throughout the game, right down to the trivial options. Vanilla himself is a character with a blank slate. Donít like the anime hair? Get an afro at the barbers. Donít like his clothes? Collect some new outfits. You can act like the nicest guy in the world or you can be a complete git; it doesnít matter since itís tailored to your style (much like Iremís underrated classics - SOS: The Final Escape and Raw Danger). Eventually, Vanilla remembers who he is at one point and I canít spoil it for you. No really I canít, because you decide on who he was before the story started.
Do you want him to be a poor kid who was just looking for more in life?
Want him to be the spoilt rich son of the local baker?
Sure, why not.
While this kind of customisation takes the impact away from what you were objectively seeking, itís also brave enough to give you that kind of freedom at a moment when you canít decide on it. Usually, youíre given a vague back story to give some sense of your avatar/protagonist and yet your in-game actions can become completely removed from the template. Of course, thereís a skeletal framework concerning how Steambot Chronicles ultimately plays out, but the amount of free reign here should really be commended.
That kind of freedom is what I love about this game. Even though, action-wise, itís restrictive to large scale linear areas, the personal level is an open playground. You can take everything at your own pace and thereís so much extra content to explore. The side quests are well written even when theyíre basic fetch quests. They make you care for these characters if you go out of your way to talk to them. Thereís a memorable side quest where a mill owner wants to install new technology and replace the workers. I felt completely fine with the plan since the increase in production would make my mill shares go up and I could buy an extendable boxing glove weapon. Of course, I didnít really think the workers would be fired, just relocated to minor positions. In the end, they lost their jobs and each other (since they acted like a family) and I felt horrible for what I done. They all found work on separate farms, but I felt regret despite my actions only resulting in a technological advancement. I could have also said ĎNo, keep the workers despite lower incomeí, but I wanted that stupid robot arm.
A lot of Steambot Chronicles sub-textual narrative is geared toward the discussion of trading traditionalism with modernisation and I found it interesting that none of the arguments involved were unevenly written; which is amazing considering how many characters talk or hint about this theme.
(Not the best fight scene you'll ever see since the guy gets trapped under the boss for ages! But it's really hard to find good footage on You Tube...)
That moment of regret also serves to remind me of Steambot Chroniclesí dark side. As the story progresses, things take turns for the worse and the happy-go-lucky attitude is replaced by a melancholy tone. Itís very much like Hayao Miyazakiís style in the way the threat of war or hidden personal tragedies seep through the narrative. An inevitable progression as the world advances quickly, so to speak. The (heroic story) penultimate battle is pure Miyazaki too; you finally take flight in a trotmobile with wings and attack a giant zeppelin bomber. Itís amazing stuff from a game that keeps twisting your expectations while emulating visuals that are cinematically familiar.
Though after that climatic thrill, the tone is decidedly downbeat. Like the minor actions of the sub plots, there are definitive consequences beyond your control. Giving you free reign (or at least enough to believe it towards the end) with those actions also makes the consequences more personal. In the end, I opened up a free play scenario, but I only used it to find Corriander and visit the graves of certain characters. It felt right to end it there and not continue any longer. There arenít many games that give you a chance to experience the aftermath after the rightfully triumphant ending.
Steambot Chronicles does have its flaws like any game. The re-spawning enemies can be a nuisance rather than a threatening obstacle, especially when youíre on an elongated fetch quest. The game world might be too small for someone expecting constantly streaming expanses. Thereís a lot of backtracking and the some of the quests can get a bit obscure (like the famous painter one). Constant loading times can be a pain, along with the odd frame rate drop when the game tries to handle the larger bosses or draw distances. Also, the main quest is decidedly short if you plan to ignore most of the optional extras. But honestly, thereís so much right with this game that you can overlook the flaws and take in the atmospheric minor details. That might be a weak excuse but itís honestly the truth.
Itís obvious by the way Iíve talked about this game that Iím a massive fan. Another vaguely obscure but original game that didnít get the kind of push it needed. For once, 505 Games didnít ruin things too much either when they bought up the European distribution rights, unlike Michigan and Raw Danger. Usually, games like this just disappear without a trace, but it seems like Atlus are keen to keep this franchise alive by publishing the stop gap material like Steambot Chronicles: Battle Tournament until Irem finally completes Steambot Chronicles 2. Hopefully, the sequel will sort out the original flaws and more people discover the expansive freedom given in such an underrated franchise. In which case: