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Games time forgot: Steambot Chronicles

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We're back to another somewhat recent but criminally underplayed title for this week's game that time forgot: it's Steambot Chronicles, and, according to a blurb from the back cover, it's what would result "If Hayao Miyazaki created a sandbox-style game."

Now, that description isn't entirely true (at no point in time was I forced to clean up after a large, black mess of goo that could create gold with his hands), but it'll do. Steambot Chronicles is a free-roaming adventure filled with bipedal robots and musical instruments, where nobody ever dies and the focus is often more on chilling out* and engaging in fun sidequests rather than racing through the main plot.

The game is flawed, to be sure, but it's also a very, very different and refreshing take on the nonlinear adventure title. For all its problems, Steambot Chronicles shouldn't be missed. Hit the jump to find out why.

*See also: maxing, relaxing all cool and all, shooting some b-ball outside of the school

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Story:

You've really got to give credit to a game that opens with the voices of its characters not only explaining what the game is supposed to be ("A relaxing nonlinear adventure!," one character exclaims), but also personally expressing their desire that you have a good time ("I hope you love it!," says another). This sort of genuine friendliness runs throughout every aspect of Steambot Chronicles.

No character ever dies, because combat never takes place outside of the main vehicle in the game, the bipedal combat/transportation machine known as a Trotmobile. After defeating a baddie's trotmobile in combat, he flies out of the cockpit and runs away to safety, keeping the body count at zero. Furthermore, even the villains in the game seem to live by an idealized code of honor: when the protagonist is caught infiltrating the secret base of the Killer Elephant gang, instead of being shot or drawn and quartered, the hero is invited to duel the Killer Elephant leader mano a mano. If the hero actually defeats the leader, then the baddie will make the hero the effing boss of the gang, and all the members will immediately accept this fact. Furthermore, after getting kidnapped by some desert bandits, the hero and his sidekick can not only talk their way out of getting killed, but can also patch things up with the bandits by -- and this is not an exaggeration -- singing a song for them.

So, yeah, the world of Steambot Chronicles may be more than a little naive. But after spending months playing Grand Theft Auto and Gears of War and God of War, who's to say that a little naivete can't be a good thing?

Plot-wise, Steambot is difficult to describe: technically, there is one overarching plot involving an amnesiac main character (unfortunately named "Vanilla" for some reason) and the girl who finds him (named "Corriander" -- see a pattern here?), but given the fact that the game doesn't want the player to just experience the main quest, there are about a dozen other subplots and sidequests. 

The world of Steambot Chronicles, however, is significantly easier to explain: in an alternate universe, automobiles have more or less been phased out in favor of steam-powered Trotmobiles. Since Trotmobiles present such an incredible and sudden technological leap, the people of the world aren't quite sure how to use it: many gangs use trotmobiles to raid towns or caravans, others use them for simple transporation, and others want to build flying versions of them.

 

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Gameplay:

You can do the following things in Steambot Chronicles:

-Build your own bipedal Trotmobile

-Enter said Trotmobile in arena battles

-Play a number of musical instruments ranging from the Harmonica to the Accordion, each with a different rhythm game associated with it

-Join a band and get famous

-Play pool, for fun or in a tournament

-Make a fortune digging up fossils and selling them to a museum

-Start a bus service

-Work as a merchant

And some other stuff. Yes, Steambot Chronicles is pretty nonlinear: while you have to play through the main quest to open up parts of the map that allow you to engage in some of these activities, the bulk of the game revolves around sidequests and distractions rather than one big campaign.

Consider it a mix between Final Fantasy and Sid Meier's Pirates!: the game has the large environment and lengthy main plot of a typical FF game, but it revels in distracting and diverting the player with seemingly unrelated tasks, much like Pirates did. If Pirates had robots, anyway.

The majority of the game is spent behind the controls of a Trotmobile, which is controlled using the PS2's dualshock analog sticks. The control system is sometimes unwieldy, but in a good way: the fact that both sticks are needed to control a Trotmobile makes the piloting system feel more fleshed out and immersive than it really has any right to be. Had movement simply been controlled with the left analog stick and the face buttons, the control experience would have felt like every other action game; as it stands, the quasi-complex controls do a great job of further immersing the player in this almost-but-not-quite-familiar world.

The musical rhythm games should be familiar to anyone who has played Guitar Hero or Gitaroo Man, in the same way that the Pool game should be familiar to anyone who has played pool. These games are fully fleshed out (the music game in the sense that each instrument and each song play differently, the pool game in the sense that it's goddamn pool), and it's hard to resist the urge just to roam the countryside as a star musician, or expert pool shark. 

It may seem strange to prioritize trumpet playing over robot fighting in a game that includes both, but such is the charm of Steambot Chronicles: given that Vanilla's musical reputation and nicknames (you are given a new one every day) are based on what he says and does to other people, it's as easy to create a kind, wandering musician as it is a ferocious bandit hunter.

Also of note is the conversation system. People frequently talk to Vanilla, and the player always gets some degree of choice as to how to respond. You aren't allowed to pick exactly what you will say, but are instead presented with general choices. For example, when Corriander asks you to take her to her gig across the desert, you can "Be gentlemanly," "Be reluctant," or "Be irritated."; when people ask you questions about yourself, you can tell the truth or lie; when women hit on you (and they will), you can react excitedly or play it cool. Granted, many of these branching conversations pretty much end the same way, but it's still nice to have some control over how the hero responds to people, and to then see how people react to him. 

All of these different aspects of the game -- the idealistic sense of right and wrong, the lack fo violence, nonlinearity and the illusion of player choice -- gave me a weird thought. As I walked through the city of Nefroburg and talked to all the amiable citizens, it occurred to me: this is a perfect children's game. Granted, the robots can be armed with guns or swords and one of the characters says "ass" every once in a while, but Steambot Chronicles could just have easily been named My First Nonlinear Adventure Game. The game's overall lack of tension, its numerous life lessons (honesty and loyalty are usually rewarded), and its nonexistent body count made me think that, should I ever decide to completely reverse my priorities and actually raise a child, this would be a perfect first game for him or her. The whole game lends itself a soothing, friendly, almost cartoony environment that would be perfect for a kid.

That being said, that same soothing and friendly environment might make Steambot Chronicles nothing short of mind-numbingly boring for the vast majority of today's gamers. Which brings us to:

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Why You Probably Haven't Played It:

As a game released in 2006, Steambot Chronicles came out relatively close to the end of the PS2's lifespan, when the only games most of us were looking forward to were Bully and God of War II

This is usually where I make some vague reference to the fact that the marketing and cover art made the game seem more childish and shallow than it actually was (see also: Beyond Good and Evil, Psychonauts), but Steambot Chronicles doesn't fit this description: while the cover art and limited marketing for Steambot did indeed suggest a childish, often simplistic nonlinear adventure, this was in no way a misrepresentation of the actual gameplay Steambot offered. The problem, it would seem, lies with the gaming community at large: as stated earlier, a game as genuinely sweet and naive as Chronicles has little place in an environment of headshots and chainsaw executions.

Yet it's unfair to blame gamers solely for Steambot's lackluster western sales: despite its wonderfully light tone and its emphasis on relaxing, nonlinear diversions, it still contained some pretty bland environments, a ridiculous intra-city transportation system (your trotmobile is only allowed to go to certain checkpoints in any given town, and even then you don't get to control it as it slowly moves from one checkpoint to another, waiting for traffic lights to turn green), an easily-exploited combat system, and the contradictory fact that the player is forced to play through parts of the main storyline in order to see more of the nonlinear world.

Still, I'd personally recommend it: it costs anywhere from 10 to 20 bucks on eBay, but it's only 550 points on Goozex. If escaping to a world of honorable thieves and steam-powered robots is one that appeals to you, Steambot Chronicles might just be worth your time.

UPDATE:

I found this on Digg: though Steambot did well enough in Japan to warrant an (eventual) sequel, it appears that western reviewers just plain didn't get it. Atlus's US team wasn't particularly happy with this, and for that matter, neither am I. I'm surprised how many reviewers harped on the graphics, which, to me, seemed to take on a charmingly quasi-cel-shaded quality.

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Anthony Burch
Anthony BurchContributor   gamer profile

Lead writer of Borderlands 2, curator of  more + disclosures


 


 



Filed under... #Atlus #Games Time Forgot #Robots

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