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Review – Steambot Chronicles

posted on July 5th, 2007 by chris

Have you ever played a game for hours on end and then realized what you played had unbalanced gameplay, a clunky battle system, and very slow character advancement but you loved it anyway?

This happened to me last week. On a whim, I bought Odin Sphere and Steambot Chronicles. Though I might argue both games are guilty of these faults, in this case I am talking about Steambot Chronicles because it kept my attention better.

My question – Wouldn’t a better name be Trotbots?

I still don’t completely understand why, but I loved this game. It has a cliched anime look with cliched anime-type characters named after spices (the main character is Vanilla Bean), standard music (with a few exceptions) and clunky gameplay. Though the voice acting was really good for English voiceovers (even in songs, though the lyrics are lacking), that usually isn’t a great motivator on its own. So what was so compelling about the game?

The main answer is Choice. Yes, with a capital C. When you start the game, you will be surprised by the amount of choices. You wake up on a beach with amnesia (cliche!), and in various conversations with the girl who finds you, there are dozens of choices.

Most, to put it bluntly, don’t matter that much in the grander scheme of things. When you get into your first Trotmobile (sort of an Industrial Age mech/Gundam/etc), the girl asks if you know how to pilot it. And herein lies the great way choices are made. Your choices are: 1) Be cocky. 2) Be honest. 3) Be confused. And your character responds accordingly. At first, I thought that choices this small aren’t important.

In a much later decision, a man asks you if you’ve seen his son. “Yeah, he’s…” 1) Describe where he is. 2) Describe who he’s with. 3) Pick a defining characteristic. The ability to be sarcastic and unhelpful to someone who doesn’t matter to you is great – and you can play the whole game like that if you want.

As the game progressed, I got a feel for what kind of person I wanted to be in the world of Steambot Chronicles. I started to care for characters I like, and become more hostile towards those I didn’t. My character developed, and I found a brief nonlinearity Nirvana – one more extreme than those found in most Western RPGs.

Every game needs more rhythm games in it.

And here is the most impressive part of the game – despite having a linear plot, every other aspect of the game is nonlinear. Care to go mining for fossils? Enjoy. Explore a dungeon filled with enemies? Sure. Want to drop everything and go play pool in a bar? Go for it. The game lets you do whatever you want, and a lot of the minigames and subplots are nearly as enjoyable as the main game.

Many games preach that they are nonlinear, that you can do whatever you want. But all of them have some sort of boundary. You can’t drop everything in Fallout and become a post-apocalyptic carpenter, nor can you quit criminal life and become a barista in Grand Theft Auto (no matter how much you may enjoy hot coffee). You’re still bound by the limits of the game. Steambot is not limitless any more than Fallout or GTA, but it does have more expansive gameplay.

The sad part is, despite how fun the game overall is to play, no one gameplay type is impressive. Driving a Trotmobile is awkward even after hours of practice, and the rhythm minigames (where you play alone or in your band), though varied, are either too easy or too hard. The more minor gameplay types, which are almost all ways to get money, are based around driving a Trotmobile, which gets boring. The only exception to this is pool, which is a self-contained (and well done) minigame.

Money doesn’t even matter that much. By about halfway through the game, the only thing you still need much money for is buying stocks. The motivation for buying stocks is to get more money, so there’s not much reason to continue it ad nauseum. I did it anyway, because I wanted to try everything in the game once. Exploring the boundaries of the game alone was half the fun of it. It’s like playing a better Harvest Moon, only instead of building a farm you’re making money for the heck of it.

Shadow of the Colossus reject.

Developers can learn from Steambot Chronicles. Nonlinearity is powerful if executed correctly. Give players a subtle personality to create by making decisions. Include even minor choices, in conversations with random people they wouldn’t care about otherwise, and players will begin to feel more connected to the game world. It’s not difficult for developers to do, and if the main parts of the game are good, people will devour character development and gameplay alike.

No game has managed to let me create a personality so completely. Even in many Western RPGs, you generally create “good guy” or “evil guy” and your speech is highly scripted. In this game, you can be hateful toward those you dislike (or for that matter anyone) with few repercussions – they just won’t like you either. You create the shades of gray in a personality that you rarely see in video games.

Steambot Chronicles is a game I would recommend trying at least once. Despite the occasionally annoying gameplay, lack of challenge (except in controls), and shallowness in some aspects, the game is a blast to play if you like sandboxes. Plus, in this game, the sand castles you create have more detail than in any other I have played.

6 Comments

  1. TrueTallus said on July 6, 2007:

    Sounds so good I might take it off the shelf and give it a another try. Being a big Irem fan, I bought it the day it came out. I tried it for a while, got frustrated and overwhelmed and put it back in the case. I could see the promise in the game, but the amount of things to keep track of (I’m something of an OCD completionist) as each new facet of the game was revealed made my brain hurt. And that was only 3 hours in. I guess I didn’t give it a enough of a chance (or perhaps I wasn’t playing it as “a relaxing non-linear adventure”), so thanks for the heads up!

  2. DeeMer said on July 6, 2007:

    I was just thinking about picking this game up again after I finish up Odin Sphere.

    I really like this game. A lot. It has a lot of charm that fills in the faults. The only thing that really bothered me was the plentiful and lengthy loading times. If they fix that up in the sequel, it’ll be good news.

    It’s nice to see someone else playing this game and giving it a good note or two.

  3. jay said on July 6, 2007:

    So that’s how we get your guy’s attention, just review a jRPG :)

  4. chris said on July 6, 2007:

    I can see being overwhelmed by this game easily, especially if you’re OCD. I just picked up what I felt like doing and ignored everything else, so I was very relaxed as I went through it. Though this game is both Japanese and an RPG, it’s an RPG in the classical sense (i.e. you play a role) – it has no experience or leveling, just Trotmobile configuration, so it’s somewhere along the lines of (Armored Core + Harvest Moon) / 2 = Armored Moon? Harvest Core? I don’t know, but it’s fun. Anyway, I didn’t get a chance to work that into the article, so there it is.

  5. Staticneuron said on July 10, 2007:

    Geeze…. thank you! I loved this game as well but also thought it was flawed. The way this was handled just makes me want to se a next gen version of this title. Seriously for wither the 360 or PS3 I would pick this one up in a flash.

  6. Christian said on July 24, 2007:

    its a great game too bad i cant find the lyrics 4the songs

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