"Probably the best moment came after Venus had lost her precious pendant. When I offered to steal her a new one, she launched into a tearful backstory explaining that it was the last remaining memento of her dead mother. My response? I nodded sagely and asked Venus what her measurements were."
Most games are content to be lifeless. They sit quietly and passively in their cases on whatever shelf youíve happened to grace with their presence, waiting for you to decide if and when you will play them.
Steambot Chronicles: Battle Tournament, on the other hand, wants you to play it so badly it might just wet your rug. This isnít a bad thing, not really. Itís nice to see a game with such confidence in itself. Steambot Chronicles exudes the excitement and energy of a hyper-active dog thrown into a cage of squirrels. The start up screen is made up of intensely happy music and various cheerful voice overs screaming out ďWelcome to Steambot Chronicles! Hey, this guyís playing Steambot Chronicles!Ē This is a game which wants the world to know that youíre playing it.
Such exuberance brought a smile to my face. The smile was widened when the game began with a totally unexpected reference to tentacle sex. Actually, I need to back up a bit. The tentacle sex reference only happens if you choose to play as a guy, and then only if you choose to talk about it when youíre woken up by your ship arriving at port in Orion City. Conversation choices abound in Steambot Chronicles, letting you fill the game with the kind of dialogue you want to hear, so a more boring player might find their game beginning with the usual ďWell, Iíve finally arrived at my destination!Ē Another example: after leaving the ship, youíll come across a young female mechanic being assaulted by a punk in an armoured mech. You can rush to her rescue, try to mediate a peace, attempt to join the punk, or keep walking. No matter what you decide, youíll end up fighting the guy, but youíll laugh at your characterís smug attempt to join him first... or youíll be boring again and have him try to save her (what are we going to do with you?). The game isnít afraid to let the player have fun, or make fun of it, as they choose. And that shows a sense of self awareness that is refreshing.
I was really abusive of this freedom. I forced the mechanic, Venus, to pay me for saving her, then made a shallow attempt to be her boyfriend. I flirted with the mysterious old woman who kept coming to the repair shop to offer us money. I proposed to the girl at the work agency and then, a little later, her sister at the coliseum. When I was sent on a job to interview people for the Orion newspaper I asked them personal questions about their sex lives instead of sticking to the sheet my superiors had handed me.
Probably the best moment came after Venus had lost her precious pendant. When I offered to steal her a new one, she launched into a tearful backstory explaining that it was the last remaining memento of her dead mother. My response? I nodded sagely and asked Venus what her measurements were.
Donít take my flippancy the wrong way. It wasnít that I didnít like Steambot Chronicleís plot. Its story about a tragic death in the family fueling the dreams of one young mechanic is well written. But after youíve played as many RPGs as I have, these sort of things start to sound rehashed. Thus, while the diversity of conversation choices available to you might not be staggering or plot changing, I appreciated Steambotís willingness to let me mess with things a bit. Of course, if you want to copy my flirtatious gaming experience (and you know you do) youíll have to play as the male. The girlís game is pretty much the same, only with less chances to flirt with everyone and more chances to stare at your avatarís hot ass and cleavage. For most gamers who are looking for a mech-simulator, thatís a winning scenario no matter which character you choose.
Concerning mech-simulation, the game is adequate if not quite as fun as its script. First of all, the mechs are called Trotmobiles. This is a terrible name. It sounds like a new model of Segway or something people with restless leg syndrome use to get around their house. Once you get over the name, though, youíll find the little buggers are quite fun. For one thing, theyíre totally customizable, from legs that let you jump further to arm attachments that shoot heavy rockets. Certain weapons are heavier than others, and certain legs donít allow for as high a carrying load, so there's some strategy to this customization. For instance, you wonít be trotting about with axes and rocket launchers on the spindly frog legs. Youíll have to give up your jumping abilities for a more durable bottom half, like the horse or spider legs. Also, what you equip will drastically change your combat strategy. Will you rush in past your enemyís long range fire and destroy them with melee weapons? Will you use powerful ranged weaponry, hoping to dominate before you run out of ammo? Or will you rely on good armour and shields to outlast your opponent, maybe even equipping them with elemental defenses? There's an abundance of options here, even though there are a few points in the game where youíll be asked to equip specific attachments in order to complete certain jobs. Which brings us to the big question: how do you pay for all these nifty gadgets?
There are two decent ways to acquire cash in Orion City. First, you can fight at the coliseum against other Trots. Fighting is pretty straight forward. You have a rather small number of opponents, some of whom are laughably easy yet pay quite well when defeated, which allows players to juke the system a bit and make a lot of money without having to do the jobs. But in case you are interested, you can take jobs from various people around the city. Doing jobs isn't a bad idea, anyway, because it gives you fame, which is needed to get into the higher ranking (and thus higher paying) matches. Jobs also give you the majority of the story as well as little side stories that can be surprisingly meaningful. I remember well the lady that asked me to throw the memories of her former lover into a volcano. I also remember the time I had to deliver womenís clothing to a cross dresser in the forest. Both are essentially fetch quests, but its nice to see such situational variety.
Unfortunately, despite their variety, jobs get repetitive. The world map is fairly small. Outside of Orion City, there are four areas that youíll be sent to: a forest, a snow mountain, a mining valley, and the aforementioned volcano. Each one of these is made up of about four screens and have set enemies, which means youíll be going through a lot of the same motions, especially once you get the most powerful attachments and can kill enemies in two or three hits. Ironically though, youíll be blessing the small map size because of all the running around the game makes you do. You canít just take a job from anyone in Steambot Chronicles. No, first you have to go to the work center and apply for one of the available jobs. Then you have to go find the person who originally posted the job. Then you do the job. But you donít get paid until youíve first gone back to the person and told them youíre done and then after that you still have to go back to the work center to actually receive your money. Iíve jumped through less hoops trying to get into grad school. The ordeal of accepting a job and getting paid was so excessive that I eventually stopped doing them and focused on getting my money in the much faster paced coliseum matches. Not that this didnít have its problems, too.
Around the time that I reached A Rank in the coliseum, the game took an extreme biking trip up difficulty mountain and went from being mind-numbingly easy to being mind-bogglingly hard. While itís not unreasonable for a game to get harder as it goes on, usually this is a gradual enough process that you have some time to adjust. Here it was sudden and unexpected. A large part of this discomfort stems from the iffy controls. Yes, unfortunately, Steambot Chronicles does suffer from poor control syndrome. Getting both the camera and your mech to be facing where you want them is about as easy as getting your cat to mate with your dog. No matter which of the two control sets you choose, youíll be forced to use both the analog stick and the D-pad at the same time to maneuver and fight properly. But if you think about the design of the PSP, itís not really meant for that, what with the D-pad being directly above the analog stick. Youíd have to be a sentient spider to make it work. Thankfully, most enemies are easy enough that controls arenít a problem, but youíll crash and burn as soon as you meet any Trot smart enough to dodge attacks or powerful enough to launch barrages of missiles at you, which explains the sudden difficulty spike.
Worst of all was the final boss, which I have yet to defeat, partially because itís actually two bosses, and you donít get to recover in between them, and more because of the five minute cutscene that you have to watch every time you want to fight the thing. Iíve said before how much I hate unskippable cutscenes. If I were to burn in my own personal hell, it would consist of a darkened theatre where I was forced to watch Uwe Bollís Alone in the Dark interspersed with brief playable sequences, always ending with my death and someone restarting the movie from the beginning. Also, I'd be tied down and my shorts would be stuffed with copies of Syberia DS. Steambot gets a little bit of a break from my ire, because at least during its cutscenes I can make my character try to one-up all the villains, confuse all the heroes, and make out with all the females.
Complaining about Steambot Chronicles is a little bit like complaining about a favoured pet. Though it occasionally misbehaves, the game never loses that sense of style and flair that make it so enjoyable to play. Its relatively repetitive missions don't stop it from being an unforgettable and quirky adventure that will happily join the ranks of your other games (though they'll probably have to tell it to shut up every night so they can sleep).
Freelance review by Jonathan Stark (July 06, 2009)
Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.
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