It’s hard not to love a company like Atlus, who chooses to localize a variety of interesting video games. Their mainstay series, Shin Megami Tensei, is entirely different from your standard Square Enix RPG. But Atlus also publishes a number of third-party developed titles, and I am rarely displeased with their selections.
One of their more unique publications was Steambot Chronicles, developed by Irem. Originally entitled “Ponkotsu Roman Daikagetsuki Bumpy Trot” in Japan, this “junk romance” offers one of the best open-ended gaming experiences I’ve ever witnessed. The game has plenty of faults, big and small, and I’ll be covering them in this review. However, at the end of the day, I couldn’t be happier about seeing a game like this making it to America.
The game opens with you, one “Vanilla Beans,” washed up on the shore of Seagull Beach. You’ve lost your memory (conveniently allowing the player to re-define the character’s personality), and you have no idea where you are or what you should be doing. You are approached by a girl named Coriander (nicknamed “Connie”) who gets you on your feet and asks you some questions. With each question, you are able to answer in different ways. I originally expected this sort of interesting, open-ended dialogue to be limited to major events (such as a game’s opening). As I played on, I discovered I was wrong.
Much like the “Knights of the Old Republic” games, you are constantly offered multiple responses to any question in conversation. Sometimes the variation in answers will affect the plot, but oftentimes all it does is help to define who you are as a person.
Connie takes Vanilla back to her hometown, Nefroburg, and introduces you to her bedridden mother, Rosemary. You are instructed to visit Dr. Nutmeg to find a cure for your amnesia. And, if you haven’t figured it out yet, most of the main characters are named after herbs and spices. For example, Connie’s band (the “Garland GlobeTrotters”) includes people such as Basil, Fennel, and Marjoram.
After these introductory events have taken place, the game opens up. Yes, there is a linear “storyline” for Vanilla to follow for the first half of the game, but you’ll be missing the point of the game if you go for a minimalist approach. After all, reading this summary of the game’s introduction gives you no idea of where the storyline is heading. In fact, a lot of the key background information regarding the history of the people and places in Steambot Chronicles will be lost unless you take time to do various subquests.
Think of it like Shenmue, but a lot more lighthearted. Also, imagine you’re in a fictional European country in the early 1900s, somewhere in the beginning of the industrial revolution. The quaint, old feeling of the world is beginning to be replaced by clunky machines called “trotmobiles.” Oil and electricity are just beginning to be harnessed. This changing world is a key element to the game’s plot; and, despite the game’s overall lighthearted feel, the problem of technology and the way mankind can abuse it is a weighty topic that Irem did not shy away from in the least.
As I said a few paragraphs earlier, the linear storyline goes for the first half of the game. The second half, however, involves a split. Unlike Fable, which only had the good/evil split at the game’s ending, you are forced to make a choice to either join or oppose the “Bloody Mantis,” a violent gang with unknown intentions. Depending on which path you choose, the story-related missions and the game’s ending will be very different. However, all of the side quests and other mini-games are available regardless of the path you choose.
The good-natured humor of this game is sometimes replaced with a quirky humor reminiscent of NIS’s games. As translators, Atlus did a great job of keeping the spirit of the game alive. For example, in an attempt to explain the good/evil choice in the game, the Steambot Chronicles official website declares “Evil Will Always Triumph Because Good is Dumb” (a classic quote from the movie Spaceballs).
In rating the story, I have to admit that the pacing was slow, and sometimes felt irrelevant to Vanilla’s own life. However, the ending (at least to the “hero” path) is incredibly dramatic, with the true villains laying all the cards out on the table. I loved the feel of this game, but there were times that I wasn’t entirely drawn in. Also, open ended games are generally unable to have a strong plot out of necessity to the genre and style chosen. Luckily, even after completing the game, the “epilogue” scenario allows you to continue to explore the plot and the characters even more.
A combination of cel-shaded characters and simple 3D polygons create the world of Steambot Chronicles. Bright, vibrant colors help to emphasize the game’s childlike “sandbox” style.
Character and trotmobile motion is smooth but simple, sometimes so simple that it comes across as awkward. There’s not a lot of diversity in terms of town design; most buildings are shaped as simple “blocks,” and most furniture within buildings are made without much regard for detail.
The graphics are a defining feature of Steambot Chronicles, that’s for sure. However, some work could be done to polish the graphics and make them even more impressive without destroying the “junky” pseudo-industrial style of the game.
Most of the dialogue in this game is voice-acted. Considering the fact that each conversation contains a number of possibilities, and that all these possibilities had to be recorded, it’s clear that Atlus put a lot of work into localizing the title. English is the only voice option available; unfortunate as this may be for “purist” fans, the voice actors all do a great job with their characters.
The music of Steambot Chronicles is generally very simple, and somewhat similar to Nakano’s compositional style in Dewprism (Threads of Fate). Some background music will be performed by one solo instrument, whereas other areas will have a full band out to make some noise. Speaking of bands, Connie’s band (which Vanilla joins) performs a total of five numbers, which include English vocals from Nadia Gifford. These songs were originally in English even when released in Japan, so Atlus was fortunate not to have to re-record anything in this regard.
The five songs, featured on the Ponkotsu Roman Vocal Album (which you can import for a low price at some online shops), are all pretty, even if they’re a little cheesy. None of the lyrics rhyme, but the lyrics are relevant to the experiences that Connie goes through in the game. One song, “Just Shout It Out,” is an optional piece that’s only available if you complete a lengthy side quest. It’s my favorite song of the lot. A sixth vocal, featuring Fennel (a male vocalist), also exists, but it too is discovered only through a subquest. I dislike this song very much.
The game’s emphasis on music, including the many rhythm-based mini-games that allow Vanilla to play any number of instruments to accompany these pieces, were a great addition to the game. Without it, Steambot Chronicles would lose almost all of its charm.
Unlike most RPGs, which are battle-heavy, Steambot Chronicles features a relatively small amount of fighting. Fights always take place when operating a trotmobile, which is customizable to allow various ranged, melee, and defense maneuvers. Battling can be difficult, sometimes due to control and camera issues, but the game attempts to make battling more fun than actually challenging.
The majority of the time you spend in this game will involve traveling. The bad news is that traveling is a slow and boring process. When on foot, Vanilla’s fastest speed (running) is only at a mild pace, and he can only run if he’s not hungry. Stocking up on food in your inventory is necessary for on-foot travel. The trotmobile is also a slow vehicle, one which has to traverse large sections of terrain to go from place to place. The boost option allows you to move somewhat faster, but this involves a constant tapping of the L2 button, which is simply too monotonous for all the travel required in this game. Add to that the terribly long (and woefully frequent) loading times, and you got yourself one slow-paced game.
Another travel option, the fastest and most sensible option, is by train. However, there are limitations. Trains can only get you from town to town, and there are many times when trains aren’t available (usually due to a story-related hindrance). Also, train stations (along with most shops) close down at night, so if you take a train in the evening, you’ll arrive at night, and you’ll need to either wait or find a place to sleep so that you can take the train back in the morning.
Yes, active time of day. I’m sure everyone expected that. An exact clock is not displayed; instead, you are always in one of four times of day. They are morning, noon, evening, and night. Towns are generally most active during noon and evening, but some places may only be functioning at one of these four times. Much like Love-de-lic’s titles, timing your route across town will be imperative for an efficient day’s work.
Steambot’s many mini-games include the popular song/rhythm performances, billiards, dating, buying and selling through the stock market, farming, fetch quests, archeology, a battle arena, and side-quest dungeons for some extra fighting. Those are all the mini-games I remember playing, and I’m sure there are plenty more. All of them are well executed, and players may find themselves utterly distracted by just one of these many side quests. I myself loved playing billiards (9-ball).
Almost everything in Steambot Chronicles can be customized. If you rent a room, you can decorate it as you please. You can mix and match Vanilla’s clothing or his trotmobile to your liking. The trotmobile includes a license plate on the back that you can edit with a simple paintbrush-style tool. You also get to pick and choose your various likes, dislikes, and other personality features as you go through the game.
With all this attention to detail, it’s hard not to appreciate what Irem did when they created this game. However, I cannot emphasize enough how much I hated traveling. It’s even worse if you chose to forgo the side quests and simply attempt to follow the minimal plotline. Doing so will take you through 15 hours of traveling and fetch quests. Be sure to stop at each town and talk to a lot of people to get the full experience of this game, otherwise you’re missing the point.
One last comment: I never saw a game over screen, and I’m not sure one exists. If you run out of HP in a battle, you lose the battle and move on with the story. If you run out of fuel, you just move incredibly slow until you either turn off your PS2 in frustration or reach the nearest mechanic.
When walking on foot, controls are very basic. You run with the left analog stick, and control the camera with the right analog stick. Navigating the menu isn’t difficult either. However, operating the trotmobile is a bit of a challenge. The controls are much like that of Katamari Damacy, or a remote-control car. The left analog stick controls the left leg, and the right analog stick controls the right leg. To move forward, you hold both sticks forward. To turn, you hold one forward and the other backward. Strafing will require you to hold either one or both of the analog sticks in the direction of your choice.
Thankfully, with some practice, the clunky controls of the trotmobile become useful. When locking on to an enemy, for example, strafing will let you circle the enemy, and simply tapping the boost button will have you move right toward the enemy. Using your arms to attack also takes some practice, as each weapon has its own rules regarding repeating attacks. Practice makes perfect with the controls.
The most annoying thing about controlling the trotmobile was that, since the right analog stick was taken, camera control didn’t exist. This made for some very sticky battles when I accidentally found myself facing a wall instead of the enemy. If one were actually piloting a trotmobile, these “camera” issues actually make the game more realistic; more of a simulation than a strategy game. Regardless, I like to know what I’m looking at, and sometimes I simply couldn’t figure out where I was when piloting the trotmobile in a tiny battle arena.
Honestly, I’m the kind of person who finds the most value in a lengthy linear RPG. I wouldn’t want to pay retail price for an “open-ended” game, because I generally feel dissatisfied with them, even if I do absolutely everything the game offers. This is just personal taste, however. Objectively, Irem’s Steambot Chronicles is one of the better open-ended RPGs on the market, certainly rivaling titles like Shenmue in terms of fun and replay value. My favorite thing about the game, when push comes to shove, was the shocking ending after a generally light-hearted tale. I don’t want to spoil it, so try the game out for yourself to see what I mean.