Steambot Chronicles should have been another gaily subversive offering from Atlus. Describing itself as "a romantic scrapmetal adventure!" the game features a pop music band, characters named after food, and a pink mecha with bunny ears. It's silly and self-mocking, and the story is told subtly, in collaboration with the player. Unfortunately, the game's seeds of greatness are crushed by awkward controls and a lot of empty wandering.
Our story starts on a beach, when a boy named Vanilla wakes up with a serious case of—what else?—amnesia. But the question of Vanilla's background isn't really the main focus of the game; he spends more time trying to live in this new world than thinking about the one he came from. There are hints about who Vanilla is, but they are paced in such a way that one needs to play through the game twice—taking both "hero" and "villain" paths—to find them all.
We also know parts of Vanilla's story that he himself does not. In the game's tutorial mode, Vanilla and a friend are on a ship. When we start the game proper, we see that same ship washed up on the beach and full of gaping holes. And sometimes, the game asks us to help create Vanilla's background: dialog menus ask us to choose personality traits or even facts about who his parents were. (My Vanilla is a fisherman's son). Steambot Chronicles isn't exactly Reservoir Dogs, but its plot is a refreshing change from the videogames that vomit up all their mystery two-thirds of the way through.
On the beach, the first things Vanilla sees are a pretty girl and a giant robot. This robot is called a "Trotmobile": people use it to haul lumber, dig ore and fight each other in sports arenas. These bipedal weapons have also replaced cars as mankind's primary mode of transportation. Sadly, driving them is an exercise in frustration.
There's a lot of driving to be done in Steambot Chronicles, and most of it is unnecessary. People always ask Vanilla to fetch supplies or to deliver letters and items. Theoretically, he could take the train, but trains in this world never go where he needs to be. So he's stuck riding his clunky Trotmobile between the same few places over and over again.
Players move the 'bot using both analog sticks at once—but unlike the Prince's free-flowing katamari, the machine balks at every kinetic instruction. Turning corners requires that the analog sticks be pushed in different directions at once, If that weren't enough, the camera turns jumping from one ledge to another into a game of chance. I'm just as likely to fall into a pit of rival machines as to make it across. Controlling my Trotmobile is so arduous, in fact, that I'm always relieved to enter a city where I can just select my destination from a menu and let the stupid thing drive itself.
As much as I hate piloting the Trotmobile, tricking it out is kind of fun. Vanilla gets stronger by acquiring new frames for his ride. He can even combine frames together to make new ones. The possibilities aren't endless, but getting new parts satisfies my maternal instincts ("Look at my robot grow!") and my chronic new-toy fever ("Check out my new Buzzsaw Arm! Booyah!").
Nonetheless, I can't recommend Steambot Chronicles: not with its $50 price tag, anyway. Humor and unusual storytelling can't save it from stiff controls and an awkward camera. Too bad a game about giant robots has been crushed under its own weight.