Review: Steamboat Chronicles (PS2)

Steambot Chronicles
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Irem
Genre: Action Adventure with Rhythm elements
Release Date: 5/23/2006

I am a huge Steampunk addict. If you can give me mechs set in a world where oil companies don’t exist, I will buy it. Faseli? I own it and love it. Vanguard Bandits? I own it and love it? Sakura Taisen? I own pretty much every version of these games ever released, from the original Saturn discs to the Dreamcast boxed collection. Yes my friends, I have always been and always will be a Steampunk addict.

Which is why Steambot Chronicles caught my eye and made me pretty damn excited. A steampunk game with customizable mechs and it had the Atlus seal of approval. I was totally there. What can I say? There are few companies I trust to consistently release games I will I enjoy. Red Company and Sacnoth are the biggies, and Atlus (We’ll pretend Samurai Western does not exist.) is the third in the triad of companies thanks to their Megaten games, Hellnight, and various other titles that have tickled my fancy over the years.

With the game pegged as “Non-Linear Adventure,”I was expecting this game to be something akin to the closest to Oblivion the PS2 would ever get. That or a Grand Theft Auto that was a little more “All Ages”friendly and featured street performing rather than shiv’ing a whore after engaging in intercourse with her. The latter guess would prove to be correct (after a fashion) once the game arrived in my grubby little hands several weeks ago. In the end however, Steambot Chronicles proved to be merely an above average experience to me. Maybe I had just gotten my hopes up a bit too much regarding the combination of non-linear + Steampunk + Atlus, but I found myself decidedly apathetic towards the game as a whole. But the job of the critic is to separate his emotion from the actual quality of the game before him. After all, I may not be a racing game fan, but I can appreciate and recognized the level of quality in a game like say, Forza Motorsport. So in the end, even though SBC wasn’t the game for me, can I still recommend it to you the readers of Inside Pulse?

Let’s Review

1. Story

Steambot Chronicles is ultimately the tale of a young man named Vanilla Sparks. Yes, I know…I hate the name too, but ever character in the game that has any substance at all is named after a spice or flavour or some sort.

Vanilla is your prototypical RPG main character, bogged down by nearly every RPG cliche in the book. Spikey hair (at least at first), suffers from amnesia, possibly a dark past, and possesses a trinket once owned by the character everyone in the game seems to hate. Perhaps the last two are related? Hmmm.

The other characters in the game don’t fare much better on the personality charts. The first character you meet, and the main love interest for Vanilla is a sweet down home good little girl, who happens to be the lead singer of the Globetrotters, the land’s most popular music band. A lead singer without a primadonna attitude or a nose full of coke? Only in an video game!

There’s very little that actually goes on in the game in terms of giving you any sort of substantial story. Sure you can become a reporter or gladiator or miner, but none of those ultimately give you much in the way of plot. The only real way to hit story is to follow and eventually become a Globetrotter via harmonica or guitar. Even then, the plot is pretty thin.

Steambot Chronicles did turn out to be very much like GTA for a less f*cked-up mindset. There’s so much to do and see in the game. You can spend well over 100 hours trying everything out (although sometimes you hit points where the game just won’t let you backtrack), but much the same as the GTA comparisons, there’s little character development of any true substance behind any of the characters. That’s perfectly fine for some gamers, but for me? Well, I happen to want a good story. If I want a game with little plot, I’ll grab Gradius V or Ikaruga. And those games are still ones I’d chalk up as “Really fun!”

There’s too much cliche and not enough anything else to really make me care about any of the characters in the game. It’s very light hearted though as even the bad guys aren’t really that bad, but once you’ve played any RPG from Dragon Quest on, you’ve pretty much got the gist of this game’s plot. Nothing bad, but nothing truly interesting. Average, run of the mill and blasé These are the adjectives that you’ll most likely see me using throughout this entire review

Plot Rating: 4/10

2. Graphics

Wow. Ummm…how to put this? This is one of the ugliest games I’ve seen on the PS2. It’s not Nightmare of Druaga awful, but man, the visuals were not appealing to me.

It’s not the fact the game was partially cell shaded. I enjoy cell shading. Wacky Races for example did it right. So did the TMNT multi-platform game released three years ago. Here? It just doesn’t work for me. Steampunk should not be cell shaded. It’s just a personal preference. The graphics just did absolutely nothing for me.

The character designs are pretty ugly, as are the Trott-Bots (Mechs) themselves. Sure you can have some fun switching around clothing and mech parts, but in the end, there’s nothing visually appealing about anything in the game.

The backgrounds of the game are decent, but there’s nothing about this game visually that I couldn’t see being done on the last generation of systems. Panzer Dragoon Saga looks better than this game. Koudelka is more visually appealing. It’s just simply that the developers put very little focus into the graphics of the game, and it’s well…ugly and pretty outdated. That’s not to say graphics should EVER be the main focus of why someone buys a game. But that doesn’t change the fact the game just has no visual appeal to me.

Character designs are generic and lackluster. The visuals are as shallow as the plot. Generally one of these things is fine as long as the other makes up for it, but when both are just so-so, we’ve got a problem brewing.

Graphics Rating: 4/10

3. Sound

Whew! I can finally get to the “Saying something nice about the game.”I really love the voice acting in the game. I still remember with remarkable clarity the first time I put my review copy in my PS2 and the game told me to, “Get ready for…STEAMBOT CHRONICLES!“I don’t know what about that made me grin like a chesire cat, but it did. Then it gave me two or three other characters talking and always ending with saying “Steambot Chronicles!”It was cute and even though there are many aspects of this game I was disappointed with, this little cheesy opening makes me smile whenever I think of it. I’ve also taken to mocking it in various manners. “I’ve got liver cancer! STEAMBOT CHRONICLES!” “Have you ever shot a man just to watch him die? STEAMBOT CHRONICLES! It’s become up there with “Snakes on a Motherf*ckin’ Plane”for me in terms of so cheesy it’s funny.

The voice acting in SBC is well done too. Although the characters are rather boring, the actors and actresses really try to breathe some sort of life in to them. They rarely succeed, but that’s due more in part to dialogue and lack of depth, rather than any non vocal talents. I’d love to see this same team assembled on a game with a little more meat for them to sink their acting chops into.

Music is a huge part of Steambot Chronicles. A good deal of the game involves you to play DDR inspired music mini games in order to advance some story bits, make money, and woo the ladies. Although the songs are not the best in the world, this is again, more due to some pretty awful writing than the music itself. Ignoring the words, you’ll find the tunes are quite charming and fit the low key serene tone of most of the game. It’s not the best music, but it’s good for the setting and the mood the game tries to set.

The music is probably the most enjoyable aspect of the game, and that not necessarily a good compliment to give a game. Still, it’s cheesy, cute, and helps to draw you into the game where other aspects make you want to scream and run for the hills.

Sound Rating: 7/10

4. Control & Gameplay

I’m going to say this once and then drop it, because I am totally not in the mood for a profanity filled foaming at the mouth rant today. Whoever designed the horrible god awful and insipid controls of the Trott-Bots simply needs to be drug out into the street and forced to watch their family eaten by rabid badgers. That is all.

Seriously though. The controls for driving this piece of clunk are that bad. Steel Battalion was an easier game to control, and I say that without being flip or ironic. I honest to god had an easier time with Capcom’s controller o’ doom that driving to drive my annoying Trott-Bot. I would go out of my way to do anything that didn’t involve have to fight with it either. Just…ugh. Horrible horrible controls.

You’ll be using both analog sticks in order to control your mech, often going in different directions. Block only is accomplished when pressing back on one stick, meaning you are always moving while blocking, which is incredibly annoying. Locking on to a target involves the square button, but the lock on rarely goes where you want it to and switching between targets on the oversized boss fights is a real chore instead of something fluid. There is nothing remotely enjoyable or even well thought out regarding the mech controls. If anything this game sent me running to my Neo Geo Pocket Colour for some nicely made pre-Shadow Hearts Sacnoth goodness.

On the other hand, the music mini games are very well done and a lot of fun. Don’t think Space Channel 5! Think DDR with a control pad instead of a dance one. Especially with the Harmonica which plays exactly like a dance pad. One more then one occasion I actually hooked up my pad and tried it and although it was pretty darn easy compared to bemani games, it added a whole new level of fun.

There are many different instruments in the game, from your starting harmonica to the electric guitar. Each have their own slightly different form of playing (I’m worst with tickling the ivories), but each are fun in their own way. It doesn’t quite balance out the truly awful bile in my mouth from the Trott-Bot, but it helped a great deal.

Other of the other big issues I had with SBC was that there are times when control is simply out of your hand. Bring your mech into a town and watched the computer take control in a mind numbingly slow traffic scene. It got so bad I would just park my mech and run all over the town. It was faster. WALKING IS FASTER THAN DRIVING A ROBOTIC DEATH MACHINE! I even equipped mine with wheels instead of legs and guess what? Still slow! Ugh. See? There I am getting annoyed by the controls again and I said I wouldn’t rant.

I’d give the mech controls a 2 out of 10, and the Bemani instrument controls an 8 out of 10. That’s a nice average average of 5. However, because the game forces you to move at a snail’s pace and has awful camera angles that make me nostalgic for Ninja Gaiden‘s, I’m knocking another two points off.

Simply put, playing this game is an irritating chore most of the time. Stick to the Musician story aspects, and you’ll be fine.

Control & Gameplay Rating: 3/10

5. Replayability

Yay! I get to be nice again. Dear god, Steambot Chronicles is going to turn me bi-polar.

There is an amazing amount of stuff to do in SBC. It’s up there with the GTA games ort Morrowind. Even though there are bits about this game I totally hated with the fury of a million exploding suns, I could just ignore those bits and do the stuff I enjoyed, like helping to rebuild a museum’s fossil collection or be the best damn harmonica player ever. WHOOOOO!

That’s one of the saving graces of this game. Do what you want when you want to. It’s also what allows me to say “Just because I am not a fan of this game doesn’t mean you won’t be.”Unlike you I still had to play gladiator battles and drive my Trott-bot everywhere, because if I hadn’t, you wouldn’t get a fair review. But if you end up wishing to set fire to your mech and have Vanilla eschew technology and become a grizzled harmonica player, then do so! It’s your life…or rather your lack of one that allows you to keep coming back to the game and figure out how you want Vanilla to develop. Make him utterly cruel to Coriander and join up with the bad guys (such as there are) if you want. Focus on what you enjoy out of the many options in this game and just stick with them. Steambot Chronicles might not excel at any of the options it offers you while you play it, but those options do feel nigh unlimited at times.

Replayability Rating: 10/10

6. Balance

I will not rant. I will not rant. I will not rant. This is my 110th review. I will not rant.

Combat in SBC is laughable. 75% of the time it requires no thought or effort even with the horrible controls. The other 25% features battles that are extremely hard. Why is this? Because ranged combat in this game is so broken it’s not even funny. All the generic enemies you will encounter and even the super bosses can be destroyed amazingly quickly. Just equip yourself with a missile launching arm and once it’s dry, have your mech huck stuff. You will take little to no damage and be rather bored. Just walk backwards and fire. It is that simple.

The other 25% of the time, battles are horrible. I found it bizarre that the battle in the optional training section was harder than almost every other battle in the game. Why is this? Because your opponent has unlimited ranged weapons and you have only things to huck, which the computer will try and cut you off from. Other battles that I found nigh impossible were ones like the leader of the Killer Elephants and a few other major Gladiator style but non in the arena battles. This could be because my mech just never got a ton of the highest level parts because I hated driving the thing so much. I ended up totally bored, or extremely frustrated. There was no middle ground or sloping level of difficulty: just “I will sodomize you now”or “Cakewalk.”

Musically the game does have that much needed sloping difficulty. Each song you earn is just a little harder than the next. That makes it enjoyable. And no matter how good you get, there’s always a bit in each that requires your reflexes to be top notch. This aspect of the game, like in control, helps to lessen the burden that is controlling a Trot-Bot. But not enough. Oh god no.

Steambot Chronicles, to put it bluntly is a poorly designed game. It’s one that sounds great, and even could have been great with some more effort put into it, but what was actually released is a clusterf*ck that manages to be above average but never truly enjoyable.

Balance Rating: 4/10

7. Originality

Because there’re a lot of cliche’s in the game, it’s sometimes hard to find the originality in the game. However, there’s not too many non-linear adventure games out there that feature harmonica playing as a major part of the game. Killing zombies or killing Haitians, sure, but not harmonica playing or newspaper reporting.

SBC was a great idea in theory. I can’t empathize that enough. Finally a big non-linear game that doesn’t piss off other countries and further erode American’s already dwindling international reputation or require knowledge of the different between the Dungeons and Dragons games made by TSR and the ones made by Wizards of the Coast. There were so many great idea that just didn’t come out right in the end. Hopefully Irem or some other company can really build on these trappings, because as much as I thought this game was mediocre, with a little polish and a new combat engine, SBC2 could be a very strong game indeed.

Originality Rating: 5/10

8. Addictiveness

I just was unable to get into the game. For everything I enjoyed, like the music mini games or the reporting or the feeding stray cats horribly fattening pastries, there was stuff I just couldn’t stand. Yes the controls, but also the feeling that the game was well…made for seven year olds. When an evil gang takes over a town and you lose to their boss in a humiliating fashion, they shouldn’t be like, “Oh, we’ll pull out anyway and even fix up your mech.” It’s neither logical nor enjoyable. I know I’m the biggest Pokemon addict in the world, but Steambot Chronicles was too sappy for me to play for long without fear of diabetes.

Control and story are the two most important things in a game for me, and SBC was not what I would call enjoyable in either. It was a deep game, but shallow at the same time. It had a lot to do, but just didn’t have any soul or real heart put into it. I can’t really explain it better than that. The game just felt…empty, and I could feel that emptiness even while playing it for several weeks. I was actually thankful to put it down. And I can only think of three other Atlus games that I’ve ever said that to: Rivera, Revelations: The Demon Slayer, and the remake of River City Ransom that they published. And the latter was simply because I wanted a straight port. GIVE ME A STRAIGHT PORT, DAMN YOU.

I couldn’t enjoy this game. I couldn’t get into this game. I could respect some of the technical aspects and enjoyed some of the options the game provided, but it lacked any of the real oomph I need to truly care about a game. It wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t for me.

Addictiveness Rating: 4/10

9. Appeal Factor

Although I do enjoy Morrowind, I’ve never been able to enjoy GTA. I can recognize it as a well made title and accept I’m in the minority, but Rockstar put out something very well made. It’s just not my style. So I can see a decent amount of people having fun with SBC as long as they can adapt to the control scheme of the mechs quickly and not let it derail them as it did me.

SBC is an Atlus game. This means it might not sell the best, but Atlus has a pretty decent sized cult following in America. Sure it’s not the #2 RPG company over here as it is in Japan, but there are many people who will buy an Atlus title simply because it’s published by them, and I include myself in that, even though I end up bashing one or two of their games every year. We’re people who will give one of their titles a try simply because it’s an Atlus product and they have a good track record. For Nyarlathotep’s sake, I even tried the fishing game they published. A FISHING GAME!

It’s also the closest thing the PS2 has to an Elder Scrolls title, and that may also convince a few people to pick it up as well. Plus, giant robots fighting in gladiatorial combat and a free harmonica never hurts either. The game might not have the best ad campaign out there, but word of mouth will probably bring in a lot of gamers to try it. Just look at Disgaea and Digital Devil Saga. They managed to pull in sales numbers over here in the States that Atlus hadn’t seen in a very long time. I doubt SBC will pull off the same unexpected magic, but who knows?

Appeal Factor: 6/10

10. Miscellaneous

SBC is a mediocre game. For everything good, there’s something bleck. For everything that made me smile, there was something that made me swear. I hated one thing, I enjoyed another. That’s what Steambot Chronicles is to me, a balance of many things and unable to excel at any of them. If you want a good mech game, there are plenty of others to choose from and in the end, I have to recommend those titles, even though they are for older systems. Hell, you could buy Vanguard Bandits and the very cool thick as hell Working Designs strategy guide for less than SBC.

Sorry guys, the best I can say about this game is that it’s a middle of the road title. The worst I can say is there are far better titles by Atlus to spend your money on. Might I suggest Digital Devil Saga 1 or 2?

Miscellaneous Rating: 5/10

The Scores
Story: 4
Graphics: 4
Sound: 7
Control/Gameplay: 3
Replayability: 10
Balance: 4
Originality: 4
Addictiveness: 4
Appeal Factor: 6
Miscellaneous: 5
Total Score: 51
Overall Score:5.0
(Average)

Short Attention Span Summary
Don’t waste your money. It’s simple not a game worth paying full price on. If you’re a Bemani or non-linear zealot, you can probably get some mileage out of SBC. Otherwise, you’re bound to be disappointed. There’s better ways to spend $50, whether on other Atlus titles or other Mech titles. SBC’s not a bad game, it’s just not a good game. That’s all there is to it.