By Sarumarine 5 Comments
Past expiration is my clever term for talking about a game that is way past its prime. In this case, an action RPG involving mechs and music that came out on the PS2 in 2006. Topical!
Steambot Chronicles (or Customization: The Game)I first learned about Steambot Chronicles from a Jampack Demo Disk Vol.12 I bought specifically to play Okami way back in 2005. After wringing out the short bits of Okami as much as I could, I checked out the other games out of boredom. One of them was a game where you played as a kid named Vanilla as he wakes up on a beach, meets a girl named Coriander and rides an abandoned mech called the Earl Grey II. It was also pretty short, the but the personality test in the beginning coupled with the promise of hot mech-on-mech action in an RPG format piqued my interest enough to buy the full game when it came out. It turned out to be a pretty solid experience (but with plenty of rough edges) with one of the greatest instruction manuals ever printed. It also lets you customize the shit out of damn near everything related to your character.
First off, spoilers. I'm not holding back on anything. There's probably a handful of people who actually played this game, and a smaller amount still who actually beat it. If you have any interest in this game or bought it and never finished it but might be planning to at a later date- you should probably stop reading. You know, if you care about that kind of thing.
Steambot Chronicles is an RPG published by Atlus about a world that has built up around what are essentially bipedal automobiles. The short hand for this is Trotmobiles. You'll run into plenty during the adventure since they do everything from haul lumber to wage wars. You only control one through the game, but since you can change almost everything about it from the color to the body to the license plate, that doesn't stop you from making the most badass Trotmobile on the block. You can even change your Trot's name from Earl Grey II to something like Widowmaker. Or Metal Gear. Of course most of the parts and junk I had to buy after doing jobs to earn money, but Trot materials trickle in like any old RPG. The best parts are won from boss battles like elephant tusks. I went through the whole game with elephant tusks on the front of my robot like I just got back from a safari.
There's also an option to custom edit license plates at garages. Leading to scenarios like the above where you have a popular mascot showing up on the bumper of your Trotmobile. Provided you have the skill and the patience, of course. I didn't have any of that so the height of my creativity was a Bomb-omb. Cause it was easy to make.
Mech Cars aren't the only thing you control though. The main character is a kid named Vanilla. His name is appropriate because he's essentially a blank slate ready to be filled player behavior. That doesn't mean he's a heroic mute. Vanilla has plenty of voice acting and plays the Commander Shepard-esque style of saying something along the lines of the dialogue option you chose. You can be straight laced hero of the day, or a dude so mean he can overthrow the main villain of the game and take over as a criminal overlord extraordinaire. The game has a pretty linear plot at the end of the day, but it allows a handful of impressive choices along the way. To give you an idea how the public at large handles your attitude, they have a title and reputation that updates as you save the game and go from one day to the next. At one point I was the Snobbish Hitman because I wore a white suit all the time and won battles fast.
Get Your Tank On I'd say the catch of this whole experience is controls. Trotmobiles move like tanks. You have two analogue sticks and you'll use them. Pushing up on both of them is forward movement. Pulling back on one while pushing forward on the other will turn you around. It takes some serious adjusting to get used to Trotmobiles, especially in battle since the cheating AI bastard is omnipotent and can jump around while firing heat seeking missiles, no problem. Since mech adventure and combat is one of the biggest selling points of this game, not adjusting means a long road of frustration. Most battles you don't have to win. Losing means you miss out on cool parts for your Trot, but there are only a handful encounters where you absolutely have to win. In Steambot Chronicles, failure is always an option and the story adjusts to how good you are putting down greedy jerks or rowdy gangs that get in the way. I was so-so at the end of the game. I had to reload a lot of battles because I really didn't want to miss out on special parts.
Since this game is an RPG it requires a lot of management of various stats like fuel and food. Fuel can easily be recovered by wasting enemy mech, buying fuel cans, or hitting up a garage. Ammunition is a little tougher to come by. Outside combat and travel, Vanilla handles like any blond, upbeat RPG hero but with an appetite. If he goes hungry he starts limping everywhere at a snails pace. This really only becomes an issue when I was trying to buy new clothes and items for my house. I decided to dress my Vanilla up in a turban and a British Empire looking military outfit. It worked pretty well. It was really easy to spot Vanilla in cut-scenes.
So Bad it's Good
My favorite parts of this game are a lot of little things. Gameplay wise, you can do a ton of stuff around the world. Fight trots, play pool with most of the major cast, dig up fossils for the local museum, play music on the street for cash, etc. Most open world games have this down to a science nowadays. But Steambot Chronicles isn't really open world. A lot of these jobs open up as you go through the story. But that's okay, because the main story has plenty of little quirks that I've come to love.
For instance, the last boss in the game is a dude named Dandelion. A lot of characters are named after food or flowers, but Dandelion takes the cake because he's the final boss. I couldn't name many games where the ultimate antagonist turns out to be a mild mannered musician turned revenge craving gang lord named Dandelion. I guess because Steambot Chronicles hits a family-friendly edge of a world where no one is really all that evil. Just angry people who make bad choices. There's a gang called the Killer Elephants that's ultimate goal is to travel to the moon (well the boss does anyway). The Bloody Mantis crew is a little more military but still hit a vibe of being unscrupulous businessmen who hike oil prices for profit. Major conflicts in this game invoke a lot of bloodless carnage where nothing really changes around the world, probably because it would take too much code.
Tone DeafThe worst part of this game has to be the music. Yes, Vanilla joins a band of roving musicians. Playing gigs involve a lot of timed button presses with various instruments... but no matter how well someone performs you get a lot of awful music. Actually, it's a lot of the same awful music. For a traveling band, they have a really small set list what with inspiration for all across the land. At one point I worked with an ex-band member to pioneer the first electric guitar in the Steambot universe and... was sorely let down by an even more awful song. The worst part is that these band sets are required to move the story along. So I had to sit through a lot of crappy music. It's probably best if you mute the game, play a better song and pretend you're doing that. Another option is to go evil as soon as you possibly can and that way you don't have to do any more music sets since you're too busy taking over the world and spiking oil prices.
Steambot Chronicles is a pretty impressive game that goes up and down like a roller coaster due to pacing, music, controls, and funky difficulty. The one thing it had on me was customization. The quickest way for any game to reach my heart is give me an option to customize my character in as many ways as possible, and Steambot has that in spades. It didn't take long before I was rolling around in a blue Trotmobile with a drill arm and elephant tusks while wearing a white suit and fedora that would fit right in with any smooth criminal. I hear that they're working on a sequel that's coming out on the PS3... but that was such a long time ago that I don't know if it holds any truth. Not to mention it's on the PS3 and I don't have one of those yet. Still, it was an interesting and quirky game that would probably land somewhere on the Deadly Premonition scale of "it might be trash, awesome, or maybe both".