A love letter to the fans
There are games that are meant to appeal to certain parts of society, rather than a widespread audience. This means that while it will not be a huge hit and sell in the millions around the world, it will sell to a dedicated group of people that understand and appreciate the subject matter, a built-in audience as it were. Robot Alchemic Drive (or RAD from now on) is such a game. It both openly pokes fun at the rampant stereotypes and rote storylines of the genre, and revels in them with equal amounts of enthusiasm.
The game puts you in the shoes of one of three protagonists, with minor differences in terms of story, and none whatsoever in gameplay. Over the course of the story you gain control over three gigantic robots that you control via a dualshock-like device. You use these robots to battle dozens of giant alien creatures (and some not so alien) in areas all over Japan. The stages can be a rural foothill area with trees to the center of an urban city.
Controlling these robots is going to be the first step in deciding if you want to keep playing the game. The unorthodox control scheme that the developer carried over from their previous game, is easy to learn, but difficult to master. Using the shoulder buttons for your feet, the sticks for your arms, and the face buttons for special abilities sounds simple enough, but in truth you'll literally be learning how to walk again. Coming to grips with the controls is a must, since before you know it you'll be fighting multiple enemies, while trying to protect a building, while trying to stay alive, all while a timer is counting down to a game over screen. By the way, you're doing this from the perspective of a person that you can only move while not controlling the robot, and must stand still while they are. Yes, this game is not for everyone.
If you tough it out and get used to the controls, you'll be rewarded with spectacular scenes of giant fisticuffs amid skyscrapers, along with lasers and rockets streaking across the sky. The perspective from the human makes these battles look oddly realistic, giving it a "Cloverfiled" vibe as you look up at a towering robot shooting his fists towards an alien hundreds of meters away. The visuals are pretty rough in terms of framerate and overall fidelity. The screen is almost always shaking or behind some object that got in the way due to the somewhat janky camera. The framerate is rarely above 20 and often dips into the single digits when things get intense. Textures are pretty bland since most of the buildings use the same materials and the greenery follows the same design. This game is a CD-ROM and not a DVD, so room for assets is much smaller, made clear by the lack of variety. This appears to be a sign that this game might have been originally intended for the PSX, but got bumped to the PS2 for the extra horsepower. The developer, Sandlot, is known to be a little optimistic in their designs. They tend to follow the same guideline for their games and always end up trying to do too much with what they have to work with. Maybe it's a lack of optimisation skills, or just faulty design, but the games they make are so unique that their fans look past these shortcomings and love the games they make.
The game consists of 20+ missions that vary in length and difficulty. Over the course of these missions you earn money for protecting buildings, taking less damage, and defeating the enemies. This money can be used to upgrade several stats and weapons on the three robots, as well as the abilities of your human avatar. You can upgrade any of the robots you wish, but you usually find the one you prefer using and max it out before bothering with the others. All three robots control the same, but two of them transform into a vehicle mode, making their mobility a little more complex. Some enemies are more susceptible to a particular robot, but you can use the same one throughout the game if you wish, a good idea since the controls have a familiarity that allows you to get accustomed to one sooner than all three.
The game is rather difficult on top of the controls, especially towards the end, making for a sometimes frustrating experience. This is one of those games where you might put it down for a while after being stuck on a mission, then come back later and beat it on the first try. Often times it's a random occurrence that screws you up, or a fumbled control that sends you flying into a pack of cheap enemies that stomp you while you're down. It can be a hard game to like when that happens, but you can get past it if you endure.
I started this review saying some games aren't for everyone. This game most certainly is an acquired taste, but if you enjoy big robots duking it out in a city and knocking down skyscrapers, you'll probably enjoy what this game does. It's flawed and sometimes infuriating, but it's also made with love and full of originality. I can't give it a higher rating due to the honest shortcomings it has, but it works those 3.5 stars like no other game does.