Finding out about games that I never knew existed is one of my favorite parts of the retro community as a whole. Libraries are extensive for many of my favorite consoles, but I’m still amazed upon finding something that seems perfect for me or just wonderfully unique. That second part is what had me keeping an eye out for the 2006 PS2 title, but buyer beware because sometimes there are reasons games remain in the shadows. Steambot Chronicles was developed and published by Irem Softwear Engineering, though Atlus was brought on to take over publishing duties in North America. It’s a late in life title for the console, having come out a year earlier in Japan, but it seems many didn’t hear about it due to a combination of a small advertising campaign and less word of mouth at the time.
The title is listed as an action-adventure role-playing game with a semi-open sandbox, mech combat, and anime style visuals. This may seem like a lot to try and cram into one game, and it is. Before I got started though I noticed that my complete copy had a colorful manual with many images, item listings, history portions, and character profiles, which is something I miss so much with modern games. I used to spend hours looking at these booklets. Not only are they informative, but it helps the player get into the world of the game. No one told me there was going to be a test at the beginning of this though. There is a kind of questionnaire once the game is started, kind of like a personality quiz that does slightly alter how the main character acts or how a few NPCs treat him. Many interactions have options for how to respond and some choices that lean towards good or evil, affecting the multiple endings in some spots. Some actions also have a chance to change aspects of the plot, and all of these possibilities seem like it would allow for a ton of replay value for those who enjoy the title.
The main character, Vanilla R. Beans—yes, really—falls into several of the classic tropes, the first of which is amnesia. He immediately meets a girl, Coriander, and then missiles get involved, sealing their destiny together. Most of the characters are standard for RPGs, but somewhat delightful, even if they all seemed to be named after food, flowers, and herbs for some reason. Get used to them though, because the majority of the game will see the player taking quests and doing tasks for these people, everything from escort quests, saving them from bandits, and delivering rugs.
One of the things I realized about all of this is, though I have mentioned mechs, missiles, and bandits, the game is honestly closer in a lot of ways to a romantic or slice of life anime. Many of the activities and quests here come across closer to mundane life than any sort of fantasy. The characters need to eat food—a mechanic that doesn’t kill, but slows the character down—make money, do business, practice with their band, and occasionally fight in their spare time. There is a story and conflict, a fair bit of action, but no way would I call it ‘packed.’ Even the mechs are burdened with this, as traveling must be done in real time and there is that potential of running out of gas. How embarrassing would that be? Time can be manipulated in game though to help with making money, which is really important, but gets easier the more the world opens up.
Music may be an even bigger deal here though. Vanilla starts as a solo musician, eventually joining a band called the Garland GlobeTrotters (yes, I see what you did), and possibly even managing it at one point. There are many different instruments that can be acquired and played, even a side quest for a rare electric guitar, but sadly no air guitar sections. Each one plays differently, in that the controls are altered slightly as the player engages in mini-games to make sweet sounds.
“Pimp my trot.”
The important centerpiece here though is the Trotmobiles, or titular steambots, that have replaced modern vehicles in this world. These mechs are introduced from the very beginning to show how important they are and many of the quests and resources revolve around them. They have many different models, types, and customizable parts that can be bought or acquired, all in an effort to rule the roads or chauffeur the ladies around. Certain parts are neatly handed to the player as quest rewards, while others are required to do some activities. I do like how the customization level goes pretty deep for those who are willing to put the time in, down to customizable license plates to stroke my vanity. The controls for these things however are pretty tough to get down. I don’t just mean at first, as the combination of awkward twin stick movement and a non-rotating or controllable camera makes for a quick headache, except in combat.
Ponkotsu Roman Daikatsugek: Bumpy Trot (best name), as it is called in Japan, is an overall interesting experience, but its uniqueness comes from its mixture of genres and elements that feels like something that was missing a kitchen sink. In that I mean there is no one thing that really impressed me and everything the game does well, something out there does better, but it is hard to find a combo quite like Steambot Chronicles. It has a good sense of humor with several subtle references and pop culture nods while trying to give a level of choice that kind of pays off from what I can tell. I haven’t finished this one and I doubt I will. It really isn’t my type of game and the time I’ve put in feels like plenty to move on without any regrets. Yes, the story was getting better for sure and I read that there is a wonderfully depressing ending depending on certain choices, but it just wasn’t enough. Me leaving it isn’t because of the slowdown at times, abundance of loading screens, mundane feel, or even the controls, but more because the experience isn’t for me. I’m not even sure it will stay in the collection and I rarely get rid of games. That may sound like a negative endorsement, but the truth is, I just think that the idea of it all was more interesting to read about and research than it was to actually play.
I know a few people who may enjoy this one a lot though, which is partly why I wanted to look at this after I heard about it. I can see Steambot Chronicles as being a good time sink for several players, and there are even a couple of spin-off games that are even less known, but they have a much more narrow focus. There was going to be a legitimate sequel for the PS3 that was canned, and supposedly because of the 2011 disaster in Japan. See, if the rumors are true, the real world disaster caused them not to release an entry for one of their more known franchises, Disaster Report 4, and the financial repercussions from that eventually caused the company to refocus their efforts, leaving Steambot Chronicles 2 as a pipedream. If that is true, it does suck, and again, is an interesting story to add to the game’s legacy.