Robot Alchemic Drive Review

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Publisher: Enix America
Developer: Sandlot

Platform: PlayStation 2
Reviewed on PlayStation 2

A toxic radiant energy field suffuses all of space beyond Earth's atmosphere, causing humanity to halt all space exploration after the crews of lunar and orbital expeditions die. After this horrible truth came to light, the Japanese government began secretly funding a project that would ultimately create the Meganites, 130-foot tall humanoid machines that could serve as humanity's remote-controlled partners in space exploration and could gather the resources needed to help the Earth survive until the year 3000. Ultimately, the government withdrew its support, but the project was carried on by Tsukioka Industries, headquartered in the city of Senjo, Japan. Senjo is an otherwise unassuming city that just happens to be the headquarters of every worldwide munitions conglomerate, including Tsukioka, which was ultimately bankrupted by the Meganite project.

Now, the unthinkable has occurred. Volgara have begun to appear over the cities of Earth, laying waste to human civilization. The Volgara are enormous, organic-looking, bipedal machines of destruction that possess a defensive system that allows them to teleport away from incoming projectile or energy weapons. Conventional armaments, such as cannon or missiles are useless, and the combined armed forces are helpless before Volgara might. Only slow kinetic attacks such as the punches and kicks of a Meganite can disable the Volgara defense and make them vulnerable to destruction. As the seventeen year-old heir to the Tsukioka empire, it is up to you to guide the Meganites to stave off the alien threat.

Kyle Ackerman

For all of Robot Alchemic Drive's (R.A.D.) flaws, this game has tried something so different and startlingly cool that it needs to be experienced. As one of the three heirs to the Tsukioka assets, you control a massive combat machine called a Meganite, not as a pilot from a cockpit, but rather by using a remote control strikingly similar to the PlayStation 2 controller. Because the Meganites were designed for space exploration lethal to humans, there was no allowance made for human passengers. It's not just the control scheme that is revolutionary, although it is remarkable and startlingly straightforward to use after a bit of practice. Shoulder buttons control the legs, the two analog sticks control arm movements, and various other buttons activate special functions. As a consequence of remote operation, your view in the game is the view of the young Mr. or Ms. Tsukioka. While controlling the massive machine, you need to find a decent vantage from which to control the carnage, while simultaneously keeping yourself out of harm's way.

This interplay between Meganite and operator creates most of the challenge of play. The human operator has a small, anti-gravity device which can be used to move on top of buildings, or perch on the Meganite's shoulder, but should the Meganite take a strong blow, or should the building be hit by a stray rocket, the operator can be grievously injured. You can only control either the human or the giant robot at any one time – not both, so moving out of the way of a vicious giant stomp can leave your machine vulnerable. Position yourself at an awkward angle, or too far away, and punches or missiles can wildly miss if you haven't correctly oriented the robot. Both you and your foes move slowly and deliberately, with both sides throwing punches at air or narrowly missing with beam weapons, simultaneously creating a sense of immense, ponderous machines of deliberate power and imperfect control.

The entire game has the slick feel of 1970s Japanese gigantic fighting robot cartoons, with a bit of the monster/disaster flick thrown in for good measure, right down to the constantly screaming and fleeing crowds. There is a versus mode that allows two players to battle, but the bulk of the game is the story mode, described as "A tale of 17-year olds in a season of hell..." Not only are you successor to a major arms manufacturer and owner of enormous, fighting robots, but you have to attend school, hang out with friends, and gab with other young heirs to still other major weapon-producing corporations. Depending on your attitude, the story mode will either be a grand addition, exploring the human side of these teens, or a necessary irritation that stands between you and giant robot-fighting action.

Really, R.A.D. is something of an interactive anime soap opera that just happens to have amazingly cool giant robot combat. The plot is not inconsequential, and involves sequences such as the one where you run around to various stores in Senjo to purchase ingredients so your impoverished friend can have better soup. Another involves walking a friend to the bakery. While you have a choice of three main characters, the plot unfolds in a similar vein with minor allowances for gender, such that interactions with characters of both genders have ambiguous romantic overtones. The television news is a substantial presence in the game, regularly reporting on the activities of the invading Volgara, and often appearing as a picture-in-a-picture in the upper left hand corner of the screen, reporting on the very robot you control in real-time.

R.A.D. would be twice the game it is if there were a way to skip past or hurry dialog and cinematics. Cut scenes are usually just giant enemy Volgara laying waste to a city, or a view of your Meganite emerging from its hangar. Both get repetitive and would be nice to skip on occasion. The dialog is truly the problem. While sometimes entertaining, it is often repetitive, and is broken into one or two sentence clips typical of Game Boy Advance titles. While you can hurry to the end of each sentence, just thumbing through a plot section to get to the giant robot fighting can be time consuming. There are only so many times a person needs to hear, "You're engaged!?... To the heir of Misaki Heavy Industries!?"

The voice acting ranges from the skilled (such as Yui Tsukioka) to the painful. Some voices are strangely appropriate, such as the Japanese/German accent of Dr. Herman Wiltz, others are amusing (Captain Hayakowa of the E.G.G.) and others are just poor (Ryo Tsukioka). The dialog for the newscasters is annoying, but in exactly the same way as a real newscast, so that is deserving of credit. Still, it would be nice if the newscast describing each episode's damage to the city varied slightly from day to day. Most notable is the music, which is limited, but mimics the style of old anime shows. It's hard to know if you should be excited or annoyed that the entrance of a battalion of tanks sounds like Mario and Yoshi have arrived to save the day.

The best part of the plot is that it reacts to your actions. When my Meganite accidentally leveled the Panda Bakery with a Harken Laser, Nanao (a close friend) worried if she would collect a paycheck for her recent work there. When the rebuilt bakery was destroyed again, she started looking for other jobs. When Keiko Konan's (your communications officer) condo was wrecked, she cried out, and could later be found living at her post. The biggest problem with the plot is not just that it's something that stands between you and massive robot battles. Even once you've arrived at the action sequences, the plot interrupts. A lot. Perhaps while you are levitating your pilot to a better vantage point or throwing an uppercut with your Meganite, plot elements will interrupt, ruining your action. Occasionally the television feed covers a critical part of the screen, or the camera may just pan to follow a missile at an inconvenient time. Sometimes these effects are incredibly cinematic. At other times they are just plain distracting.

What R.A.D. does capture is everything that is cool about gigantic, fighting robots. These monstrosities are under your control. Some can transform into jets or tanks. Another can launch its fists in a devastating projectile attack. Land a good punch, and your enemy will fly backwards, destroying city blocks in the process. You may decide to forget the safety of Senjo City Hall and use the Gaia Buster cannon, because it's just that cool. It is usually much more difficult to avoid collateral damage (for which you earn extra money) than it is to defeat your foes, and that balancing act gets really exciting when you fight multiple Volgara. You never forget you are using a puny controller to manage a giant battle, and that makes it seem all the more involving when you save the city from yet another assault by gigantic aliens.

The Meganite combat element is amazing. So much is new and different that it really needs to be experienced. Fights are slow enough to be strategic, but are deeply involving, even when you are just causing your robot to place one foot in front of the other. The plot pacing is also slow, but the game rewards your patience. Fans of plots that deeply search the souls of animated teenagers may find the best game they have ever played. The rest of us should play R.A.D. anyway.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on December 2, 2002 9:05 PM.

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