Welcome back to the RPG Lounge, an occasional retrospective/review series about the RPGs I play through, most of which will be livestreamed.
The lamented developer Quintet–according to Wikipedia, they’re believed to be long defunct, although no one is quite sure when it actually happened–are responsible for, among other games, a list of beloved SNES games. Quintet may be best known for the “Soul Blazer trilogy”, a loosely-connected set of three games. The company’s connection to the Ys series–Quintet’s president was the scenario designer for the first three games in the series–allowed them to get Yuzo Koshiro to compose the music for the Actraiser games, and he’s credited as the “Sound Producer” for several other games.
One of those games is 1994’s Robotrek, published by Enix. Called “Slapstick” in Japan (To give you an idea of how DARK AND GRITTY this game is), Robotrek involves a planet called Quintenix (Yes, really), and a small village called Rococo, which the game calls “A livable town”. The issue is that a rogue group called “Hackers” have invaded Rococo, and are “Robbing…destroying….disrupting” the village. In the meantime, your character is the son of a great inventor, Dr. Akihabara, who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, and runs into the Hackers as a side effect of his quest.
The setting–a more-or-less modern-day style world–is one thing that sets it apart from most RPGs. Another thing that sets it apart from most RPGs is its combat system. There aren’t random battles, which was a rarity in 1994. You also don’t fight enemies directly. Instead, you command robots to do your bidding in a battle with up to three foes at a time. The battle system itself is styled after SNES-era Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battle system, but with some twists. For one, your robot can have up to three distinct weapon types (Melee, Weapon, Bomb), and each type takes up a different portion of your meter before you can take another action. Not only that, but you can combine these commands using what the game calls Programs. These Programs offer additional unique attacks that might have other effects, such as knocking enemies back. Each weapon type, especially Melee, has several different weapons that do different things as well.
You begin with a single robot, and can build up to two more throughout the course of the game. Each one specializes in a specific kind of combat, and they can be further customized via stat allocation. Each level up gives you ten additional points to distribute among five different stats (HP, Power, Defense, Speed–which actually governs accuracy and evasion–and Charge, a measure of how fast your battle meter refills). These points, including points already distributed, can be re-assigned upon level-up, or when you find a Research & Development center, essentially the game’s version of an inn.
In keeping with the game’s theme of invention, besides purchasing them, you can acquire items by either creating them, or by combining items to make new ones. It’s a neat way to get both items and new weapons, as you can combine items to create common curative items, or combine weapons and scraps to make new weaponry that’s more powerful than your old weaponry. It’s a neat tweak of the typical item acquisition formula.
One thing bares special mention in Robotrek: The translation is all kinds of awful, though it inadvertantly leads to some great lines like a Hacker telling your father, “[…] But evil is good. Evil is the job.” Just as often, though, it leads to the game literally losing the plot–there’s a point about two thirds of the way through the game that I’m not entirely sure in what time period it actually takes place.
There’s a lot to like in Robotrek. Unfortunately, there are also a number of frustrating elements about it. The game allows you to save almost anywhere, making it surprisingly easy to put yourself into a situation that is very difficult to get yourself out of, since enemies respawn when you exit and re-enter a room. To give Quintet credit, they seem to have anticipated this, as you get a brief spot of invincibility where you can’t get into battles upon reloading a save. In theory, you can load, then a second later while still in invincibility, save again, slowly creeping your way out of your predicament. The bigger issue is that healing resources are pretty limited, and at times it seems like two different teams balanced the regular enemies versus the bosses. You’ll be cruising along, beating enemies without a problem, and just run into a boss and get destroyed with no warning. Further, while it isn’t a huge issue due to the re-assignable stats, the most important stats change all of a sudden about midway through the game. Finally, for all of the customization possible, there’s one melee weapon type that’s so obviously superior that you’ll never go back to the others.
Other minor frustrations: The game itself never tells you that Programs can have unique effects besides being “chains of commands” (There was apparently an insert originally included with the game that mentioned this), nor does it explain that “Program” is an “element” along the lines of “fire” or “lightning” in a traditional JRPG that enemies can be resistant to.
Still, despite these frustrations, Robotrek is worth playing. First of all, while I love Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest/etc, it’s nice to play a game in a setting that isn’t “Generic Mostly Medieval Fantasy World BUT WITH AN AIRSHIP!!! #743”, and the customization with the numerous weapons and stat allocations make the actual battles and creation fun as well. It’s also refreshing that a mid-1990s game wasn’t trying to out-DARK-AND-ADULT everything else around it.