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by Enix

The mech genre seems like a natural fit for videogames. Give me one of those killer giant robots from any one of about a million anime flicks, arm it to the teeth, and let me loose on a life-like city against some vile, futuristic villains. Oh, yeah. Unfortunately, finding a good mech title on a console system is about as likely as finding spiritual enlightenment by watching the Anna Nicole Smith Show. Enix has effectively changed that with the release of Robot Alchemic Drive.

The story is one you will recognize from just about every giant robot videogame/television show/movie that you have ever seen: a futuristic metropolis representing the peak of human civilization is being threatened by a mysterious race of giant, warlike aliens. It is up to three hip, young kids to save the world. At their disposal are three incredibly powerful battle mechs. With various cities acting as the battleground, your challenge is to take on the role of one of the kids, arm your robot, and take down your enemy with as few human casualties as possible.

The genius of the game, however, is where it breaks away from the stale mech formula. RAD turns the genre on its ear by taking your point of view out of the robot and placing it firmly on the ground. You have full control of your chosen human character in the 3D environment. The game begins with the arrival of the first alien, and you must guide your character through the mayhem to a rendezvous point where you will be given the controls to your mech. Then you must find a vantage point somewhere near the battle where, hopefully, your line of site will remain unobstructed. Battles are fought via remote control; you are never actually in the robot itself. You can alternate control from the robot to the human character at any time in the game.

This point of view is brilliant. My primary complaint with all giant robot games is that it never feels like you are controlling a giant robot. The scale always seems to be muted, or simply relative to the other robot you are fighting. There is never the sense of grandeur that seems to me would be the point. But by placing you on the ground as two hulking monstrosities hurl each other through buildings, the devastation becomes overwhelming—bridges are falling, power lines are down, people are dead in the streets, and there is a very real possibility that you may be next. You better choose a safe place to stand, and even then be ready to run, because if the battle moves too close it’s possible that the next big hit will send one of the enormous robots crashing down on top of you. There is nothing more humiliating than being squished by your own fallen mech.

The game has one more twist, however—the control set-up. Both strange and perfect, the controls act more like a remote control device than your typical videogame. The shoulder buttons control your legs so that you step forward with your right leg by pressing R1, left with L1. To walk you must alternate pressing the two buttons—right, left, right, left. R2 and L2 step backward. R1+R2 turns right, L1+L2 turns left. You move your arms with the right and left analogue sticks. Tipping the right analogue stick forward results in a right jab. If you rotate the left stick 90 degrees, you get a left hook. Then you can move your torso with the directional buttons—up to arch your back, down to bend over, right and left to pivot at the waist. The mechs also have the ability to duck, jump, pick up objects, and perform special moves. The button pad fires projectile weapons like lasers and bombs, and, if applicable, transforms your robot into a vehicle.

That’s right, some of the robots can transform. There are three robots to choose from. One robot is light and fast and transforms into a jet. It is armed with various missiles, a lightning ray, and can even turn its arms into swords. Another is bulky and slow and transforms into a tank. It can turn its fists into hammers, and its tank cannon has devastating fire power. The last robot falls right into the middle and doesn’t transform, although it does have that cool Shogun Warriors move where it shoots its hand like a big, blunt missile. Or was that Voltron who did that? The enemies range from big lizards, to sleek battle robots and massive juggernauts.

The graphics range from phenomenal in the cut scenes, to very good in the battle sequences, to somewhat poor in the overlapping storyboard elements. What happens is every time someone talks to you the screen is overlapped with a dialogue box and a close up of the character speaking, much like an RPG. This seems a little out of place in this game, and it is a shame because everything else is so good. During battle, everything within the environment is destructible—if it stands you can knock it down. The frame rate, performance, and special effects are terrific. And, as if all of this weren’t enough, the character designs are by none other than Toshihiro Kawamoto, of Cowboy Bebop fame.

The sound is far from perfect. Although the projectile weapons, explosions, roars, stomps, and crashes are all great, the voice acting is among the most horrible I have ever experienced. It is unconvincing, poorly performed, and overall just painful and annoying. The music is generic.

The overlapping dialogue boxes and ridiculous voice acting are symptomatic of the games biggest flaw: the story. The robots, point of view, and control scheme of RAD add up to an incredible gameplay experience. In truth, all it would have taken to propel the game is the simple set up that I described earlier, the one that accompanies all mech stories. While I applaud Enix’s attempt to give us a little more than one shallow battle scenario after another, their delivery disrupts the flow of the game in every way. The dialogue is poorly translated and goes on forever. You find yourself laboriously scrolling through line after line of inane banter and trite exposition just to get to the point where you can play the game. Then, when you are finally in the game, right in the middle of a tense battle, the action freezes as yet another dialogue box pops up. They go so far as to actually interrupt your battles to make you scroll through more dialogue! To add insult to injury, this dialogue often only consists of useless observations of the battle that you were enjoying before they butted in. Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. There is a point where one of the lead characters is engulfed in a battle. As he dies he screams and, predictably, this dialogue box pops up: "Aaaaaargh!" Then there are the annoying performances—the irritating scientist; the mundane, foppish male lead; even the one female human character is of the annoying giggle-box anime variety rather than the kick-ass heroine kind. It kind of makes you wish that the creators of this game had either been a little less ambitious or a little more creative.

RAD’s saving grace is its two-player versus mode. As annoying as the single player game can be when you are not duking it out with alien marauders, at least you are opening up new characters and options for one of the most intricate two-player robot battles ever created. RAD’s complex and unique control set up requires that everyone involved spend some time honing their skills. However, when you get two players of comparable skill and experience together this game is amazing. The articulation of the robot’s torso, appendages, weapons, special moves, and transformations allow for all kinds of fighting styles and strategies. You can switch from human to robot, maneuvering around buildings in order to gain the advantage by obscuring the other player’s line of site. You can try to move the battle closer to the other player’s human character so that you can crush them with your foot, debris, or their own robot. No two people will fight the same, and the game leans more toward the contemplative fighter rather than the button-pounder.

Robot Alchemic Drive game is a one of a kind experience. I was truly wowed by the scale and intensity of the battles. The robots are incredible in both design and function. The point of reference and the control scheme make this game stand out in a genre that is normally mired in formula. While you will have to suffer through poorly executed story elements that disrupt the flow of the game, the two-player mode more than makes up for it. Mech lovers, put this one on your must play list. You won’t regret it.

Jeremy Kauffman   (01/31/2003)


Ups: Unique point of view and control scheme; cleverly designed, fully articulated robots; destructible environments; good graphics; one of a kind two-player experience.

Downs: Story elements are annoying and disrupt the flow of the game; horrible voice acting; generic music.

Platform: PlayStation 2