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Monday, June 11, 2018

Robotrek

Quintet is a beloved name among fans of 16-bit gaming, producing a number of cult classics that maintain their unique appeal even today.  However, not too many talk about or even remember Robotrek.  But is that because the game is the black sheep of their lineup, or is this another gem that was simply overlooked?


Robotrek was an odd case, being released in the thick of the RPG renaissance by an acclaimed publisher, and yet it flew under the radar while games like Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, Final Fantasy III (actually 6) and Phantasy Star IV crept into the limelight.  It has an interesting premise, too - building robots which fight in lieu of your main character and a unique combat system with a few new quirks not seen in any prior JRPG.  But where did it all go wrong?  Well, let's take a look.

Robotrek is known as "Slapstick" in Japan and appropriately tries to be a humorous game with its cartoonish characters and silly dialog.  However, this proves to be the first of its stumbling blocks - Enix's translators were somewhat notorious for missing the mark with their translations, leading to many instances of dialog that just leave the player confused rather than want to laugh.  Some elements do still work (the particularly outlandish villain designs, for example), but it's not a good sign when an element of the game that's right in the Japanese title gets mangled in the North American release.

A more flagrant flaw soon shows itself as well.  Quintet was a company known for giving their games an epic, operatic feel, and a large part of that stemmed from their soundtracks; simply put, they used the technology of the SNES to tremendous effect, creating scores that sounded just a step down from a real-life orchestral performance.  Robotrek's soundtrack, on the other hand, is drab at best and downright obnoxious at worst, with the most egregious offender being the combat theme - a downright irritating twenty-two-second loop that will have you reaching for the mute button after only a few battles.  It's just sounds so out of place given what we'd already come to expect from the company, and with games like the aforementioned further upping the ante for RPG soundtracks, it's hard to believe they decided that this was acceptable for their own entry to the genre.

But there is more to a game than aesthetics, and Robotrek does at least make efforts to be unique on a gameplay front.  The centeral theme of Robotrek, as the name suggests, is that the player can build and customize their own robots to fight in their stead during battles.  Up to three can be created, though unfortunately only one can be on the field at a time, with the player having to manually swap them out and using a turn each time they do.

Each robot can be equipped with three weapons - one on each arm and one on their back.  Arm weapons come in a variety of forms - guns, swords, axes and shields to name a few - while the back slot is generally reserved for a long-ranged bomb attack.  Each robot's stats can be freely adjusted as well, letting the player make a "roadblock" robot equipped with two shields and maxed defense, but no offensive capabilities whatsoever if they choose (and honestly, this is not a bad idea during some of the later bosses - swap in your defender once your fighter falls, heal your fighter back up, then swap them in once the coast is clear).

The combat system is also relatively innovative for the time, working somewhat like the Active Time Battle system from Final Fantasy.  Each character in the fight has a time bar that slowly ticks up, and once it fills, they can take their action.  Each action the player takes will deplete more of their time bar, requiring a longer time to take their next turn if they use a more powerful weapon or attack.  For example, a sword swing will only deplete the bar slightly while a bomb will deplete a large chunk of it.  The tradeoff, of course, is that more powerful actions generally deplete more time from the bar, adding a risk-versus-reward element.  The player can also pre-program combination attacks, allowing them to strike multiple times in a single round with their various weapons; this too comes with a drawback as all of the attacks used will deplete a respective chunk of the bar.  The player has the option to speed up the time bar's filling as well by rapidly pressing A and B, though this comes at a price too - if they do this, their robot's defense will weak until their next turn, making them more vulnerable to attack.

That's all well and good, but combat overall is relatively limited.  There are no real "spells" or spell-like special moves available to the player, meaning that your only action at the beginning of each turn is using an item, attacking or defending.  A few weapons do have special properties - Sword 3 causes a lightning attack to strike all enemies while Hammer 2 causes the character to recover HP when striking an enemy - but for the most part, combat is rather one-note and monotonous.  Which isn't a particularly good thing when the game also requires substantial amounts of grinding and stat redistribution in order to overcome many of the bosses, lest you be stuck doing only a single point of damage to them with each attack.

Robotrek is one of the earliest games I can think of to utilize a crafting system as well.  Throughout the game, the player can combine items together in order to make new ones - in fact, this is required for all of the top-tier weapons in the game, as well as many key items needed to proceed in the plot.  Combining a Sword and a Hammer, for example, will produce an Axe, while combining a Rusty Drill with a Clean will create a usable drill.  A creative idea, though it's once again hampered by the translation - items tend to have very similar names (Axe 1, Axe 2, Scrap 5, Scrap 7, et cetera) and only certain items will combine into specific weapons, leading to either much trial and error or forcing the player to have a guide by their side so that they will know what scraps go with what other scraps to create a useful item.  As one can imagine, this only gets more frustrating when one needs to craft a particular plot item to proceed, but then had to go through a trial-and-error process to figure out exactly which part goes with what to create said item.  The game attempts to rectify this by letting the player read books to discover various crafting combinations; however, the player's level must match or exceed the level of the book in order to successfully read it and gain the recipe.  Which means - you guessed it - more grinding!

Overall, Robotrek is a disappointment.  Not because it's a bad game, but because it's a mediocre RPG overall, mostly forgettable outside of having a few clever (if not always well-implemented) elements.  In comparison to the well-paced, beautiful emotional experiences that Quintent games like Actraiser and the SoulBlazer trilogy provided it just doesn't have nearly as much to offer.  Pair that with the fact that the Super Nintendo was starting to get a large number of incredible, groundbreaking RPGs around the time this one came out, it's not hard to see why Robotrek is one that few people bother to revisit.


Developer: Quintet, Ancient
Publisher: Enix
Platform: Super Nintendo
Released: 1994
Recommended version: N/A

Tags: JRPG, Science Fiction, Freeform Characters, ATB-Like, Visible/Scripted Encounters, Crafting System, Grindfest, Save Anywhere, Mid-Length Campaign, Humorous