Chibi-Robo is a game that's easy to dismiss, especially for any player who is increasingly drawn to software overrun with big guns and exaggerated gore. In direct contrast to some of today's hottest offerings, including Grand Theft Auto, Robo is a colorful and lighthearted affair that is appropriate for just about any age group, young or old. The surreal puzzle platformer is developed by Skip Ltd., the same Japanese software house behind the quirky RPG Giftpia, and the two releases share some common traits. They are both, for instance, completely off-the-wall, enveloping gamers in virtual environments that can on good days be described as weird and on bad days as disturbing. They are also, meanwhile, surprisingly engaging endeavors despite some noticeable technical shortcomings. Nintendo's littlest mascot may not pack the visual punch of the latest Mario or Zelda games, but the pint-sized hero is nevertheless a complementary addition to the Big N's growing roster of lovable characters. We're going to tell you why.
Chibi-Robo can eventually purchase and utilize a blaster in his wanderings, but shooting down hordes of enemies is certainly not the main objective in the robot's daily routine. As the game begins, we learn that the Sanderson family has recently purchased the card-sized robot to help out around the house and as such Chibi's goals revolve mostly around cleaning - at least on the surface.
The title's cinematics are visually lackluster, which is one of our biggest complaints of the game as a whole. Dialogue is delivered via a combination of Giftpia-like garbled samples and text. The N64-based Banjo-Kazooie titles used the same process for similarly comedic results. It works, mostly because it creates an ultra surreal mood that gels with the rest of the presentation. However, viewers will not find any beautifully animated cut-scenes in the adventure. Characters idle and loop stupidly as text overlays present any story developments, and the camera itself oftentimes pans too closely on the 3D models, spotlighting their relatively primitive make-ups and blemishes.
Skip has, on the other hand, written smart dialogue and created characters so abnormal that simply uncovering what they're up to is usually an entertaining process. Chibi-Robo is a loveable mascot. The miniscule hero stands as tall as a business card and runs through the Sanderson's house and yard with a power cord dangling from his rear. Chibi is powered by a battery that needs constant charging and as a result he can never stray too far from an electrical outlet. The character is sometimes accompanied by a miniature floating TV called Telly Vision who does all of the talking. Occasionally, Telly Vision cries, shedding impressive streams of water from his eyes. There is no point in trying to understand it, just as there is no point in attempting to ascertain why Jenny, Mr. Sanderson's daughter, wears a frog mask all afternoon and will only speak in ribbits.
The game serves up a rewarding storyline that reveals more of itself as Chibi makes his way through the adventure at hand. We eventually learn that the Sandersons are financially troubled and worse, completely dysfunctional. Not only is Mr. Anderson a slob who has money-spending issues, but the missus has repeatedly kicked him out of the bedroom and often wonders why she ever married him. Could this be the reason why Jenny is one step shy of becoming a serial killer? Meanwhile, the family's "moolah" issues are also to blame for the demise of a human-sized Giga Robo, which rests eerily in the basement of the house, its power drained. And to top everything off, most of the toys in the house jump to life when the Sandersons aren't looking and present new challenges for the worker bot to consider. Chibi's schedule must go well beyond cleaning in order to address all of these potential problems and more. The plot and the objectives are sewn together in a highly complementary fashion that drives both story and goals, which is partly why Chibi-Robo is enjoyable.
There is more to it, though. This game initially started out as a point-and-click-style adventure and we couldn't be happier that Skip and Nintendo eventually re-worked the gameplay mechanics. The final product delivers players true analog control that enables challenges and obstacles that almost certainly wouldn't have been possible with the original configuration. Chibi can be moved with reasonably tight precision using the main analog stick. When he approaches an object, he'll automatically jump up to it. The character can make use of a scope function to zoom in on far-off areas and he can access a map screen at any time to see where he is in the house and what obstacles or objects lie in wait. Control is dramatically improved since we first laid hands on the game, but it isn't perfect. Chibi is still a wee bit slow and he's not equipped for true platforming, which wouldn't be an issue if the game didn't feature a small, but still unavoidable selection of platformer-based obstacles.
We call Chibi-Robo a puzzle-platformer and not the other way around for a reason - this is a game about exploration and about solving environmental obstacles in order to retrieve objects and continue onward. Chibi is an amazingly robust character because he is able to find or buy and equip various tools to help him with his duties. Early on, he recovers a toothbrush and utilizes it to clean stains on the ground. Later, he finds a spoon, which is able to shovel planters for seeds that in turn grow flowers. He often makes use of a copter blade that rises from the top of his head to hover across gaps and to safely descend from tall structures. Figuring out which tools need to be used and where is a massively rewarding undertaking and a major part of the game's appeal.
What begins as a seemingly simplistic affair is transformed into a juggling act of activity as the game advances. During his first day, Chibi need only pick up trash and throw it into a nearby wastebasket to earn happy points, which he uses to buy new batteries for his body. (Players start the game with an 80.0 charge and can buy upgrades that quadruple that number.) Later, he might need to earn happy points to charge a giant-sized battery for the Giga Robo, use his blaster to take out troublesome nano-bots so that he can use their parts to construct bridges and ladders, rescue a trapped princess from her fortress, clean up dozens of nearby stains, and more, all the while always watching his battery to make sure he never runs out of power.
The game moves at a fun, leisurely pace similar to the second Pikmin, but it becomes noticeably more difficult as it advances. Chibi's ultimate goal is to become the best robot in the world, earning him Super Chibi-Robo status. He can only do that by amassing happy points, which ups his overall ranking - a number that incidentally begins at 1,000,000 and moves up by the hundred thousands when his next happy points objective is broken. It's not very taxing to reach the Top 30 Chibi-Robos rank. It might take some experienced players about five hours. People who choose to explore the house, which consists of at least two bedrooms, a living room, basement, kitchen and backyard, will probably spend twice as many hours getting the same rank. However, trying to reach number-one is an entirely different affair - one much longer and more cumbersome, and we expect that most gamers will spend close to 15 hours and quite possibly more getting there.
Chibi-Robo's graphics will not set or pass any benchmarks. The hero himself is extremely well-crafted, in our opinion, and immediately likable, but this is not due to any particularly visual accomplishments. The 3D models in the game are low-polygon in design and therefore lacking both detail and roundness. Textures tend to blur up close, which is a disappointment. And the fluidity should be running at 60 frames per second, but hovers closer to 30, in our estimate. Finally, the camera system, which is controlled manually, has a tendency to get in the way. Even so, there is the occasional area that impresses. Some of the floors shine with reflections as Chibi crosses them and some of the particle effects are explosive and surprisingly well-implemented. The characters - especially Chibi - show smooth animation. And there is also quite a lot of variation in the universe - the house is built to scale so it's very large in size and every room in it looks very unique. The visuals come in slightly above average, but to Skip's credit the charm goes a long way. The audio portion is similarly charming. Few developers would be brave enough to create a title whose main character generates varying musical notes whenever he takes a step, but this is exactly what Chibi does - and it's actually very whimsical and cute.
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