Game type: JRPG/mech pilot game/sandbox game
Time demand: Fairly long, but not especially so for a JRPG (although you can put tons more time into it, easily...)
Released: May 2006 (US) / June 2005 (JP)
What it is: Beyond saying that it's a JRPG, this game is a bit hard to classify into one neat little niche, because it does so much. But here goes.
Steambot Chronicles revolves around an amnesiac blonde kid (I know, I know, but it's okay) named Vanilla, and his quest to a) get his memory back, b) get back to his life, and c) help out his new friends that he meets along the way. Friends such as Basil, Coriander, Marjoram... sensing a theme yet? (One thing playing the game will probably do is make you hungry, at least...)
Now, it's not just about a kid on foot tooling around some generic fantasy world, oh no. See, this is a sorta steampunkish setting, except more pastoral - basically it's got odd levels of tech - mostly around early 1900's level, except they've developed "Trotmobiles" which are a more primitive form of mech, to get around with more versatility than automobiles. So you end up with a Trotmobile of your very own, and much of the game revolves around fighting in it, upgrading it, and performing various tasks in it. Not to mention getting around the countryside with it as your main form of transportation... well, when you're not taking the train anyhow.
The basic structure of the game so far probably sounds fairly simple and straightforward.. and it is, really. Where the depth to the game and the fun come in are the *tons* of various things you can do outside the regular storyline. You can collect film reels for a theater in the starting town, and dig up, collect, and piece together fossils for a museum in the same city, as well as exploring ruins for artifacts to sell to the same place. You can make money by taking loads of items from one location in the world to another that needs that commodity, usually using some special sort of Trot attachment like a tank or a flatbed. You can act as a bus, putting a "carriage" attachment on your Trot and picking up people at bus stops and ferrying them to their destination, for a price. You can buy stocks and play the stock market in one of the bigger towns in the area, and buy your own residence and furnish it with things you buy, then invite various girls over on dates... and, of course, you can fight in the arenas with your Trotmobile.
There are a few other things that you can work on, that act as mini-games all in their own right. First off is a side-quest type of mini-game, pool hustling. In various bars and such in the cities you visit you may find a pool table, and local pool sharks to square off against. I won't go into all the controls and so forth, except they're fairly intuitive, but you can win better cue sticks, which have special abilities that you can use once per game, as you start winning against better opponents. And, of course, you can win cash.
The other main mini-game is one of the larger parts of the game (since it is incorporated in the main storyline as well) - a musical sort of mini-game/sidequest. See, Connie and some of the others are in a fairly famous band, all of them multi-talented on various instruments, switching off as the song and whim require. Eventually you can join in and play along in their concerts (or some of them anyhow), as well as playing on street corners and other gathering places in between, for extra cash. This system is pretty neat, because you start out with a harmonica but can also collect a slew of other instruments, and each one is controlled in a different way, so the mini-game's a bit different with each instrument, some naturally more difficult than others.
And I shouldn't forget to mention the photo album, which you fill out as you meet various characters, find and wear full ensembles of clothing, and so on. Or the food system, where you get progressively hungrier as you go without food, until you're moving very slowly unless you eat something. Or the nicknames your character gets, depending on a ton of things - his general hunger level, how he treats people, how he kits out his Trot... And of course the fact that how you reply to various questions and meet the demands of situations determines how you're viewed in the world.
In other words... the game's pretty damn robust, at least as far as what you do, and what sort of reputation you build in doing it.
And now that brings us to the downsides of the game, I suppose. Which there are. For instance, for a game that revolves so much around music... well, I won't say the music is *bad*. It's not. But the translations of the songs could have used more work - it seems they went for a more accurate translation or something, and the pacing of the lyrics, rhyme scheme, etc., was left to fend for itself as best it could. This is a bit awkward, and it's worse because if you do any decent amount of practicing/playing for spare money, you hear the same songs again and again and again and again... the repetition can get a bit grating to start with, and to have a song that just doesn't quite scan right is rubbing a wee bit of salt into the wound.
Then there's a bigger gripe. You see, for a game that requires so much time spent on Trotmobiles, requires you to win certain fights to continue in the story, etc etc., the control scheme leaves much to be desired. Piloting the Trot uses both control sticks in odd formations, fighting uses both the control sticks and the shoulder buttons, also sometimes in fairly non-intuitive ways, and it even brings the L3 and R3 buttons (the ones that you get from pressing down on the stick) into play. Some complexity is good in a combat system, especially in something that's supposed to be a complex machine, but... this goes a bit overboard, and could be more intuitive. And precise.
That said though... even with the negatives, this is a damn fun game. There's a bit of stuff for everyone, more or less, and you could spend ages just trying to work on the various side quests and build up your character's overall life. Now the only problem is trying to keep your own social life as robust and busy...