Review by Wyrdwad

"Gaming from the heart."

Introducing, the Sanderson family! Little Jenny wears a frog bonnet 24/7 and speaks only in "Ribbitese"; Mr. Sanderson is unemployed, but spends frivolously on toys, making it increasingly more difficult for the family to pay the bills; the pet dog Tao does nothing but eat, sleep, and track mud everywhere; and Mrs. Sanderson is going crazy from stress and frustration with the whole dysfunctional lot of 'em!

And you? Why, you're a 3-inch-tall helper robot known as "Chibi-Robo", purchased for little Jenny's eighth birthday with "moolah" the Sandersons really didn't have. It's up to you and your flying TV-shaped manager Telly Vision to bring happiness to this family, one way or another. And your job doesn't stop there! See, when the family's away, the toys come out to play -- and these toys have some pretty serious problems of their own!

Sound a bit strange? Oh, it definitely is! But it's pretty much par for the course when you consider that this genre-defying game is the brainchild of Japanese visionary Ken'ichi Nishi and the other veteran developers at Skip, formerly known as Love-de-Lic. Although Nintendo did play a role in this GameCube title's creation (Miyamoto himself is even credited as the senior producer), Love-de-Lic's trademarks are absolutely everywhere to be found, if you know what you're looking for. Though obviously following in the footsteps of past Japan-only titles like "Moon", "Giftpia", sister company Vanpool's "Endonesia", and sister company Punchline's "Chulip", "Chibi-Robo" represents this oddball group of game designers' first real foray into the world of true 3D. And while it's not without a few snags here and there, the end result is yet another completely unique and original game world, filled with extremely personable, well-developed, and undeniably bizarre people (and, in this case, toys), and packed with so much stuff to do that you'll be totally overwhelmed just deciding where to start!

Yes indeed, Love-de-Lic has struck yet another home run with this fantastically quirky title. And despite having nine total game releases thus far in Japan (between Love-de-Lic/Skip and their might-as-well-be-the-same-company sister developers Vanpool and Punchline), this is the very first Love-de-Lic title to ever reach our side of the world, and speak our language. And while Japanese gamers and avid importers are used to this kind of wackiness, we English-speakers have never seen anything quite like it before!

Chibi-Robo really doesn't fall into any established gaming genre. It's sort of a platformer, sort of an adventure, sort of an RPG, and sort of a sim game. With the day-to-night mechanic in place, it bears an ever-so-slight gameplay resemblance to the non-battle segments of Shenmue, though not as much as previous Love-de-Lic titles with more involved time-progression systems, such as Moon and Chulip.

The vast majority of your time in Chibi-Robo will be spent either thoroughly exploring your environment, or talking to the Sanderson family and their toys, to determine what you might be able to do to make them happy. Borrowing heavily from Moon's "activity limit" mechanic, you're initially very limited in what you can do and where you can go by your rather tiny battery. As you amass "happy points" from your good deeds, however, your "chibi-ranking" (read: level) is raised, and your battery power increased, allowing you to wander farther from power outlets and take much greater chances, with less risk of a nasty shutdown.

Small amounts of happy points can be earned through daily chore-style activities or small thoughtful gestures, such as scrubbing up muddy paw-prints with Mr. Sanderson's old toothbrush, letting Jenny show you her crayon drawings, spraying gook off the walls with Jenny's toy squirter (syringe-shaped, from a play-doctor kit), growing a flower over the course of several days and giving it to one of the ladies as a gift, or picking up small pieces of garbage from the floor and chucking them into the trashcan where they belong. Your chibi-ranking won't go up very quickly if that's all you do, though, which is why talking to everyone is so very, very important. Each and every one of the game's characters has some sort of problem (or problems) that simply won't go away on its own, and it's up to you to see if there's anything you can do to help. You may be only three inches tall, but really, most of the problems in this household stem from a lack of communication, or an unwillingness to open up -- and who better to help provide counseling on such issues than a tiny robot programmed to spread happiness?

There are obstacles in your way, however, and the biggest one of them all is the environment itself. When you're three inches tall, absolutely everything is intimidatingly huge by comparison, from the coffee table in the living room to the front stairs in the foyer. Much of your time in this game will be spent scanning the room for important items or people (either through normal observation, or with your handy-dandy first-person perspective item-identifying scanner), and then figuring out what sorts of makeshift methods you can use to actually reach them. Dangling shoestrings and cords, drawers, handles, and decorative wall moldings work for you like ladders, stairs, and stepping stones. It's a similar feeling to the environmental scope seen in "Mister Mosquito", only with the notable handicap of not being able to fly.

You can glide, however, thanks to Chibi-Robo's wonderfully useful built-in "chibi-copter" accessory -- and you'll be gliding an awful lot, sometimes pulling off moves that take you to some truly incredible places (not the least of which include rafters and rooves). There are other tools at your disposal as well, including the aforementioned toothbrush and squirter (the latter of which can be used to suck up any liquid, for later spritzing on people and objects alike), a radar scope (for finding things invisible to the naked eye), a coffee mug (to be worn as armor), a spoon (perfect for digging), and your patented "chibi-blaster", which has quite a myriad of uses.

And in the very likely event that none of these tools offer quite the service you're looking for, you can always take any scrap metal you find during your chores, and build "utilibots" out of them. These happy little guys will help you reach places that would otherwise be completely inaccessible, by taking a wee bit of your battery power to extend an incremental ladder or a fold-out bridge, either of which can be moved and positioned however you see fit within a specific area. Some utilibots also provide teleportation services, which are extremely useful for going up and down stairs in a jiffy (though as you might imagine, they can't actually be built until you've traversed the stairs on your own at least once).

But scrap metal's not so easy to come by when you stand barely taller than a doorstop. Semi-fortunately for you, however, there seem to be a series of evil-willed spider mini-bots hell-bent on taking out Chibi-Robos across the country. Their origins unknown, these "spydors" pop up from time to time, and attempt to suck out your battery power. A bit of fancy blaster-work, however, will show them who's boss, and net you quite a bounty of scrap.

If blasters aren't your thing, though, there are other ways to take down spydors, too. You can always scrub them to death with Mr. Sanderson's toothbrush (no, really!), or you can dress up as a ghost and give them a mighty spooking (no, really!). Which brings up yet another trick Chibi-Robo's got up his rigid metal sleeves: costumes! Completing certain story-related tasks within the game, or meeting certain conditions, gives Chibi-Robo the ability to don various costumes. And unlike in a lot of games, where costumes serve only as a cosmetic extra, the costumes in this game are actually quite useful, and in many cases required to advance the plot.

Each costume has a "pose" triggered by the Z button, and these poses can do some pretty amazing things. From useful effects like the pajama pose (going to sleep and advancing to the next half-day) and the "trauma suit" pose (instant port back to your home base, the "chibi-house"), to more esoteric effects like those of the frog suit (ribbit and hop) and the ghost suit (scare the bejeebus out of whoever's in front of you), costume effects can be just as fun to play around with amongst the Sandersons and their toys as they are handy for getting through the various unusual situations that frequently occur in this house. Why, there's even a costume you can don of the amazing Space Hunter Drake Redcrest, received from one of Mr. Sanderson's toys based on the popular TV hero of the same name. Learning to perform the patented Drake Redcrest pose is one of the first things you do in the game, and proves itself extremely useful again and again, in many unexpected and unlikely ways.

And Drake Redcrest, my friends, is a good example of where this game truly shines. The gameplay may be fun and unique, but the characters and story are where the real meat of the Chibi-Robo experience can be found. The Sandersons themselves are pretty crazy, but it's their toys that lead the most interesting lives. It's kind of like Toy Story, if Toy Story were a twisted soap opera. Take, for instance, the manic-depressive mummy, Mort, who lives in a coffin-like shoebox under Jenny's bed. He's desperately in love with the beautiful Princess Pitts, who lives atop the colorful toy castle nearby. He delivers her flowers every day, though they always wilt away to dried weeds in his lifeless fingertips. And then there's the matter of Princess Pitts having lost her shoe, and simply not knowing what, oh what to do! How can she leave the castle with one foot shoed and one foot bare? Plus, she's also deathly afraid of scary things, and has a tendency to pass out when she encounters them -- and Mort's not exactly a looker, as mummy's go.

And that's just scratching the surface. There's also a bipolar teddy bear with a nasty (and increasingly disturbing) addiction to flower nectar, a southern belle of a Lego-built dinosaur who has a serious crush on a funky-dancing sunflower, a wooden pirate looking for a crew to man his flying ship, a fortune-telling teakettle whose beliefs in universal mysticism are based on eye-blinks, a platoon of egg-shaped toy soldiers on a mission to reclaim one of their own who's been taken hostage by the family dog, and many more.

What's really impressive, though, is how well these seemingly-unconnected and weird-as-hell characters interact with one another, how they react to and interact with the Sanderson family, and how their various stories and histories intertwine. And as you're going around the house spreading happiness to them all, you'll find two overarching plotlines simultaneously playing themselves out: the continuing saga of the Sandersons' marriage crisis, and the story of the robot that came before Chibi-Robo.

The latter is a sad tale of a human-sized robot named Giga-Robo, who helped out around the house before Jenny was born. During an energy crisis faced by the country, the tremendous amount of electricity required to charge Giga-Robo's giant battery was putting the already broke Sandersons into even more feduciary quagmires. Eventually, Giga-Robo was retired to a dank corner in the Sandersons' basement, where he's been sitting and rusting for over 8 years, with no battery in his chest and one leg missing.

Still, it seems Giga-Robo somehow held on to the slightest bit of power, and it's almost as if he himself is sending you a message, begging you to undergo the difficult process of bringing him back online. Plugging into him for any clues, you see a confusing set of visions that may offer you some idea as to how you can achieve such a daunting task.

And believe me, it's definitely no small potatoes for a tiny little robot to fix up his mammoth predecessor! But as the game progresses, it becomes increasingly clearer that reviving him is something you absolutely must do. Giga-Robo seems to have been truly admired by all the toys, and even looked up to as an "exalted one" -- perhaps even as a god. It's fairly obvious that what happens if and when you succeed at reactivating him will be much more significant than just a simple reunion of man, toy, and machine.

The Sandersons' marriage plotline, however, is much more about damage control than anything else: Dad sleeps on the living room couch every night, while Jenny squats outside her parents' bedroom door, crying and clutching her teddy bear. Things seem doomed to end in divorce, and it's going to take a lot more than clean floors and freshly-picked flowers to straighten out this mess!

In short, this game has a very convoluted, yet surprisingly deep plotline, packed to the gills with sidequests, minigames, and lots and lots of hidden goodies (of both the concrete and abstract varieties). There are many surprises and plot twists that you definitely won't see coming, and there's even a "final boss", of sorts! Yet it all manages to tie itself together beautifully in the end, with a stunning and immensely satisfying conclusion that will melt your heart -- and provide you with a really, really good incentive to keep playing after the credits roll, too. Overall, you'll be hooked for well over 20 hours, guaranteed -- and with so much to do, you might even find yourself tying up all the loose ends well past the 30- or 40-hour mark!

At its core, Chibi-Robo's gameplay is very nonlinear, allowing you to do pretty much anything you'd like outside of the main plotline, in any order you want. And while nonlinear RPGs typically suffer from at least one occurrence of the player left wandering, with no idea what to do next, Love-de-Lic has always seemed to take an "overload" approach, giving you so many things to do that you'll more likely have trouble deciding where to start.

Of course, as with most games nowadays, Chibi-Robo's length is artificially prolonged in a somewhat unfortunate way. It was briefly mentioned above that this game features a day-to-night mechanic. Now, this is nothing new for Love-de-Lic, as the time of day has played an important role in virtually every one of their games. Usually, however, day flows smoothly into night, and back into day, with the game's inhabitants following set daily and, in the case of Moon, weekly schedules. In Chibi-Robo, however, this mechanic is much less involved: it's either daytime, or nighttime, period. Each of the game's myriad of characters is doing one specific thing all day, and one specific thing all night, occasionally alternating between two or three things on subsequent days or nights. As the game's main plot and various subplots progress, the things the characters do during the day and night will change, usually giving you access to new subplots and cutscenes (though to the game's credit, you are never permanently cut off from finishing existing subplots).

The problem is, the days and nights go by fairly quickly -- and when they're over, they're over, no questions asked. It's time for you to be sent back to your "chibi-house" and rest, and pick up again once the sun has come up or gone down. In other words, it doesn't matter if you were in the middle of something: if you hear the warning tones that tell you your current half-day is coming to an end, you have a few seconds to wrap things up, and then bam, you're done, whether you like it or not.

This is made slightly more annoying by the fact that the game's half-day timer defaults to a measly 5 minutes, which really doesn't give you much time to do ANYTHING. Fortunately, you can buy timers from the game's "chibi-PC online store" (accessible via your chibi-house) for a mere pittance, which will indefinitely extend the game's half-days to 10 or 15 minutes. It took me a while to realize, though, that the effects of the purchased timers aren't only temporary, and it really makes one wonder why the game didn't simply default to the 15-minute option from the start, as I doubt I was the only one confused by the functionality of these items (and I doubt many players would ever willingly choose to have 5- or 10-minute-long half-days, either!).

Some other reviewers have also voiced major objections to the game's camera and control scheme, though I have no real problems with either, personally. The camera is decidedly imperfect, but it still manages to get the job done 99% of the time, and is far superior to the camera used in the vast majority of other 3D games out there. As for the controls, I find them very responsive, and never once had a single problem with them. Some have expressed disdain with the fact that Chibi-Robo can't jump, but truth be told, I never once even thought about it until I'd read these complaints. For me, it seems like in "Zelda: The Ocarina of Time", where Link would automatically jump when it was appropriate for him to do so, and jumping at any other point in time would be wholly unnecessary. Chibi-Robo is definitely more acrobatic than Link, and gets himself into much tighter spaces, but the fact remains that the inclusion of a jump button would have made absolutely no difference whatsoever. When jumping is needed, jumping occurs, without fail.

And Chibi-Robo's walk speed is indeed rather slow, but he can give himself a bit of a speed boost by scooping up his plug and holding it over his head, rather than letting it drag.

Truth be told, Chibi-Robo has very few flaws of any note, with the biggest stand-out for me being its graphics. While the game does have a very interesting cartoony art style, and is certainly quite colorful, it's also got some rather major clipping issues (Chibi-Robo's plug tends to often find its way inside solid objects), not to mention a severe case of "polygonitis." The 3D presentation overall just seems a bit rushed. If you look at the hands of any of the Sanderson family members, for example, all you see is a mushy blob of polygons, somewhat reminiscent of Barret's gun-hand in Final Fantasy VII. There are also a large number of situations where objects that are obviously supposed to be round are instead decagon- or dodecagon-shaped, particularly noticeable with rugs. Some of this is unavoidable, given the scope of the game's setting, but most of it belies the fact that Love-de-Lic/Skip simply isn't used to making fully interactive 3D worlds just yet.

Still, the art style comes through, the scenery is colorful and appropriate, and you can easily tell what everything is supposed to be. Plus, Chibi-Robo himself looks fantastic, and moves with complete fluidity under any circumstance. While not perfect, the graphics do get the job done, and don't really distract you away from the game's finer points at all, even if they may be a bit initially off-putting.

The sound fares a bit better, though it's really very difficult to adequately review due to its uniqueness. Love-de-Lic veteran Taniguchi Hirofumi worked not only on the game's soundtrack, but on every last bit of sound that you hear. After having made a name for himself with the bizarre soundtracks to "UFO: A Day in the Life" and "Chulip", as well as selected tracks from "Moon" and "Coloball 2002", and the "Giftpia" title theme, Taniguchi seems to be the man they call if Love-de-Lic ever wants their games to sound totally off-the-wall and bizarre -- and Chibi-Robo continues this trend perfectly.

The music itself falls mostly into the category of "slightly odd BGM", with a humble yet upbeat techno theme that plays during the first half of each day, and another that plays during the first half of each night. It's rather interesting to note, though, that the tempo of these themes varies based on whether or not your movement is hampered by your dragging plug. And once you get to a story scene, you're generally treated to a highly appropriate (read: unusual) theme song for it, with unexpected instrument choices and vaguely atonal or improvisational melodies, but quite catchy and hummable ones nonetheless.

The sound effects in the game, though, are a type of music all their own. Everything Chibi-Robo does is musical. His footsteps produce random musical notes, with the instrument choice differing based on the surface he walks upon. Climbing a cord or shoelace generates a crescendo, and coptering generates a chaotic fluttering of notes. There's more, too: scrubbing up stains strums an acoustic guitar, spritzing with the squirter gives us a quick Spanish guitar riff, the radar scope provides a backbeat, and attempting to dig into hard surfaces with the spoon plays a few slightly dischordant piano hits. Combined with the odd soundtrack, these "sound effects" help give the game a fun, whimsical feel, and provide constant variety in what you're hearing, in addition to more-than-adequate feedback for your actions.

You are hearing a constant barrage of sound, however, much of which is atonal or "cutesy" -- and that can get a bit annoying if you're a "meat-and-potatoes" gamer when it comes to audio. I have a friend who refuses to play this game, for example, sheerly because he finds the sounds and music to be uncompromisingly obnoxious. I suggested that he could always mute the TV and play his own music in the background, but he passed up on that option, for one simple reason: he really liked the "voice-acting", and wouldn't want to miss it.

And yes, this game does have voice-acting, though not quite as you're used to. As with virtually every single Love-de-Lic game yet released, the characters in Chibi-Robo all speak in unique "gibberish" that sounds like a single line or two of dialogue recorded on a cassette tape, which is then cut to small pieces with scissors and taped back together in a random order. It's similar to the voice-acting in "Animal Crossing", but distinct in its own way, as you can most definitely pick out a word or phrase of English or Japanese every now and again, amongst the otherwise random utterance-chunks you're hearing. Some have found these voices annoying, though I personally think they're great, and always look forward to hearing what odd chewed-up voices Love-de-Lic will give the characters in their next game.

As one final note, I'd also like to mention that the English translation Nintendo provided for this game is absolutely top-notch. While there are a small handful of non-sequiturs every now and again, and there's one solitary typo I encountered during my playthrough, everything else is as perfect as can be. Character dialogue sounds completely natural and consistent, accents and speech patterns are perfectly transliterated, and there are more quotable lines in this game than you can shake a stick at. Some names were changed, but most of these were bad Japanese puns in the original version, with the new names typically much better-sounding and more appropriate. In short, Chibi-Robo's characters are truly amusing, and thanks to Nintendo's fine localization work overall, their dialogue can be experienced exactly as it was meant to be.

Though not for everyone, Chibi-Robo is definitely a breath of fresh air for antsy GameCube owners tired of game titles suffixed by roman numerals. Even with nine titles released in Japan, Chibi-Robo stands out as one of Love-de-Lic's best and most representative works, perfectly capturing their propensity for bizarre (and sometimes disturbing) plot and character development, as well as their tendency toward fun, unique, and extremely varied gameplay. Developers like Love-de-Lic are needed in this time of cookie-cutter gaming, and if we all band together and support titles like this, maybe more of their crazy masterpieces will see releases on our side of the ocean (like Natsume's long-awaited English-language debut of Chulip, or a re-emergence of Nintendo's cancelled Giftpia localization).

Whatever the case, if you like your games a bit different from the norm, you definitely need to pick this one up. Chibi-Robo offers proof positive that RPGs, and games in general, can still go places you'd never expect, and do things you couldn't possibly have imagined. In this reviewer's opinion, Chibi-Robo is one of the best games on the GameCube, and is certainly not to be missed.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 05/09/09

Game Release: Chibi-Robo! (US, 02/06/06)

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