The success of Steins;Gate brought upon a successor with an ambitious budget, boasting animated 3D models instead of static sprites, anime cutscenes, and a bunch of side element like mini-games and an in-game VR app that adds on to the “game” part of the ADV. It gets so caught up in its side features that it forgets why its predecessor was so successful, in fact!
…Which is to say, the scenario and characters. Shimokura Vio may be the least liked writer at Nitroplus, but he’s a decent ideas guy and I’m convinced that Steins;Gate was significantly better than its siblings in the same series due to his involvement. Hayashi by himself doesn’t seem to be all that good at stringing together a plot that allocates its time properly, which was evident in Chaos;Head and even more so now in Robotics;Notes.
R;N is centered around a group of high school kids trying to build a giant robot, with some heavy sci-fi and conspiracy on the side. The latter should be nothing new for the Science Adventure series, but Robotics;Notes takes a long while to get going with that part of the plot, and once it starts moving, it slows down and stops shortly after. I had complaints about the odd pacing of Chaos;Head and the all too unnatural developments and shifts of tone, and the former applies to R;N as well. Sure, the overall tone of the work may be more consistent (no sudden shift from pathetic otaku loser to proactive shounen hero in the very last chapter kind of thing), but it’s also consistently uninteresting.
On the front side, we have some high school kids from the countryside (an island, rather) trying to build robots as the soon-to-be defunct robot club with next to zero budget. This kind of premise usually calls for some 青春モノ, but R;N really does that part wrong since the cast lacks the synergy and group dynamics needed to pull off a successful 青春モノ. What the text likes to do is ramble on about how robots work, to minute details about engines and design. In that sense I guess it’s wrong to approach it as an adolescent club story full of ロマン, since it does a better job of giving meticulous technical infodumps than drawing on the emotional side of things.
The most obvious reason why R;N doesn’t feel right as a club story is because the protagonist really isn’t into his club activities. He’s there because his childhood friend is there, but rather than helping out and actually being involved in making the robot, he sits in the corner playing video games. Past the first chapter, he doesn’t really do anything for the club other than agreeing to be the operator, and only because the control system is to be based on his favorite video game. Later on he goes around digging up a conspiracy by himself out of curiosity, and much of the game has him away from his club members and doing stuff on his own. Actually, of all the members of the robot club, only two of them are actually actively interested in building the robot. So even in group scenes, the club members don’t feel very ‘together.’ Their relationship as a club is weak compared to their one-on-one relationships with the protagonist. I guess this is done better than Chaos;Head where the main cast can hardly be seen interacting with each other, but that game had the excuse of not being focused on something that requires teamwork (as well as a socially reclusive protagonist).
The final stretch goes the 王道 shounen media path that really relies on emotional attachment to the club and team to properly feel the climatic effect while throwing most of the scientific details out the window in terms of importance, which makes me think that they really should have worked harder on making the cast work and given the user a reason to get emotionally attached to the robot club. R;N was most definitely trying to pursue the success of Steins;Gate, but had neither the quality character interactions in the first half nor the tension of the second half to get anywhere close to its predecessor.
Overall the work doesn’t go very deep into any of the topics it tries to tackle. There are many concepts and plot threads introduced that don’t get developed or expanded on beyond bare basics, getting brushed aside when the game realizes it doesn’t have time to do something as grand as what it tries to (slowly) build up to in the first half. It spends all this time trying to build up to something grand and exciting, only to come up with some trivial reveal that comes with no tension or surprise. The things that you expect to get resolutions to get brushed aside near the end as the game is so in love with its heated shounen manga moments that it pushes everything else into the background.
The scenario is also entirely linear, but someone tried too hard into making it a branching galge. Normally you’d get short side branches off of the main route for sub heroines (see: previous works in the series), but this game tries to split consecutive chapters into the structure of heroine routes. What you end up with is chapters 5, 6, 7, 8 being “routes” of the side heroines…except they’re all supposed to happen one after another as a part of the main plot and don’t feature any real romance. So in reality you just get arcs in a linear story focusing on a particular character, each one ending with a staff roll that takes you back to the title page. The Vita port apparently fixed this, but in the PS3 version you could skip from chapter 5 to chapter 8 of the story by going for the heroines’ flags in the wrong order.
Yashio Kaito is the protagonist of the game, and is a hardcore fighting gamer ranked 5th online in the popular 3D fighting game Kill-Ballad, which is based off of a successful mecha anime called Gunvarrel. He’s in the robot club because his childhood friend is there, but hardly participates in anything unless it’s related to Kill-Ballad. He doesn’t even watch the anime his beloved fighting game is based off of. He will only do favors for people who beat him in a match in Kill-Ballad, and while it may be refreshing to see at first, it gets DQN levels of annoying. Compared to the delusional Takumi of Chaos;Head and the chuunibyou patient Okabe of Steins;Gate, Kaito is a relatively normal guy who’s just a plain old pain in the ass to deal with and doesn’t want to do anything other than play his video game. I guess they did a really good job of synchronizing the player’s apathy for the club with his. On the bright side, he’s not a hetare and gets his shit done when he actually does it.
Senomiya Akiho is Kaito’s childhood friend, and the president of the robot club (which starts off with only the two of them at the beginning of the story). Her defining trait is her love for robots (the anime Gunvarrel in particular), and her shounen manga hero-like personality…which honestly gets irritating to watch and serves to drive home her naivety as she operates 99% on romanticism. Unlike the typical shounen hero, however, Akiho is really only average at best no matter what she does, and the last thing her genius sister did before leaving the island was bluntly pointing it out. I guess that goes for my opinion of the game as well, which makes Akiho a good fit as the unremarkable main heroine of an unremarkable game. Sometimes it feels like I’m harsher on her than I need to be, but considering how good the main heroine of Steins;Gate was, it’s hard to not raise expectations. At least she gets a pretty cool (if super cliched) moment near the end of the game.
Hidaka Subaru is the one guy who knows exactly what he’s doing when it comes to making robots, and is so good at it that he looks down on the robot club as child’s play (and I don’t blame him, at all) before being pretty much blackmailed into joining. He’s actually the champion of the Robo-One robot contest, but comes from a fishing family where he is expected to succeed his father and stop playing around with robots in high school. You can say that he’s the template serious elitist guy who eventually softens up into a formidable ally. Of the main cast, he was probably the easiest character to like in the beginning, but he is soon swept aside for the game to give the girls individual character arcs.
Koujiro Frau is the teen genius hikkikomori who programmed Kaito’s favorite game. She’s a walking 2ch meme spewer, using outdated internet memes in nearly every line of speech in what is supposed to be the year 2019. Not only does she use decade-old net slang, she also stutters in her speech and often goes off into a tangent with lewd BL delusions. If there’s one thing the game did really well, it’s in portraying the gross nerd as an actual gross nerd with untidy looks and a speech pattern and delusions that are obnoxious enough to offset her good-looking face. She gets some moments of development in her arc that show her more genuine side beneath the meme-spewing 2ch-er act, and I guess she’s the most memorable heroine in the game.
Daitoku Junna is probably the heroine with the least impact, since her role for a huge chunk of the game is to basically be a whimpering small girl scared of everything. At times she’s an information source for occult things, and her chapter deals with her fear of robots, but her character development doesn’t amount to much. Her defining trait is that she is mentally weak despite being quite tough physically due to practicing karate, and the teary, whimpering face never really stops being her trademark expression. You actually see a more responsible, grounded side of her when Kaito visits her family, but her character doesn’t really go anywhere otherwise.
There’s also some side characters, including a certain someone who may be familiar to those who have played Steins;Gate. Most of the cast is very one-note save for a moment or two during the climax of their arc. The entire cast’s characterization can be summed up as if you didn’t like them early on, you won’t like them much better by the end. There’s also a loli AI who has a route, but she’s a loli AI. There are better loli AIs everywhere. Overall, the game just doesn’t really do anything interesting with the characters themselves, and even when the villain is revealed, it’s hard to give any more than a flat reaction. All the heroines lack charisma, and the protagonist is difficult to like.
This is where 5pb. took a massive risk, by changing from the industry standard of static 2D portraits to animated 3D models. The result is a mixed bag — the 3D models in the original PS3 release look terrible and lifeless, with everyone looking eerily similar. The PS Vita upgraded port actually redid all the models to make them look a lot better, with shading and expressions that convey the 2D-ness of the character designs in the same way recent Atelier games do. Although the cell-shaded models look good this time around, the lip-syncing needs work. The still CGs are not bad, but very unremarkable. There are a number of animated sequences and those look pretty cool.
Since Kaito really likes his video game, you actually get to play it as a mini-game during important matches. You basically press buttons in the order they come up on the screen within the time limit, and if you succeed you win the match. So it’s a pretty trivial game that is probably not intended to be the actual gameplay of Kill-Ballad, but making that into an actual game would take effort. There is also some in-game map/GPS thing that is irrelevant save for a few minutes in the middle, an AR app that lets you collect tags that have been placed on things and people, and twitter where you can reply to other people’s tweets. It basically functions as S;G’s text messages do, except you don’t get notifications for new tweets until you’ve seen an ending, making the system an annoyance since all your heroine flags are collected through replying to tweets.
There isn’t much that Robotics;Notes does better than Steins;Gate or even Chaos;Head, so unless you feel like reading a robotics infodump in 3D or are a hardcore fan of the series (in which case you have probably played it going in with the expectations of Steins;Gate and gotten burned) I wouldn’t really recommend it. For any aspect of R;N that you make like, it wouldn’t be difficult to find something that executes it better. That was a 28 hours that I could have spent better elsewhere, although I didn’t drop it so I guess it wasn’t absolutely terrible.
I hope they brought in writers other than Hayashi for Chaos;Child (yes, I will play it in the near future, probably), because I’m sick of this guy’s stuff when he’s by himself.