Release Date: November 29, 2005
Let's face facts: the PSP doesn't have a lot of original content available for it. It's choked with console ports and aging movies, and the handful of new franchises that have been founded on the system – well, they haven't fallen too far from the PS2 tree gameplay-wise either. So it's refreshing to see a game like Tokobot because it's different, charming, and may just be the breath of fresh air the adventure-platformer fan needs to dissuade their disappointment with the platform.
The preview build we received was pretty limited – it was short and lacked an English translation to help us through the learning period. It's heartening, then, that despite this, the game still has an innate charm. The primary theme of Tokobot, see, is "friendship," and to this end, you have six robot friends – the eponymous tokobots. They run in a player-determined formation around the main character, and depending on the formation, they can be used in different ways to get past different obstacles. The single-file line formation allows you to swing the column of tokobots over your head, using them as a weapon, ladder, or bridge. The handholding formation that puts three tokobots on each side of you can make you the center of a spinning tokobot attack, which doubles as a gear-turning spin move. There is also a close circular formation in which the tokobots surround you, and while in this formation, you can do a stomping move to crush enemies and press certain buttons.
We needed to use all of these moves in multiple ways just to get through this brief preview. Judging from that and the number of empty slots in the formation menu, it looks like this game will blossom into fascinating and complex puzzle-solving, which is fine by us. What's more, the formations that are present are all well-animated and personable. Tokobots, though not Servbots by any means (note: please play Capcom's excellent Misadventures of Tron Bonne on the PS1 for another example of a game where "friendship" and "robot slavery" are interchangeable terms), are cute and lovable – there's something about the unflinching loyalty of a child-sized automaton that is really endearing somehow. It helps that the controls work really well. It takes a little while to get used to them;–after setting the tokobots in formation, you may have to push the right trigger to get them to hold hands before you can actually perform the move you have planned. Once you get used to this though, the game feels just fine, the hand-holding a purposeful choice in the creation of a feeling of friendship.
There's a lot more to be charmed by in Tokobot than just the tokobots themselves, however. Monster designs are also quite cuddly, and since they're all robots, there isn't a lick of disturbing violence to be found. The level we played, which took place in a ruined building of a mechanically-advanced race, ran with this visual style as well. Outdoor environments were prosaic and emphasized greens and blues, while the darker indoor environments focused on the joys of exploration and puzzle solving. The graphics, though not particularly detailed, look great, nailing a simple anime style that is well-suited for a game with this theme. Menus have some delightful hand-drawn artwork too – we really enjoyed looking at this game.
Sound effects were mostly appropriate, but the music kind of pushed the cute childish atmosphere nearly to breaking. It's loaded with whistling and strange background noises, yet is the kind of song that can stick in your head and annoy you all day. So, in a way, it's catchy.
With none of the text translated, it's difficult for us to decode some of the finer points of Tokobot. In particular, there are several different collectibles in the game, and while some of them had clear purposes (healing, or increasing the length of your health bar), others just filled some arcane object counters. Judging by the number of empty menus in our version, these collectibles probably represent different forms of tradable currency or building materials used for creating new and better equipment. Or perhaps they are tokobot food. In any case, expect a fair amount of item collection in this game.
There was still a little bit of roughness in our preview build – the pathfinding AI of the tokobots themselves wasn't great, and they tended to get stuck in some places, forcing us to use a teleport move to summon them back. The teleport works well enough, but better pathfinding in the final version would make for much less searching for Tokobots. Occasionally, some puzzle-solving moves wouldn't work as expected either, but this is likely just an issue with the early version of the code.
These problems aside, it looks like Tecmo has the makings of a real winner in Tokobot. Its cuteness and relatively low violence level should charm children and be acceptable to their parents. The long-term gamer should also find a lot to like. This game does seem to pull a lot of inspiration from the underappreciated Mega Man Legends series on the PS1, but with the door forever closed on that franchise, even fans of those games should be pleased with Tokobot – and its nods to those games feel more like homage and less like theft anyway.
Even if you're not a child or a fan of that forgotten franchise, Tokobot deserves an eye. Its unique robot-formation gameplay and endearing visual style mean that, unless you're terribly cute-averse, Tokobot should provide an interesting spin to the platformer genre, and on a handheld that is not known for interesting spins. At the very least, there's nothing else quite like it currently out there, and with a current MSRP of $29.99, the price is certainly right. To a PSP audience currently clamoring for original gaming content, those two things alone constitute a strong recipe for success.