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SummaryI've always wanted to help toys find true love with a rotor sticking out of my head
The GoodCreated by Skip, a company founded by Kenichi Nishi of Love-de-Lic fame, Chibi-Robo is the spiritual offspring of Moon, a very weird adventure game masquerading as an RPG and poking fun at established gameplay dogmas with its hippie-like "gain love, not levels" attitude. The core concept of that game was basically doing good stuff for eccentric people and growing in an RPG-like fashion as a result, gaining access to later quests.
Chibi-Robo is very similar to that game. It is also essentially an adventure game with "happy points" replacing the "love level" of Moon, with funny people speaking gibberish, and with the general idea of helping them in various ways and completing the game through main and secondary tasks that generate money and the equivalent of "health".
The concept was genius indeed, and it's no wonder Moon was blessed by descendants (Giftpia, Chulip and Endnesia belong to those as well). Chibi-Robo, however, is different from all those in that instead of a human protagonist it puts you in the role of a small robot whose primary function is to clean the apartment.
Already that gives you an idea of how wacky and unorthodox this game is. Or, you'll just shrug your shoulders and wonder what can be so cool about mopping floors. Strangely, I warmed up even to that mundane task (which I loathe in real life) - Chibi-Robo is so charismatic and inventive that it makes throwing paper into a wastebasket a fairly fulfilling experience. But of course the game has much, much more, and its cleaning premise is just a part of the general philosophy: you are a tiny robot who has to make people happy - be it by scrubbing off dog paw stains from the carpet, solving household problems of a somewhat normal human family, or helping various toys populating the house.
That's right, this game has sentient, human-like toys - a concept I've loved ever since Gianni Rodari's marvelous Blue Arrow and enjoyed so much in Toy Story movies. Of course, they are quirky in a particular Japanese way rather than touching - but as a whole, there is much emotionality in the way the game unfolds through its quests, with toy characters having their own personal problems, falling in love, etc. There is quite a lot of odd humor and even slightly dark touches, but the characterization in the game is actually surprisingly deep and coherent. Whether you help the human masters with their marital issues, take sides in a military conflict between belligerent eggs and a fearsome real dog, or decide how to deal with a teddy bear's split personality resulting from unhealthy addiction to flower nectar - you'll be interested in most quests and situations this game has to offer.
Although Chibi-Robo is primarily an adventure game, it has light action elements (mild platforming and equally mild, sporadic combat) as well as a certain RPG angle, just like its conceptual predecessors. There are tasks you have to complete in order to advance in the game, but much of the gameplay is dedicated to pure exploration, item collection, and even "grinding" activities (generating money and "happy points" that increase your rank). Before you get irritated by the necessity to wash stuff in order to get stronger and wealthier, think how annoying regular fighting can get in "real" RPGs. After all, it's not even about the activity itself - it's about working and getting rewarded for that.
In any case the gameplay of Chibi-Robo goes way beyond that. The game's world is, in fact, quite large: yes, it's just one house, but you are a very small robot indeed. Climbing the stairs to the second floor, for example, is a gargantuan task you can accomplish only through a complex process involving hunting for scrap metal and buying a certain accessory - and even then it requires some positional thinking and a bit of platforming. You'll have to perform certain actions to unlock the entire house, but eventually you'll be able to roam it freely, and the game opens up quite a bit and becomes surprisingly and delightfully non-linear.
The good news are that Chibi-Robo offers quite a lot of optional content. You'll quickly get addicted even to its simplest activities, because you'll be too curious about upgrading yourself and getting cool items. For example, in the beginning you have a small battery you'll need to constantly recharge, which severely limits your mobility. Get enough happy points and money and you'll attain a higher rank, and with it larger batteries. You start the game unarmed, but later you'll get a blaster, which opens up more aggressive possibilities. There are various costumes to try out, some of which have very specific uses. There is a shop that sells all sorts of items that will make your life easier, and you'll want to get them even if it means wiping more stains with a toothbrush.
But the game is not just about collection: its brilliance is in tying together basic gameplay elements with a fairly complicated quest system that creates an illusion of a living world. There is a day and night cycle, character schedules, and careful scripting, all of which contribute to the feeling that everything is connected. Solving the problems of the eccentric characters opens up new locations and new gameplay possibilities, and thanks to that the game keeps a constant flow. The main plot is also surprisingly strong, with twists and alike, and it is generally clear that the authors put much effort into quest design and pacing. Some of its aspects reminded me of titles such as Majora's Mask. In fact, Chibi-Robo has a definite "Nintendo vibe", more so that its relatives: it is more imaginative in setting, more unusual, more colorful, and somehow feels more polished.
The BadThere are a few things I didn't enjoy in Chibi-Robo. Firstly, it shares some of its problems with other "Moon-like" games: it is not overly difficult, but it can get frustrating - and this is not the "good frustration" of a challenging puzzle or battle, but the "bad frustration" of artificial gameplay limitations that seem to be there just to annoy you. The real-time flow of the game can become quite a nuisance once you realize you'll often need to be in the exact place at the exact time to accomplish many tasks. The problem is that the cycles are ridiculously short. You'll soon be able to buy "timers" that extend the duration of the day to fifteen minutes. That's not nearly enough to make a tour around the house, let alone preoccupy yourself with more than one task. And believe me, you'll want to multi-task, since there is so much to do and see! Yet every time the advent of the night will send you back to your tiny house, and you'll have to retrace your steps to wherever you were last - or the sunrise will prevent toys from appearing, for humans rule this world during daylight.
Specific to this game is the necessity to charge your battery, which is positively maddening in the beginning. Thankfully, steady battery upgrades become available as the game advances. When you start, however, you'll have to endure way too many pointless trips to the nearest power outlet. Figuring out what to do is not always obvious in this game - and it shouldn't be. But you get too much stress from having to worry about running out of power while also trying to think and find out the solution to a puzzle. Worse, this needless feature restricts exploration without any good reason. It just makes you run back and forth, wasting precious time, and starting a cycle anew simply because you were too busy staying charged. To be fair, such limitations here are by far less aggravating than in Endnesia, but I still didn't love them.
A smaller complaint goes to the strange platforming design: the little robot cannot jump. Chibi-Robo is, in fact, the most action-oriented of all Moon heirs, and I felt it really had the potential of delivering good platforming. However, while the concept itself (platforming inside a gigantic house) is fantastic, the lack of jumping makes the actual activity less than fulfilling. Even jumping over small gaps requires activating your built-in helicopter: it is fun to use, but normal jumping would have enhanced the game greatly, contributing to its interactivity and feeling of control over the protagonist.