Reviewed: December 12, 2006
Released: October 17, 2006
When critiquing anything, be it a book, a painting, or a video game, the two worst words to use are “interesting” and “different”. They’re the worst because they’re noncommittal words – they take up space without really saying anything. After all, a train wreck is interesting and different, but that doesn’t really convey an accurate representation of a train wreck, does it? Nevertheless, when I sat down to play Tokobot Plus: Mysteries of the Karakuri, those were the words that kept tumbling through my brain like a couple of caged squirrels.
In this case, “interesting” and “different” are good things. Imagine “Indiana Jones” meets “Pokemon” with a smidgen of “Final Fantasy” on the side. Toss in some adorably cute robots and some brain-tickling puzzles and you’ve got something that looks like Tokobot Plus.
Like all good treasure hunts, the story of Tokobot Plus begins in the distant past when the Karakuri, an Atlantis-like culture, dominated land, sea and air with radically advanced technologies. But, like Atlantis, this great society was destroyed in a single night by forces unknown. Now, thousands of years later, explorers called Treasure Masters brave the ruins of the Karakuri trying to unlock the secrets of their amazing devices and learn what caused their downfall.
You are Bolt, an apprentice Treasure Master who has a considerable leg up on his colleagues at the laboratory thanks to his Tokobots: tiny white and orange robots with teardrop-shaped heads and little windup turnkeys on their backs that make them look like little toys. At some point before the game begins Bolt discovered these devices in some ruins, and now they follow his every command. Deft and savvy use of the Tokobots is the key to uncovering the secrets of the distant past and surviving to tell the tale.
Individually the Tokobots don’t do much. In fact, they frequently fall off cliffs or elevators and are respawned somewhere nearby. But when used together they function like a giant Swiss Army knife/multi-tool capable of performing all sorts of neat tricks. With the push of a button you can change their formation from a single file line to a side-by-side setup, or you can have them form a protective circle around you. Using the R1 button you “joint” the ‘bots together and, depending on their formation, can use them in various ways to explore the ruins.
You can turn them into a ladder for reaching higher ground, or a bridge for crossing dangerous gaps, or a whip swing for leaping across wide areas. You can also use them offensively by jointing them into a giant club, or turn them into a helicopter whirlwind to clear a room of foes. You can even turn them into a glider! Eventually you’ll acquire the Overdrive ability, which causes the cute little droids to go into Voltron mode and combine into giant vehicles, weapons, and even tools, just in time for the enemies to get nastier and the puzzles more puzzling.
All of this is explained in a generous tutorial, something you’ll want to pay attention to. Mastering every use of the Tokobots is essential to completing the game, which involves exploring the colorful ruins of the Karakuri, dodging traps, defeating a menagerie of automaton guards and, most of all, solving puzzles. Along the way you collect artifacts (mainly by smashing open lots of jars and boxes) which can be redeemed for upgrades like health bonuses and new Tokobot abilities. Defeating bosses, which appear frequently – 16 in all – will gain you new Overdrive abilities through the acquisition of rare “Super Chips”.
The gameplay is a blast, with lots of fun, surprisingly challenging tasks and some nice variety to the action, ensuring you never get bored. The plot, which is a schlocky ham-fest straight out of Scooby Doo, is nonetheless fast-paced and enjoyable. You’ll match wits with rival Treasure Masters with big, bad, evil plans and do battle several times with Taji, Bolt’s self-appointed arch-enemy, who wields Karakuri machinery like a pro. Who is he and why is he spoiling for a fight? And most important of all, where did the Tokobots come from, and what do they have to do with the destruction of the Karakuri?
It’s all explained in the end, but it’s the Tokobots who steal the show, taking new and more elaborate forms as the game progresses and the challenge mounts. The cornerstone of the game is solving puzzles, which range from simple observational brain teasers like figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B, to pattern-based puzzles that require you to complete an image, fill a gap, or follow a cryptic diagram. Some are obvious but many of them are quite clever and will certainly elicit a head scratch or two. The fact that you are often completing these puzzles while fighting makes it all the more entertaining and a few are even timed, making your search for a solution downright frantic.
The variety found in the gameplay is the key to the fun. Just when you’ve gotten tired of smashing pots and solving puzzles a boss will appear and Bolt will have to swing into action. A victory will usually unlock something new and neat, like a different form for the Tokobots to take. Once you’ve unlocked the Overdrive abilities the puzzles and the fighting will kick into high gear and you’ll find yourself downright captivated.
Best of all, the puzzles become harder and more complex as you advance; and the bosses, who are pushovers at first, turn mean and hard. The steady elevation of challenges keeps you on your toes and gives you a sense of genuine accomplishment when you overcome the dearth of obstacles and actually solve the mystery.
Tokobots Plus looks terrific, but it does suffer from some mechanics issues, visually speaking. The manga-inspired art is excellent, especially the inventive character design. Even the pre-rendered animations (when characters talk) and the cool, cartoon-y cut scenes are fun to watch. The colors are vivid and the visual effects are never better than when the Tokobots are in action, transforming into a giant floating Samurai or a huge tank, or just scurrying here and there in predictably adorable fashion. It’s all very kid-friendly, not just in its appearance but also in the fast, kinetic action that would hold the attention of even the most restless 10 year-old.
Unfortunately there are some camera issues. Yeah, THAT again. You’re given free camera control, but you’ll find yourself wrestling with the right analog stick to try to actually see what’s going on. Walls, rocks, bridges and enemies all seem to befuddle the camera, making it swing to an awkward stop at the worst possible times. In open environments or big rooms there is a frequent problem with depth perception. Standing over a gap, for example, it’s hard to tell just how far away the edge is, and you’ll have to plunge to death or serious injury several times before you find your mark. This is where the frequent Tokobots-falling-off-cliffs occurs.
Small rooms are also a problem because they make the camera stutter and freeze, reducing your view from 360 degrees to 90 degrees or less. This is troublesome since a large number of secrets and bonus areas are concealed above or behind your usual line of sight, and boss battles usually occur in cramped spaces. I found myself wishing the designers had made the levels more open, concentrating on fewer, bigger areas that would really show off the environments rather than bog the poor Tokobots down with lots of halls and corridors.
The sound compliments the look and feel of Tokobots Plus perfectly. You’d expect lots of cartoon sound effects and that’s exactly what you get. Again, the Tokobots shine – they don’t talk, but they make all kinds of endearing squeaks and trills, and each new power you unlock in accompanied by a new effect.
Everything else takes a back seat to effects. You’ll explore the ruins in near-silence, with real music only kicking in when something noteworthy happens, like when a puzzle is solved or when the persistent Taji appears. The theme music is zingy…I just wish there was more of it.
Oh, and if you enjoy ridiculously enthusiastic voice actors who say their lines like they’re in a puppet show, you won’t be disappointed. Like other anime-type games, these characters are very perky and very loud. It suits the over-the-top nature of the game…but you might want to turn the volume down a bit.
The first run through of Tokobots Plus is great fun, camera problems aside. Gamers of all ages will find a wide variety of challenges from platforming to boss fights and especially the puzzles. A two-player mode is lacking, but secret and hidden items abound and offer good incentive to explore the ruins thoroughly. If something doesn’t look quite right, it’s usually worth it to check it out. In other words, there’s lots to do.
And there is some replay factor. Each ruin you clear will unlock a Time Attack mode for that level, allowing you to play through again while attempting to beat the clock on different challenges. This is harder than it sounds if you haven’t mastered the Tokobots – I thought I had, until I tried to race through this mode and found myself left in the dust. But this mode will lead to more bonuses, more upgrades, and more Tokobots kicking butt, so it’s worth it.
The only problem with a game that so depends on puzzle solving is that the puzzles stay solved. If you have a halfway decent memory you’ll be able to make a bee line to every solution on your second run and the levels, which aren’t terribly long to begin with, will melt away in no time at all. The Time Attack mode definitely helps, but once you’ve found the path through the ruins everything becomes pretty obvious. At least there are plenty of ruins to explore and loads of treasure to find, but a game like this is only so long and there is a certain “what now?” factor upon completion.
I love puzzles, and I really like “Tokobot Plus” because it puts a new spin on the old formula of the treasure hunt game. After the introduction and tutorial I was worried that the gameplay would be too simplistic, but I found myself more challenged than I ever thought I’d be. My fears that this was a “kid’s game” was also unfounded.
The fun, inventive style of play is downright addictive and the variety is excellent – just enough combat to keep things exciting and enough puzzles to flex your IQ without slowing you down. If this is Tecmo’s idea of “interesting” and “different”, they’re on to something.