Okay, so maybe it’s not that dramatic, but given a little time, you’d be surprised how engaging this game can actually be. Sure, you’re only taking care of a park, but there’s a lot more to do here than is immediately obvious. Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol is a strategy game that puts you in charge of everything from planting and caring for flowers to constructing attractions for park visitors (quite different from his debut on the GameCube). And while it might sound lame, there’s plenty of challenge and a fair bit of addiction to be had in this low-profile title.
Chibi-Robo is one versatile robot—he’s outfitted with artificial intelligence and other extremely human characteristics—and he’s perfect for cleaning up the park. His main objective, with the help of his sadly HQ-tethered companion, Chet, will be to fill the park with flowers using only two tools: his stereo and his squirter (makes sense, right?). Switching on the stereo brings up a record player on the touch screen, which you must spin with your stylus at the correct tempo to produce a stable song clip and a solid dance routine from Chibi. If successful (and it’s harder than it sounds), all of the white flowers in close proximity will spit out seeds, which then immediately germinate into sprouts. Simply bust out the squirter and water these sprouts and you instantly have a new flower. Once you plant enough flowers in a certain region, that area will turn from brown soil to beautiful green grass, signifying that it is saturated with foliage.
Each new sprout you grow also produces happiness, which is awarded to Chibi in the form of Happy Points. Once back at your nearby HQ, these Happy Points are converted—with the help of Chet—into Watts. These Watts are then used to recharge Chibi-Robo’s battery. You see, one drawback to the sophisticated circuitry at work in Chibi is that he consumes a lot of power; your rechargeable battery is something you will have to constantly keep an eye on to ensure that you’ll be able to make it back to HQ in time. Everything you do, from walking to dancing, consumes a steady amount of energy and thus drains your battery—so a large part of the game’s strategy is in planning your routes around your battery power. You’ll also have to hurry to beat the sun; at the end of each day, you’re forced to retreat to headquarters, where your progress is summarized and rewarded.
The Watts derived from those Happy Points also serve another purpose: they can be used to purchase new items from the Chibi PC at headquarters. More items become available to you as your flower count increases… everything from higher-capacity batteries to park upgrades and attractions. At first, there isn’t much of anything to purchase. In fact, the game sort of starts out slow; at the beginning, you’re given a quick tutorial about how to grow flowers, and then you’re left to your own intuition to improve the park enough to reach the next milestone, which is when things start to pick up a bit. Once you meet up with a new friend in the nearby town, though, you’ll be able to perform repairs on the park, and that’s when things really open up. Before long, you’ll have a small army of friends willing to perform park-related work for you (at a price), and your Chibi-PC will fill up with new tools, batteries, park attractions and games, and even vehicles!
The Carbon Monoxide Blues
All’s well and good, then, until the evil Smogglor interferes. Smogglor is Park Patrol’s supervillain, and there is nothing he hates more than a clean, healthy park. As such, his first contribution will be to rain pollution down upon your hard work. This pollution comes in the form of Smoglings, little black balls that run around the park and, through some bizarre quasi-sexual dancing routine, transform your beautiful flowers into hideous black things. Come nightfall, a black flower withers and dies, thereby reducing your overall flower count and making Smoglings your first priority when present. Using your squirter, you can explode them into sprout-producing liquid, which is a relief, but catching them can sometimes be tricky. Thankfully, there is only a limited number of Smoglings each day (sometimes none), and you’re warned before going out by the Chibi-PC and provided with a Smogling forecast to help you anticipate what to expect.
As you progress further, the threats become more pronounced—but you’ll also have more opportunities for expansion at your disposal. Park Patrol does a good job of keeping you interested through good old carrot-and-stick incentives. Chet continuously (and unfortunately, rather verbosely) reminds you of your next target number of flowers before more upgrades arrive from Citrusoft, and since you’re never far off, you’ll find yourself giving it “just one more day” to see if you can meet your target before putting the game down. The designers also took an Animal Crossing-style approach to rewarding exploration and experimentation; all manner of random treasures, from new cartridges (which give you more options to buy) to other interesting items, litter the park’s soil, waiting to be dug up or found. Actually, the game has a distinctly Animal Crossing feel to it anyway (minus the social interaction, of course)—everything from the characters’ goofy humor to the music is remarkably reminiscent.
There are plenty of other ways to earn Happy Points, as well. Perhaps the most common is playing with the park attractions you’ve purchased and installed. These attractions actually take the form of touch screen mini-games when you interact with them (such as Whack-a-Mole, for instance), and many of them are quite entertaining. Another way is to clip healthy flowers and take them to the local flower shop in the nearby town; the owner there will pay top dollar for the color he’s currently in need of, as well as the elusive rainbow flowers!
Perhaps it’s of no surprise to you if you spent a good bit of time with the original Chibi-Robo, but Park Patrol is an extremely deep game. Near the beginning, your sole concern is to grow more flowers, but as you advance, more and more complexity is layered onto the formula to produce a truly nonlinear experience. There are endless subtleties to Park Patrol’s recipe that are hugely satisfying once mastered—stuff like growing differently-colored flowers on different grades of terrain, disposing of the Smoglings in ways that result in special rewards, and finding new, creative ways to minimize the limitations imposed upon you by your battery life. Eventually, you will be pondering what to spend your hard-earned Watts on, whether or not you should build that bridge over the stream or not, whether it’s worth a trip to the town today…
Among the large number items are cartridges that do everything from allowing better control over your vehicles to slowing down time. Very specific accomplishments are awarded in an Xbox-360-achievement-like fashion with the presentation of stickers. And various random events also occur to help spice up the experience—for instance, you run across an old bike lying in your park, or your computer breaks (it was probably running Norton). You’ll even fight a boss now and then—how’s that for variety?
At first, you’re counting every flower you grow. But before long, you’ll be counting by tens (450, 460…), and you will become so skilled at the basics of caring for your park that it will seem to be second-nature. If you’re looking for a game that you can come back to time and time again, Park Patrol won’t disappoint you.
A Little Rusty
For the most part, Park Patrol is an impressive package. However, there are a few annoyances that detract from the experience. For one thing, the game sometimes moves at an unfortunately slow pace—the various characters, most notably Chet, tend to ramble on and on, and there is no way to skip any of this dialogue or even speed up the text. That makes every trip to HQ especially tedious, since suffering through the same dialogue over and over quickly becomes tiresome. The touch-screen controls also sometimes feel tacked-on and obstructive, particularly when trying to pilot some of the vehicles. One final gameplay-related caveat is the camera; it isn’t uncommon to become irritated with having to continuously tap the button to center the camera behind Chibi-Robo, especially when chasing down Smoglings.
It’s also worth mentioning that the game is exceedingly Japanese in style, so if that’s not your sort of thing, you might want to take that into consideration as well. The characters are all super-cutesy, cartoony little things, too, so if that bothers you, take note. Musically, there really isn’t much here, though some of the tracks do appeal in that Animal Crossing sort of way.
If you’re willing to invest a bit of time and you aren’t worried about the sugary-sweet chibi presentation style, Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol is a uniquely great game. It packs enough challenge and depth to keep even the most discerning gamers busy, and it probably deserves more attention than it will get. If you’re in the mood for something a little different and you like open-ended strategy games, give it a shot.