Chibi Harvest Sim-Garden Robo Moon
Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol is one of the most surprising games I've played all year. It begins inauspiciously with a new brand of Chibi-Robo (a four-inch metallic robot, identical in appearance to the original GameCube Chibi-Robo) that specializes in garden care. Citrusoft, Chibi-Robo's manufacturer and one of the only big corporations in a video game that isn't diabolical, has decided to send this environmentally friendly Chibi-Robo to every park in the world to combat a recent pollution crisis, brought on by a villain named Miasmo, who lives in Exhaustia. The park that you must clean up is in particularly dire condition, covered in sand and weeds and almost completely devoid of flowers.
The setup seems pretty familiar for anyone who has played the original Chibi-Robo. At the outset, it even feels as if the game is trying to sell itself as a scaled down reproduction of the GameCube original, as Chibi gains the very important Happy Points by adding more flowers to his run-down park. He accomplishes this by dancing in front of white flowers to produce more seeds, and then watering those seeds with a tiny water squirter (aside from movement, every Chibi action is controlled by a well-integrated touch screen interface). Chibi is no longer ranked by how many Happy Points he has collected, but instead by how many flowers he has grown.
The game has a day-night cycle that Chibi must follow, going home every night after working hard in the garden. This new Chibi has a battery (which may raise the eyebrows of fans), and it can be refilled by turning Happy Points into Watts. An interesting addition to the Chibi-Robo gameplay is that any energy Chibi uses comes out of his reserves, and it is possible to use up all of his reserve energy. The player must find sustainable practices that keep Chibi's usage of energy balanced with his production of energy. The same balancing act occurs with flowers: Chibi has the option of clipping flowers from his garden and taking them to a nearby flower shop, gaining massive amounts of Happy Points. You must balance your destruction of flowers with your creation of new ones, since the game's progression is monitored by the amount of flowers you have in your park.
After several game days, Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol may not have revealed itself to the player. Since the environmentally minded gameplay is a tad more complex than the original GameCube game, it is possible to think that the first few days of play are all Park Patrol has to offer. Yet the game is deceptively hiding an even more complex feature that really gives its gameplay legs. The multi-faceted "Park Programs" function gives you an almost SimCity-like control over the development of your park. From benches, lampposts, drinking fountains, and playground equipment, to trees, hills, flower beds, and rocks, many items can be added, all of which will affect your park in some way. (A new statistic becomes apparent too, and that is the number of people visiting your park each day. This is nothing more than an algorithm related to how many flowers and attractions you have, but it adds to your Happy Point income.) And the game does not give you access to each function immediately: everything costs Watts, and some special items will not become unlocked unless you plant more flowers, meet the right people, or dig them up in your garden.
Up until this point it is possible that Chibi has not ventured to the far ends of his park, due to his limited battery; once you gain access to vehicles (a bike, a car, and some surprises too) you will find that his acreage is impressive, making your God-like control over the park even more enticing. There is also a town filled with supporting characters that need your help, and once you provide your services to them, they will become your workers in the garden, provided you can pay them with Watts. These helpers will work hard for you on two projects each before running out of juice and going back to town, where they need to be recharged by Chibi's trusty plug. To add to this, some days evil smoglings visit your park and attempt to destroy your flowers; it takes a whole morning to rid the park of these baddies, leaving you little time to plant more flowers, visit town, hire laborers, learn more dance moves, and make everyone happy.
The best part of Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol is that, at first, there is simply too much to do and understand. Juggling the many responsibilities of the park is tough work, and the game keeps you fighting for more Watts to keep up with the demands of environmentalism. Unfortunately, in the last few hours of this twenty to twenty-five hour game, Chibi ends up with a surplus of Watts and nothing left to unlock. His job on the grounds becomes simply menial, when before it was exciting to achieve even a little bit of progress each day. This is not unlike the original Chibi-Robo, where the daily labor of cleaning became more of a chore towards the end of the adventure.
Chibi-Robo: Park Patrol is a surprising game because of its unique objectives. The original GameCube Chibi-Robo had a Metroid-style progression, gaining new items and abilities to unlock new rooms and adventures. The giant house Chibi lived in emphasized his diminutive nature with several areas of vertical platforming action. The DS iteration, however, has no rooms to unlock and very few items. It plays more like Harvest Moon meets Sim-City, with some classic Chibi-Robo action as its bedrock. Retained is the excellent sound design and musical items that make Chibi's world uniquely vibrant (the character design and emotional attachment this time around are secondary and much lesser components). Chibi is still small, and this gives his giant park plenty of wonder, resembling at times a desert, a forest, or a giant rapid river. And though the game tries its hardest to nail down an environmentalist message at the end, Park Patrol is successful at imparting the premises of conservation through its delayed gratification progression and well-managed simulation gameplay.
Most surprising of all? This magnificent game, cream of the DS crop, is only available at Wal-Mart. If not for this sad lack of faith, I would expect Chibi-Robo to become one of Nintendo's brightest new mascots, transitioning between genres and systems while retaining a core gameplay structure. Nintendo of America may have doomed the poor guy; at the very least, American gamers know where to find this gem of happiness, even if it is at one of the gloomiest places on Earth.