How can you go wrong with giant robots? You can perch on their shoulder and get punched into orbit when one of your ham-handed attacks fails to connect, that’s how. That might not sound like your typical giant robot game, but Robot Alchemic Drive was unique back in 2002. Today, there’s still nothing quite like it, which is why it’s crying out for a remake.
The premise of this PlayStation 2 game is pretty interesting, to the point where I’d have loved to see more games set in the same universe, giant robots or not. It’s revealed that space is filled with something known as “Nectar Radiance,” a substance that poisons all organic life. Yes, there is radiation in space, but Robot Alchemic Drive takes that premise and runs with it.
Any manned space missions result in the deaths of the crew, so mankind is unable to leave Earth. The game doesn’t really delve into the state of the planet, but it means that the populace can forget about ditching Earth. There’s no heading off into space to ruin some other planet; this is the only one they get.
The game begins with giant, kaiju-style aliens turning up, which is where you come in. For some reason, your 17-year-old protagonist is not only the chairman of an Earth Defense Force-style organization, but they’re the only ones who can pilot Earth’s giant defense robots. As you do.
What sets Robot Alchemic Drive apart from MechWarrior, Armored Core, and the like is that you’re controlling the robot from outside. There’s no strapping yourself into a cockpit; your vantage point is either on the robot’s shoulder or somewhere else on the battlefield.
There’s no camera feed, so you only ever see through your character’s eyes. So, as you’re brawling away with your remote-control robot, the absolute best you’ll have is a Street Fighter II-style side-on view of the two. But then the fight moves, or you do, and you’re left struggling to catch up.
That might sound like a terrible, terrible game, and if you crave precision from your giant robot games, R.A.D.’s take could, understandably, be a turnoff. But when you get to grips with it, it’s an entertaining albeit slightly janky joy.
For a start, unlike so many mech games, it delivers a real sense of scale. As much as I enjoy the MechWarrior and Armored Core series, it often feels as if you’re battling away in a scale model of a city. By putting you on the ground (or on top of skyscrapers, your choice), R.A.D. absolutely sells the sense that you’re watching these behemoths brawl. It’s not unlike City Shrouded in Shadow, in fact, but with less staring at Ultraman’s taint.
Then there are the decisions it forces you to make, when it comes to picking your vantage point. You can control your giant robot or your human character, but never both at the same time. Yes, you can jetpack onto your robot’s shoulder, but the moment they’re floored, you’ll be tumbling ground-ward. The closer you are to the fight, the easier it is to make your punches land, but the more danger you’re in.
You’ll initially find yourself fumbling with the controls, particularly if you opt for the tougher “normal” mode control scheme, but that’s half the fun. You’ll get to grips with the game, but things are always going to get a bit silly. It doesn’t quite hit QWOP levels of absurdity, but if you’ve ever watched Robot Wars, you’ll have a feeling for the kind of chaos that can ensue. And it deserves to be reactivated for a modern audience.
Remaking Robot Alchemic Drive isn’t an impossibility, either. I’m not sure who the rights currently rest with, but publisher Enix merged with Square Enix and developer Sandlot, the company that made the Earth Defense Force games, is also very much around today. The original game, sadly, has never been released as a PlayStation Classic and goes for silly prices on eBay.
I never dabbled in the game’s two-player versus mode, but the prospect of playing it online makes me grin. Do you take on your enemy robot to robot, or do you go hunting for their controller? Just imagine smugly pummeling another player only to lose when the skyscraper you were sitting on crumbles beneath you.
Yes, a remake could tweak its slightly wonky tank controls, but it’d be just as much fun to leave them alone. I can picture half of YouTube embracing the lunacy of giant mechs just flailing around, like a gin-addled version of Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots.
Robot Alchemic Drive won’t figure into any Evo tournaments, but it wouldn’t have to. Nor does it have to rock next-gen graphics — just look at the success of the Earth Defense Force series. But this robot-on-monster brawler is too entertaining and too ridiculous to remain forgotten.