Do you remember those Choose Your Own Adventure books that used to place you – yes, you – in the heart of the action across a variety of fantastical stories? Did you hope and pray that one day ‘Labor pilot’ would be added to the list of self-insert adventures found in your local library? Then Patlabor: Game Edition is very-nearly-almost-sort-of the thing you’ve been waiting for!
Released in November 2000 for the original PlayStation, Patlabor: Game Edition has you fill the boots of a nameless and faceless freshly-trained (male) Labor pilot with absolutely no dialogue or personality of your own; which would present something of an issue in a story-heavy game like this if you weren’t partnered with Kukoku Midori, another new recruit who acts as the adorably chirpy voice of this made-for-the-game duo.
The game follows a single story told across ten chapters, with each one following a strict story>battle>story>end pattern – an attempt to recreate the feel of the TV series, perhaps. The adventure sections are straightforward visual novel-like affairs, meaning your only input is to move the text along at a speed you’re happy with: there are no decisions for you to make, objects for you to interact with, or any choice in where you go or who you speak with. The plot itself reads like a pick-n-mix of typical Patlabor scenarios with OS viruses, mysteriously malfunctioning unmanned Labors and is-he-evil-or-does-he-have-a-point foreign scientists with sharply trimmed beards making an appearance. It’s hardly uncharted territory for the series but with the original voice cast on hand it does feel suitably authentic and as these sections tend to fall on the shorter side of the plot exposition scale (probably helped in an accidental way by having to keep the game to a single CD) they tend to get to the point while still leaving a little wiggle room for the odd barefoot-Goto telephone call and other team-building scenes.
Once the chin-wagging’s over it’s finally time for you to get your hands dirty, which in Patlabor’s case means bashing the solitary Labor stood before you (there’s never more than one opponent) until its HP bar’s depleted. Whether you’re facing construction Labors or an unmanned Griffin fights always follow the same rinse-and-repeat pattern - avoid the enemy’s attack then rush in close enough to grab them before following up with your own combo; then once your attack sequence is over you have to back off and wait a second or two for your Ingram’s energy gauge to go green before starting over again from the top.
Attacks are performed simply by pressing one of the four face buttons on your pad in time to a small visual marker – succeed and you get to execute the move shown and hopefully set yourself up for another attack, miss and the enemy gets a chance to retaliate and you have a brief window to block this unplanned-for assault. Landing blows helps to fill up an on-screen gauge – the more energy stored, the longer your combos can be and the more devastating the moves you can execute. Your only other offensive option is to fire your six-shooter, but as it’s quite weak and can’t be reloaded it’s best used to open up a chance for a melee attack while they’re reeling than used as a weapon in its own right.
If I’ve made battles sound a bit shallow and disappointing up there is probably because… well… from a mechanical point of view, they really are – the objective is always the exact same thing, with no ‘‘Protect the target!’ ‘Prise open the cockpit!’ ‘Disable the Labor’s weapons!’ or any other blindingly obvious alternatives that trip off the end of my fingers to spice things up, so it’s a good thing they make up for their faults by being very, very, Patlabor.
It’s the little details that matter: the creaks your Ingram makes as it braces itself against another Labor are absolutely spot on. The satisfyingly weighty feel of movement as you stomp around the cleared-out streets of Tokyo is superb. Fights mostly involve violently slamming military Labors into the ground like some massive robo-Wolf Hawkfield. Unlike a lot of other tie-in games that try to re-jig an IP to fit a typical adventure/action/platform genre Patlabor really feels like Patlabor – even if that means making a disjointed story/action game that you have little real influence over. If you’re a fan of the series then this has enough fine detail and overall quality to make you squeak with excitement at familiar things and turn a blind eye to its shortcomings. If you’re not…
Hmm. There are better visual novels and better 3D arena battlers on PlayStation; but if you’d like to try something that mixes the two this is a polished and relatively inexpensive purchase that might spark an interest in an excellent manga/anime series.