"Steambot Chronicles" (known in Japan as "Bumpy Trot") is a hard game to classify. It's equal parts adventure, Bemani rhythm game, and mech combat. There are RPG elements but it's not a true RPG, as there are no experience points, no levelling up, and the only fighting is done atop battlemechs (known here as Trotmobiles). It's set in a version of the Industrial Revolution in which the first World War seems never to have happened. All with anime-style characters. The back of the box mentions a comparison to Miyazaki's films, and that's actually pretty accurate.
Vanilla -- that's you -- starts out by salvaging an old Trotmobile, which can be upgraded with different parts at garages, to suit your needs. The Trot controls utilize both analog sticks, much like driving a forklift... or a Katamari. Although it starts out on one of the worst RPG cliches ever (lead female finds hero, and he has amnesia), "Steambot Chronicles" quickly became one of the most unique and endearing PS2 games I've come across. I felt a real attachment to the characters, even though there's not a lot of depth to most of them. You're given the choice of how to play the main character -- nice guy, a jerk, or a money-grubbing moocher.
In fact you can pretty much play the entire game however you choose. There's a story weaved through it, with a significant plot branch about 2/3 of the way through, but most of the time you're free to wander around and do whatever you want. There are some randomly-generated dungeons to explore, and arenas for battling other Trotmobile pilots. You can dig up fossils, transport people or raw materials, or play one of several instruments in a band -- that's where the rhythm game aspect comes in. The songs (translations of the original Japanese lyrics) had a nice timeless folk quality to them, although the timing almost always felt a little off to me.
Graphics get the job done. The Trots themselves look fine, but the textures and character models aren't very detailed, and I'm sorry to say a lot of the game looks a little bland. Sometimes when you're moving through a city your Trotmobile will pass right through pedestrians and other vehicles. Same with environmental objects in the countryside. It's doesn't affect gameplay at all, but it just doesn't look good. Another problem is that sometimes when there's a lot of activity onscreen, particularly during a massive desert battle scene, the framerate drags and the game becomes very sluggish and difficult to control.
There are multiple story paths leading to different endings, and a ton of optional side quests, most of which can be gone back to after you complete the main story. Unfortunately, I found travel between all the different places just too tedious to complete most of them. In order to get from one city to another, you need to pick either an exit gate or the train station as your destination, then sit back and wait while your Trotmobile moves through the streets to get there. (You can speed it up with L1 but it can still take over a minute with the load screens.) Then, depending on where you're going, you may also have to navigate through multiple outdoor areas, all the while fighting off the exact same enemies who reappear every time you come through. This was tolerable for the story phase of the game, which isn't terribly long, but I just didn't have the patience for it during the free-roaming sandbox mode that comes after. If only there were an unlockable "instant travel" feature to skip all that, it would have encouraged additional exploration so much more.
Overall though, the game is a real treat. The world of Steambot Chronicles is one you'll want to immerse yourself in, and visit again and again. If you're one of those people who likes to thoroughly explore and find every hidden secret in their games, you will be entertained for months. This is one of those games that people will always have fond memories of. It saw a relatively low production run (typical of Atlus fringe titles) so it'll likely become highly sought-after and collectible once the PS2 fades and the next-gen fully takes over. Pick it up now while you still can.