The steampunkiness of "Steam Detectives" cannot be denied.
Even if the title didn't give it away, this detective anime focuses on the troubles of Steam City's prepubescent detective. Unfortunately the first volume is a severely mixed bag -- the first few episodes are hopelessly silly, and the "old school" animation and ridiculous villains are a decided handicap.
In the coal-powered Steam City, the best detective around is Narutaki, a young boy with a steal-trap mind. He's always accompanied by nurse/assistant/cook Ling Ling, and his faithful Megamatron (big steam-powered robot) Goriki.
The series starts with a bizarre mystery -- robberies are being carried out by a Megamatron that seems to be able to teleport, and Narutaki must both figure out what the next target will be, and what the trick is. Then the Crimson Scorpion becomes obsessed with stealing a powerful gem from a meteorite, and the goofy Machine Baron develops a freaky crush on Goriki while trying to figure out how to defeat him (and steal a vacuum while he's at it).
The first three episodes of "Steam Detectives" are, to put it mildly, goofy. There's not much actual mystery in any of these -- a crime is committed (or will be committed) by somebody, and Narutaki and Goriki hang around waiting for the baddies to show up so they can inflict some property damage.
And the extremely retro animation style doesn't do it any favors -- everything is incredibly exaggerated, from Narutaki's daggerlike hair to Ling Ling's gigantic breasts and sleeves (which occasionally makes her look like she has five heads).
Fortunately the plot takes a sharp upturn in the last two episodes, which are filled with more mystery and tension. Ling Ling is drugged and used as a pawn by her cruel sister Lang Lang and Narutaki's archrival Le Bled. To save her, Narutaki must outwit his opponent and avoid being crushed by his Megamatron. And then he must figure out who is capturing scientists just before an important conference -- and more importantly, what the goal is.
Obviously the first few episodes of "Steam Detectives Volume 1" are kind of embarrassing -- they're very kiddy-cartoon and don't have much tension or atmosphere. The whole concept of Steam City and Megamatrons is simply brilliant, but the execution lacks quite a bit -- especially since it's hard to take such cheesy villains as Night Phantom and Crimson Scorpion seriously.
Thankfully, the last two episodes finally figure out how it ought to be -- the exaggerated animation is toned down substantially and the plots become mysterious. The fourth episode in particular is excellent -- gorgeous visuals in an abandoned museum, a sense of desperation, and a pair of villains who seem very human and realistic in their motivations.
Narutaki and Ling Ling aren't quite elevated beyond the Designated Hero and Plucky Pretty Assistant, though -- we hear little about their pasts, their motivations, or their backgrounds. But they have the potential to be truly interesting protagonists as hinted in the last couple episodes. And I have to admit, the Machine Baron is a pitifully hilarious character -- the poor sap has the hots for a machine!
"Steam Detectives Case 1" suffers from a trio of really goofy episodes, before the series suddenly blasts off. Here's hoping the hot streak lasts.