The Super Famicom’s rather plainly titled Kidou Keisatsu Patlabor game, um, Kidou Keisatsu Patlabor (from the same development team later responsible for the Saturn’s Gundam Side Story trilogy) defies neat description. Much like the source material it’s a game filled with enormous mechs more than capable of punching each other to bits yet fighting isn’t always the answer, a game where the dark plot thread stringing the game’s twenty-one missions together might be briefly set aside for the sake of a runaway bride or a scenario where panicked racehorses run about on the grass near your Ingram‘s feet. It’s not an RPG, or an adventure, or anything other than a Patlabor game.
Each mission begins with a short briefing on the current situation followed by the (skippable) visual spectacle of getting your choice of either Noa Izumi’s or Isao Ota’s bipedal machine ready and loaded onto a trailer before SV2’s pilot’s are brought on to the latest map and the job begins proper. Considering the size of the cart (it’s a 12Mb title which isn’t tiny but relatively speaking it’s on the smaller side, especially for such an image-heavy game) and the relatively small geographical area covered by Patlabor’s story there’s a good variety of environments in here, spanning urban, industrial, residential and rural areas. Better still those cute family homes all come with tiny gardens hemmed in by their own boundary walls and lush forests will occasionally obscure your overhead point of view with their dense foliage, each new place packed with an enjoyable amount of visual furniture to take in as you stomp by. It’s worth noting that these are spaces are continuous areas built as large open battlefields with few winding paths to slow you down or dead ends to grumble away your time in… with one exception, mission fourteen. Sounds like we’ve found a problem, doesn’t it? Well, no, not really. While I can’t say this slightly maze-like cave with its (scripted) collapsing ceilings, limited field of view, and sudden chasms was an event I’m eager to go back to getting lost in the dark was very much the point – and really not all that bad in practise. It came across more as a well-intended attempt to do something different than a sudden return to the bad old days of map design.
Inevitably you will come across someone on these maps who’s drunk, angry, frustrated, or even out for your blood and need to fight them via menu-based combat, initiated whenever your MVS gauge in the top-right corner of the screen is full. Attacks are split into two distinct categories – power moves (these are more straightforward punches, kicks, and later on two-handed slams) and technical moves (by and large anything requiring an accessory, such as shoving your police baton straight through the other labor’s armour). Rather than giving your pair of Ingrams immediate access to every action Patlabor instead keeps track of which attacks you use and then increases your proficiency in one of four relevant areas – STR, CLE, JUD, MOB (also known as strength, technical (“clever“), judgement, and mobility) – until you’ve accrued enough points to automatically unlock the next new skill (I should mention here that while each mech has its own stats the attacks they gain access to are identical). The game is constantly adding to these values and checking its internal command list, and that means the instant you cross whatever stat threshold the next move needs then that attack becomes available, even if it involves firing a fully loaded giant shotgun you definitely didn’t have on you a few seconds earlier. A limited selection of combos are also unlocked in the same way as everything else, although these are predetermined sequences selected from the battle menu rather than something you chain together yourself. As disappointing as that may sound they do have an interesting quirk – mid-chain failure. If one attack in a combo misses then the remainder of the combo is aborted so there’s a definite element of risk to using them, especially as they only really out-damage your more powerful single moves if all three/four hits connect. To help prevent mindless spamming of powerful moves is the battery meter, located in the top-left of the screen. This drains naturally over time even when standing still but strong attacks deplete it far more quickly, which creates an interesting tension between the desire to finish fights as soon as possible for your health bar’s sake and the need to be able to move around and actually complete the task at hand. If you can make it back to the trailer you can recharge your battery as often as you like, however there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to reach it in time, or that you won’t be attacked while you’re there.
You may have already started wondering about the obvious flaw in this pseudo-levelling system: if you can only get stronger by using attacks and there are two different characters to pick between (almost) every mission then surely even without battery worries using a powerful move would be a bad thing because you’re getting fewer swings per enemy – not to mention that the pilot you’re not using isn’t getting anything at all.
I’m happy to say Patlabor spotted this and has a fantastic solution – between-mission sparring matches. Any time you’re on the general Tokyo map (you can also save at this point too if you’d like), you can initiate as many friendly battles as your patience can tolerate, using them to boost the controlled Ingram’s stats to a level you’re happy with (best of all, you still gain points even if you lose). As someone who switched between Izumi and Ota every assignment (and therefore never excelling with either) I found a single match was enough to make all but the final string of fights a reasonable challenge, and even those closing scuffles weren’t impossible.
The one battle option I didn’t mention above is “Communicate”, allowing you to talk to, rather than lariat into submission, whoever you’re within touching distance of. The importance of this command varies from mission to mission but its presence serves as a constant reminder that the correct solution to whatever problem you’re facing isn’t always to hit whoever’s nearby just because you’re sitting inside a huge lump of metal and armed with a revolver the size of a house – especially as you’ll sometimes find friendly (or at least harmless) units roaming the map. In fact the second incident requires you to talk your way out of trouble; partly because any form of combat is going to trigger a fatal explosion, partly because the only reason this person’s rioting at all is due to extreme financial mistreatment from their boss rather than carefully planned malice. Even though Izumi and Ota both have their own dialogue for absolutely everything there’s no right or wrong pilot for any operation, just a written recognition that they handle things very differently. As if to underline just how important conversation is in Patlabor attempting to talk to anyone never drains the MVS gauge, so even if reaching out is the wrong thing to do you’re never punished for trying to de-escalate the situation or explore options beyond hitting stuff.
So two stages in and Patlabor’s already doing things differently, and I’m happy to say it never stops. The map/menu framework may be restrictive, but it’s always clear a lot of effort has been made to push these limitations as far as humanly possible. This is why SV2 are sometimes sent out to catch pigs (pigs!), investigate “ghost” labors, and at one point even run in to a dinosaur (although anyone hoping this might lead to an exciting labor-vs-saurian battle will find themselves sorely disappointed), the rules apparently made only to be broken. In fact the final few missions throw the whole briefing>mission structure out the window entirely, delivering a climactic flurry of bridge-based combat using both police officers and leading to one of two different endings, depending on who you began this extended surprise event with.
We’ve established Patlabor’s solid foundation but it’s the fine details that really make a licensed game sing – and this games has them in spades. Watch your Ingram’s tiny support vehicle constantly follow you around the map: it doesn’t do anything but every fan knows it should be there, so it is. After two labors have come to blows the loser will get pushed back slightly on the map from the force of the attack, potentially shoving them into a building which will then change to reflect the damage caused as well as giving you (or them) the space to perhaps get away. Defensive dodges and blocks don’t have single success/fail images but several thrillingly kinetic poses, all the better to accurately mimic the incoming attack they’re trying to avoid and shaking under the force of the impact. All of this visual detail isn’t just for fun either, as Patlabor keeps track of exactly which body parts are getting hit – split into head, arms, and legs – and uses this information to add a little more depth to the combat. Take too much damage to a specific area and the diagram in the top-center of the battle screen will start flashing yellow, keep taking hits there – or over-using that part yourself – and it’ll turn red, rendering all moves related to that limb unusable for the rest of the mission. Leg damage prevents you from kicking or tripping up your opponent, and if you guard a lot your Ingram’s left arm will weaken from the blows even if your blocks are successful, until certain moves, such as the left-armed elbow drop, become unselectable. This physical degradation’s not enough of an issue to become a problem (or if I’m honest, a serious tactical consideration either), but efforts were made to encourage you to mix things up, or at least worry that you may have to.
Patlabor’s not without its flaws: the battles are ultimately quite samey, the enemy AI can only honestly be described as simplistic, and in spite of the ever-increasing number of damage/attack types at your disposal there are no particular weak points for you to exploit or any enemy behaviours you need to anticipate. Even so it’s always clear a sincere attempt was made to create the best possible game within the allocated time and budget; demonstrated in the way the chip damage you take while blocking may be a safer alternative to the all-or-nothing of an attempted dodge, how long range fire can soften up a tough foe before they have the chance to get anywhere near you, the little exchanges between the cast that can only leave you smiling. The game’s belief that everything will be OK so long as it keeps trying to be as Patlabor as possible makes it not only an honest reflection of the source material but also a rare licensed release capable of entertaining complete newcomers as easily as it does dedicated fans, the original’s oddball charms and genre subversions as much fun to experience here as they are anywhere else.