There's a weird meta-irony at work in Custom Robo Arena: a young boy wanders his town, goes to school and eats with his family, spending every free moment playing with his Custom Robo game; you, as a gamer, wander your town, go to school, eat with your family (hopefully), and spend every free moment playing your DS. In an odd way, you can relate to your tiny single-minded friend. It's also a game that's much more fun and charming than you'd expect, regardless of your predisposition towards handheld battling robots.
After being thrown into your first Robo battle from the menu screen without introduction or instructions, things thankfully calm down a bit. As a new boy who just moved to a new town, you're given your first Custom Robo, the Ray Mk II, as a birthday present from your father (who just happens to work at the local Robo research center, along with your sister). Turns out everyone in town, from classmates to teachers to cops to criminals are Robo nuts. There's sure to be a message in here somewhere about our obsession and reliance on technology, but these people are even more addicted than we are. After joining one of your school's Robo teams and quickly proving yourself a talent, almost everyone you meet will want to take you on.
Thankfully, the matches themselves are short and sweet. They take place in portable "Holosseums" that you "dive" into to control your Robo with mental energy. Touch-screen controls would have been awkward in such fast-paced, 3D fights, so they've thankfully stuck to the directional pad, face buttons and triggers for combat; touch screen controls are used only for menu navigation and, er, cleaning your robot's dirty bits in between bouts. The arenas are small and littered with low walls and obstacles, though they vary a bit depending on who's battling.
As soon as battles kick off, it's up to you to empty all the ammo you can into your fleet-footed opponent, while avoiding their attacks however you can. Depending on the weapons involved, it can be a bit of a cat-and-mouse game of ducking behind walls, or an all-out brawl of shooting, lobbing grenades and good ol' fashioned bludgeoning. After being knocked down you're given a few seconds of invulnerability to stand up without harassment, but your enemies have this luxury too so you can't be cheap. The battles are pretty easy for the first few hours, but once the difficulty ramps up you'll actually have to start customizing your Robo with different weapons, legs, etc. depending on what your foe is wielding.
Parts are purchased with money won from matches, though their power hierarchy is a bit odd considering the type of game it is. In most RPGs you'll find bigger and better weapons and items as you progress and fight harder enemies. In Custom Robo Arena most of the new parts you'll acquire have similar stats, just with different focuses (attack, homing, etc.), so it's really more about which work in conjunction with each other than simply outfitting the best ones you have. This works fine in proper mech sims like Chromehounds, but it would have been nice to have had a more progressively rewarding structure since the game has the otherwise slow narrative progression of an RPG.
If you need a break from walking, talking and fighting, you can pose your Robo against different background dioramas that can be purchased. It's a purely visual thing though, something that will likely only be appreciated by those with more Custom Robos than real friends. The actual buying and customizing process is a mostly painless experience; you can can test out new parts before you buy them, but annoyingly can't compare their stats side-by-side against what you currently have equipped.
After you've had your first few battles and been introduced to the rest of the cast, you'll settle into a fairly regular schedule of waking up, eating breakfast with your creepily cheery family, going to class, battling various challengers after school, and heading home for a creepily pleasant dinner. The plot eventually gets a little out there, as most Japanese RPGs do, but it's well-translated and has a legitimately clever sense of humor at times. You can generally get a reminder of what you're supposed to be doing from talking to enough people, but if you forget to sit in your assigned chair when you arrive at school, for example, class will never begin and you won't be able to progress until you figure out what you're doing wrong. There are a few odd hang ups like that, so make sure to pay attention (unlike us) when you're being told where to go next.
Multiplayer is a seemingly robust package – single cart, multi cart and full-fledged online Wi-Fi play are available – but there’s little to do besides trade dioramas and fight each other over, and over, and over. Customizing your Robo still comes into play and things can get nice and tense between two skilled players, but most of the time one person simply has the more appropriate Robo for the battle. We’re glad the connection methods are numerous, but the game could have definitely used a few more multiplayer modes to mix it up.
The colorful visuals are about what you would expect from the DS graphically (good 2D, varying 3D), and everything sounds fine outside of the monotonous soundtrack. Custom Robo Arena is a game that could have easily been force-fed to us with unnecessary microphone or touch screen functions, so we've very happy that it sticks to tried-and-true control methods. It's a good bet for anyone looking for some casual, small-scale robot battlin' action - the story and setting are silly fun for all ages, and the actual fighting is exciting and satisfying in the small chunks it's delivered in.