Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: h.a.n.d. Inc.
Release Date: July 8, 2008
The roguelike subgenre has been gaining notice lately with more friendly kids' titles like Pokémon Mystery Dungeon leading the pack. It's a harsh genre at its core: The basic concept is to crawl up or down the floors of a randomly generated dungeon, finding loot and killing monsters to improve your chances of surviving to the end. Death reduces you to a blank slate and starts you over from the very beginning to try again. It's a hard concept to sell to the casual gaming crowd or even to more experienced gamers who aren't best friends with frustration.
Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon, spiritual successor to the Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon franchise and direct sequel to Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales on the DS, tries to do just that. It lures in a more casual and younger audience with its cutesy visuals and slow learning curve, but then steadily delivers the inevitable sucker punch. This is not an easy game, nor a shallow and kid-friendly one. Beneath the Square Enix-manufactured candy coating, it's a deep, engrossing grind-fest with boatloads of replayability.
First of all, Chocobo's Dungeon is not a game for people who hate RPGs. While there may not be any random battles and only a few lengthy soliloquies from the main characters, it's still a hardcore RPG in every way.
You play Chocobo, the adorable yellow ostrich-like bird that's been a staple of the Final Fantasy franchise since FF2. At the beginning of the game, you and your adventuring buddy Cid achieve your lifelong goal of finding the "timeless power," only to discover a rival treasure hunter and her steed have gotten there just ahead of you. Upon taking it, all four of you are whisked away into the sky and separated.
Chocobo is reunited with his companion in the town of Lostime in the land of Memoria, a place where the ring of a bell has the power to take all of a human's memory. As Chocobo, you're oddly exempt from this, but no one else is. After a human baby, Raffaello, falls out of the sky and starts flying into people's memories, you're tasked with chasing after him and helping recover the townsfolk's memories in typical mysterious dungeon fashion. Eventually, you must face down the town's four dungeons of fire, ice, light and dark to free the town of its haze and find out what really happened so many years ago.
The plot is as heavy-handed and cutesy as the characters, and just about as poorly rendered, which makes Chocobo's Dungeon very odd. At its heart, it's a challenging but fair game, yet it's painted up to look like a game for kids between six and 10 years old. Ten is about the earliest age of someone who could see this game past the first levels, and it's enjoyable for RPG enthusiasts of any age. The game is ideally suited to the everyday gamer who's looking for an RPG challenge without the frustration of a "pure" roguelike. Sure, there are the little details to harp on, but it's still a solid title in every imaginable aspect.
The playable portions of Chocobo's Dungeon involve finding your way through "mystery dungeons" in a turn-based fashion, just like any roguelike. Unlike the more pure examples of the roguelike genre, losing your life in a dungeon in this game doesn't mean "the end." You only have to start from the beginning of that dungeon, instead of getting sent to the beginning of the entire game. You also get to keep all of your experience and acquired job points, but lose all unequipped items and gil. Considering you can only equip three items at a time (talons, a saddle and a collar), the item loss is quite considerable. However, hardy adventurers looking to level up can wander into a dungeon with practically nothing and kill until they're killed, coming out none the worse for wear.
You can also choose to take on "challenge dungeons" to recover the memories of certain townspeople, where you go in without any items or gold and try to get to the bottom with some special condition. Circumstances can range from "all enemies and Chocobo only have 1 HP" to "every floor is a boss battle," and they can feel monstrously unfair, but because you don't bring any items with you, there's no real loss. You can try them again and again, and eventually the random generator may come up in your favor. Once you beat an especially tough one, the feeling of accomplishment is unparalleled.
The other unique feature is the job system, ripped straight from Final Fantasies 3, 5 and Tactics. Chocobo eventually has access to 10 jobs ranging from Knight to Dancer, each of which has its own skill set. Gathering job points, an item, from fallen enemies will cause the active job to level up, and you can unlock new abilities all the way up to level eight. Each job also has its own set of stat boosts or deficiencies to make your choice more strategic. You can only change your job once at the beginning of any dungeon, so the choice is tantamount to a life-long commitment.
Jobs allow players one of any number of ways to play the game. As a white mage, you can sit back, protect and cure yourself between sessions of whaling on enemies, so long as you have the SP to do so. A black mage can throw any number of attack spells at enemies from up to three panels away, or just put them to sleep and sneak around them. A thief can blind and poison his enemies from far away and then run up and mug him to get valuable items. The possibilities for strategizing are endless, but the shortness of the main story line will probably encourage players to pick one job and stick with it, becoming the best knight, thief, or scholar that he or she can be to get through the increasingly lengthy and difficult dungeons.
The main story in Chocobo's Dungeon is not really something to write home about. Sure, there are lengthy cut scenes and a huge cast of unique townsfolk who try to involve you in their plight, but Chocobo's lifeless and textless interactions with them reflected my apathy for the story. That's not to say that it was awful, but it was all rather pointless and predictable for a Final Fantasy plot. There weren't even any gorgeous pre-rendered cut scenes to keep me distracted after the opening.
The graphics and voice acting were about as dull as the plot, looking more dated than most GameCube ports. Everyone had an unhealthy looking blush on them, and their lips never once seemed to sync up with the recorded English dialogue. The cut scenes were overall a chore, but they never really detracted from the core gameplay. The graphics were quite good for a romp through random dungeons with only a handful of monsters, and the cutesy style worked out well for the limited capabilities of the graphics engine. Sure, the characters were always blushing and stilted, but they also had eyes the size of small planets, so who cares? At least none of them were as over-the-top ugly as Zelda NPCs.
The real joy of Chocobo's Dungeon is in the item management, customization, and, oddly enough, the soundtrack. The dungeons were filled with remixes of Final Fantasy classics, and any fan will keep the volume cranked up for the 50+ hours of dungeons. It's certainly better than turning off the volume and just listening to the Wii remote chirp and whistle at you with its cheap speaker.
The items and equipment of the game are where you'll spend a lot of time if you're trying to challenge yourself and get through the game without over-leveling. Every weapon you get can be honed to increase its attack by 1, up to the maximum level specified by the weapon. Certain weapons also have "seals" on them to provide advantages in attack or stat boosts, which can range from increased attack power to elemental advantages or even rust-proofing so that your weapons won't weaken when an enemy spews salt water on you. You can fuse together special weapons to put their seals on a different weapon, and eventually you'll find yourself desperately spending all of your gil to try to create the ultimate weapon and defense. It's almost as addictive as the actual dungeon running.
Besides this, though, Square Enix tried to go a bit further and throw in some Harvest Moon and card-battle aspects that didn't work as spectacularly as their tried-and-true RPG elements. You can spend some of your time in town planting seeds and cultivating flowers, which can then be used to gain extra JP in a dungeon or cast a spell. What this amounts to, though, is constantly running seeds and flowers back and forth to Stella's farm whenever you're out of a dungeon. Much like the fishing element, there's no skill involved. Whatever you pull out of the ground or the ocean is just pure luck, much like the difficulty of the dungeons. It's probably a good match for the rest of the game, but it felt rather unnecessary in a title that was already so solid.
The same goes for the "pop-up duel" card battles. This is the only part that allows online interaction, and the online connection is as crippled as ever on the Wii. The card battle system is roughly stolen from the DS Chocobo game, and it feels like it was just jammed in at the last minute so that they could claim to have online features. The battles are cheap and shallow, and victory seems almost solely determined by whoever has the better deck. Still, it adds some replayability for the avid card collectors, so it's not entirely a flaw, and they don't force you to play it if you don't want to.
Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon has a bit of difficulty finding an audience, but the title is still the practically perfect roguelike. It takes out some of the frustration that makes the genre so inaccessible without sacrificing the challenge and accomplishment that make it so fun. The Final Fantasy elements, rather than feeling tacked-on, perfectly complement the game and lead to a surprising amount of customization, which helps keep the title from getting boring. Overall, I'd recommend Chocobo's Dungeon as easily the best RPG on the Wii. Anyone who's yearning for a level-grinding festival of Final Fantasy monster-killing should pick up this title.