Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon
For the avid Final Fantasy heads out there, Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon will polarise opinions in a major way. Some will enjoy the spotlight shifting on one of the series’ perennial favourites; others will despise the idea of focusing an entire game on Big Bird’s Japanese cousin. For the uninitiated, the game’s appeal will vary massively depending on how you feel about a) cutesy videogame characters, b) anyone who talks entirely in bleepy-noises, and c) the action-hero qualities of Orville the Duck.
No matter which camp you fall into, Chocobo’s Dungeon bases itself around an interesting premise. The game takes place in the town of Lostime, which is very fortuitously named considering the problems it’s occupants are having. Every time the bell in the clock tower tolls, everyone within earshot loses a chunk of their memory. In order to piece together the mystery of Lostime, it’s down to YOU (or, more accurately, Chocobo) to track down the townsfolk’s misplaced memories. Luckily, through a typically baffling piece of plot convolution, our eponymous hero gains the ability to warp into people’s heads to track down their missing remembrances. And it turns out the inside of people’s heads look something like a generic RPG dungeon. Who knew?
Essentially what we have here is a relatively basic, stripped down version of Final Fantasy. In theory, you would imagine this has been done as an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, people who’ve never played an RPG or even necessarily know what one is. Unfortunately there is one fatal flaw in this plan; for the uninitiated, Chocobo’s Dungeon is, in places, too difficult. Don’t get me wrong; Square Enix veterans are not likely to find anything here that they can’t handle. But for those unfamiliar with the more esoteric aspects of JRPGs, there is bound to be some confusion along the way.
Whilst I wouldn’t consider myself to be anything approaching a Square Enix expert, I’ve played through enough FF and Dragon Quest games to feel instantly at home playing this. And the shift to a less complex style of gameplay has pros and cons. In the plus column, the game largely does away with the need to “just click on everything” while exploring the environment, which is a common factor amongst many RPGs. However, for more serious fans of the genre, this comes at the expense of some fairly major limitations.
Combat is one of the most simplified elements, as even once you start levelling-up there are a fairly low number of attacks available. The main gripe here is that you don’t have a party of characters to mix things up, just the Chocobo. If our canary-coloured protagonist had been given three times as many moves this wouldn’t be an issue, but this is not the case. This is nullified slightly by the different jobs you can take on and switch between at the start of any dungeon, all with their own skills to unlock. Unfortunately the different jobs seem majorly unbalanced, and you’re likely to find yourself just picking one and sticking with it. This comes down to the fact that the difficulty occasionally spikes inexplicably, meaning even if you want to switch to a job you haven’t tried yet you’re likely to fail as it’s not been levelled-up enough. Aside from using offensive magic, the variation in Chocobo’s physical attacks are somewhat limited by the design of the character. Chocobo has no arms. This means that to all intents and purposes, every bodily move our feathered friend possesses boils down to one thing; if in doubt, kick ‘em in the face. Much like Sunderland on a Friday night.
Also hamstrung by oversimplification are the arenas in which any combat takes place. The dungeon maps themselves are all randomly generated so you’ll never see the same one twice, an accepted genre standard. But regardless of this, the same repetitive backdrops level after level will make it feel like you’ve been wandering around the same place over and over again. It may seem superficial, but this lack of polish does hinder the game in a number of ways.
Graphically Chocobo’s Dungeon is found somewhat wanting as well, with jagged, awkward textures and glitches galore. Even some half decent FMV fails to really catch the eye. There is one mentionable graphical oddity that is well worth looking out for, since it is unintentionally hilarious. When characters are standing around conversing their breathing is ridiculously over-accentuated, causing them to sway unsteadily on their feet. Talking to the mayor, in particular, is like watching Oliver Reed trying to walk a tightrope.
There are a few concessions made to try to give the game a bit more depth, and RPG veterans will feel happier to know they can hone armour and weapons to their hearts’ content. Numerous “special” dungeons have different effects and handicaps set, like darkness or blindness, or no ability to use items. The dungeon that reduces you (and all your enemies) to 1 HP is especially tricky, as it doesn’t matter how careful you are, if you miss your opponent you’re probably dead. These levels add some welcome variation to the tactics you need to use to succeed, which is bound to please Square Enix devotees.
There are a few little extra distractions from the main storyline, which range from fishing (which can help boost your coffers) to a couple of mini-games in the arcade (a basic “duck-hunt”-style shooter and darts game). The most rewarding of these diversions are the “Pop-Up” Duels you can choose to undertake. Throughout Chocobo’s Dungeon you can collect playing cards, through general gameplay and side missions. These can then be put together into a deck for a Top Trumps-style face-off in the arcade. While initially it seems like a bit of a waste of time, a few matches soon reveals a nice little extra, with more tactical complexity than one may expect. Pop-Up battles are also available to be played online, which is a great idea in theory, yet numerous attempts for this reviewer have so far yielded nothing but tumbleweeds.
Rarely has a game so concisely summed up one of the major problems that face the Nintendo Wii as Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon. Put simply, it’s too complex for “casuals”, too simple for the “hardcore”. Not that this necessarily makes it bad; more a game of two halves.
All the FF hallmarks are there, from the character design to the music score, and these factors are again quite divisive. Using the same cutesy, big-eyed caricatures as always; is this just in keeping with house-style, or is it evidence of a lazy design department, happy to churn out the same old thing time and again? Is reusing musical material from previous games just an idle time-and-money saving cheat, or is it a way to give FF fans that warm glow of nostalgia? Should we consider these elements as “classic” or derivative? The truth lies somewhere in between the two. But Chocobo’s Dungeon seems happy being middle of the road, which translates to a middling outcome.