Review: Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon (Nintendo Wii)

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon
Genre: Dungeon Crawler
Developer: h.a.n.d. Inc.
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: 07/08/08

Generally speaking, the Roguelike Fushigi no Dungeon genre is a limited appeal thing. When done properly, it provides an experience that balances risk (usually, death) with reward (usually, not death) in such a way that those who are willing to commit the time to learning the fundamentals of the experience will find themselves engrossed in the game even in the most frustrating of circumstances, as even in these cases, death is often avoidable. When done improperly, it just inspires cursing and throwing of playing implements. So it’s hard to look at the genre and say “we need to find a way to make this product accessible to younger or less skilled gamers” without becoming confused, though if Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is any indication, it’s certainly a workable idea.

So it might be somewhat surprising to know that Squaresoft did the exact same thing a little over half a decade earlier.

Back in 1997, Squaresoft released a title known as Chocobo no Fushigi Dungeon, a title that basically took the Chocobo character and stuck him into Mystery Dungeon settings. The game was apparently rather popular, as it’s spawned a handful of sequels in Japan, one of which made it stateside as Chocobo’s Dungeon 2 (which most likely confused everyone who was asking “Where’s Chocobo’s Dungeon 1?”), which bears more than a little resemblance to the more recent DS successes that are the PMD games. Chocobo’s Dungeon 2 was also something of an “entry level” Roguelike, in that death does not reset your level (but does cost you your gear and cash on hand), you’re given a partner to assist you instead of going it alone, and the general difficulty is based more on your level and damage output than significant planning and strategy (though those elements certainly got their uses). It was a fun and enjoyable experience, by and large, and after nearly a decade without one in the US, the company now known as Square Enix has decided to provide us with another try at it with what will be known for the purposes of this review as Chocobo’s Dungeon (because I’m not typing out all of the above stuff).

Chocobo’s Dungeon is not the same game as its predecessor; it features many of the same gameplay elements, but changes many more. It features many of the same CHARACTERS, but changes up their roles in the experience a bit. It features similar gameplay, but not a similar experience. As a result of all of this, it essentially focuses itself upon appealing to the Final Fantasy crowd (which it does) whilst seeking to attract the Fushigi Dungeon fanbase (which it’s significantly less successful at).

The story of Chocobo’s Dungeon works something like this: you are Chocobo (as in, that’s your name), partner of Cid the treasure hunter. While searching for an object known as Timeless Power, the two of you are beaten to it by rival treasure hunters Irma and Volg, which ends badly for all parties; you end up in the Land of Memoria, or more specifically, in the town of Lostime, a town that apparently vanished somewhere around fifty years ago. All is not wine and roses in the town, of course; everyone’s acting a little bit crazy, and no one seems to be able to remember anything, thanks to the Bell of Oblivion, which makes you forget specific things (or everything you know) when it rings. A young girl from town, Shirma, saves Cid and Chocobo (but not before Cid forgets almost everything he knows) and takes them outside of town, where the bell can’t reach. After a bunch of random events, a baby with green hair hatches from an egg that fell out of the sky (no, really). His name is Raffaello, and with his help, Chocobo begins battling against the Bell of Oblivion to restore the memories of the people in Lostime… but this may not be the best course of action, as it seems there’s more going on than is originally hinted at…

Now, for those who are fans of the Final Fantasy style of storytelling, you can probably skip the next two paragraphs, as you’ll most likely enjoy the story present in Chocobo’s Dungeon. The rest of you, read on.

Okay, so, back a few weeks ago, when reviewing Alone in the Dark, the idea of good writing for a bad story was discussed. Well, Chocobo’s Dungeon represents the opposite concept: the CONCEPT of the story, as it comes to light, is actually pretty awesome, as it’s one of those stories where the GOOD thing to do isn’t always the RIGHT thing to do, but it’s written in a fashion that is, at best, passable and at worst, painful to read and watch. The dialogue ranges between being tolerable and awful with each second, and dialogue pieces like “I am the rainbow that comes after the tears” are unintentionally hilarious for all of the wrong reasons. At several points, the story almost gets to a point where you begin to hope that it’s maybe going to do something interesting (the very beginning of Chapter Five as a perfect example), but no; every plot point occurs exactly as you expect it to, no plot twists come as shocks and surprises, and the ending manages to tie up everything in an ending so happy it makes Finding Nemo look like Texas Chainsaw Massacre… and gives you about fifteen cavities, all while completely invalidating the beginning of the game, in the process. I understand that making a game that is child friendly with such a mascot is often a desirable goal, but the sort of game that this is does not entirely lend itself to attracting small children, and in any case, Bambi was for kids too and it’s still a movie an adult can watch without becoming ill.

It also bears noting that this story seems to take place in a completely different universe from Chocobo’s Dungeon 2, as Shirma, Mog and Chocobo are marginally different characters, and Cid isn’t even remotely the same person as the character in CD2. Even setting the bad storytelling and discontinuity aside, though, the major problem with Chocobo’s Dungeon is that the storytelling is so very, VERY serious… and your protagonist is an adorable little yellow chirping bird, so it’s very easy to become disconnected, especially if you’re the sort of person who pays attention and notes that

1.) Chocobo is a tiny yellow bird who is named after his entire race, chirps to talk (even though it seems like nearly everyone can understand him anyway), and is magically not affected by the Bell of Oblivion, while
2.) Volg is a large black and red bird who has an actual name, speaks English, and is entirely vulnerable to the Bell of Oblivion,

and the game doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with this. In other words: if you can turn your brain off completely, the story is merely “not very good”, but if you cannot, it becomes “not very good and confusing”.

The visuals, on the other hand, are on par with other Square works; while the actual graphical quality isn’t super fantastic, this is more than made up for by the artistic style of the graphics, which is outstanding. The character designs have that Crystal Chronicles flair to them and generally look cute enough, the dungeons and environments are stylish, enemies and bosses are consistent with the game style while still being sufficiently imposing, and of course, Chocobo is incredibly adorable. The title character is infused with more than enough visual personality to carry the visuals, and as a mascot character, he’s given the exact sort of visual attention he deserves, and the experience is better for it. The audio doesn’t quite carry its end of the bargain, though; while the in-game music is often high-quality (which isn’t surprising, as a significant amount of the tracks are redone tunes from older Final Fantasy titles), and the sound effects are generally fine and sound good, the voice acting is pretty much mediocre to bad across the board. For one, the voice acting almost never matches up with the speaking of the characters, leaving one feeling like one is watching a bad martial arts film. For another, most of the voice actors have annoying voices (Mog especially) that make listening to the dialogue painful, or have no idea how to “act” in any sense of the word (two of the four voice actors for Raffaello), leaving the dialogue flat. For a third, there’s this whole fascination with the “streaming two or three voices together to make an ethereal sounding voice” technique with the bosses, which would probably work better if the voices collectively didn’t sound bored out of their mind, which is doubly problematic with the final boss, seeing as how you’re being presented with this jerky, abnormally moving chaotic psychopath who’s basically pulling off the Sephiroth crossed with Kefka character perfectly on a visual level… and sounds like a robot through almost all of his dialogue. This, as you might expect, kind of ruins the drama of the scene.

The gameplay of Chocobo’s Dungeon is more or less identical to the typical Roguelike or Fushigi Dungeon experience, though it contains a few interesting additions that make the experience a bit more interesting than it might otherwise be. As is expected, the vast majority of the game is spent moving around in dungeons in a turn-based fashion, meaning that every time you move, everything else moves, regardless of what those moves may be. The game is static until you take an action, meaning you can carefully consider your next move as needed, which is part of the appeal of these sorts of games (strategy in knowing when to stay and when to run for the hills, and in what actions to take to prevent your own demise), and it generally works as well as it ever did in Chocobo’s Dungeon. You have three bars to monitor as you traverse the dungeon, between your Health (IE the less you have, the more likely you are to die), your ability points (which allow you to use abilities in battle, which we’ll discuss in a bit) and your Stamina (how hungry you are; when it’s above 10%, you’re fine and will heal and move as normal; when it’s at 10% or below you begin to stagger around, and when it’s at 0% you start taking damage constantly), each of which is vital to exploring and surviving in the dungeon. The game itself offers three play styles, between the Wii-Mote and the Classic Controller, and each more or less works as well as any other (though personally, the Classic Controller seems like it’s the best of the lot) for dungeon navigating and combat. Speaking of combat, it’s also a snap; press a button and Chocobo strikes whatever he’s aiming at, or go to your inventory or abilities menus and use said things as needed. In short, the game is very easy to play, though that’s not to say Chocobo’s Dungeon is an easy game… though it’s not as bad as similar Roguelikes.

As is a standard for most of these sorts of games, Chocobo is given a bag in which to hold various goodies he finds throughout his dungeon excursions, thus allowing him to load up with whatever he can find so that he may bring it back to town and sell/use it. As expected, you will find all sorts of items in your dungeon travels (or by buying them from the shop), and in the grand tradition of many Roguelikes, when these items are found in the dungeon, they are “unidentified”, meaning that you either don’t know what they do at all unless you have one or have used one on this dungeon trip (for potions and edibles) or you know what they do, but not what sort of effects they might have (for weapons/armor).This can make using unidentified items an interesting risk, especially if you find gear that’s better than what you’re wearing, as equipping it might Curse you (IE you cannot remove the item), or it might mean you attempt to use an unidentified potion to heal yourself in battle only to end up blinding or poisoning yourself instead. Leaving the dungeon instantly identifies all items in your possession, and you will often find items that identify all items in your possession, so this isn’t a big problem, and many things (treasure boxes and magic books) don’t ever show as unidentified, so this ends up being more of a beginners introduction to the idea than anything else, but it does add some interesting challenge to the experience.

Insofar as the items themselves go, Chocobo’s Dungeon gives you a wide assortment of things to play around with, from talons, saddles and collars (weapons, armor and accessories, respectively) that Chocobo can equip, to potions and greens (the former can heal or hurt you and boost your Stamina a tiny bit, while the latter boost your Stamina a lot, though some have less than desirable side-effects) to consume, to magic books (reading them casts spells) to use, to treasure boxes which contain odds and ends to use (area of effect spells, identification items, resurrection tools and so on) and so on. The various consumable items are generally one-use things and serve their purpose well, but the talons and saddles are often your best prizes, thanks to the ability to forge them in various ways. Early on in the game you’re given access to a blacksmith who can modify talons and saddles in three ways; by removing Seals from items, by combining two items (and their seals and pluses) together, and by generally strengthening the gear by honing it. Seals basically act as enchantments on gear, whether they add defense against status effects or elements, protection from theft or rust or what have you, stat boosts, or more negative effects, and by purging Seals or combining items you can build optimized gear that fits your needs. Boosting the stats of the gear is as simple as paying some cash for a plus one to the stats of the items, up to the max level of the piece; from there, you can make an attempt to give the piece one final attempt at honing, with success adding five levels to the item and failure devaluing it several levels (though you CAN try again). Thus, building the best, most awesome gear is simple enough, and combining various effects together makes things interesting, as you can build armor that’s, for instance, resistant to all sorts of status effects, or has all sorts of stat boosts on it, or whatever you feel would be appropriate, as there are a whole lot of stat boosting Seals to choose from for both types of gear. This is, as you might expect, fantastic.

Generally speaking, there are two types of dungeons in the game; regular dungeons (of which there are four) and “Dungeons of Remembrance”, which either operate under normal rules or special conditions. Early on in the game, when the savior of the town shows up, aside from giving the plot a reason to move forward, this also gives Chocobo the Brooch of Memories, which allows him to enter the memories of others (AKA dungeons) to fix things. These are called, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, “Dungeons of Remembrance”. Normal DoR dungeons work identically to regular dungeons, and most of these sorts of dungeons are the required dungeons you need to play through to complete the storyline of the game. Special condition dungeons, however, require you to leave everything behind and enter the dungeons bare, whereupon you are tasked to complete the dungeons under special circumstances (IE with specific level caps, hit point restrictions, permanent status ailments, and other fun things). These dungeons are the harder of the two types, and should provide a solid challenge to almost any experienced Roguelike fan. Normal dungeons, on the other hand, allow you access to all of your levels, items and equipment, and as it’s possible to return to these dungeons and level up, these dungeons tend to be a bit easier as a result. Also, dying doesn’t reset your character level, and while you lose most of your items and all of your money that’s on your person, you DO keep anything equipped on your person, meaning that death is, at most, moderately inconvenient, which makes this a good, solid title for those looking to get into the genre without being obliterated by your very first game.

Regardless of the dungeon type, however, you’ll be facing down against a very simple mechanic: get to the top or bottom of the dungeon while slaying monsters and avoiding traps, so that you can slay the boss (if applicable) and move forward. The enemies and dungeons won’t make this a cakewalk for you, of course; the various enemies are outfitted with their own special abilities and bonuses (some can move twice in a turn, others have nasty status afflicting spells, and some just hit very, VERY hard) and the traps can be visible or hidden and tend to be nasty in general (status ailments, map erasing, damage dealing, Stamina reducing, the whole nine yards), though some can be beneficial (they might take you to a boss fight or a shop, they might heal you or add to your stamina, whatever)… though these traps are in the minority. Chocobo isn’t defenseless, of course, but he also has the wonderful ability to change job classes in this game, allowing him abilities that can help turn the tide with ease. There are a total of ten different jobs in the game, with seven (Natural, Knight, Dragoon, White Mage, Black Mage, Scholar and Dark Knight) offered through the story missions, two (Thief and Ninja) hidden through the game, and one (Dancer) that’s unlocked with a special password that, presumably, can be found through the official website (or other places). Each of the jobs has its own interesting designs and uses, and the jobs are well-balanced, making each job useful in different ways and ensuring that no one job is the best of the lot; thus, you can pick the job that feels right for your play style and not feel you’re sacrificing anything. Do you want close-range combat? The Dancer and Knight jobs are great. Want magic damage? Try a Dark Knight or Black Mage. Want long-range? Ninja, Thief and Dragoon do that well. Whatever you want, you can find a job that will offer it, and each job offers something others might not. Each job has eight levels, with each level offering more abilities to be used (each with a variable cost), and leveling the jobs is as simple as collecting the Job Points some enemies drop when defeated. There are rewards for leveling the different jobs to maximum level, which gives you more reason to play as every job as well, if you’re so inclined.

Chocobo’s Dungeon isn’t as challenging as something like Shiren the Wanderer, for example, so if you’re more accustomed to that sort of experience, you’ll likely have less problems with this game, as the difficulty across the normal dungeons generally follows the typical “Sorting Algorithm” style one has come to expect from the RPG genre, meaning you shouldn’t expect a hideous jump in difficulty or anything, and a few hours of grinding will pretty much put you at the point where you can kill the final boss in four hits. I mean, I did. That said, for those who have no interest in grinding (or just don’t do it for whatever reason, period) should find the game to be of a reasonable challenge throughout, and even when you’re over-leveled, one mistake can still spell your demise, regardless of your equipment and inventory, so while the game isn’t as challenging as the games it’s emulating, it’s still got a kick to it.

Chocobo’s Dungeon isn’t just about the dungeon crawling either, surprisingly enough, as there’s a ton of stuff to do around Lostime outside of the dungeons. For one, there’s Pop-Up Dueling, which is basically a cross between the card game Brawl and Magic the Gathering. Each round, you pick one of three cards from your hand, each with different effects in different colors, with the objective being to do enough damage to your opponent to take them down to zero health. As you play, cards generate magic that can be used with other cards later, making deck structure important if you want to win a match. Depending on what colors have what symbols on a card, a card can block or halve damage from another card if they have an icon in the same colored space, and whoever picks their card first sees their effect go off first, which can be important in pitched battles. Pop-Up Duel is also playable online if you’re looking to challenge friends, and cards are acquired either as random drops from enemies in the dungeons or from Romantic Phrases, which are acquired for completing memory dungeons and given to Romantic Hero X (one of Mog’s many disguises in this game) in exchange for said cards… and other things. There are a few other mini-games to play around with at Mog’s House besides Pop-Up Duel, including a dart-throwing game, a bat-shooting game, and a game involving the end credits upon completing the game, which will also net you goodies for high scores. You can also go fishing, farm flowers, and generally putter around town if you like, and as Chocobo can do all sorts of silly stuff (he can use the slide, see-saw and swingset at the playground, for example), this acts as a cute diversion that can occasionally net you stuff (you can get various mysterious letters from fishing and doing some of the random things around town that net you goodies). Also, the game offers a whopping EIGHT extra dungeons for you to screw around with, as five are unlocked upon completing the game (including one that’s one hundred floors of awesome), and three others are, again, unlocked with Romantic Phrases that can be found on the internet. In other words, not only are there lots of things to do aside from dungeon crawling, there are lots of dungeons to crawl even after the story is finished, giving the game a lot of replay value for the price tag.

Having said that, Chocobo’s Dungeon has one major problem that might make it a hard sell for certain people: in its attempts to fuse the Roguelike experience with Final Fantasy, it has produced a game that will most likely please fans of Final Fantasy games, but will most likely not please Roguelike fans as much. Now, here’s the thing: at its core, Chocobo’s Dungeon is a fun, enjoyable game that’s a nice, easy romp through the dungeon crawling genre and is entirely capable of introducing new players to the experience if they’ve never played one before, which is fine on its own. But if you’re a fan of the genre, you will notice that there are certain things that may or may not sour the experience for you. For one, the game features the ability to skip cutscenes, which is nice if you’re only really interested in the gameplay… until you realize you can only skip CERTAIN cutscenes, while others MUST be viewed uninterrupted, meaning that someone who only wants to play the game (and, honestly, it’s not like Roguelikes are known for their great stories or anything, and the sorts of players who like them won’t care about that) will be stuck watching ten or twenty minute long cinematics when all they want to do is run around the dungeon. For another, the special condition based Dungeons of Remembrance are, with few exceptions, COMPLETELY USELESS unless you like Pop-Up Duel; you gain few useful items inside these dungeons, earn no experience or Job Points, clearing them all does nothing of any significant worth, and all you get from them is letters that give you cards for a game you’re not going to spend time playing. This, in and of itself, wouldn’t be a big deal, except that several of these dungeons run counter-intuitive to the Roguelike mindset: when you are trying to maneuver through a large, multi-floor dungeon with no weapons or items save what you find in the dungeon itself, while you’re permanently blind and have one hit point, the game becomes less about “skill” and more about “not wandering into the range of a monster with a ranged attack you can’t even see”. You can’t lose anything by doing these, the rewards are cards you might well never use or even want to use, and the only reason to do them is to say “I was willing to suffer through this” since really, with no risk and no reward associated to them, there’s nothing to brag about.

And while we’re on the subject, the game seems to think very highly of Pop-Up Duel, to the extent that you’re CONSTANTLY finding cards all over the place. Now, it’s fine if optional dungeons want to give me these cards; if I don’t have to complete the dungeon and the only reward is a card, then that’s up to me to do if I deem it appropriate; I can just do the dungeon to earn Ninja and ignore the rest, that’s fine. It’s also fine if random monsters want to drop cards upon defeat, as that’s not a big deal in any case. But when you’re fighting a giant boss monster with the hope of gold or Job Points upon completing it, and your big reward for killing a monster that can drain almost all of your hit points IN ONE HIT is a playing card, this is exceptionally disappointing, doubly so if

1.) you know absolutely no one who owns Chocobo’s Dungeon except you, or don’t know anyone who wants to play Pop-Up Duel more than once,
2.) you don’t have an internet connection to play against other people in the first place, or
3.) you already have other card-based games you play online and don’t like this one enough to be bothered with it,

which ends up making random huge boss fights less rewarding than they really should be. It’s one thing to offer up useless rewards for fighting low-level monsters or completing dungeons you don’t have to go into otherwise; it’s quite another to offer these up as rewards in huge fights where financial compensation or cool items would have been more useful.

And finally, while this is probably not a popular opinion, it should be said: for those who like Roguelikes first and Final Fantasy second, Chocobo’s Dungeon 2 was a better game. It featured larger and more challenging dungeons, a more interesting and believable story, and was generally a dungeon crawling game first, making it a more interesting and complex game to play (especially with two-player co-op play in the dungeons). Chocobo’s Dungeon does several neat things that are fun and interesting, certainly, and make it very good in its own right, absolutely, but pound for pound, the prior game was a stronger, more challenging experience.

In the end, though, Chocobo’s Dungeon does quite successfully manage to be what it’s trying to be, which is an entry level Final Fantasy themed Roguelike for players looking for a less challenging entry in the dungeon crawling genre. It’s artistically sound, fun and simple to play, offers about twenty hours of straight gameplay and a ton of options for players who are fans of the Final Fantasy design, and offers some neat mechanics to fool around with for those who are looking for a different take on the genre. The story is passable to painful (and you have to watch a lot of it), the voice acting is doubly so, the game doesn’t feature a lot of a challenge, and many of the mechanics and designs focus more exclusively on the Final Fantasy trappings than the dungeon crawling elements, so hardcore dungeon crawling fans or those who look for a strong story with their experience might find the negatives to outweigh the positives. That said, if you’re a fan of the Final Fantasy series, or you’re willing to overlook the flaws, Chocobo’s Dungeon is generally a fun, enjoyable dungeon crawling RPG that’s got plenty of interesting tricks up its feathered sleeves, and it’s got lots of play and replay value all in all.

The Scores:
Story: POOR
Graphics: GOOD
Control/Gameplay: CLASSIC
Replayability: GOOD
Originality: ABOVE AVERAGE
Addictiveness: GOOD
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE

Final Score: ENJOYABLE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon mostly succeeds at bridging the gap between anime-styled modern roleplaying experiences and old-school dungeon crawling grindfests, though it tends to favor the former over the latter. The presentation is solid in many respects, the gameplay retains its classic feel while implementing a few new and interesting mechanics, the game isn’t punishing in its difficulty most of the time, and it features plenty of depth and substance to entertain the more casual RPG loving crowd. The story and voice acting are generally not very good, and hardcore fans of the genre will probably dislike the focus on plot development and being rewarded with tools for a mini-game that isn’t really the selling point of the experience, as well as the fact that the core gameplay is rather easy, while the optional “harder” dungeons offer no incentive save the ability to say that you’ve completed them. That aside, the gameplay design is as good as it’s ever been, and sometimes it’s okay to just destroy everything you see; as such, Chocobo’s Dungeon generally overcomes its shortcomings and presents an experience that’s fun, in-depth, and full of content.

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