Remembrance of things past.
First and foremost, do NOT be misled by Chocobo’s Dungeon’s candy-colored, seemingly ‘kiddie’ presentation—the disarmingly-gentle box artwork, the adorable main characters. The realm of Memoria is a looooong way from Kansas, Dorothy, and this cackling wicked-witch of a game is out to kick your ass, my pretty—and your little bird’s, too.
Recipe for Chocobo’s Dungeon:
1) Take a challenging, old-school randomized dungeon-crawl;
2) Lather it liberally with Crème de la Final Fantasy;
3) Sprinkle it with numerous neat little details, side-quests, and extras;
4) Infuse the thing with Cute until you just start to gag, then back it off a bit;
5) Make sure you have Phil from Marketing on retainer, to do the voice-work;
6) Punch yourself in the face as hard as you can a few times, to make sure you can handle a potentially-punishing experience;
7) Finally—just before you sit down to the write the actual story and dialogue—read a two-paragraph synopsis on the Dianetics concept of ‘engrams’, relive some fond memories of Psychonauts… and take some LSD. Voila! Chowtime!
Chocobo’s Dungeon tells the tale of an ambitious young treasure-hunter named Cid and his chocobo—one of those bird-like sidekick thingies shot from the Final Fantasy canon. Cid and his faithful chocobo—here imaginatively named ‘Chocobo’—begin the game literally spit up into the long-lost realm of ‘Memoria’, and specifically, the creepily-quaint (and equally subtly-named) township of ‘Lostime’. It’s a strange place where Lostime’s inhabitants continually lose their (presumably painful) memories every time the Bell of Oblivion clangs ominously from the town’s clock tower.
After a meteor-that-turns-out-to-be-an-egg comes screaming out from the sky, landing near the three-toed feet of our feathered protagonist, a green-haired infant named Raffaello pops out of the egg. Turns out this burn-in baby from above is somehow able to make navigable dungeons of the townfolk’s missing memories—and Chocobo is, further, somehow able to plunge into these mindscape-dungeons, muck around in them for a bit and come out the other side with people’s precious lost knowledge. He can even end up a few items, character-levels, and ‘Gil’ (gold-pieces) richer in the process.
[To be read in the voice of Stan Marsh]: Wow.
Follow-up to a predecessor game that’s close to a decade old by now, Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon is a vulture in jumbo-chicken’s clothing. It’s one of those wickedly-challenging games known as ‘roguelikes’, which traditionally means:
A) The dungeons are generated randomly each game;
B) The monsters populating said dungeons all get to move precisely each time you do (usually gravitating toward your position);
C) The nature of items you may find in said dungeons is often a mystery until you ‘evaluate’ them later (safely outside the dungeon)—or use them immediately, in desperation… and hope that they’re not cursed or something; and,
D) Dying even once in any dungeon instantly sends you back to the beginning, stripping you of all leveling, items and experience, right back to Square One. Chocobo’s Dungeon alleviates some of the difficulty by allowing your demised chocobo to at least hang onto the items he had equipped, as well as job levels.
No true ‘roguelike’ game—no matter how many cute, mostly non-threatening Final Fantasy-style tropes you swaddle it in—is easy, or forgiving, or even particularly ‘fair’. Such games are—by their very nature—the video gaming world’s own vicious little bastards. There you are, within sight of the exit of the final level of the final dungeon… and then you step on an unseen floor-trap, a mere two grid-moves away from escape, finishing you instantly. Brannigan, begin again.
Once you accept the fact that roguelikes can occasionally be the dispensers of cruel, blind, randomized Fate, Chocobo’s Dungeon is a much deeper, more fleshed-out experience than its ostensibly-kiddie presentation might have you believe.
Every time that Bell of Oblivion tolls, you’re in for another dive into the potentially-merciless dungeon of somebody’s memories. You also have a decision to make: Should you ‘bank’ some of your favorite, accumulated items in storage, against the possibility of losing them—or should you arm yourself to the, um, beak, knowing you’ll need every available weapon at your disposal? No sense mindlessly hoarding the good stuff if you’re never going to use it, right?
Chocobo’s Dungeon players will spend their time crawling through randomized dungeons, exploring the town, improving weapons and armor at the local blacksmith, dabbling in other side-activities, and leveling up their chocobo’s various possible Jobs. These Jobs are akin to those of the role-swapping system from FF Tactics; Chocobo can make himself a Knight, a Mage, or one of eight other Jobs suitable to the current situation at any point.
Among the side-activities fleshing out the game are mini-distractions such as fishing, the video games Bat Shooter and Kick Darts, and speaking ‘Romantic Phrases’ to a delusional support-character moogle (who dresses like a superhero, and ends every utterance with the word ‘kupo’). For the most part, the mini-games are cute but pretty weak, with no real staying power.
The exception, and best of the distractions, is the Pop-Up Duel collectible-card game (returning from Chocobo Tales). It’s luck-intensive to be sure, but compellingly playable solo or via Nintendo Wi-Fi, though it’s all too easy to lose a few hours to this thing alone, as you start to build up your card decks. And then after a three hour side-trip, you suddenly snap back to yourself and think, “Oh, yeah—wasn’t I supposed to be, like, helping some townspeople, or something…?”
One genius aspect of Chocobo’s Dungeon that nobody talks about—and it’s both a surprise and a shame that they don’t (in a total geek-nerd kind of way)—is simply this: Thanks to the single-Wiimote control option, Chocobo’s Dungeon can be played entirely with one hand—which leaves at least one other hand free at all times for You-Know-What. That’s right: Doritos, popcorn, Oreos, Mint Milanos, Mountain Dew, cheeseburgers, Ramune, beer, sushi rolls, you name it. 10 out of freakin’ 10 for gamer-nerd ergonomics, right there, baby. (What? What were you thinking of?)
As with the best of all seemingly ‘kid-friendly’ material, there are some latent hard lessons to be learned here—some of those unforeseeable, last-minute dungeon ass-kickings can be really frustrating. Also, there’s a fair amount of (presumably) unintentionally-creepy, verging-on-Scientology narrative musing about the nature and value of painful memories. Um, Square, look—can’t we just walk our Final Fantasy cartoon-chicken-thing around, and whack stuff in dungeons?
Also, there’s the wooden, hokie-fied English cut-scene voice-acting. Even for an earnest, kid-friendly game of this type, it’s just… well, it’s just ghastly (and there’s no Japanese-audio option to let you dodge it, either).
Despite its odd market-targeting schism of charm versus difficulty, Chocobo’s Dungeon is a good addition to the Wii lineup. It’s sketched, voiced and painted for innocent little cherubs, and yet seemingly designed by little cackling, puppy-kidnapping demons. Still, it’s a good gaming deal overall… at least, if you haven’t recently pissed off the forces of Random Chaos too much, kupo!