Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Looking back: Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon

One of the true hidden gems of the Wii’s RPG library is Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo’s Dungeon.

Perhaps people were put off by the cutesy visuals (that mask a pleasantly challenging game). Perhaps they were put off by the Final Fantasy association (that isn’t really in the game at all). For whatever reason, Chocobo’s Dungeon was a very low-key release on a console that didn’t have many RPG hits to begin with.

A pity, that, because this game is a superb take on the Mystery Dungeon formula. For those who haven’t played one of these before, a Mystery Dungeon game is a series of randomly-generated dungeon “floors,” each slightly more difficult than the last. They have all the usual RPG dungeon tropes – there’s monsters to kill, traps to deal with, and treasure to be looted – but it’s all random, so each time you enter the dungeon, it’s a different experience.

The downside to that randomness is usually that the levels themselves are bland and boring and occasionally frustrating. Developers can’t introduce interesting level design when they can’t be sure how the level will play out, so rooms are empty of furniture. Likewise, difficulty spikes can be cruel if the randomness throws too many nasty traps and enemies in the wrong order.

Chocobo’s Dungeon circumvents both problems, though. It’s easy to forgive how bland the dungeon designs themselves are when Chocobo himself is so charming. He’s quickly growing into a character force in his own right in Japan, so compete with the likes of Slimes, Sonic and Mario, and for good reason. The little yellow fellow marches around the dungeons are tonnes of personality, and every one of his actions, from physically attacking the enemy (a kick), to assaulting the enemy magically by sitting down and reading a book, is both humorous and happy.

There's also quite a bit of variety to be found in the jobs system. Chocobo can gain access to a wide range of traditional Final Fantasy job roles by donning a variety of different caps. Knight will strengthen his melee attacks, for instance. Black Mage gives him access to some nasty spells. Each of those jobs levels up separately to access more and more powerful abilities, and picking the right hat for the job is one of the joys in this game; experimentation is always good fun.

This personality is accompanied by a happy little story, and a central “hub” down where there is all kinds of fun little diversions to play around with. The main one is an arcade that features a few silly little minigames, as well as a collectible card game (occasionally enemies in the dungeons drop one of the 150 or so cards there are to collect) that can be played either against the AI or online via WiFi and friend codes.

But outside of the arcade, there’s fishing and flower growing to be done (both accompanied by hilarious little Chocobo animations), and some interactive elements that have no in-game effect other than to illicit a laugh. Square Enix have also done a really good job in building a bright, cheery world that is somewhat small in scope, but big on character. The only let down is the voice acting, which is terrible, but I suspect the over-exaggerated Disney style of delivery will appeal to the kids.

In terms of addressing the difficulty, Square Enix has dropped it a few notches from other examples of the genre, but not completely ignored the necessity for a challenge. Dungeons tend to be organised in 10 floor lots. At the end of every tenth floor, you unlock the ability to teleport directly there if you should cut short your exploration (either by teleporting out yourself or being knocked out). That cuts down on the need to trudge through the too-easy levels to get to the interesting stuff.

Other Mystery Dungeon games have hefty punishments for being knocked out. Some will even go as far as to send you back to the start of the game, at level 1, with no equipment. Chocobo Dungeon is far more gentle. You’ll still lose all your gear (aside from the stuff you have equipped), but the experience levels remain intact. This does mean that for people that are struggling with some of the bosses, which can get challenging, that grinding up a few levels is an option.

That said, it still sucks when being knocked out means you lose some very valuable equipment that you were just about to take into a boss battle. Chocobo Dungeon might be fair overall, but it can still be brutal on people who don’t exercise a healthy dose of caution. The game is turn based (Chocobo takes a turn, either stepping one ‘square’ in any direction, or making an attack/ casting a spell/ etc, and then everyone else takes a turn) to give people that room to think out dangerous situations like a gigantic chess board.

One other element that adds a degree of extra challenge is the hunger level. Chocobo needs to eat (Gysahl Greens, naturally) to keep a little percentage at the top right of the screen as close to 100 per cent as possible. That counter ticks down as he moves around and takes actions. Should it hit zero, then the poor, starving Chocobo starts to lose hit points with every step. This is a common trait to most Mystery Dungeon games, but here again Square Enix have gone for a gentler route, and there’s usually enough Greens lying around the dungeon to stay on the healthy side of things.

The end game boss can be a bit brutal, but for the most part Chocobo Dungeon is a rare thing: a friendly Mystery Dungeon game that is still challenging enough to be fun. And, on a console so starved for quality RPGs

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