Final Fantasy's feathery mascot has played poster-chick to some of Square Enix's most unlikely genre excursions. From Mario Kart style driving in Chocobo Racing, Rogue-like dungeoneering with Chocobo's Mysterious Dungeon through to the Monopoly-style board game Chocobo De Dice there seems no limit to the situations and styles Square-Enix is able to crowbar the yellow chicken into.
United by a cutesy storybook style, the games in this chibi sub-brand have often been dismissed by critics and consumers alike as little more than pretty but shallow childish fancies. But thanks to the company's seemingly endless ability (and pockets) to deliver rock-solid graphical and technical experiences and its insatiable curiosity to try its hand at other types of games from time to time, these videogames are more interesting than many gamers give them credit for.
So it is with Choboco Tales, a delightfully presented, technically robust, competent patchwork quilt of play styles that will likely put many off with its innocent looks. But don't let the bold colours and squat, koochy Chocobos fool you; this is a diverse game with surprising depth and excellent writing that will appeal to open-minded players of all ages.
Ostensibly a card battling game, in practice you don't go anywhere near an actual card battle for the first couple of hours of play. Set in and around a farm populated by Chocobos of all shapes, sizes and colours and ranched by other Final Fantasy human archetypes, the story is suitably sentimentally pastoral. One day, during the Chocobo's story time (when the birds listen to Chocobo-themed versions of popular fairy tales) disaster strikes. The evil Darkmaster Bebuzzu manages to trap all of the other Chocobos within the pages of fairytale books before scattering them all across the countryside. It's then your job, as the last remaining (and most normally proportioned and pigmented) Chocobo to explore the world, finding the books, playing through the mini-games inside and rescue and release your friends one by one.
The game is played exclusively with the stylus, which is used to lead your Chocobo through the colourful and robust 3D environments. When you come across a book one tap sends you inside to read the story (presented in a pop-up book graphical style) and play the associated mini-game. The mini-games are derivative and bring to mind Nintendo's own Mario Party series in both terms of size and feel. That said they are also very well executed and fun and each one's Aesop's Fable-with-Final Fantasy characters theme helps make the formula fresh. One game has you drawing trampolines to catapult your Chocobo up to the top of a vine in a race (Jack and the Beanstalk) - something we played in the DS version of Mario 64 - while another has you racing up a mountain whilst avoiding rocks (The Tortoise and the Hare).
Each mini-game can usually be played in one of two ways: battle mode, which pits you against various other AI controlled dark Chocobos, as well as a trial mode, which is played against a certain score or the clock. In each book you're given seven different challenges and passing each will complete the 'world'. These range from beating the Battle Mode at each of its five-difficulty levels to bespoke tasks related to the mechanic (e.g. make it up the mountaing in less than 30 seconds). Completeing each task either unlocks one of your trapped buddies, unblocks a new pathway out in the field or adds a new card to your deck.
Initially the card-battling core of the game is understated - hidden behind the more inviting and accessible mini-games. Indeed, you'll need to complete a fair few books before you start to build even a rudimentary deck of cards and it's not until this point that the game first shows is biggest gameplay hand.
Reading about card game mechanics in text is fiercely dull but here's a rudimentary run down for those who care. At the beginning of a card battle (or 'Pop Up Duel') three cards are randomly pulled from your deck (initially a deck is formed of eight cards which you've chosen from all those you've found so far). You select which card from your hand to play and use the stylus to slide it up to the top screen, where it faces off against the card your opponent has selected.
Each card has four areas (left, right, top and bottom) and in one or more of these areas either a sword or a shield is displayed. The card attacking first matches its sword symbol against the same area in the opponent's card. If the other card has a shield in that area the attack is blocked, if they have a sword symbol in that area the damage is halved and, if that area is blank, then the attack hits at full strength. The opponent then takes his turn, after which both cards are discarded, a new card drawn from the deck into the hand, and the process repeated. The first player to drain his opponent's health bar wins.
Complexity is added to this simple mechanic (which, let's face it is only a couple of evolutionary notches up from Scissor, Paper, Stone) with special moves (utilised by collecting the coloured crystals left by used cards) and themed-status modifiers such as Haste, Burn, Poison and Numb. In practice, this is all a lot simpler than it sounds written down and you'll quickly slip into the gentle rhythm of play - which keenly juxtaposes the over-complexity of recent competitor SNK vs. Capcom Card Fighters.
In truth the card mechanic is one of the weaker game elements but each battle is over quickly and building a finely-balanced deck is good fun and an ongoing challenge. Indeed, the game manages to spur the player through by keeping up a steady flow of small rewards and the excitement at unlocking a new card never dulls.
Chocobo Tales is a simple videogame built from a slew of diverse but relentlessly derivative building blocks. Somehow despite this, either through attention to detail or very stringent mini-game tuning, it manages to be extremely compelling balancing inviting shallows for youngsters with challenging depths for older players. Perhaps it's because this game's far away from the stress of their high-profile, mainstream line-up of multi-million yen titles, but this sometimes po-faced developer is here shown happily relaxed and at ease for once and the game shines for it.