When you set off on a treasure hunt with a giant yellow bird, you can hardly be surprised when you're transported to a legendary town that exists in a realm apart from your own. This is the predicament in which we find Cid and Chocobo at the beginning of Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon. We recently played the first few levels of the game, getting a glimpse of the mysteries surrounding the town and a taste of what it's like to dungeon-crawl with a big, adorable avian.
At the outset of the game we join Cid and Chocobo as they race across the desert toward a tall, ominous tower. Cid is searching for an artifact called Timeless Power, which he hopes to use to power his airship, and Chocobo is apparently along for the ride as his bodyguard. The interior of the tower serves as a brief learning dungeon that introduces the concepts of movement, basic combat, and use of special abilities. Whether you hold the Wii Remote either face-up or sideways, the D pad allows you to maneuver through the grid-based levels. You play as Chocobo, and with every attack you make small chirping noises that emanate from the TV and the Wii Remote speaker. This was the most irksome part of the game's pervasive and otherwise inoffensive dedication to presenting a cute, family-friendly package.
This dedication manifests itself in the gameplay as simplicity and accessibility. Your combat options in a given turn are limited to a basic attack, item use, or one of the special attacks you gain as you level up. Combat is turn-based but progresses at a brisk clip, so battling the regularly respawning enemies doesn't feel like much of a chore. The dungeons will often change shape when you enter them again, which means there's no mapping them out to avoid the many traps that are strewn about. This shifting will sometimes mean you enter a level right near the exit (a boon for those unconcerned with loading up on items or grinding experience points), and for the most part every level feels the same as the last, with a few different hallway patterns. Health boosts are available as items or as glowing circles on the dungeon floor, and enemies don't provide much of a challenge until a ways into the game.
The classic Final Fantasy job system is present here as well, and by changing your job at the beginning of a dungeon you tailor your attributes to your style of play. Players who dive into combat headfirst might prefer the robust Knight, while the White Mage and its healing power might appeal to a less gung-ho player. As you search for the citizens' memories, you'll also find job memories that unlock new jobs and abilities.
The simplified combat goes a long way toward giving Chocobo's Dungeon a very accessible, very novice feel. Later dungeons provide stiffer challenges by limiting you (and all your foes) to one health point, or by restricting your field of view so you can't see enemies until they are right on top of you. Still, the game could easily be marketed as My First Dungeon Crawler and serve as a light, yet well-featured introduction to the genre.
The town that plays host to your adventuring is called Lostime, an apt name for a place where the citizens regularly have their memories erased by the tolling of the Bell of Oblivion. The mayor espouses the benefits of forgetting past worries and heartaches, but your conversations with the townsfolk quickly reveal that not everyone is buying it. Enter Raffaello, a strange green-haired baby who falls from the sky in an egg, wears a winged diaper, and has the uncanny ability to create dungeons in people's minds. At the end of these dungeons lie the memories that the ringing bell has hidden, and by unlocking these memories one by one Chocobo begins to find out more about the history of Memoria, the region that encompasses Lostime. Early memories we unlocked hinted at a catastrophic event in the town's history, and later memories will no doubt reveal more. There's also the matter of your rival treasure hunters and fellow recurring Final Fantasy characters, Irma and Volg, who were transported to Memoria along with Cid and Chocobo.
Beyond the dungeon exploration sections there are a few other ways to occupy your time in Lostime. There are item shops and places to upgrade your weapons, as well as animals and people to chat with. The local Mog House, run by a friendly Moogle, has a number of minigames on offer to your enjoyment. These games (darts, shooting gallery, an unlockable mystery game, and Pop-Up Duel, a card battle game) are a light diversion, and you can earn new cards for Pop-Up Duel by getting high scores in the other two games. Pop-Up Duels can also be played against friends or random opponents over the Nintendo WFC. These games are really the only part of Chocobo's Dungeon where Wii Remote pointing and motion controls are required, so there's some novelty to them as a contrast to your dungeon excursions.
The world of Memoria is bright, colorful, and a great place for some light adventuring and exploratory fun. Though we only played through the early levels, there were hints of complexity and challenge that could provide more of a substantive challenge later on in the game. Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon is scheduled for a July 8 release, so look for our full review right around then.