In the beginning, electronic RPGs were little more than simplistic dungeon hacks. Gamers sat before their neon-green terminals, guiding their ASCII hero through randomly generated, maze-like dungeons, collecting items, weapons, and armor as they went. The RPGs of Square, however, brought plot and narrative to the forefront, seasoning the battles and quests with emotion, character development, and epic stories. Given this reputation, it's slightly surprising that Square's own Chocobo's Dungeon 2 is little more than a simplistic dungeon hack.
Modern RPG trimmings get thrown out the window as Square returns to its RPG roots: the "explore, kill, collect" gameplay triumvirate. A series of randomly generated, multifloor dungeons await our fearless fowl, each larger and more complex than the last. Unfortunately, most floors look suspiciously the same: large, rectangular chambers connected by long, narrow passageways. Exploration takes place in pseudo real time. When Chocobo acts, the enemies act; when Chocobo stays put, the enemies freeze too. The standard claw-kick works well enough against most opponents, but a magic spell, projectile weapon, or summoned monster can give you a needed edge. Despite the variety of weapons, spells, and items, battles almost always degenerate into "attack, be attacked, attack, be attacked, heal" loops. Hidden "status squares" scattered about the dungeon floor disrupt your adventure in a variety of misanthropic manners, while scads of random (and often initially unidentifiable) items can help or hurt your party of two.
Chocobo rarely travels alone; a variety of sidekicks assist her on her quest. Whether it's an avaricious Moogle, the demure White Mage Shiroma, or the crusty mechanic Cid; someone is always by her side, hacking opponents with the best of 'em and providing rudimentary dialogue and plot. A second player can control this character, but the pseudo-real-time system makes this more counterintuitive than fun - you're constantly tripping over each other's movements. Gameplay is overly simplistic yet ineffably enjoyable; boredom from the drab and repetitive dungeon designs is mostly offset by the various items, enemies, and spells. While you can combine your inventory to create custom weapons, armor, and items, you'd often be better off leaving things uncombined.The relatively simple game design has given the creators more time to apply some of Square's trademark graphical polish. Everything in the game is rendered in a smooth, super-deformed CG style. Chocobo is super cute, the enemies are super cute, Time Guardian Bahamut is super cute - even Cid is super cute, and that's no small feat. One would expect this excessive cuteness to be cloying, but in fact it's rather endearing. It's like seeing the world of Final Fantasy through the eyes of a six-year-old: bright colors, goofy smiles, and no sharp edges. Unfortunately, nondescript dungeon walls and uninteresting spell effects undermine the cute characters, leaving gamers with a decidedly mediocre taste in their mouths. Interspersed between dungeons are short FMV clips that introduce the characters. Sound consists mostly of jazzy, upbeat tunes (usually variations on the Chocobo or Moogle themes) and Square's inexplicably 16-bit, tinny sound effects. You'll be reaching for the mute button before the end of the first dungeon.
Chocobo's Dungeon 2 seems aimed at younger players; the hyper-cute art direction, straightforward gameplay objectives, and half-dimensional plot all suggest a lower target-age group. But with Square exceeding the perceived limits of the traditional RPG in almost every other release this year, Chocobo's tried-and-true hack-'n'-slash formula seems a bit more tried than true. Even so, gamers looking for a simple, inoffensive, and remarkably replayable RPG may find solace in the dark, dank, and old-fashioned recesses of Square's dungeons.