The Final Fantasy series has been around for quite some time, being the dominating RPG series in the US (and only rivaled by the Dragon Quest series in Japan). Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales is the most recent game to be released under the illustrious FF name; however, this is not a traditional Final Fantasy game by any means. Don't let this scare you away, though--this spin-off game may not have the depth of a traditional Final Fantasy game, but it has a lot to offer and is a refreshing change of pace from the norm.
Chocobo Tales weaves a standardized tale of an evil locked away whom you must prevent from incarnating and taking over the world. You take the role of a Chocobo (an ostrich-like yellow bird of Final Fantasy fame) who lives on a farm with a number of other Chocobos, and has other friends in the forms of a White Mage and a Black Mage. The story, while formulaic, has a decent amount of tongue-in-cheek humor, and on more occasions than one mocks its own clichÃ©s. The writing is fine, the occasional humor will sometimes induce snickers, and players get eased along well enough. The story never gets as cumbersome as it can in most Final Fantasy games because this title isn't focusing on the main story itself but rather the more subtle things. While predictable, the story isn't terrible, it hardly hinders the gameplay, and manages to pull off a few very cool twists in the form of its fables.
The fables are what make up most of the gameplay. As you traverse the overworld, you will find many magical storybooks strewn about. By opening the book, you're transported into the tale itself and participate in it in order to write its ending. Within the fables, the player participates in a minigame that leads to a conclusion to the story. By accomplishing certain tasks within the minigames, different endings are written. The different endings will in turn cause something to happen in the world. For example, one story may have an ending where an earthquake takes place. As a result, an earthquake will happen in the world and crumble down a structure that was blocking your path. It's interesting to see how obstacles are overcome through the remixed fables and their endings.
While the minigames could have just been brief romps which one plays through once and is done, the incorporation of reaching goals makes the player do well in them to progress, but then rewards the player further if they take the time to master them through opening new passageways and pop-up cards (more on those later). This element of reward in exchange for mastery over the minigames is well done. There are some minigames that will have you sweating to complete their top-tiered challenges. While not difficult to beat, the minigames can be challenging to master, and this effort is rewarded. On top of it all, these minigames offer fun and sometimes addictive gameplay while actually being intuitive to play via the stylus control. Entering the storybooks is usually a joy to the player as a result.
The fables themselves are usually rather charming because they blend Final Fantasy creatures with classic fables or fairytales. I'm tempted to give an example, but discovering how familiar tales are retold (occasionally with surprisingly dark endings), how Final Fantasy creatures are integrated, and how they are even blended with other fables or fairytales is part of the experience of this title. I was impressed and intrigued by some of the cute and clever ways stories were changed or mixed around. The fables are undeniably charming and surprisingly well narrated within their context as children's stories.
Chocobo Tales is split into three main gameplay types, two of which (overworld exploring and minigaming) we have covered. The third element is essentially the ends to which the other two look toward: pop-up dueling. Dueling is carried out in a Yu-Gi-Oh! or Pokemon Trading Card Game affair, only less complex. As you progress through the game, you will find cards which you will use in duels to fight bosses and mini-bosses. The more you play the minigames and explore the world, the more cards you find, and the more strategy and variety you have at your disposal. Using light strategy elements and some luck, the card battles are played out by summoning Final Fantasy beasts of yore to battle your opponent. While the variety isn't near as crazy as a full Final Fantasy game, there's plenty of familiar faces re-imagined in a very cute storybook style: Ifrit, Shiva, Tonberries, Bombs, Leviathan, and Bahamut, to mention a few.
The cards are well-balanced, though the game sometimes relies a bit too much on luck. You may be wondering what the point is to collecting all of the cards, and the answer would be the WiFi Connection battle mode. Using decks to duel players across the world gives players incentive to actually find everything.
Since the game has a strong focus on art design, it's important to discuss. The graphics are vibrant, oozing personality and color with every page. The overworld itself is actually the most-bland, so it's fortunate you don't spend much time there but rather inside the beautiful books. The stylized worlds created by the pop-up book stories are adorable and gush out personality. While reminiscent of the Paper Mario games, or perhaps Yoshi's Story, the style does not fail at distinguishing itself and creating a style all its own. The animations are slick, to boot. While the art design is superb, objects can look a bit scratchy up close, but this doesn't hurt the presentation very much.
The sound effects are mostly crisp and potent, but the music steals the show here. The variety is lacking, but what's here is excellent. It can be a bit grating at times, however, blasting the Chocobo Theme over and over. The entire package comes together to create a triple-A quality title that has simple and intuitive gameplay.
Final Verdict - 8/10
Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales is a wonderful spin off in the well-known franchise. It serves its namesake well, but in a completely new way not seen before. The art style is unique but familiar at the same time, as are the stories presented within. Chocobo Tales is recommendable to Final Fantasy fans who'd like to experience a change in pace, and to anyone else looking for a well-crafted, fun, and engaging DS experience. Despite its appearance -- that of targeting a young audience -- Chocobo Tales is a rewarding and highly charming experience which gamers of all ages can enjoy and appreciate.
"It's about time we got a decent plot twist!"