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DS Fanboy Review: Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales is a lot like most modern cartoons that seem to be aimed at the younger set -- you know, Disney and Pixar and Cartoon Network in the after-school hours. Like these cartoons, Chocobo Tales is colorful and simple, with a solid storyline that isn't really anything special. It's fun, but not deep. But also like those cartoons, Chocobo Tales is peppered with hilarious one-liners and jokes that do show off some depth and appeal for an older set of fans. It's definitely cliché to talk about something that appeals to gamers of all ages, but that may well be the best possible description for the latest Final Fantasy spinoff.

Also, it's just about the cutest thing ever.

It's a beautiful day on the chocobo farm when suddenly, disaster strikes! The little yellow chocobo is ready to settle in for storytime, but this is no cuddlesome bedtime tale. On this particular afternoon, the book-loving black mage, Croma, seems to have brought home a little more than he bargained for: great (and comical) evil. Croma's newest book imprisons Darkmaster Bebuzzu, who absorbs all the other chocobos in short order. Conveniently, one chocobo is left behind, and he's the one who is charged with freeing the others from their new forms as chocobo cards, which are scattered throughout the land.

As stories go, this isn't much, and it isn't meant to be; while most Final Fantasy games are known for their story, here the plot serves only as a tenuous link between the minigames and card battles, and that's okay. The story is as cute as the characters and just compelling enough that it's interesting instead of serving as an obstacle to gameplay. Of course, for longtime fans of the franchise, it's always nice to revel in things like the eternal presence of Cid and the cosmetic costume differences between blue mages and black mages.

But, as with any good game, it's the gameplay that shines here. While uneven at times, in both difficulty and entertainment value, overall, Chocobo Tales offers a compelling gameplay experience. There are a number of things to find in the area surrounding the chocobo farm: the aforementioned chocobo cards, boss fights (card battles), random minigames, and magical pictures books that the chocobo can enter. The picture books feature stories that are familiar old fables, the sort that first introduced us to stories with morals ... but these are fables with a Final Fantasy flavor. Instead of "The Ugly Duckling", we are faced with an "Ugly Chocoling," a bird of a different color entirely, and "Jack and the Beanstalk" with a stylistic (or perhaps stylus-tic) twist.

Each story has an associated game, and each game has various levels of difficulty. The minigames all make good use of the DS, employing either the stylus or the microphone, and they are largely skill-based, rather than luck-based. And that's good, it's what we want, but it also means nearly everyone will find at least one game frustratingly difficult, as the minigames require a wide range of skills. No need to worry about not being able to spear enough balloons in Blowgun Blitz, however; only those interested in collecting all the cards need to worry about beating every challenge thoroughly, as a lesser score is often all that is required to progress.

Speaking of cards ... the card battle system is surprisingly effective. It's very simple -- each card has four "zones" and once a card's pop-up creature is summoned, zones are compared, and then the monsters battle based on those comparisons. As with the rest of the game, the popup battles are beautifully rendered, but the system itself is far from perfect. While it's easy to get into, once you begin to accumulate more cards, managing everything becomes something of a pain, as the interface doesn't quite feature the best design. However, a fusion of action/adventure, puzzle-type minigames, and a card battle system that actually works is pretty impressive, so while we note the oddly uneven overall design of the game, in the end, it's really very satisfying.

Some of the elements are particularly brilliant; for instance, inside each book, in story mode, one can easily and quickly scroll through the text. For a fast and impatient reader, that is an amazing relief. However, once you reach the end of the story, there's no quick exit, and suddenly all that saved time is wasted. This, along with the card management system, is tolerable, but in such an otherwise great game, the little edges stand out more.

Overall, this game is definitely worth a second look. Though short, it's got a lot to offer, and you will certainly sweat trying to clear some of the challenges. And it's completely worth it to see a behemoth crow, "A winner is you!"

The basics (or, the review is in the details):

Controls: Mostly great, but a few noticeable hitches. It's nice that the chocobo can be controlled with the d-pad when you're just roaming around; sometimes it's nice to take a break from the stylus. A little more precision on the touch screen would be nice, but it's not really a hindrance. Some of the minigames require a lot of control, and it's very easy to miss the "sweet" spot when you're in a rush. Microphone functionality is employed lightly and used well.

Visuals: Stunning. The screenshots out there do not do this justice at all, because they always seem so jagged. The game itself is lush and rather impressive for the DS. If you thought Final Fantasy III looked good, Chocobo Tales will thrill you to the bone.

Sound: Done with the same care as nearly everything else. The music uses old familiar themes with cute new twists. And if you're like me and easily distracted by telephones, e-mails, crises, fires, and shiny things, you'll often hear the little chocobo's snores. If you wait too long, he curls up for a nap and starts snoozing away, and the sound is adorable. I'm a sucker for the little things.

Story: The story itself is nothing special. The Ubiquitous Final Fantasy Crisis that sets off the action is somewhat scaled down, like the game itself, as it's aimed at a younger audience. This isn't a crisis that threatens the world. This is your friends being sucked into a book and churned out as tiny chocobo cards. Where Chocobo Tales shines, however, is in the localization. The script was lovingly translated into English by what could only have been a team of uber-geeks, and this is pleasing.

Though now that it's been mentioned, the idea of everyone around you being sucked through dimensional portals and transformed into cards is actually just as horrifying as, say, a meteor on a crash course with your home town. Thank goodness we have brave heroes like the chocobo to save the day!

Difficulty: Variable. Some of the minigames are so easy, you'll blast through multiple levels on your first try, and others will make you struggle just to clear the most basic requirements.

Final Score: 8.0/10

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