Give any television show long enough and one of two things will happen. Either they’ll make a Rashomon-style episode where every character gives a different recounting of a certain event, or they’ll parody a famous story using their own characters in place of the original. The latter usually only happens with cartoons and almost exclusively with comedy, but apparently it doesn’t require anything more than a long-running series running out of ideas, because that basically sums up Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales. And in their eternal struggle to out-epic everyone else on the planet, they have redone not just one story, but sixteen, rewriting classic fables and fairy tales around their main series summon monsters and recurring fauna.
After turning on the game, the title screen greets you with two eyes, a beak, and the questionably euphemistic command to “touch the chocobo,” without giving you a doll to show you where to touch it. Touching said chocobo launches it upward into the title, bringing you to the main menu. A new game opens on a small farm where the young priestess, Shirma, has gathered three or four of her favorite chocobos to read them a story, which they apparently appreciate more than when I perform Shakespeare for my cats. Soon the black mage, Croma, arrives with a wagon full of newly acquired tomes, including one special-looking one that locks with a tile sliding puzzle. Having dexterous, prehensile digits, the humans naturally request help opening the lock from one of the giant birds with only wings incapable of flight. Enter the player-character, a young, silent, yellow chocobo. You undo the book, naturally unleashing all hell upon the world because, after all…Final Fantasy. The book eats all your chocobo friends leaving you alone with the mammals, and the villainess, Irma, struts out with her chocobo lackeys to taunt everyone about restoring the book to its true form….yada yada.
None of that really matters. The real game lies in three areas: pop-up book mini-games, microgames, and of course, Square wouldn’t pass up the opportunity to design an addictive yet time-consuming card game that wouldn’t actually work if you played it outside of the game. The main story only carts you between these games like a rickshaw with plot. The chocobo enters pop-up storybooks scattered around a small world like a Raccoon City library. Each one consists of a story loosely based off a real-life fable or fairy tale. Depending on the difficulty setting, winning the mini-game based on the story will earn you either one of three epilogues, a card that rescues a chocobo from the book that ate it, or a summon card for the card game. The epilogues offer some of the most bizarre prizes in the game. In re-writing these classic stories, Square may have missed the point. While some still sound moralistic, other resolutions wander so far off from the original plots so quickly that I wonder if the game shouldn’t go out to refill its Ritalin prescription instead of telling me stories. Others yet just offer tragedy, such as tonberries who cut off, stomp, and burn the three little pigs’ tails, or how the ugliest chocoling left home to live with the blind mole people and never became a beautiful phoenix. Each epilogue effects one change in the natural world–in addition to effecting a depression in the player–which tends to progress the story, open access to a card, or give the player access to a microgame. Rescuing chocobos will usually open a microgame or the grateful bird will give you a card. Beating the microgames will always give you a card.
So really, the game should come to a head at the card game, right? You’d expect plenty of clever card duels with clever designs and challenging deck building strategies, right? You’d also recognize the sarcastic tone and have figured out by now that you shouldn’t expect those things, right? The card game works depressingly simply, but not simple and brilliant like the card game in Final Fantasy VIII and IX. More just plain-old simple. Each card has four zones, each one representing one of the four elements, Fire, Water, Earth and Cobalt-Thorium G. Each zone might attack, defend, or just sit with a gaping opening hoping someone will impale it. During each round, each player selects a card, which summons a classic Final Fantasy monster, and the game compares zones. An attack zone needs to match with an empty zone of the same element to hit, a guard zone of the same element to miss, and an attack zone of the same element for half damage. For successful attacks or blocks, instructions on the card determine damage and effects. The first player to reach zero HP wins the shame of losing the duel.
While the card game has addicting qualities, the simplicity often means that several rounds will pass with no damage. Occasionally I suspect a video game at cheating. Here, it seems like your opponents know what cards you’ve selected and will adjust their selection accordingly, a luxury you don’t have. Add to that unskippable animations for summoning, attacking, guarding, counterattacking, and unsummoning, and you can sometimes spend twenty minutes or more in a duel you know you won’t win. Moments like that made me wonder why Square included a “quit game” feature for the pop-up books, but not the microgames or the card game. Also, one pop-up book offers the option to skip the opening animation, but not the other fifteen or the card game. So while the game takes about 16 hours to finish and complete, you can use a good chunk of that time for reading, homework, preparing dinner, and telling those people from the congressman’s office that no, you don’t want to help out his campaign by calling people and trying to persuade them. The card game, though, doesn’t actually head the game; Square just needed some seemingly useful prize to give for the mini- and micro-games, and they just happened to have a plentiful supply of cards.
I found that I enjoyed the micro-games more than pop-up games or the card games. These games work like flash games or iPhone games–simple objective, simple rules, fast-paced game play, and difficult enough that you should probably pad your walls with rubber so as not to smash your DS when you chuck it away in frustration. Fortunately, unlike flash games, they offer prizes–cards, of course–which may not benefit you at all, but at least provide a point at which you can say, “Fuck this! I never want to play this game again!” with at least a modicum of dignity still intact. Getting that prize puts a reasonable limit on your need to sit there for hours because you think you can do just a little bit better next time.
This light-hearted spinoff doesn’t take much time, and it doesn’t pile on heavy themes of death and sacrifice and identity that the main series does with enough melodrama to sicken even the most self-absorbed teenage girls. The plot never really twists or complicates, and only thickens like a mild curry sauce. It pretty much consists of the humans sending you to the front lines, while they hang back and work as dialogue-spewing machines every so often. Most of the game recycles main series music in a move done either to reminisce on familiar series elements or to capitalize off having a Nobuo Uematsu score years after he left Square-Enix for greener pastures and blacker mages. The chocobo fights card battles to either the FF1 battle music or the FFVI boss music. The boss fight plays “The Battle on the Big Bridge,” one of my all-time favorite battle themes…unfortunately the modified air-hockey game doesn’t quite live up to the music. Still though, the game works, works well, and feels like all those addicting minigames you play when you know you should read or prepare for class instead…except, with more of a point. Other than getting out of work….I have to go play Whack-a-Malboro now.