A prime example of the folly in judging a book by its cover.
Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon EVERY BUDDY! is not your buddy. It is not your friend, and even if it seems cute and cuddly, inside it houses a bloodthirsty beast with an insatiable appetite for your time and patience. EVERY BUDDY! is actually a remake of Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo's Dungeon, which came to the Wii in 2008. As the name implies, Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon belongs to a series that debuted in North America in 1999 with Chocobo’s Dungeon 2 on the PlayStation. There had been Mystery Dungeon games in Japan even before this—involving Torneko, a merchant from the Dragon Quest series, and Shiren the Wanderer. All of these games are roguelikes and feature randomly-generated dungeons and a top-down perspective. Death is both commonplace and costly, but first let’s have a roll. Is that a six? Okay, proceed to the next section of the review.
The beginning of Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon introduces you to Cid, a treasure hunter, and his pal Chocobo. After playing through a tutorial dungeon, which from the outside is reminiscent of the Mirage Tower from the first Final Fantasy game, the two characters are whisked away to the town of Lostime. The heavy-handedness of the name becomes clear minutes after your arrival: an ominous object in the town square, the Bell of Oblivion, causes anyone within earshot of its tolling to lose their memories and become confused. This introduction sets up the primary gameplay loop outside of the dungeons. Basically every resident you encounter wants to talk to you or help you, but you have to help them regain their memories by completing a dungeon.
The dungeons change every time you enter them and contain a variety of enemies, treasures, and bosses. Each floor of a dungeon has a stairwell that you are attempting to find that will take you deeper into its depths, with a boss generally awaiting your arrival on the penultimate floor. Along the way you fight familiar Final Fantasy monsters such as Lamias, Bombs, Adamantoises, and Ochos. You also pick up items such as potions to replenish your health or cure status effects, gysahl greens to give you energy to explore, and books that let you cast spells. Longer dungeons offer checkpoints that allow you to return to them if you leave before reaching the end.
A key difference between the original game and this 2019 remake is that you can now bring a buddy into the dungeons with you. Certain townsfolk become recruitable as you assist them with their problems, but one of the main hooks is that the enemies you defeat drop BP, buddy points, that eventually allow you to recruit them as well. Your buddy moves and attacks on its own, but you can direct it to use a special attack. While the different buddies all have different stats and elemental properties, they only have a single special attack, so you have to think wisely about whom to bring with you. Another neat feature is that you can play the dungeons co-op with a second player controlling the buddy character.
In terms of presentation, Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon makes frequent use of Final Fantasy music tracks and sound effects. I found that music from FFIV and FFIX were particularly prominent, in addition to the familiar chocobo theme. While the game is bright and colourful, spell effects aren’t overly stylish, and the human characters appear flat and lifeless. I didn’t encounter any character design that was impressive or unique. Given that the focus is on the dungeon exploring itself, it isn’t surprising that the dungeons are fairly basic and drab, but it would have been nice to see more variety and detail.
One of the primary reasons why Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon is inaccessible is because it forces you to grind and get lucky—in the PG sense, that is. As you take out enemies, you earn experience points that allow you to level up, in turn leveling up all of your buddies. However, levelling up yields very modest gains, and so you have to also be picking up and crafting better talons and saddles, chocobo’s version of the sword and armor you equip. With a very limited inventory, it becomes a bitter balancing act trying to accumulate items and equipment, and even more frustrating is that most items you find later in the game have to be identified or uncursed in town.
Another double-edged system can be found in the job classes. You have your standard knight, black mage, and dragoon classes, but each of these require JP, job points, to learn new abilities, and JP are both random drops in terms of how often you find them and how many points the drop actually awards. Without question, randomly-generated events can add flavour and a hint of the unknown to a game, but there is a certain threshold after which player agency is compromised. If I hadn’t picked up enough poison potions or my poison talon hadn’t activated more than it did, I wouldn’t have defeated the boss of the second major dungeon. This is the type of scenario you might encounter in other RPGs, but the difference is that it had taken hours of runs through the dungeon to accumulate enough of the right items to make that fight winnable, and even then it felt much more like luck than skill. Had I lost that battle, I would have had to spend even more time replenishing my item stock.
The breaking point came for me at the beginning of the fourth chapter. One of the main characters, Shirma, falls ill and is bedridden with the familiar black cloud above her head that signals a dungeon needing to be completed. This particular dungeon is a difficult one, but it can likely be completed with a good amount of preparation such as earning money in the dungeon by selling items and then using that money to improve your equipment and purchase potions and things in town. Unfortunately, once you get to this point in the game, you are stuck in Shirma’s room until you complete the dungeon. You cannot return to town and do side-missions or shop. You cannot check unidentified items or remove curses on your equipment. Two of the services you would find in town are available to you, however: the Forge and the Storage. This means you can improve your equipment, but of course you won’t have the money to do so since you can’t sell anything. The Storage lets you hold onto good items you may have found in the dungeon, but unless you’ve stock piled it with gold and items, it’s not really much help to you. Did I mention that you lose everything in your inventory, save for equipped items, when you die? The real mystery is why the game would force you into this potentially-impossible scenario without any warning at all.
The funny thing is, I really do enjoy the gameplay of Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon. It’s satisfying to gain levels (love that classic Final Fantasy musical flourish!), open up new classes and class abilities, and overcome extremely challenging bosses and dungeons. These hooks are the staples of solid role-playing games, but the overuse of random elements means this game is likely to appeal only to fans of the Mystery Dungeon series or Final Fantasy fanatics—those who enjoy both will probably love this game— but even then, there is just so much trial and error, on top of largely ineffective grinding, that it leaves behind a very bitter taste, and this coming from someone who appreciates a good grind session. The cherry on top was when I lost over two hours of progress when my game crashed, my first Switch crash since the system launched.
So how about a final roll of the dice? Anything other than a natural 20, and Chocobo’s Mystery Dungeon probably isn’t for you.
What did you roll?