When you think of the name Final Fantasy, certain things always come to mind. Depending on what game was your introduction to the series, the yellow steeds known as Chocobos may be a mainstay of your memories,
or they could be another way to show how the series has changed over time, or they could be another cutesy distraction from that dreamy Squall's brooding and ignoring of Rinoa. Whatever your impression of these marvelous creatures, they and their lovely plumage have starred in several offshoot titles in Japan, typically Rogue-like dungeon crawlers or racing games. Still, the big birds have to kick back once in a while, and that's exactly what they do in their DS debut.
The best way to describe Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales, really, is by thinking of it as "Chocobo Party" meets "Magic: The Gathering". The game opens with an evil book, Bebuzzu, capturing many of the inhabitants of the Chocobo Island and turning them into cards, which are then hidden in picture books throughout the island. The player's character - the archetypal plucky yellow Chocobo - is one of the few survivors, along with a White Mage named Shirma and a Black Mage named Croma (not terribly imaginative names, actually; the Japanese names were Shiroma and Kuroma, abbreviations of their jobs). The player is tasked with going into the magical picture books and re-enacting their contents to free his friends; along the way, he's opposed by a sleazy-looking dark sorceress named Irma; her two inept bodyguard Chocobos, Peekaboo and Greeble; the mysterious black Chocobo Volg; and a literal army of clueless drone Jail Birds.
The game's storyline serves as a relatively engaging framework for the minigames. When a player comes across a picture book in the field, he can enter it, taking him to a minigame modeled after classical fairy tales given a Square-Enix twist. For example, the old tale of the Sun and the Wind arguing over a traveler's coat changes into Espers Shiva and Ifrit arguing over who can best protect a tree of fruit; the stories and the books are presented in a scribblish art style similar to Yoshi's Island or Paper Mario. There are sixteen picture books in the game, making for an equal number of minigames, each having anywhere between five and eight challenges to complete; in addition, 23 "microgames" are included in the vein of WarioWare's offerings, each of those having two high scores to surpass. Minigames are more action-oriented in general, while the microgames are more puzzle-like. Completing a challenge advances the storyline; alternately, some challenges provide players with cards, which could free one of the lost Chocobos, or add to their decks for the primary battle system of the game, Pop-Up Dueling.
Pop-Up Dueling is a synthesis of previous Square card games like Triple Triad or Tetra Master with a little bit of a reflex-test; players select cards from their hands of three, with the first to decide getting to act first in the round. The objective of a Pop-Up Duel is to reduce your opponent's HP to zero before he does the same to you. The game eases you into dueling pretty quickly, and it's a very well-balanced card game. In a relative first for Square's card-game design teams, the game actually could be quite feasible in real life. There are 122 cards to collect in the game; some are scattered in the field, while the vast majority of them are stashed away as rewards for completing book or microgame challenges.
It's really remarkable how likable the graphics are, even though they're intentionally crude and abstracted. The art directors did an excellent job in leveraging every ounce of power out of the DS' 3D hardware; the game looks like it could easily be on the PS1. The fact that it's terminally, sickeningly, unbearably adorable has never actually hurt in my book, but even that's only marginally peripheral to the accomplishment. Never let it be said that Square-Enix makes ugly games. The music is also a fantastic achievement; while it consists chiefly of re-arranged versions of familiar Final Fantasy music, it's still something I wouldn't mind hearing again and again.
While decently-skilled players can blow through the main storyline in about 8 to 10 hours, unlocking the remaining attractions and collecting the full set of cards will still only take about another ten to fifteen hours on top of that. That said, there's really no excuse for rushing through the game. It's excellently written and laid out, and the games are quite engaging for a while. The primary reason for rushing, though, would be to have an advantage in the game's Wi-Fi Connect portion; the only worldwide multiplayer mode is the Pop-Up Dueling portion. Also, local multiplayer is relegated to multi-card play only; players can send microgame demos to cardless friends, but those games are solo only. That said, Square-Enix has gone the extra mile by providing a password-based worldwide web ranking system for high scores on the minigames and microgames.
The game does have a few minor flaws, which are pitifully common in minigame collections-- some are just a little too hard given the difficulty level of the rest. However, with practice, most games become quite simple and boring after a while, especially given that the rival AI (controlling the Jail Birds and/or Peekaboo, Greeble, and Volg) borders on clinically stupid. The exception is the WFC Pop-Up Dueling, which just reinforces my wish that that had been the entire game. I really do expect a full-fledged card game to come from Square-Enix as part of one of their multi-media franchise blitzes. You can't tell me you wouldn't be first in line to play Final Fantasy Tactics Card Battles; well, you'd be second in line, anyway. The game's controlled mostly with the stylus, but being able to use the d-pad and buttons in the field was a nice touch-- I just wish that that had carried over to the minigames. Overall, though, I would have liked to see a little more variety in the multiplayer capabilities; it's hard to complain too much, especially given the fact that we got a WFC side at all, but being able to tweak match settings would have been a nice touch.
All things considered - the cheesiness of the story, the somewhat dim-witted AI in minigames, and the fact that there's only two or three original musical pieces in the whole game - this is one of the better ways to do a minigame collection on the DS. If Square-Enix decides to do up a sequel (who are we really kidding here?), expanding the card game might be tops on the agenda, which would be a welcome addition. Despite the little hiccups here and there, this bird's no turkey.