It's fair to say that Chocobo's Dungeon, at first glance, seems to be a game suffering from an identity crisis. On the one hand you have its rather twee pastoral setting, its squeaky-voiced characters and its cute-as-a-button protagonist. On the other you have core gameplay which is loosely based on an ancient PC game called Rogue, which was renowned for its punishing difficulty.
The 'roguelike' genre still has a cult following, but its games are generally extremely niche, attracting only the hardest of the hardcore. The sort of people who are happy to put up with often infuriating difficulty curves and dull, featureless random dungeons for the satisfaction of simply getting through alive. Yet the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games, essentially hugely simplified roguelikes, have achieved plenty of success, so perhaps Square-Enix still feels that there's an audience out there for such a game. Fortunately for the publisher, that audience includes us, because Chocobo's Dungeon - despite plenty of hair-tearing moments - is a superior example
of the genre.
As you'd probably anticipate for a game with such an unusual mix of presentation and gameplay, the story is fittingly strange. The titular bird and his treasure-hunting comrade Cid are magically transported to a curious village named Lostime, where all the residents seem to be suffering from amnesia. It turns out that their memories are wiped whenever the town's clock tower bell chimes.
Handily, Chocobo's arrival coincides with the appearance of a green-haired infant named Raffaello, who, as luck would have it, carries the power to transport Chocobo into the minds of the afflicted townsfolk, which form the dungeons you'll have to traverse to complete your quest. Reach the bottom and beat the boss within and you'll discover a jigsaw piece representing the missing part of their fractured mind. Collect this, and the villager will magically recover his or her memory, and then you can move onto the next.
The randomised labyrinths are generally far more interesting than those in your average dungeon-crawler, mainly thanks to the introduction of some delightful graphical effects, and the extremely well-designed denizens from the mind of Crystal Chronicles' Toshiyuki Itahana. Battling monsters is remarkably simple, almost worryingly so to begin with, as for the most part it's just a case of pressing the attack button repeatedly.
Yet this hybrid of turn-based fighting and the immediacy of real-time combat works beautifully. For tougher foes you'll appreciate the time to consider your options, and decide whether you want to use more powerful attacks - which deplete Chocobo's SP gauge - or to use certain items, or simply to flee. While the fact that you can grind through the earlier dungeons simply by tapping the attack button rapidly, as Chocobo and his opponent take it in turns to whack each other rather swiftly is a godsend.
And believe us, you will need to return to earlier sections to level up, because Chocobo's Dungeon, after lulling you into a false sense of security with a couple of easy openers, can be as brutal as the likes of DS rage-inducer Shiren The Wanderer. Yet the hard edge is softened slightly by the game allowing you to keep all equipped items and experience when you die. Sure, you might have to start the dungeon again with no money and very few of your items, but then that's the risk you take when you're battling away with a full wallet and a bag crammed with items.