December 15, 2006 - Slime has been hogging the spotlight since Square and Enix merged, with a couple of classics for the Game Boy Advance and DS, but now it's time for the Square side of the deal to take the spotlight.
In Chocobo to Maho no Ehon (Chocobo and the Magic Picture Book), you play as a young Chocobo named Chocobo in a quest to save your friends and, undoubtedly, the world. You're walking around in your Chocobo farm one day, all set to have Shiroma, the Final Fantasy white magician, read you a book. Kuroma, the FF black magician, comes in with a book of his own, which turns out to be the great Demon Bebezu. Bebezu sucks all your fellow Chocobos into its pages and it's up to you to save them.
The saving your fellow Chocobo thing may make this sound like a rip of Slime's portable adventure games, but Chocobo is totally different. It's so unique, in fact, that two hours in, and I'm not sure what to expect next.
Based on my first hour of play time, this is what I thought the game was going to be like. You move Chocobo around town until you find a book. Touch the book, and you find yourself in a mini game. Clear it, and one of your friends is released. Keep doing that, and eventually you get all your friends back, and you can go about your... well, whatever it is that Chocobos do when main Final Fantasy games are still a ways off from release.
But that's only a part of the experience. Chocobo also has battles. When facing off against a big beast, you enter into a turn-based fight. You and your opponent each select an attack card from your deck of cards (more on that in a bit). The results are shown on the top screen with flat, Paper Mario style characters attacking one another. The battle continues, with you selecting a new card each turn, until one character loses all his life.
This battle system is surprisingly complex. Your cards, spooled out randomly in sets of three, are full of markings, indicating elemental type, rareness and the effect if successful. The winner of each duel is determined using a paper-rock-scissors style system. The battle system rewards fast thought, as the player who draws first gets the first attack.
Part of the strategy is in building up your own card deck. You can store multiple decks, editing them with cards of your choice and even assigning a name.
As for how you get new cards... well, that's where the mini games come into play again. In addition to saving your friends from their picture book bondage, doing well in mini games earn you new cards. You also find new cards as you explore the game world.
The mini games come in a variety of forms. So far, I've played a game where you race up a mountain by using the stylus to rotate a turtle and take cover from falling rocks, a game where you draw trampolines to help Chocobos leap up to a certain height while avoiding bombs blocking their path, a game where you move the stylus around to locate a particular character in a scene, and a few others. While some of the games are optional, a few are required in order to progress. Most are simple, as if they were designed for younger audiences, but even if you don't take a liking to a particular game (as has been the case for me more than once), at least they're easy to clear without too much mastery.
Chocobo and the Magic Picture Book has some multiplayer support around its mini games and battle system. The mini games and battles are playable by between 2 and 4 players via wireless. Even better, battles can be fought via the net through Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connect service.
So that's Chocobo and the Magic Picture Book. At least, the first two hours of it. Things keep on popping up as I continue to play, though, so who knows what else is in store. At the two hour mark, the world has just expanded beyond the first town that served as an introduction to the game. There's definitely a lot of play time in store.
The story telling is particularly interesting. In addition to a main storyline involving a witch named Iruma and her quest to revive the evil Bebezu by gathering four elemental crystals that serve to protect the Chocobo world, the mini games themselves have individual stories. Before beginning play, you view a prologue, scrolling through text on the bottom screen while the events play out on the top screen using the same stylish Paper Mario style flat artwork that's used in battles. The epilogue appearing only once you've cleared the game. There are usually three epilogues, with the latter two accessible only to those who've done exceptionally well in the games.
The mini game stories often have some sort of connection to the game world. One story tells how a Chocobo, having been robbed of his money, found a bean sprout which, when planted, caused a great bean stock to grow to the sky. Finish this story, and a small bean sprout in the game world grows to allow you to reach a new area of play.
While this is a game with something for everyone, Final Fantasy fans in particular will want to take note. The game has little bits of the classic series thrown about, with cameos from Mogul and other FF characters, bosses that are based off classic summon beasts, and even Final Fantasy boss music used during mini game play!
Plus, this game does for Chocobos what the Slime games did for Slime. With Chocobos of all colors and sizes, this could be the cutest game of the year. And it will hopefully be the start of many new adventures starring the mascot from the Square side of Square Enix.