Chocobo GP

One look at pretty much anything involving Chocobo GP and you pretty well get an idea of what you’re getting. The title screen essentially promises everything the game has to offer: achingly adorable characters in strange vehicles racing one another for reasons of their own devising. It looks every inch like the mascot kart racer it is, very much in the same vein as Mario Kart (it’s most obvious inspiration), Crash Team Racing, and all the others of its ilk.

Those in the know (like myself) are aware that this game is technically the sequel/update to Chocobo Racing, a kart racing game for the Playstation 1. That came out back in the day when everybody was getting a kart racer, from bandicoots to Gungans to, well, chocobos. I picked it up because I had a Playstation and am a die hard Final Fantasy fan (one of my favorite games of all time is a Final Fantasy).

I have been eagerly awaiting this particular game since it was announced. My best friend preordered it for me, and I played it nearly the minute it came out (I actually waited for said best friend to wake up so we could play it together using our phones as chat). So I had pretty decent expectations: I wanted a solid kart racer, if nothing else.

Chocobo GP delivers.

and someone is happy about that pronouncement

The game controls like literally every kart racer ever. If you know how to play the original Super Mario Kart from the SNES days, you can control this. All one must do is hold down the A button to accelerate and use the joystick to steer. There are a few other additions to the controls: “R” is action button, causing you to hop at first, drift when held, and do a sick trick if you’re in the air. “L” unleashes your magic (which you pick up via a random egg on the course; note the floating blue thing in the picture above). And “Y” activates each character’s special abilities.

Those abilities do feel relatively balanced. Sometimes it’s a speed boost for your character, as it is for Chocobo or his lookalike, Camilla (who is the female version of Chocobo, and, well, she somehow ended up my main racer). Sometimes it unleashes a purely offensive ability at your fellow racers, like Gilgamesh hurling swords at his enemies or the mysterious Racing Hero X launching the X beam ahead of him. In a few cases, it’s a defensive ability.

So, yeah, basically a kart racer. You hold down A, zig-zag around courses and head toward the finish line. Obstacles in the course and other racers get in the way, and you run over magic eggs to collect magicite to blast at the enemy.

What makes it work is that everything feels quite well balanced and tested. Even the boss characters and the like don’t seem to have better karts or skills than the rest of the crew (I even went so far as to unlock one of the DLC, special racers that could cost real money; he’s got exactly the same stats as some of the others). The tilt factor comes from the various abilities, and yes, those sometimes feel unfair.

The maps are almost universally based off old Final Fantasy locations, with a few drawing on Chocobo’s own rather impressive game history. So you have a Chocobo Farm and Cid’s Test Track alongside Zozo from Final Fantasy 6 and Alexandria from Final Fantasy 9. In a nice twist, there’s also variations of almost every track, which takes familiar obstacles and the like and reshuffles them.

There is something of a lack of courses though. After unlocking them all, both me and my best friend lamented that there were only 9 completely different areas, and two of those are very similar, as they’re variants on the “interdimensional rift” (a kinda dull blue and purple themed race where you end up at the end of the story). Square-Enix promises more tracks soon, but considering that Mario Kart just announced dropping 40+ tracks, this does feel like an area where the game is lacking.

this is the start of the chocobo farm race; the camera always pans out to show you the race before you begin

The character roster doesn’t seem to be lacking. There are over twenty characters at the launch of the game. In a weird move, you can only access three of them as you boot up the game, and an odd three at that: Chocobo, the white Mage Shirma, and Ben the Behemoth. In order to unlock most of the cast, you have to play through the story. Doing so unlocks another dozen or so naturally, plus allows you to purchase several others (almost exclusively summons/Espers from old FF games) from a shop.

That shop is one of the weak points of this game, as you may have seen in other reviews. There’s literally three different shops with three different kinds of currency. The item tickets are those that are easiest to pick: the game rewards you with those for playing. Simply beating a race in the story mode gives you a handful, and there are challenges (almost universally related to speed) that give you a few more. These are used to unlock those characters I just mentioned, along with some variations to the karts and the like.

On top of that there’s a premium shop. There you can use real world money to buy Mithril, which can buy a few things like costumes and a “prize pass” for the season. Getting the latter makes it easier to unlock Gil, another currency that’s used to unlock the various “Seasonal” upgrades.

Open Mommy and Daddy’s wallets to collect ’em all!

The game is obnoxious about this: there’s that opening graphic I just showed you, which looks obnoxious. The game heavily encourages you to get mithril, and the Gil is only earned through playing online “Chocobo GP” matches, which a lot of players probably wouldn’t like. I’ve done it enough to unlock a few characters, and I do enjoy it, but that’s only after completing the entire story, unlocking every series, and then playing for several hours with just one other person. The average player probably won’t be too involved.

So what does that leave them? There’s the series, which are a set of preordained courses that are laid out before you. You can race this solo or with some other people, including online. Points are awarded based on your finishing spot. Finish with among the top three points, unlock the next track. (These also give you tickets).

There’s also the Story Mode. Much noise has been made about this, but I honestly like it. The story starts by following Racing Hero X in one of the most obnoxious, grating, frustrating tutorial missions I have ever experienced. If you don’t absolutely nail a move they’re teaching you on the first try, they will restart the race and make you repeat it until you do. This almost feels like those super hard jumps in some precision platformers or meteroidvanias, and a fun kart racer should never earn that comparison.

have some fear of that tutorial

After playing around with Racing Hero X, you switch to Chocobo and his crew. They’re just hanging around when that moogle comes about to tell them that they can compete in a grand race. The prize? Any wish they want. This starts a series of charmingly funny, often too stupid races against various characters. The scenes move like pop up books and are charmingly awkward.

they kinda look like dioramas or children’s toys

There’s not a grand motive here, but it’s a bit strange how it comes out. Everything comes down to a race, because this is a racing game. But Atla (the moogle wearing the goggles above) is one of those who points out the absurdity of this. But it’s also a game, and even the character acknowledge that the whole point is to have fun.

The game has a bunch of nods to old Final Fantasy and Chocobo games. I personally found them delightful, even if at times they feel quite forced. I was charmed by Vivi and Steiner from Final Fantasy 9 and found myself squealing like a child throughout their entire chapter of the story, even if it does feel absurd as they point out references to their respective video game stories (Steiner goes through a journey of self discovery to determine his purpose and balancing duty with agency, while Vivi delves into his own existence in the face of his rapidly approaching end).

“Racing against colorful characters in a silly competition is the only way to determine my purpose in existence!”

That’s one of those spots where incorporating the stuff from previous Final Fantasies feels forced. It gets even worse for Terra, the protagonist from Final Fantasy 6. I’m not entirely sure if she actually has an original line of dialogue for this game, or if they just had her repeat lines unaltered from her original game. They try to play this off as a comedic thing, but it makes Terra come off mentally deficient and really dishonors a longstanding legacy character of their franchise (not helped by her being one of the only female protagonists of a Final Fantasy game).

so… dumb…

It’s also frustrating because Terra should be easy to rope in. she’s a character who’s written as searching for love and understanding and someone who enjoys helping children. They do play into that latter, but it would be so easy to have her just along for the ride, mothering this group of idiots as they go (or joining Shirma in the mothering). But nooo, she has to be a joke instead.

The story has a few moments like this, yes, but overall I found myself really enjoying it. Most of the nods to the past are well done, particularly if they’re using various Espers or other characters that have a bit more flexible personalities. Some of the jokes don’t land… okay, probably most of them (the entire cast of heroes keeps pretending they don’t know Gilgamesh, who reoccurs in Team Rocket style throughout; it’s annoying), but I found myself chuckling.

The grinding here will either feel like padding or feel like them providing content. You are encouraged to beat the story twice, once under “normal” mode and once under “extra.” The former locks you into certain racers at various points (and frustratingly so toward the end, as you’re required to only play three races for the last several courses, none of them female and none of them characters I really excelled at playing). The “extra” mode lets you play any racer in any race, which leads to some fun absurdities. You do get tickets throughout each play, and it’s not strictly required (playing through once will unlock the majority of the characters and pretty well all the courses).

I do wish there was slightly less grinding. Starting the player off with almost nothing and making pretty well everything grindable feels a bit excessive, particularly when they keep nudging you to pay more. I already dropped $50 for a game; I shouldn’t be nickled and dimed for every little bit that comes along. Premium racers, sure. But it feels like a chore at times to unlock every character. Yes, I was likely going to play the story anyway, but I got the game to play online with a friend that lives in another state.

Speaking of: they don’t give you any reward for playing with a friend. No tickets, no extra stages, no gil, nothing. This is literally why I bought the game, and likely why a few others did too. In a game all about grinding, the thing I’m most likely to do to grind doesn’t actually give me any reward. I literally had to stop playing directly with my friend as we played through parallel story modes in order to actually unlock things.

That’s bad game design.

And there are a few elements of that here. But the game is aggressively cheerful, so much so that I overlook a lot of the flaws that are involved. The music involves a lot of remixes of old Final Fantasy tunes, enough that I will be snatching up the soundtrack as soon as I can. I literally raced Alexandria several times just to listen to the tunes.

The graphics are bright and cartoony, but it just works for this game. Everything’s carefully constructed toward the package.

I also love that there’s always an element of luck to the races. Abilities and magic are often tilt factors, and there’s sometimes no accounting for them. I have seen skilled racers come in late places because of being hammered by spells or abilities, or some people push through to place because they got lucky with their pulls. This actually adds a fun twist to the game, though I could understand it frustrating some players.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to getting “throw the controller” frustrated a few times, particularly when I’m hit with a spell right at the finish line and have to redo a race or drop completely out of a good run at the hyper competitive Chocobo GP. But I still think it works well to help equalize the game, which is all but necessary in a game like this, where vastly differing skill levels are at work.

I’m scrolling up and realizing I’m being quite thorough for something I’m labeling a “glimpse.” I was eagerly awaiting this game from the moment it was announced, watching every bit of info I could about it, gobbling up the pre-release information, preordering it, and then playing it the day of release (and then some). It’s everything I had hoped it would be and honestly a little more. I find myself thoroughly engaging with this game, and I think it’s entirely likely that I’ll be returning to it for most of the life of my Switch. It’s just a lot of fun, and the sort of thing I was hoping it would be upon its announcement. I’d highly recommend it, though a lot of players may want to wait until it’s on sale: $50 is a big ask for a game like this, particularly with all the grinding and premium content.

9 premium content, poor handling of certain characters, and content locked behind certain progressions drops this a bit, but I will still wager this winds up on my top list of games for this year based on the sheer fun I’m having playing it alone

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