Chocobo GP Review
A worthy second place
When you think of the kart racer you wouldn't be blamed for immediately picturing a certain mustachioed plumber and his loveable cast of friends. It makes perfect sense; after all, they have been the backbone of this genre for close to 3 decades now. That hasn't stopped other franchises throwing their characters into tiny go-karts, giving them absurd power-ups and sending them round eccentric race tracks. Despite the Final Fantasy series trying its hand at many spin-offs, most recently with their flagrant move into the battle royale arena, only once before have we seen them put our favourite characters on the racetrack. Until now that is. 23 years after Chocobo Racing landed on the PlayStation in 1999 we finally have a sequel - Chocobo GP. Whilst this might be the sequel nobody was asking for, it might also be the sequel you didn't know you wanted.
Screeching away from the starting line Chocobo GP is exactly what you would expect from a modern kart racer. It feels fast with precise controls and well-balanced mechanics. There is absolutely nothing that irks me more than a kart racer that feels sluggish, yet you would be surprised how many of these exist. The game features a multitude of systems which as the player you will need to get used to, but ultimately it doesn't offer any big surprises, and the mechanics are almost all familiar concepts borrowed or adapted from its competitors in the genre.
Of course, racing is at the heart of Chocobo GP and thankfully this is where the game shines. Much like Mario Kart 8 drifting will allow you to activate 2 additional levels of boost. Stringing successful boosts together as you slide around corners on the game's 9 courses will become a mainstay in your gameplay and it is as fun as it is addictive. Likewise, performing tricks at the top of ramps will provide you with a further boost.
Pickups in this game are collected via mystery eggs which contain several different elemental magicites, allowing you to perform fire, water, wind and lighting attacks on your competition. In an attempt to enhance this age-old kart racer mechanic, you can choose whether to use your power up straight away or to keep hold of it and level it up by collecting additional items. Each magicite has 3 levels that scale its effectiveness. It’s a delightfully Final Fantasy touch to include an item levelling system to a kart racer. It adds an element of strategy - or, at least it intends to. The risk and reward system of keeping hold of your items doesn't often mix well with the chaotic nature of the races, and you may well find by doing so you are inviting more frustration than satisfaction.
Perhaps the biggest deviation from other games of its kind is the addition of character specials. By filling a meter in the bottom corner of your screen you will be able to unleash a special move. All 23 playable characters have their own unique special and if used successfully can make an enormous difference to your standing in a race. It’s a welcome addition to the formula making the final laps some of the most hectic experiences of any kart racer to date. Rather than just checking speed, handling and so on you will find yourself considering what each character's special does. I also found that it motivated me to play with a multitude of characters just to see how their abilities work. Of course, you will have your favourites but I can't help but feel with this addition, that there is more character variation and thus more reason to try them out.
Away from the tarmac, the game boasts several game modes to try out. As you may expect there are both single and multiplayer modes to get stuck into. The main offerings are “story mode” and “Chocobo GP”. These are accompanied by a number of additional ways to play including a cup mode a time attack mode, custom races as well as both local split-screen and online multiplayer modes.
The story mode is without a doubt the worst aspect of Chocobo GP. The narrative is weak and designed for a younger audience. The humour is not well written and is more likely to send a shudder through your spine than elicit a laugh. To add to this the cutscenes are unnecessarily frequent and invasively long making it dangerously tempting to just skip past them all. There are some nods to Final Fantasy lore that fanatics may leech some enjoyment from but there are no surprises or significant additions to the lore. Thankfully the gameplay design is much better. Each campaign race will have one main objective, such as finishing above a certain character or finishing in the top 3. Several side challenges are not mandatory to progression but do serve as a reason to replay courses. Completing the objectives will unlock the next chapter of the story and also a new playable character which will be available across all modes. Unfortunately, this means you may find yourself forcefully sludging through races to unlock the additional characters rather than enjoying your time with it. After completion though, you will unlock a new mode that has harder challenges and these trump anything the base story has to offer.
The crown jewel of the game though is Chocobo GP mode. An online 64 player tournament where you will be matchmade into heats of 8 racers with the top 4 progressing to the next round. 32 to 16 to finally the top 8. Getting into that top 8 brings a real sense of achievement and that final race is the embodiment of challenging competitive play because every racer has earned the right to be there and every racer knows they are in the final. It is these races where you see the most impressive use of the item levelling system or the execution of special moves and, win or lose, these races are impossible not to enjoy.
Graphically, the game is about everything you would expect from a kart racer. Moreover, it’s just about everything you would expect from a Final Fantasy-themed kart racer. The vibrant colours pop and the animations are delightfully cartoonish. Each of the characters is reworked into chibi style, not unlike the game's predecessor or the more recent Final Fantasy Worlds. The tracks look nice and are fairly well designed, if not lacking some of the charms of the FF locales they intend to represent. For example, I was surprised to see Alexandria (Final Fantasy 9) void of a rooftop section, or how the gold saucer track reminded me more of Rainbow Road than it did the Final Fantasy gold saucer. There are also many iconic Final Fantasy locations and characters missing from the game. Final Fantasy is known the world over with 15 mainline titles and a 16th on the way, so it's hard to not feel a little undersold by the roster of characters and tracks in Chocobo GP. Looking through the character choices there is only one main protagonist featured from any of the Final Fantasy series. Terra (FF6). Even the Moogles don’t have a racing representative in Chocobo GP which comes as a massive oversight. I don’t like to continuously compare this game to its competitors but you wouldn't expect to see a Mario Kart game without Mario in it, or a Sonic Racer without Sonic. Especially considering the game is a nearly full-priced title. More content has been promised with Cloud Strife (FFVII) and Squall Leonhart (FFVIII) coming as rewards in season one of Chocobo GP but will require you to complete seasonal challenges or pay an additional cost to unlock them.
Chocobo GP Lite is a free to play version of the game which allows players to race with a reduced roster and access to fewer game modes. Players will still be able to race on all the tracks and compete in the Chocobo GP mode but will not have access to standard online racing or custom lobbies. Local multiplayer is included and also the prologue of the story mode is available. It’s a great way to see if the game is something you would enjoy and ironically features the best that the game has to currently offer. Making the step up to the retail version a leap that feels overpriced and underwhelming.
To conclude; Chocobo GP is a solid kart racer and a worthy competitor to the all-encompassing Mario Kart 8. The adaptation of certain mainstay mechanics of the Final Fantasy series adds a refreshing spin on gameplay and the character specials bring a new level of intensity to the final moments of races. The Chocobo GP mode brings everything the game has to offer together into a wonderfully addictive competitive online mode. Still, the game is undermined somewhat by a poorly executed story mode and the obvious exclusion of characters and courses being held back for future DLC.