Kweh kweh or meh meh?
Man it’s been a long time since Chocobo Racing was relevant to the world at large. I mean, it was always relevant to me! I was that guy playing CTR in between Mario Kart runs looking for something different, and I maintain that Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is still the actual king of karts. Chocobo GP is almost there in terms of making a similar splash, but it falls into some very familiar classic traps, and one modern one.
Chocobo GP (Nintendo Switch)
Developer: Square Enix
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: March 10, 2022
Here’s what this new iteration offers. Chocobo GP (online 64-person staggered races), seasonal unlocks, multiplayer, time attack, an in-game shop (more on that later), time attack, series races (rank number one across four races), a custom mode, and a story campaign (crucial), with most modes support two-player split-screen. Online wasn’t available to us, so we couldn’t try out GPs, but backing up a bit, the latter mode is the most important part for a lot of people, myself included.
So many kart racers lack a proper story mode, and ones that do historically include them are rare: especially today. Chocobo GP‘s story provides the old school rush of unlocking more content, from tracks to racers, through normal progression. You’ll start with a roster of three, then work your way up from there. The titular Chocobo is on skates and can boost, Shirma the white mage puts up a defensive barrier, which is crucial in some races, and Ben the Behemoth (ha) rushes towards opponents and knocks them around. I’ll get to the character abilities soon, as they’re the heart and soul of the game.
The visuals are hard to convey through stills, but in motion, a lot of the starker elements come to life. Some of the early ones are a bit uninspired, but as you progress and unlock more, it opens up from a design perspective. Overall I wish the tracks took bigger risks (no racer has topped Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing on this front), but the power to do “short” variations of courses is a nice touch. A custom mode further lets you alter kart speed, toggle abilities, swap bot difficulty settings or turn them off, toggle a random course option, or queue up the number of races for a flexible cup.
After a quick tutorial, you’ll kick off the story and the very light conceit of “racing to win a magic wish” which is like a cute take on Twisted Metal. Races are bookended by cutscenes, which can sometimes stretch their justification for existing (including some really static, very basic setups), or provide welcome comic relief between challenges. Seeing nostalgic designs and characters pop in is a treat that Final Fantasy fanatics will get more out of than anyone else.
The core racing engine is going to be very familiar. You have the starting countdown boost, drift with multiple levels of color-coded spark boosts, and items (magicite). The latter has a slight strategic tint, as different item boxes (eggs) can either provide you with a random type of magic, or the same type you already have queued up. In other words, you can potentially stack boost items if you’re ahead, which is an interesting way to handle an otherwise rote and rubber-bandy/RNG item system.
Chocobo GP follows the mantra of one step forward, one step back. While a few of these ideas are exciting, you are going to be spending a lot of time going through the motions that were created decades ago by its forefathers of racing. Where the game really shines — and where development should have drilled more into — is the racers themselves. Throughout each race you have an MP meter of sorts, which lets you trigger a special ability when it fills up. We’ve already talked about the starter racer kits, but as you progress you’ll unlock more nuanced powers like a per-button-press boost (which allows full control), a fire wall that can be strategically placed (Ifrit), or a spell that can be changed each time you use it via button combinations (Vivi).
There are a few clone abilities, and no, it’s not all balanced; but the sheer amount of variance and personality shoved into these is impressive, not to mention the ability to alter your vehicle for balance, speed, or grip. It brings me back to an era where racers owned their silliness in an unapologetic fashion. The fact that Chocobo GP has voice-acting veterans like Christina Vee, Crispin Freeman, and Steve Blum, is the cherry on top. I can’t stress that enough, I felt a lot of joy playing through a lot of races and experimenting with all the new unlocks, and gameplay styles they brought to the table.
So there is a shop, and it has multiple layers: one fine, one bad. The first one is innocuous: a way to earn in-game gold to buy new color variations for racers, as well as stickers to customize them. As you unlock more stuff, so too does the shop expand. Which brings me around to one of the biggest issues I have with Chocobo GP: it has a season pass system and a premium currency.
At the time of the review, the eShop listing for “Mythril” (premium bucks) was not live, but it’s easy to see how it works given the details Square Enix has provided for the season pass system. Watching Squall and Cloud get relegated to a season pass and/or gil purchases just brought my enjoyment down outright, because these crucial cast members should just be in the game with no strings attached. Even if people are getting the first free hit of the pass at launch, the entire conceit left a bad taste in my mouth, and the monetization efforts look weirder when juxtaposed to the innocence of kart racing and the art style.
Chocobo GP, a budget title of sorts, was never going to challenge Mario Kart, and it never needed to. But if you’re looking for a serviceable racer to play on the side that’s full of old school unlocks it’s a fine option; provided you can get past a few hurdles. Hopefully a series of patches, the eventual possible elimination of the season pass system, and a price cut will make this package way more enticing. I’ll be singing its praises if that happens, but in the meantime, consider it a cautious recommendation.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher, with offline content.]