Chocobo GP really doesn’t put its best foot forward. Even after buying the full game (or upgrading to it from the Lite version), one of the first things you’ll see when you load up the game is a huge ad for a way to spend more money on a Season Pass, promising enticing but time-limited rewards like Cloud and Squall as playable characters. It reeks of the sort of FOMO-powered events that a lot of live-service games use to “encourage” players to drop cash on premium currencies, and it’s a sour note to start any game on.
It’s also a shame because it’s not nearly as invasive as the aggressive presentation makes it seem (especially after a post-launch balance tweak), but the expectation it sets is going to put a lot of people off a game that can be a lot of fun. It’s not the best kart racer on Switch (let’s be honest, it’s going to take something miraculous to outclass Mario Kart 8), but it’s a solid game with plenty of depth, longevity, and an abundance of the charm and goofy Final Fantasy nostalgia that the Chocobo spinoff series is built upon.
The basic idea behind Chocobo GP is much the same as any other kart racer: take cartoony iterations of beloved characters and race them around vibrant, playful tracks, where realistic racing simulation is about as far removed as possible and the chaos that comes from game-changing power-ups can make enemies out of the best of friends. Despite the apparent simplicity, it can be a difficult formula to really get right—course design and game balance are a fine art—but a vibrant, playful atmosphere can go a long way, and GP has that in spades.
This is most apparent in the game’s story mode, where beloved Final Fantasy mascots and comical interpretations of iconic monsters and summons gather together to race through all sorts of memorable locations. The actual plot is paper-thin (knowingly, deliberately so), but it’s what lays the groundwork for a seemingly endless string of nostalgia-riddled jokes. Between puns, goofy riffs on memorable moments in the main games, and a willingness to break the fourth wall in the deadpan ways, it dials the silliness all the way up. It’d almost be groan-worthy, if it wasn’t so wonderfully playful about it all—though your mileage will depend entirely on how familiar you are with Final Fantasy as a whole.
That energy feeds into the character designs and courses, too. From Chocobo and his jet-boots to Terra riding a souped-up Magitek armour, from the Big Bridge of Final Fantasy V fame to the cobbled streets and laneways of Final Fantasy IX’s Alexandria, the whole game is defined its vibrant, cheerful atmosphere, with all sorts of fun little details for longtime fans to enjoy. When you just let the colours, the charm, and the nostalgia wash over you, it’s a delightful thing to get lost in.
At the same time, it can be frustrating, especially in the beginning. Magicite (items) are incredibly powerful, and when you’re still getting acquainted with the game, it can feel like luck plays a much bigger role than player skill—an unlucky item pull in latter part of the final lap is all it takes to drop you from 1st place to 8th, and that’s a scenario that crops up far more often than it should. A lack of finesse in the course design makes that worse; they track layouts aren’t terrible, but they’re rather basic and lack the interesting complexity that you find in the likes of Mario Kart. That simplicity makes the magicite feel even stronger, with seemingly little room to use mastery of the course to mitigate the random element. Bad luck is always part of a kart racer, but it can feel especially pronounced in Chocobo GP.
The thing is, it’s actually much better balanced than it first seems, but—much like the whole Season Pass thing—this game just really struggles to make a good first impression. Magicite is certainly powerful and brings a degree of luck into the mix, but there’s a level of strategy to its effective use (and to avoiding other players’ attacks) that only becomes apparent with experience. Smart use of character abilities, intricate course knowledge, and the sort of instinctive awareness that builds up over time play an important role, and it’s in these things that Chocobo GP does find a surprising amount of depth and a high skill ceiling.
Which brings us to what is, arguably, the main attraction: Chocobo GP mode. At its core, it’s a 64-player knockout tournament, with groups of eight players jumping into a race and the top four moving onto the next round, until the last surviving eight duke it out for the crown in a grand finale. There’s something inherently exciting about the elimination setup, but more than that, it’s an online mode that manages to both be really easy to just jump into for a quick game and offer a lot of competitive value.
Matchmaking is quick (for now, while there’s a decent player-base, at least) and without any sort of persistent ranking system the stakes are low; the worst thing that can happen is you get knocked out in the first round, get a token amount of EXP, and then just jump into the next one. But as you get to understand the nuances of the game better, you’ll likely start to place higher and progress to further rounds with more consistency. It’s a satisfying feedback and progress loop, the kind that ranked modes often try to artificially create, but here it emerges in a more organic way.
And so we come back to that whole Season Pass drama. Yes, the seemingly endless string of level ups and rewards is a “grind”, in the sense that you have to play a lot (though not an inordinate amount) to unlock the most appealing rewards unless you decide to shell out for a shortcut. But it’s not a mindless repetition of some minor activity, it’s a “grind” that involves just… playing the game. If you’re enjoying the game, the Season Pass creates a little extra something to peg some sense of persistence progress to, and if you’re not enjoying it, forcing yourself to keep playing just to unlock Cloud isn’t going to change that. And over the course of a two-month season, even a moderate amount of play will be enough to unlock the most crucial rewards—characters and karts—with the higher level rewards being mostly cosmetics and tickets that give you a little EXP boost.
There are still some eyebrow-raising aspects to the Season Pass. Technically, even the basic version of it costs a premium currency; for the current season, every player gets enough free Mythril for a basic pass without any extra spending, but there’s no guarantee that this will be the case in future. It remains to be seen whether Cloud and Squall will be made available by other means once the current season ends, and the exploitation of a fear of missing out is always a shady practice. And, like I said before, everything about the way Chocobo GP presents its microtransaction stuff makes it seem far more exploitative than it actually is, right down to some wording that makes it look like paid Mythril expires after a few months (though it actually doesn’t).
It doesn’t make a good first impression, but there’s a lot to like about Chocobo GP. It may not be as finely-tuned as the genre’s king, but there’s a lot more depth and nuance to the game than there first appears, especially in the 64-player tournaments that are the centrepiece. At the very least, its goofy sense of humour, playful jabs at Final Fantasy’s legacy, and the endearing nature of the Chocobo spinoff series create a delightful atmosphere that’s perfect for some kart racing shenanigans.
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Kart racing
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release date: 10 March 2022
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.