Square Enix first boosted onto the kart racing scene all the way back in 1999 with the Final Fantasy-themed Chocobo Racing on the original PlayStation. A rather average effort all things told, the game featured a few unique ideas of its own — such as a selection of special moves to choose from pre-race and a cute pop-up book style story mode to introduce its cast of characters — but, when it came to the all-important racing action, it was let down by a combination of underwhelming tracks and a lack of precision in its controls.
Fast forward 23 years and you could perhaps forgive us, then, for being slightly underwhelmed by the prospect of returning to the world of Final Fantasy-inspired karting in Chocobo GP, a direct sequel to the forgettable original that's seen a rocky road to development. Having been announced way back in 2010 for the 3DS before being canned entirely in 2013 and then resurrected — if only in name and spirit — in the last couple of years.
However, Square Enix has only gone and proven us entirely wrong in our cynicism; against all expectations, Chocobo GP is actually a bit of a belter. This is a bright and colourful kart racer that's packed full of modes, unlockable characters and cosmetics and, more importantly, it's one that delivers satisfying action on the track with slick controls and a massive improvement in level design making for some addictively chaotic racing.
Let's kick things off with modes. There's the usual selection of single and multiplayer offerings to dig into including cup and custom races, time attack, local splitscreen co-op for two players and online lobbies — the latter of which we were unable to gain access to in time for this review. All of this is then bolstered by the game's Story Mode and the titular Chocobo GP itself, a 64-player online knockout competition that sees racers compete in eight-player heats with the top four progressing to the next stage until those left standing face off in a grand finale. We were invited to try this mode out for review purposes but, unfortunately, didn't manage to find a game during the short access window, so we'll need to wait and see if it delivers on the promise that's absolutely there. Keep an eye out for an update.
Update: Since the game released, there have been reports of a rocky online launch — reports which we can sadly verify. While plenty of players seem to have had no trouble getting online races, we've tried multiple times in GP and lobby modes and have been unable to get a single online game yet.
Square Enix has put out statements detailing the current online issues and fixes it has in the works, so hopefully these will be cleared up sooner rather than later. In the meantime, the score below absolutely stands, but beware that Chocobo GP's online component is, at the time of writing, still very much a work-in-progress.
We'll update this review again once the situation changes.
What we did manage to jump into, though, was all of the single player content here and there's certainly plenty to get stuck into in this regard. We kicked off our time with Story Mode and, let's get this out of the way early doors, this is the one weak element in an otherwise strong game, a completely nonsensical affair that's very obviously aimed at younger kids. The attempts at tongue-in-cheek humour here fall flat and you can feel free to take what tutorials it dishes out and then skip through the rest of its tedious cutscenes in order to get through its races and nab the selection of unlockable characters and tracks it rewards you with for your patience. Yes, diehard Final Fantasy fans may derive a tad more pleasure from it than we did as it features a bunch of nods to events from the franchise's history, but the writing is just so excruciatingly bad, and the cutscenes so unnecessarily long, that we think even the most excitable of FF fans will tire of it in short order.
Moving on from this one rough spot, though, and it's all gravy, with the game's Series Races providing a generous 12 cups to motor your way through — either solo or with a pal in splitscreen mode — each of these cups mixing up the game's nine available tracks, giving you hyperspeed, long, short and technical variations to get to grips with. The selection of tracks on offer are a huge improvement on what was served up in Chocobo GP's predecessor too, with the likes of Alexandria, Chocobo Farm, Zozo, Monster Village and Cid's Test Track all looking fantastic and providing plenty of shortcuts and obstacles to navigate as you get to grips with the slick kart racing mechanics at the heart of proceedings.
Those racing mechanics, as is perhaps expected by now, closely ape the feel of the all-conquering Mario Kart 8, with your racer able to drift through corners to activate two levels of boost, perform tricks off jumps and ramps for further speed-boosting opportunities and snatch offensive items from item boxes, here replaced by "Magic Eggs" that contain various elemental "Magicites". Magicites give you access to fire, wind, water and lightning attacks, as well as more imaginative fare such as nifty portals that you can use to jump ahead of the pack as you race.
Chocobo GP then adds to all of this by giving each of its 23(!) Final Fantasy characters a dedicated special ability that can be deployed several times during a race as a gauge in the bottom left of the screen fills up. Shiva can unleash a frosty blast that freezes other players in place, for example, Maduin wipes out other racers as he blasts forward ferociously, Irma gets herself extended boosts to play around with and Ifrit sends a mighty wall of flames down the track to take out any karts silly enough to position themselves directly in front of him.
Indeed, the special abilities here are a great addition to the core racing action that make choosing a character that little bit more interesting than just scanning their speed, acceleration and handling stats and, as we got to grips with the game and unlocked a few more racers, we quickly found a few favourites, with Mecha Chocobo's weaponized boost attack our current go-to for clearing the track of our competitors. Combining all of these special abilities with the game's Magicite items, as well as crystals dotted around tracks that can be collected for a speed boost (and in order to earn tickets to spend at the in-game shop) and you've got yourself races that feel delightfully busy and chaotic at all times.
There's always some weapon or ability available to deploy here, always a boost to activate or shortcut to blast across and, when played on the harder of the two difficulty settings available at the outset, this is also a surprisingly challenging and competitive racer with AI opponents who know exactly where and when to pull out an ability to take you down. It also does away with annoying rubber-banding, meaning you can really pull away from the pack if you're utilising your skills properly, rather than finding yourself overtaken the second you make a slight mistake.
It helps too that the whole thing also looks and sounds surprisingly impressive whether you're playing in docked or handheld mode. Kart racers, outside of Mario Kart of course, can tend to struggle a little with frame rates and loading times on Switch, but here there's no such problems, the game serving up smooth racing action with no obvious signs of dynamic resolution in effect in order to do so, resulting in crystal clear visuals regardless of how you choose to play.
It's a shame we haven't been able to get a hands-on with the multiplayer aspects of this one just yet but, if the netcode delivers, we reckon that the 64-player Chocobo GP mode could be the cherry on top here and a perfect accompaniment to an already decent selection of solo and co-operative modes. Square Enix is also releasing a free "Lite" version at launch which enables players to try out a limited sample of what the game's got to offer with all of your progress carrying over should you then choose to splash out on the full version.
It's a move that signals a certain confidence in the game, and it's confidence that's not misplaced — we reckon Chocobo GP is up there with the very best kart racers currently available on Switch. No, we can't quite believe we're saying that either. This is a slick and addictive effort packed full of modes and with a great big cast of characters and some excellent tracks to get to grips with. With more characters, including the likes of Cloud Strife himself, due to arrive with the game's paid season pass and, we're sure, more tracks and other online events coming down the line, this is one racer we'll be sticking with for the foreseeable future.
Chocobo GP is a delightful surprise from Square Enix, a slick and addictive effort that serves up chaotic kart racing action featuring a generous roster of Final Fantasy characters battling it out on well-designed tracks inspired by locations from across the franchise's history. Yes, the story mode may be a bit of a misfire, but with plenty of other single player content to dig into and the promise of 64-player carnage via the online Chocobo GP mode, this is one of the most polished and entertaining kart racers currently available on Switch and, with a free Lite version dropping at launch, you've got nothing to lose by checking it out for yourself before committing to a purchase.