"In a twist from the standard RPG formula, you're just about the only person in town who starts the adventure without amnesia."
Though the Mystery Dungeon series has been around in various incarnations for over 25 years, quite a few of them have not reached US shores. I've enjoyed the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games, so when I got the chance to review Chocobo's Mystery Dungeon: Every Buddy!, I was eager to see how the gameplay translated to a different series. I spent a fair number of hours really enjoying this version of the formula. Unfortunately, my enjoyment turned to frustration and defeat when the difficulty spiked around the halfway point, and then again around the 3/4 mark, where it went beyond my ability to overcome.
The core of Every Buddy's gameplay — as it is in every Mystery Dungeon game — is a fully turn-based system in which enemies only move a square on the grid when you do too. Each dungeon you enter has a set number of randomly-generated floors, populated with monsters to fight and objects to pick up. As in many roguelike games, the effects of items are not identified until you've tried using one during a particular run of the dungeon, so you can't know if what you just picked up will heal you or hurt you until you try it. But despite the risk, you'll probably find yourself trying those items, because you've got a health meter, a mana meter, and a hunger meter to worry about. And while simply walking around will regenerate your health and mana over time, every step you take empties your belly a bit, so you can essentially starve to death in the dungeon.
What makes this game different from the others in the series is also what makes it feel true to the Final Fantasy series: the job system. And it's an element that really makes the game shine, as the jobs are not only very different from each other, but are all useful. For example, when I first saw that I had unlocked the Scholar job, I didn't think I'd probably stick with it over offensively-focused jobs like Knight. But when I leveled up the Scholar job a bit and saw that it lets the player identify all items in their backpack, see the full layout of the floor they're on (including the enemies), and even partially refill their hunger meter, I was sold. There are 13 jobs in total, but you don't just get them all for progressing through the game — they are unlocked when you find them or complete various dungeons. All of the jobs I discovered felt worth the trouble, and that's not always the case in these games.
As you play through the dungeons, defeated monsters sometimes drop Buddy Points, and collecting enough of them from a specific enemy unlocks them as a companion for future runs. In addition to a normal attack, they each have one special ability that they can use to aid you. This adds a layer of strategy, as picking a companion with the proper special attack or defensive ability can mean the difference between success and defeat. Every Buddy's previously mentioned difficulty spikes are a good example of this.
Despite the fact that I had been taking every optional dungeon I could find, about halfway through the game, the difficulty jumped sharply, and I just couldn't beat the current story boss. After a lot of trial and error and many internet searches, I managed to find the one combination of job and companion monster that could defeat the boss. "Great," I thought, "I'm glad to have that behind me!" And then a few hours later, it happened again, but with a whole dungeon.
This particular dungeon has forty floors total, and a checkpoint every ten. I gave up after spending somewhere on the order of 20 hours trying to get from floor ten to twenty. It's possible that if I'd spent another 20 grinding on the optional dungeons and trying different job and companion combos, I'd have managed to get past this block as well. However, spending 40 hours in the game and making no actual progress is beyond what I have the patience for, and is more than I can fit into my gaming time.
It's a shame, too, because the job system isn't the only thing I like about this game. Its presentation is also nice, in both the audio and visual departments. Some of the outfits your chocobo puts on to show its current job are adorable, such as the fluffy ram costume for the Beastmaster job. And for once, palette swapped enemies make a lot of sense because the matching enemies are all upgraded versions of the same monster. So when you kill a blue flan, the Buddy Points it drops go toward unlocking whatever color of flan comes next in your list, not just toward the blue kind.
The story is also interesting: in a twist from the standard RPG formula, you're just about the only person in town who starts the adventure without amnesia. Everyone else begins not just ignorant of their past, but convinced that it's best to stay that way. But then an egg shows up, a seemingly human baby is born from it, and things get weird. Your main quest is to proceed through the town inhabitants' mental dungeons, restoring their memories when you succeed. Even without finishing the story, I found several points in the plot where they presented messages that I really liked, from good lessons about learning from your past instead of pushing it away to accepting that it's not a bad thing to be different from other people.
In the end, I think Every Buddy is the first game I've played that has actually made me feel old. If I were young and didn't have a million games in my backlog already, I could have happily spent my summer grinding away to level up and get to the point that I could have beaten it. But at this point in my gaming career, I was instead willing to have fun with it until it stopped being fun and then — after honestly trying to push past the pain — set it aside in favor of other experiences.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.