Chocobo's Dungeon follows treasure hunter Cid and his Chocobo partner as they find themselves transported to Lostime, a mysterious town whose residents regularly have their memories erased by the "Bell of Oblivion". Being immune to the effects of the Bell, Chocobo embarks on a quest to retrieve the town's people's memories by delving into their minds (represented by randomly generated dungeons) with help from the enigmatic Raffaello. A few somewhat predictable twists and turns ensure the plot becomes more interesting towards the end of the game, even if it never really provides motivation to progress on its own merits. While story development is given more attention here than in most roguelikes, the unskippable cut-scenes -- complete with awkward pauses, terrible lip-syncing and grating voice work during conversations -- soon begins to lose it appeal.
Thankfully, players will still spend the majority of their time exploring randomly generated dungeons, slaying foes, and gathering items. Doing so relies on the roguelike genre's tried and tested turn-based mechanics, which ensure a delightful mix of fast-paced action and strategic thinking by enforcing a limit of one action per turn, but allowing actions to be performed in quick succession. The game's basic gameplay structure, then, involves delving into ever-deeper dungeons, gathering equipment and experience points in order to become sufficiently powerful to take on upcoming challenges. Unlike Shiren the Wanderer and its peers, Chocobo's Dungeon features a nice and gentle difficulty curve to help ease players in. The difficulty definitely begins to pick after a while, but the game's developers have taken steps to minimise certain frustrations previously ingrained in the genre.
For starters, death is no longer the absolute be all and end all that it is in other roguelikes. Items and Gil can still be lost, but crucial equipment (Saddles and Talons for defence and attack bonuses) remain intact provided they are equipped upon death. To ease things further, even the tougher end-game dungeons have checkpoints every 10 or 20 floors, allowing the player to escape to town, save their game, store their stash, upgrade their equipment and return without the need to backtrack. For many, these features will be a welcome solution to tedious backtracking and the excruciating loss of hours worth of progress in an instant, but there's no denying that the game loses something in the process. The most notable deviation from genre standards, however, is the retention of experience after death, potentially allowing for level-grinding to bypass difficult obstacles.
While it's possible to avoid grinding, the ability to immediately retry a failed dungeon in a more powerful form somewhat dilutes the need to play strategically and carefully. As such, it is left up to the player whether they learn from past mistakes and make improvements to technique or simply storm in Talons blazing. Ultimately, though, playing strategically is still sufficiently encouraged and rewarded -- particularly in certain bonus dungeons that drop the player to level 1, lower their health to level 1, and so on -- and the aforementioned changes have the added benefit of minimising the frustration of stumbling into unavoidable and unlucky circumstances, such as a deadly monster house. If the roguelike fanatic is something of a scarcity, then the roguelike fanatic who will miss being stripped of their previous equipment and high level character due to a stint of bad luck is surely even rarer.
Chocobo's Dungeon actually makes one other large change to the roguelike mold in the form of of job classes. Taken from the wider Final Fantasy universe, these range from staples such as Black Mage and Knight through to obscurities such as Dancer and Ninja. Each job grants Chocobo access to a series of abilities that can radically alter the way the game is played. The Scholar job, for example, is quite weak but can unveil the entire map (complete with traps and enemies) as well as scan foes for weaknesses. The Black Mage, on the other hand, has access to devastating spells but is vulnerable to physical attacks. While some of the abilities on offer are sightly unbalanced at times, they usually come at a cost that prevents things from becoming too skewed. The added layer of choice is more than welcome, though, as is the ability to tackle dungeons in completely different ways.
In addition to a healthy story mode that will eat up between 20 and 25 hours of your time, Chocobo's Dungeon features a slew of bonus dungeons, some of which can only be accessed after completing the main adventure. A 100 floor dungeon that plays sort of like the main game with the difficulty turned up joins a selection of small dungeons with special rules that require very specific strategies and a fair dose of luck to master. Each of these dungeons has a maximum level limit that is generally low enough to make grinding fruitless but high enough to ensure a decent challenge. Be warned, though, if you whizzed through earlier dungeons without exploring them thoroughly, you may find that you are too weak to tackle the more challenging dungeons without some hefty grinding beforehand.