It’s that time of year again. The stars have aligned and the great executives at Nintendo have foretold that a new Pokémon game must appear to placate the masses; it shall be a new Mystery Dungeon game, for they hath proven most popular because the acolytes doth love being able to play as Pikachu. Lo, there shall be much rejoicing.
For those who aren’t familiar with this brand of Pokémon spin-off, the Mystery Dungeon franchise allows you to play as one of a selection of Pokémon whilst you dungeon crawl to save the world. Playing our review copy of Gate to Infinity, which is also the first time I had experienced the franchise, made one thing very clear - this is very much a kiddies first JRPG and I am in no way the target audience for the game. However, I’m a (kind-of) professional, so I sat down to try and have a look at the game in the mindset of someone who hasn’t spent the last fifteen years grinding through every JRPG he could lay his hands on. In any case, Nintendo are famous for making kids games that grown-ups love to play, right?
The first thing we need to do is to buckle down and... not do very much as we’ll be spending almost the first half hour of the game going through menus and watching on-screen characters talking to each other. First up, you need to choose which Pokémon your squishy human form will be transformed into for the duration of the game, and also a Pokémon to be your best friend through the game. Although the child I was role-playing would have surely gone straight for a certain familiar yellow rodent, having played Pokémon before I was forced to break character and snap up a grass-type character in certain knowledge that the first few dungeons of enemies would likely be full of ground and water types that would fall swiftly to my leafy might, whereas an electric rat would likely see me grinding from the get go. An hour later upon getting into my first battle I was proven absolutely correct in my assumptions and I was soon flying through the game.
This was made easier by the format of battles in the game. Interestingly, rather than have everyone line up to take turns as is traditional, if you encounter an enemy (all of them are wandering around the map rather than being random encounters) you can attack it or try to run away. If the rest of your party have wandered off on their own as they have a tendency to do, they will have to slowly move towards you at a square of the grid per round of combat being fought. This isn’t quite as bad as it sounds as it's very simple to run away from anything you don’t like the look of, and when your allies do get there they can quickly gang up on and deal with the rival Pokémon in short order.
The story is, as you might expect for a kids game, fairly straightforward – you want to be human again and whilst you’re waiting around for that to happen (quite literally) you might as well form a team of adventurers with your friends alongside some of the Pokémon you encounter in the dungeons and have a chance to ask to join your party when you beat them. Whilst you’re at it, you might as well build up a town of merchants and training gyms (called your paradise for some reason), in a manner that made me think of that mini-game from Assassins Creed 2. The goodies are all very, very good and the baddies are just generally causing a bit of mischief on such a low level that Team Rocket would rival Hitler in comparison. Everything essentially boils down to that age-old trope: the power of friendship. It’s all very low-key stuff and won’t massively engage anyone over the age of twelve or so, but that’s realistically where this game is aiming at. The only story point of note is the somewhat bizarre romance that keeps developing between Dunsparce and Virizion, which visually is a essentially a maggot proposing to a deer, but this is Pokémon world and we’re role-playing children so this is all totally innocent and not weird at all!
The visuals are solid throughout the game but that’s about all that can be said here - it's all the game really needs, meaning that the 3DS never has to run the risk of pushing its processor anywhere near to the limit while providing plenty of bright primary colours to enthral the game's younger audience. All the Pokémon are lovingly rendered, though there’s a distinct tilt in favour of the newer ‘mon and Pikachu’s inclusion as pretty much the only one from the original games is blatant pandering to cartoon fans if ever I saw it. It’s certainly a good thing that everything looks good as you’ll be seeing all the environments and character models a lot - the randomly-generated dungeons re-use the same dozen or so tiles per type of dungeon (forest/mountain/cave etc.) and the enemies tend to swarm through them, meaning per each level of every dungeon you're likely to encounter a dozen of each type. The only other oddity comes from the Paradise-building game, which sees you plonk down a variety of different buildings and landscapes, none of which are particularly uniform in style. This means that your lush, idyllic waterfall location quickly comes to resemble the market scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The visuals are certainly better than the decidedly bland elevator music the game provides. Sound overall is pretty lacking in fact – the Pokémon’s new ability to speak has also rendered them silent in the manner of traditional JRPGs, absent even of the grunts, growls and electronic synthesiser noises of the earlier games. Given the amount of dialogue present I wouldn’t be expecting fully acted parts but even a few bits of sound for the battles would have been a pleasant change.
Overall then, this is a pretty good game for the audience it’s aimed at and they are bound to love it and have a blast playing through the game and acquiring the myriad of available critters to join their party while building everything possible in their paradise. If you’re looking to buy for your sprogs then this game should certainly please and keep them quiet for a few hours. If this is the case, please take what I write below with a pinch of salt. You see, although I tried to play as a child, and this game is for them, I am still an adult critic and I do therefore need to address the flaws in the game even when they may not be an issue for the target audience.
Let’s start (and end) with the difficulty curve. There isn’t one. Although it’s a kids game there’s just no real challenge here at all. You can literally run away from every enemy in the game safe in the knowledge that your three party members will do all the work for you whilst you very occasionally have to remind them to eat a healing berry. Your health regenerates as you walk and you can even stand in one place and hold A and B until everyone's health has been completely topped up. The dungeons occasionally introduce mechanics which prevent this, but there’s rarely much of an effect and any difficulty that you come across can instantly be resolved by using one of the hundreds of items you come across most of which you’ll leave lying on the ground as your bag slots get filled very quickly and you never really need to use anything. Even the traditional elemental system of Pokémon does very little here.
This is further compounded by the fact that every dungeon is randomly generated, meaning that countless times the first room I entered had the stairs to the next level already there. At one point in the game I went up five floors in about two minutes because of this. It also means that there are no real traps or puzzles to go through (one puzzle on one of the initial levels is about all you get) and there’s no need to explore beyond the stairs as there are no super rare bits of gear to be grabbed.
The only thing to make a slight move towards being more challenging is the fact that the character you choose to be your best friend at the start of the game apparently becomes bonded to your hip as well, as you can never have them leave your party and when they go down so do you, forcing you to restart the dungeon unless you’ve passed one of the very rare checkpoints. Even this though is nothing more than an annoyance as you lose a few of your useless items and retain all the experience you gained up to the point you died anyway.
This means that the game is very repetitive and for older audiences becomes a chore which you’ll soon be bored of, even in the later levels which confuse difficulty with making the dungeons have even more floors, with some in the tedious 15-20 floor region.
As said above, take these critiques for what they are - an adult's view of a child's game. Should we expect a child's game to be made with the same quality and attention to detail as any other? Well, maybe, but that’s an argument for another time. For now, if you have young kids then grab this for them and they’ll be quiet for hours. Otherwise one of the ‘full’ Pokémon games will serve you much better if you’re a fan of the franchise.