Review - "Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon"
I've gotten a bit of a third wind when it comes to the Pokemon franchise as a whole.
When I was a kid, I lapped up pretty much anything and everything I could related to the series. The cards, the anime, the games, the toys, the bedspreads, the toothbrushes (really!)... I was obsessed, like most kids of my generation. I fell out of it until the beginning of high school, when a few of my friends got me hooked again, and I obsessively went to GameStop at each launch to buy both versions, even sleeping in my clothes and shoes one night so I could be ready as soon as I got up. Going into college, though, interest starting withering up again. I just felt like the series was repeating itself, and that not enough was really there to keep me going. I even wrote a super hipster blog post about it on my favorite gaming site. I was done for good... probably.
But now, as I'm writing this, I just got back from McDonald's, where I bought two of their new Pokemon Happy Meal toys; I've sunk a bunch of time in Pokemon Omega Ruby; and I'm even thinking of going back and trying to go through X and Y... on top of buying Torchic and Vulpix plushes. Part of the reason for this latest change in heart? Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon made it easy to fall in love with this series again.
Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon
Available On: Nintendo 3DS
Which is pretty odd, considering the other entries in Chunsoft's Mystery Dungeon line of spin-offs didn't really phase me. In fact, they were part of the reason that I started to care less and less about the franchise... on top of the fact that my ex-girlfriend was obsessed with it. But I digress: I've never thought they were really that great. Blue Rescue Team was probably the best one, though. It had a sense of whimsy, humor, and was hard in that way that was mostly not frustrating... at first blush, anyway.
But with each subsequent entry, it just got desperate. The plots got too bland, and were sprinkled with some of the worst narrative choices I could think of. The gameplay didn't evolve all that much, and in fact, got dumbed down from the first game. And then, Gates of Infinity hit, and that seemed to just be the end of it all. The ultimate in bland design, bad storytelling, and a sacrifice of the aesthetics that I'd grown fond of. It felt like the logical conclusion to the route Chunsoft had been taking the series.
Which is why, in many ways, Super Mystery Dungeon feels like a distinct attempt to reboot the franchise as opposed to continue it. Ken Sugimori's art is on the box again, instead of ugly 3D renders. The plot is back to being simple and cute, for the most part. And, most importantly, it all feels fresh again... yet familiar enough to satiate fans of the franchise.
See, the basic conceit, flow, and progression of a Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game are still here, and then some. You do a personality test, you get assigned a Pokemon, you realize that you're a human trapped in a Pokemon body, then you go on adventures with a companion. You'll wind up joining some sort of a guild that revolves around exploring dungeons, and you'll probably end up getting new companions, and interacting with the umpteen zillion different Pokemon that are in here. It's not too radical of a change.
The big change that makes it all work, though, is that the old rigmarole has gotten a fresh coat of paint slapped onto it, and quite a shiny coat to boot. Dialogue no longer straddles the uncomfortable line of "childishly simple" and "weirdly complicated," and instead, winds up being a really fun mixture of "gut-bustingly funny" and "microscopically epic." Yes, this is still distinctly a game for kids. It's about little children Pokemon going to school, getting into mischief, making friends, and having adventures. But the writing is snappier than ever before, with each Pokemon having their own distinct style of speech, and the stuff they say managing to make me constantly have a smile on my face, and even laugh out loud a few times. It's for kids in the same nostalgic, charming way that Peanuts is, and not in the cloying, obnoxious way that Family Circus is, in other words.
And that good dialogue has to carry the game for a while, because it definitely takes a bit for things to start going. A large portion of the early game revolves around very small excursions before finally, hours later, starting to dive into the bigger, more substantial stuff that revolves all the world's Legendary Pokemon getting turned to stone. Personally, I didn't mind this. Instead of being an everyday, ordinary Pokemon getting thrust into greatness, players have to slowly adopt the role of everyday, ordinary Pokemon, and then, after they get used to that, are forced to confront all the consequential, world-altering stuff. It gives the game a distinct sense of scale, which I admire. And after you finish the main brunt of the plot, the game really opens up, with tons to do, lots to see, and approximately seventy billion Pokemon to meet.
Even better, all of this isn't even a chore to get to. In fact, for the first time, I would hazard to say that a Mystery Dungeon game is actually fun. Stalwarts and diehards forgive me, but I've never totally understood the appeal. The "move around on a grid, die in one hit, then lose everything and about five hours of progress" approach has felt even more unforgiving than something From Software would cook up, and then some. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, Shiren The Wanderer, Izuna (it's basically one)... I grow tired and just give up after a while. And as I can attest to with the later Pokemon-themed entries, making it easier doesn't fix it, either; it just makes it feel more tedious. I like the basic gameplay, but the flow eventually makes me irate.
Super Mystery Dungeon, however, manages to capture the spirit of the early hours of Blue Rescue Team, then keeps milking it for the entire game, much to my delight. Make no mistake, Chunsoft has cooked up another devilishly hard game, and have gone back to the strict "die and lose everything" formula. And yet, it doesn't feel discouraging. The field of movement feels much more fair. The enemies don't have massive difficulty spikes with each level of a dungeon. Your Pokemon's belly is the only one you have to worry about feeding. You can even use an item to save inside of dungeons now.
A lot of these tweaks may sound small, but they go a long way into making Super Mystery Dungeon an enjoyably challenging experience as opposed to a cheap exercise in frustration. It's a lot more fun to die and realize where I went wrong, and rest easy knowing I saved and stashed my items somewhere, as opposed to dying and losing everything and hating the game and hating myself and then smashing the cartridge against a rock. It's hard but rewarding, is what I'm trying to say.
Oh, and you can play as every starter Pokemon ever, too. That's pretty cool. You don't even have to use the one you get from taking the quiz, which is pretty much the only thing Gates to Infinity got right. I did, though. It feels lame not following through with the one the game gives me.
Basically, Super Mystery Dungeon's gameplay is a riff on the same stuff we've gotten from past entries, but it's a pretty major riff considering how little these games have changed from entry to entry. Every tweak, every addition, every minor feature seems like a calculated attempt at earning goodwill back from the most jaded of franchise devotees and the most dismissive of longtime critics. The result is a grid-based RPG with a great deal of depth, a nice flow, and a metric ton of content to keep players occupied for ages to come.
It's all really pretty, too. Of course, I still miss the 2D sprites, because I'm a sucker for good sprite-work, which all of the games pre-Gates had in spades. But it seems Chunsoft is firmly committed to taking the franchise in a polygonal direction, and at least this time, they've done it right. Everything is bright, colorful, happy, cheerful, and pretty much any other superlative in that vein. Textures are smooth and surprisingly detailed, too, bringing life to the expressive, bouncy character animations. To round it all out, there's a consistently smooth framerate the entire time, which is impressive considering how crisp everything looks, and a feat that no 3DS entry of the main Pokemon franchise has managed yet. Which is really sad, if you think about it.
The only real serious critique here is the music. As silly as this may sound to some, the music actually stands out to me in this game as mediocre, and even outright bad in extreme cases. This franchise has always had pretty great music, but this time around, it's all pretty generic, rote stuff that doesn't inspire much enthusiasm. Granted, it definitely gets better when more serious stuff starts happening, narrative-wise, but for the first major portion of the game, the soundtrack is just lame and forgettable, and feels childish in a distinctly obnoxious way.
And yet, that's a fairly minor knock when looking at the rest of the package. Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon is, as I said above, a soft reboot for the franchise. It took the core strengths of the early entries, then eliminated all of the excess growth that had latched onto subsequent games and fermented into bland moldiness. On top of that, it refined core mechanics that have desperately needed fine-tuning for over a decade at this point, and by proxy, pushed not only the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series forward, but the entirety of the Mystery Dungeon brand as well.
Will people who hate this style of game suddenly fall in love with it? Nope. It's still very much its own thing, love it or hate it. But as somebody who's always loved the gameplay but hated everything else, I can firmly say that Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon is a game that's not only the best in its series, but the very best (like no one ever was, even,) in its own style of gameplay. It's one of the better RPGs this year, and a solid game for both role-playing fans and Pokemaniacs alike.
If Nintendo keeps up games of this caliber, then count me as a Pokemon fan again for the foreseeable future.
- A fun, cute story that eventually turns into a whimsical epic.
- Great dialogue with memorable characters.
- Engaging, deep gameplay with a steep but fair challenge.
- Super cute art style with great visuals.
- Mediocre, and sometimes insipid, musical score.
- Won't do much to sway people who hate Mystery Dungeon games.