Every once in a while, the people in charge of a hot property will decide to go somewhere new with it and see what it can do. Whether it's the 18 trillion variations on Tetris or just seeing what can happen when Mario runs back and forth instead of side to side, there's always somebody who wants to take a beloved old title and see how Popular Thing v2.0 runs when it's put through its paces. Well, the people at Nintendo are always looking for something new to do with their scorching hot Pokémon franchise, which has given rise to everything from the "It's about time" Pokémon Colosseum series to the "Why, Nintendo, why?" Pokémon Snap game. Some time ago, they decided to create Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, a game that puts you in the shoes, flippers, paws, etc., of a Pokémon and sends you adventuring with others on a series of grand quests. Does Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky a redefine the genre and revolutionize an established series to bring new blood and new fans to the Pokémon world? I'm afraid not, Pokéfans; what we have here is an utterly average dungeon crawler with some serious flaws.
Gameplay starts with Explorers of Sky forcing you through a brief questionnaire that it supposedly uses to check your personality so that it can assign you the kind of Pokémon you'll be controlling. You don't get to choose what you'll be; the game uses inane questions to make its own judgment, followed by forcing you to press your finger to the screen for several seconds. I tried this test no fewer than five times, and each time, I got a different Pokémon. Either I have multiple personality disorder and I'm not aware of it, or the game has some degree of randomness in choosing your character's species. Sure, you get to choose your partner afterward, but there's a level of identification — that's supposed to be you there — that's missing when your only choice is who's going to be tagging along. From there, you're cast ashore without your memory (amnesia trope, go!) and meet up with your friend, who is accosted by two "bad guy" Pokémon who steal their prized possession. Go with your friend through the tutorial dungeon, stomp the bad guys, and you're guided to the headquarters of the guild. You're forced to join the club so that you can enjoy indentured servitude to them for the remainder of your days. These guys even keep 90 percent of the profits from your quests, leaving you with a pittance.
The game is pretty, at least. Colors are bright and stand out, and the visuals are clear enough to leave very little question as to precisely what you're looking at. It's a good thing, too; with one mini-game where you try to identify a Pokémon by its footprint (and clues that show at the bottom of the screen) and visual trickery in the various dungeons, it's important that this title maintain its visual acuity. The music is also fairly nice; it's peppy and upbeat at appropriate times, but creepy and pensive at others. Whatever one may think of Nintendo, they always make sure that products in which they personally have a hand have very good presentation, and the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games are no exception to this rule.
In all fairness, the game is fairly faithful to its origins. You can only remember four moves at a time, so whenever you learn a new one, you have to either forget an old one or choose not to learn the new skill. Type weaknesses also persist; flying types are vulnerable to electric attacks, fire types are vulnerable to water attacks, and so on. Unfortunately, one aspect of the original games that failed to make it into this version is the inventory of unlimited size, and it's sorely missed. You start out with a very small bag to carry items, necessitating selling and storing and otherwise spending an inordinate amount of time doing inventory management rather than actually playing the game. Some useful items will simply have to be ignored, for no greater reason than the fact that you can't carry them. Worse yet, there's the Belly system. You have to keep finding apples and "gummis" to stay in fighting form, and if you pass out from hunger, that's that. You're ejected from the dungeon, and the mission is a failure. This isn't Nethack, Nintendo! The target audience of Pokémon doesn't want to constantly deal with having to keep their characters fed while they micromanage their inventory. I consider both of these attributes belonging under the category of "failure."
The dungeons are no picnic, either. First, they're totally randomized, which means you can forget about looking at maps and getting any help beyond what the game gives you. Second, the enemies that abound follow you relentlessly once they spot you, even going so far as to snatch up items you haven't retrieved yet. Even if these enemies are defeated, a brief wait sees them re-spawning, so there's theoretically no end to the foes on any given level.
Moreover, you can "catch 'em all" in theory, but the only way for you to get new Pokémon is to beat them until they would otherwise faint, and then maybe they'll be impressed enough to want to join you. Agree, and they'll join your ranks (possibly ejecting a previous ally), bringing their badly wounded status with them. Refuse, and they simply vanish. No second chances, no "maybe later." Either they join you immediately or they vanish, and that's that. If a beaten Pokémon drops an item in water, it's gone forever unless you use a rare item to wade out and retrieve it.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky suffers from one-sided characters, an annoying mission structure, and the often-confusing menus. Suffice it to say that unless you enjoy Pokémon enough to endure the randomized dungeon wandering ad nauseam, the weak story won't be enough to keep you interested. If you want a Pokémon game, wait for the release of Heart Gold and Soul Silver in 2010. In the meantime, this is a mystery best left unexplored.
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