Roguelikes are a notoriously difficult genre to sell. The idea that the game expects you to die repeatedly makes it tough to find an audience. It isn't necessarily a bad thing, as a good roguelike has its niche and knows it well, but it also can be hard for it to grow beyond that niche. The Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games have always been a careful balancing act to appeal to the millions of Pokémon fans while maintaining enough challenge and difficulty so that they're not boring. The first two Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games do a surprisingly good job with this balancing act. Hardcore roguelike fans will probably think they're too easy, but they hit the right mix of accessible and challenging. Perhaps that's why it's disappointing that Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity is the first one to really slip up on that delicate balance.
Gates to Infinity opens up with a familiar story. You find yourself in a world of Pokémon, and you're suddenly transformed into one as well. You make a few friends, start a team, and venture into dungeons to make more friends and have an adventure. There's also a large overarching plot involving your character's visions of a vague doom for all Pokémon, but it's doled out in small chunks in between the adventure portions. The story is almost like a Saturday morning cartoon, with an emphasis on friendship, the problems that younger kids face, and getting along. That's why it's weird when it occasionally wanders into unexpected topics like genocide or abuse. It's nothing particularly egregious, but the tone bobs back and forth. It's difficult to get a grasp on how much of the tone shift is a result of the translation and how much is a result of the game being weird.
For those who have never played a roguelike before, you enter a dungeon and have to either find your way to the bottom or get defeated and try again. It's a turn-based RPG set on a grid map, with each step or action causing the enemies to also take an action. The emphasis is on grinding loot and collecting items which can give you an advantage in upcoming battles. Most items are temporary, offering only a short buff or debuff that can turn the tide of battle. There are equippable scarves and similar items that offer more permanent stat buffs, but otherwise, your stats are almost entirely determined by your Pokémon's level, which increases as you gain experience.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon streamlines itself, but not particularly in a way that benefits the game. By far the largest example is the near-total absence of the "hunger" mechanic that is central to so many other Mystery Dungeon titles. Aside from one or two gimmicks, it's pretty much removed from the game, so much of the tension and forward momentum is gone, as is the need for resource conservation. While this makes the game slightly easier for children, it drastically decreases the fun. Now you can almost sleepwalk through many dungeons, which emphasizes the weakness in the game style.
This wouldn't be as much of an issue if items and supplies were not so readily available. What appears to be the intended replacement for hunger is the PP system. Each Pokémon has four special attack moves, and each attack is limited by the PP. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon has used this mechanic before, but Gates to Infinity puts more emphasis on it. Your default attack uses no PP, but it has been weakened to near-uselessness. If you want to attack, you're going to use PP constantly. On the one hand, this really makes the game feel more like Pokémon. On the downside, there is little trouble in managing these resources. Max Ethers, which recover all your PP, are thrown at you like candy. Unless you only teach your Pokémon the mega-damaging moves, you'll never be in serious danger of running out of energy.
As a result of the streamlining, the game is certainly more accessible. The mechanics are simple, the gameplay is closer to Pokémon, and the lengthy tutorials assure you'll grasp everything. It's just a strange choice for the third game in the franchise. Instead of feeling like it's building upon the previous ones, it feels like an attempt to easily broaden the audience. Fans will likely find the game far too easy while newcomers will get a poor idea of what makes Mystery Dungeon games stand out. Gates to Infinity comes across like an awkward action-RPG, with emphasis on mechanics that don't really serve a purpose. Punishment for death is almost nonexistent, so the emphasis on collecting loot feels weird because you're less likely to lose anything rare or important. It also discourages using powerful items because you're unlikely to lose them if you die. There are some neat ideas, like special auras that alter the properties of the floor to make enemies stronger or weaker, but they don't make up for what has been lost.
However, Gates to Infinity gets you a lot of bang for your buck, and it's still an enjoyable experience if you can overlook its problems. The main story will take you around 20 hours to finish, and there is a heap of post-game content, hidden areas, and DLC. There's also a strange "Magnagate" mechanic where you can use the 3DS's built-in camera to scan your environment for Magnagates to open portals to special optional dungeons.
Some things may turn off Pokémon faithful. There's a small number of Pokémon in the game. Aside from a few iconic characters like Pikachu and Eevee, you're dealing almost entirely with Pokémon from the new Unova region introduced in Pokémon Black and White. That's still a lot of Pokémon, but it denies players the chance to use many of their favorites. This is a weird choice because the game is clearly designed to be accessible to all ages, but young kids are the ones most likely to notice their favorite 'mon being MIA. There's also a town to explore and customize, and while that's fun, it's not exactly swarming with depth.
The new polygonal art style works well, and it makes the characters look bright and vivid. They even give certain Pokémon distinctive features they'd otherwise lack, such as an early character having a scar on his back from a plot-related injury. The music is simple but does its job well enough, and as is the norm for Nintendo, voice acting is almost entirely MIA. It isn't missed, although a little voice acting might've helped to explain the otherwise abominably slow text speed. The 3-D effects are used reasonably well, but not well enough to merit being active at all times. It don't add much to the game due to the isometric view and generally flat style.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity is easily the weakest of the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon titles. It goes for streamlining but achieves simplicity instead. A number of mechanics are either missing or feel out of place, and although the basic gameplay is simple and fun, anyone looking for anything deeper or more engrossing will be disappointed. Likewise, die-hard Pokémon faithful will find the trimmed roster to be a huge disappointment. Gates to Infinity isn't a bad choice for a roguelike game for a very young gamer, but anyone else would be better off with one of the earlier titles in the franchise.
More articles about Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity