By Shane Wall
Beginning Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity in what appears to be a dream sequence is an odd and confusing choice. The cries for help from a nearby Pokémon being chased by an evil looking Hydeigon certainly don’t do anything to clear up the situation. Then, without so much as a cursory explanation I awoke with no knowledge of myself or my surroundings and was presented with a choice of five Pokémon as your playable character.
Choosing from Pikachu, Axew or one of the 3 Generation V starters -- Tepig, Oshawott or Snivy -- I then plummeted from the sky to Earth. During this brief free-fall I was still no closer to understanding why I was a human in an apparently mute Pokémon’s body. Shortly after hitting the ground harder than an Onix using “Slam”, I met my new Pokémon companion. Again I was given the choice of Pokémon -- minus the one I chose for myself -- and after a short (one way conversation) with my plucky new friend I finally was given some context for the game. Humans only exist in fairy tales in this world and my what passes for fun here is going adventuring through dangerous dungeons with a reckless disregard for one’s safety.
Moving on from the confusing intro the talkative stranger and I began a journey together, in an attempt to fulfill the noble dream of creating place where Pokémon can live together in peace (while still being free to wander into dangerous nearby caves on a whim). My first task was to convince a local carpenter Pokémon to build me a house. Unfortunately, in this pocket monster village simple payment or trade for goods and services proves to be harder to obtain then a shiny Charmander. It’s at this point that the game actually gets underway.
The game is divided into two sections. Exploring perilous dungeons, fighting off Pokémon that want nothing more than to see you dead (for reasons unknown), and scenes of Pokémon who never want to stop talking, very slowly building the game’s story. The two sections contrast wildly especially considering that during the dungeon sections there is never any conversation or explanation. Yet the story sections are nothing but.
The dungeons themselves are where you’ll spend a lot of your time and are touted as being randomly generated. Each time you enter one it is supposed to be different from the last --possibly to try and keep things new and exciting -- but after exploring two or three of them you will have disappointingly seen all they have to offer. Each dungeon is essentially the same area with a pallet swap and different scenery. While it may not sound like an issue, the majority of your game time will be spent in these dungeons and sadly they get repetitive faster than a Deoxys in speed from.
The battles that take place in the dungeons are rather interestingly designed. The entirety of the dungeon acts as a turn-based battlefield. Meaning, that for every move or attack you perform, you use up a turn. Simultaneously, the constantly re-spawning Pokémon enemies are doing the same thing off screen. Once you encounter an enemy and simply pummel it into nonexistence it becomes clear that the speed stat for each Pokémon is little more than window dressing. Regardless of the Pokémon you select in the beginning, starting moves will include a few less important attacks like “Leer”. I found I needed to quickly rid myself of non-attacking moves for better, damaging attacks when leveling up because I was using a lot elixirs to restore my PP or hanging back and letting my teammate do all the work. Letting the NPCs do the battling is very boring and without an elixir, early in the game this will be happening fairly frequently. Text will constantly announce that your enemies have picked up specific loot which serves as a reminder that danger can be just around the corner. You are actively encouraged to battle everything in sight for loot drops. This is a sorely underdeveloped part of the game as loot could have livened up the experience. Instead loot is only ever money or items like elixirs and berries. Undue emphasis is placed on collecting loot for the meager rewards it bestows.
The controls are awkward and unintuitive at first, but with trial and error it becomes clear that going slow when approaching another Pokémon is a solid plan. During a battle , holding the L button accesses the attack commands. Each attack is assigned to the A,B,X or Y button and this works fine, it’s the grid system of movement however that slows the flow of the game down even more than a sleeping Snorlax. When approaching enemy Pokémon it becomes incredibly important not to step in the wrong direction as this wastes a turn, but using the D only allows movement in four directions, despite feeling much more precise than the Circle Pad. To move in the four diagonal directions the Circle Pad is required, but unfortunately it just feels imprecise. Switching between the two forms of control may not be necessary for everyone but after giving the first move to my opponent more than a few times you I was left wondering like me why it didn’t work. At the end of some dungeons -- if the story calls for it -- there is the opportunity for boss fight. I was hoping to see something a little different, maybe a sense of urgency or even something on a bigger scale, but the bosses are just another (slightly) longer battle.
While the dungeons and battles are disappointing, the story is surprisingly deep and involved. It’s very interesting to see that each Pokémon has their own personality rather than simply another monster to collect. Progressing through the story you will meet many Pokémon with various personality traits and many flaws, which adds to the richness of the universe and helps to make it seem like a fully developed world. The depth of story is dampened by the noticeable lack of voice acting, with characters talking in an annoying sound effect for the duration. After 10 minutes of listening to the Pokémon “talk” I was reaching for thevolume control. I looked for an option to lower just the talking sound effect, but found to the only option was to lower all the sound effects in the game and not the speech independently. This may seem trivial, but the sound effects during battle help to increase the excitement and tension of battles rather than silently trudging through the same old thing over and over. It’s also a real shame to shut off the volume altogether because the music in this game is true to the Pokémon franchise and is one standouts of this game.
The huge amount of text thrown at you -- like so many Pokéballs -- raises another possible problem. Looking through the settings to increase the painfully slow text speed I found that there wasn’t one. Maybe the game was trying to teach me a new move, “Patience”. It certainly tested what little I had.
It’s clear that there’s a market for this series because they appear semi-annually despite the very Japanese style of the game. On paper it looks like the perfect game for me, I just really didn’t enjoy it. As a huge fan of both Pokémon and JRPGs I was eager to sink my teeth into this game. Disappointingly, it proved to be just too Japanese and too repetitive. Starting with a confusing story without any context and moving forward into something that looks nice but feels clunky while crossing between the story elements and the battle grinds the pace of this game to a screeching halt.
A real positive of the game is the pure emotion displayed through each Pokémon. Whether they’re happy, sad, naive or just plain evil their animations make them easier to read than an open Pokédex. I would be surprised if the story was just as understandable without the walls of text, which would have been much more enjoyable. The characters are more interesting than I ever thought a simple Pokémon could ever be and the music meets the high standard I have come to expect from a Pokémon title but that’s not enough for me to actually want to play this game again.
It’s not that Pokémon Mystery Dungeon is terrible, it’s just highly repetitive. I would rather play something else than this -- an actual Pokémon game, perhaps.