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Dungeons of solitude

As a fan of the core Pokémon games—and dungeon-crawlers in general—I’m not sure why I never tried one of the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon installments. So, with the series’ first 3DS entry, I thought I’d give it a try.

And now, I know.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity starts with a solid enough premise: In a land where only Pokémon dwell, the adorable creatures get together, form communities, and go on adventures. These take place in Mystery Dungeons, caverns with randomly generated layouts. Your team will have to delve into these ever-changing spaces to complete quests and earn money, which is spent to expand your Pokémon Paradise, the community you’re setting up with your companion.

Simple enough, right?

The problem is that the game works well when you’re not in a dungeon, because expanding your Paradise is a lot of fun. Once you go spelunking, however, it all falls apart.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

When Gates to Infinity begins, your character, a human, is having a nightmare showing a small Pokémon being chased by a much larger one. When you wake up, you’ve transformed into one of the pocket monsters—your choice between several different types. I chose to be an Axew, with a Pikachu as my companion. Promptly, I forgot about helping the Pokémon I dreamt was in danger and instead set about helping Pikachu realize his dream of adventuring and building his own Pokémon Paradise.

What I just distilled in one paragraph actually takes about 20 minutes of game time to get through. Conversations in Gates to Infinity drag on at a glacial pace. Perhaps the text, like much of this game, is aimed at small children, but I’d think the speed—or, more precisely, the lack of it—would work against this.

Still, get through these conversations, and you’ll be ready to start exploring dungeons. As mentioned earlier, these are randomly generated, and like many games with this feature, they’re far from spectacular.

Relying on a basic geometry and size, every floor of every dungeon feels pretty much the same, save for those that include major story objects. What’s worse, there’s little incentive to explore completely. In most dungeon crawlers—at least the good ones—levels are packed with things to discover. You’d expect to find beasties, treasure, and things to move the story along. Not here, though.

Most levels are nothing more than a quest to find the stairs to get to the next area. Sure, once in a while, you’ll stumble upon a shiny spot containing a useful item, but that’s about it. If you find the stairs early and continue to explore, chances are you won’t find anything else.

Even when you happen across a locked door promising some goodies inside, there’s a good chance you won’t have the right key to open it and will need to come back later to finish—which means trudging through the dungeon a second time. Let’s hope there’s something good behind that locked door.

In a game called Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, dungeon exploration should be the most intriguing thing, not the least. What starts as kind of boring turns mind-numbing after a few hours, which is what ruined the game for me.

Combat is another sore point. Like in the core Pokémon games, each creature has four attacks. As you earn experience and level up, you can learn new moves but must unlearn old ones. Since you must choose only four moves to carry at any one time, you’ll have to employ some strategy when outfitting you characters and your team, which consists of four Pokémon, your character, your companion, and two others you recruit. At certain points, you can choose to control another Pokémon than your main character, but usually you will be stuck with your first choice. So choose wisely.

You can set tactics for the other Pokémon in your party—and, for the most part, this works well—but it would still have been more fun to be able to control each of them when their turns come up.

Gates to Infinity features turn-based combat, but the game doesn’t go to a battle screen. I found this maddening! It’s impossible to see whose turn it is during a fight (sometimes you don’t even know you’re in the fight at first), and this makes it difficult to plan your tactics.

Even worse, the AI occasionally goes wonky and your other party members break off from the main group, going off to do their own thing. You’re walking along, and all of a sudden, you can only move one space at a time, when it’s your turn. Two of your guys have wandered off and gotten into a fight; you can see them on your map screen, but there’s no way to get to them, since you are part of the battle, half a dungeon away.

Additionally, though the game doesn’t have random encounters, enemies will sometimes stack up on you, meeting you in a small space in the dungeon. You might have to face a line five to six deep, and if you don’t have a place to walk (which is how you heal), then there’s a good chance being ganged up on like this will kill you.

If you fall in battle, you can wait for someone to come along and revive you (via StreetPass), or you can give it up and start the level over. Eight floors down in the dungeon? So sorry, try again. This also happens if your companion falls, so you’d better hope they’re smart enough to heal themselves, particularly since you have to pull up an overlay on the bottom screen to keep an eye on their health.

Either combat should have been real time, or the game should have transitioned into a separate battle screen. Yes, it would have slowed things down, but the advantages outweigh the little bit of additional time. But even this change would merely be a Band-Aid on a deeply wounded dungeon system.

Still, you must explore the dungeons to advance the story and to get money to build your paradise. This part’s enjoyable—clearing land and deciding where to put crops and buildings, even unlocking mini-games—but it’s just not worth what you have to do to get Paradise built.

The gameplay is surprisingly deep, with plenty of Pokémon to find and recruit, and I’m sure there are those who’ll appreciate the speed of combat. Plus, the graphics are beautiful, and the music isn’t too bad either. Still, when Mystery Dungeon is in the game’s title, that part of the game better be good. Here, it is not.

There’s even a feature called Discover a Magnagate, where you create your own dungeons using the 3DS’ camera and scanning in round objects—thus the “Infinity” part of the title, referring to infinite gameplay. The mode would be a great addition—if the dungeons were any fun. Instead, it’s like your mom piling more liver on your plate after you somehow managed to get the first helping down. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity tries hard and actually offers a lot of game, but the primary gameplay is too broken to make it worthwhile.

Developer: Chunsoft • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 03.24.13

The first 3DS installment of this long-running Pokémon offshoot offers plenty of dungeons to crawl, assuming you don’t mind running through maze after maze of barely changed environments—and with no particular goals other than moving toward the next floor. If you can endure the main part of the game, you’ll get a chance to build your own Pokémon Paradise, which is a lot of fun. But the overall journey drags on in mind-numbing fashion, until you just wish someone would drop a giant Pokéball on your head and end it all.

The Good The bright and colorful graphics show off the 3DS
The Bad The repetition and lack of things to discover within the dungeons
The Ugly The special effect when enemies cast confusion will make your eyes bleed
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity is a 3DS exclusive.


About Marc Camron

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Marc somehow survived E3. The crowds were big, the games were loud and somehow he managed to get a sunburn on the top of his big, bald melon. Yet, despite all of this, he had a blast, seeing people he only sees once a year, playing all of the new games, and staying up way past his bedtime. Next year he might even have a beer. Find him on Twitter @RkyMtnGmr