IGN Review of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team
As Creatures, Game Freak, and Nintendo work to bring us the true evolution of the Pokemon RPG franchise, Nintendo from time to time commissions other developers to create spin-off Pokemon experiences to keep the series chugging along. Some, like Pokemon Pinball and Pokemon Colosseum, are successful. Some, such as Pokemon Dash...not so much. The latest spin-off could end up becoming the Pokemon creatures' final bow on the Game Boy Advance: Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. Most Pokemon spin-offs stray as far away from the expected RPG adventure of the key game in the franchise, but Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is the exception to the rule: it's not the RPG, but it's still of that genre. It's a much different take on the theme, too, but with its repetitive and slightly clunky design Pokemon Mystery Dungeon just can't quite match the true RPG's standards. It's not all that bad, though, just prepare for a lot of the same ol' stuff very early on in the quest.
ChunSoft's game is actually a "next generation" of its Fushigi no Dungeon series, an old-school dungeon exploration design that prides itself on one aspect: randomly generated levels. Every time you head down into a dungeon it's never the same map, just the same structure -- if something's going to happen on Level 8, for example, it will always happen the trek down or up will be noticeably different in its pathways because of the game's dungeon generator.
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon revolves around your character who has, mysteriously, turned into a Pokemon, and uncovering the reasons for this confusing transformation. But while you figure out what the heck's going on, why not put those paws, claws, and or tails to use and join a "rescue team?" That's the driving force of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: taking jobs, rescuing friends lost along the way, and trying to be the best gosh darn Pokemon Rescue Team out there. Though this isn't the first time you're playing as a Pokemon (you can probably chalk up that little bullet-point to Super Smash Bros.), it is the first time these guys are driving a storyline without pesky humans getting in the way. And because you're now experiencing the Pokemon world as one, you can now understand what the heck they're saying other than the indecipherable "Pika!" and "Char!"
Between the scattered plot points, you simply head to the different areas and explore the dungeons, grabbing gold and ability-increasing food while trying to find the staircase to the next part of the dungeon. Oh, and fighting mean ol' Pokemon creatures along the way through turn-based battles. This is the nuts and bolts of the entire game, and while it's fun for a bit, it drags on with very little variety. Players can add a bit to the experience by customizing attacks, linking moves together, adding team members and adjusting their AI routines. There are more than a dozen Pokemon creatures to play as (determined by a random set of questions answered at the start of the game), but other than the appearance of that critter and his available moves set, it doesn't matter which character you end up playing. It's all pretty much the same.
Apart from the repetitive gameplay, I think the biggest knock against the game is in its dual-SKU system. It's a nice feature to give players the choice to pick either a Nintendo DS or Game Boy Advance version of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, but it's pretty darn obvious that the game's potential is limited to the Game Boy Advance standards. The game's interface, as well as its visual and audio presentation, is capped at acceptable GBA levels, which, for handheld expectations, is fine. Nothing was done for DS owners beyond its wireless connectivity and an extraneous and wholly underused second screen option that displays addition information, a feature that can be pulled up on the GBA but through a menu selection instead. The touch screen controls are awful, and once you realize that the game plays infinitely better with the more rigid D-pad/Button combination that stylus will stay put in its slot for the entirety of the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon experience. Even on the Game Boy Advance, the experience isn't exactly streamlined, with a clunky interface that designed for function but not for ease of use.
The style of gameplay does, admittedly, work well with the handheld experience. Because the game's all about taking daily tasks, the game's structure is good for those quick-shot experiences. Not everyone has a few dozen hours to dedicate in a straight shot, so it's nice that you have the ability to pop in the game, rescue a critter from the depths of a dungeon, then save the game after a job well done. Each "mission" is capped off nicely with a trip back home for a sense of accomplishment, even if that particular mission didn't trigger any important story element. The game has a nice "connectivity" element that encourages trading information between versions as well. And it's admittedly nice to see some of the familiar Pokemon gaming elements transmogrified into a different style of RPG -- the whole rock/paper/scissors strategic element may be downplayed significantly in Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, but it's still there. As is the "catch 'em all" aspect, but again...it's not really the game's core mechanic.
The craziest omission is the game's lack of cooperative play. For a game that encourages team play, it's amazing that ChunSoft missed the boat when it comes to exploring dungeons and finishing missions with a friend. A computer controlled partner can only do so much with its limited programming, and many times I've wished that my teammate was an actual human player. Instead, all of the connectivity features are data trade elements.
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