Review: Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time (Nintendo DS)

Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time
Developer: Chunsoft
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Mystery Dungeon
Release Date: 04/21/2008

In the fall of 2006, Chunsoft and Nintendo released what went on to be the best selling Fushigi Dungeon games in North American history: Pokemon Mystery Dungeon. Although the game received lukewarm praise from critics, like ALL Fushigi Dungeon games in the US, the game sold exceptionally well for this style of game and allowed gamers to play as a Pokemon instead of a trainer for the first time in the series’ decade plus history.

The staff here of Diehard Gamefan voted the Red Rescue Team version of the game as the “Best Game Boy Advance Game of 2006” but also the “Best Turn Based RPG” of that year as well. I reviewed both games for the site and they received a 7.5 from us (back in the days when we lowered ourselves to using a numerical score). If you are interested, here are the reviews of each:

Red Rescue Team (GBA)
Blue Rescue Team (NDS)

This is my third time reviewing this game. I reviewed the Japanese versions of the game for Beckett’s Pokemon Collector magazine some time ago, and I reviewed the US version of Explorers of Time a couple months ago for the same publication. So I’m pretty familiar with these games, arguably more so than any other Western reviewer simply due to the length of time I’ve had the English version of the game.

So let’s take a look now and see if Chunsoft was able to strike gold twice, or if a successful Fushigi Dungeon game was simply the exception that proves the rule.

Let’s Review

Like the first tandem of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games, you play as a human who as been turned into a Pokemon by mysterious means. Also, you have amnesia. When I first saw this, I groaned. I thought this was going to be like Teen Wolf Too where it is the same exact plot as the first but with only minor cosmetic changes. How wrong I was.

The game puts you through an Ultima IV type personality quiz that determines what type of Pokemon you are. In the first two games I was a Machop and then a Charmander. This time…I got Skitty. You can then choose the type of Pokemon you want as your partner.

The game revolves around your partner finding you on a beach, nearly downed from having fallen overboard. Together you both decide to join the Explorer’s Guild and the rest of the game focuses on your adventures in the guild. Here you meet he leader, the slightly retarded Wigglytuff and his second in command Chatot. You’ll also begin to discover that your main character has the psychic ability of psychometry, which is the ability to see the past or future of someone by touching an object they handled. You’ll also discover the main plot of the game, which revolves around the “time gears,” ancient objects that control time itself and how something happens to them.

Your characters will be able to do infinite side missions that take you away from the main plot. These missions can be anything from exploring new dungeons to saving lost Pokemon, to bounty hunting. You can even start to recruit new members to your team or try hidden mystery dungeons, each with their own theme or special hindrances.

I actually liked the plot of Explorers of Time far more than the first tandem of games in the series. Unlike those, Time and Darkness do deviate from each other plotwise and characters in this game are far more developed and interesting. It’s really neat to see Pokemon you would never use in a tournament or in the core RPG series really taking center sage and shining here.

The story is mature enough for adults and would-be “hardcore” gamers, but still appropriate for children and fans of the more innocent nature of Pokemon. The game is still a little whiny and your partner is as emo as the one in the previous games, but the game still tells a wonderful story about friendship and saving the world in a way that it still manages to be fresh instead of cliche.

Story Rating: Good

2. Graphics

This is a very pretty game. There is a slight graphical upgrade from Red/Blue Rescue Team, as both f those games centered around GBA graphics. This time, as both mystery Dungeon games are DS exclusives, Chunsoft is allowed to show just what they can do.

The graphics are very cartoon-like, featuring bright and colourful backgrounds. Even in a dank cave or dark dungeon, the graphics have a very family feel, while still being crisp and really showing off that a turn based RPG on the DS doesn’t have to look like it’s from the SNES/Genesis era of gaming.

One of my favorite things about the game are the Shining Force style character portraits. Not only does every single Pokemon have this for when they speak, but they have multiple portraits to convey various degrees of emotion. This is a lovely touch and aside from the cartoon series, Pokemon have never been more adorable.

There is the occasional cut scene or still drawing in the game during important moments. As expected this is when the game looks at its best, but even in dungeons or exploring towns, this is easily the second best looking Pokemon game ever (The first still remains Pokemon Ranger.

As much as I hate to say it, Game Freak should take a good look at what Chunsoft has done her visually and add in this style and level of detail to the graphics of the next core Pokemon RPG.

Graphics Rating: Good

3. Sound

Like most DS games, there are no voice actors in Explorers of Time. In fact, the characters don’t even have their trademark midi noises for speaking. The only noise in the game are sound effects for various attacks or special effects, and background tracks. Neither are exceptional, but both fir the tone of the game nicely.

The score of the game is cute and family friendly like the rest of the game, and there are a lot of tracks. My favorite is the traveling music you hear in town, but none of the tracks even come remotely close to the quality of the tracks in the core RPG series. There’s a reason why Pokemon’s songs are as memorable as LoZ and SMB tunes, and it would have been nice to see a remix or sampling of someone of those in the game, even if it was just in one dungeon or in the guild.

Although you won’t be humming any of these tracks after you’ve put the game away, they compliment the game properly and add to the exploration of the limitless Mystery Dungeons in the game, rather then detract from the experience.

Sound Rating: Above Average

4. Control and Gameplay

Although my favorite Fushigi Dungeon game of all time is Azure Dreams, I do have to say that the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games are the best built games in the history of the genre. Controls are solid and easy to operate. You can attack diagonally, while in a lot of these games that’s not an option. Most of all, PMD has different mystery dungeons, instead of one large one. This means you can face different monsters and challenges depending on which you enter.

Like all games in this genre, dungeons are randomly generating. This means that each time you enter the layout is different. Once you leave a level, you can never go back. You can only keep ascending/descending until you reach your goal or die. You also have to deal with the concept of hunger in addition to hit points, meaning you’re managing two stats instead of one. With randomly appearing monsters that respawn and stats that are always dwindling, Fushigi Dungeons are considered the hardest type of RPG in video gaming, and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is no exception. In fact, due to imported concepts from the core Pokemon series such as type advantages/disadvantages and Pokemon movers, abilities, and powers, PMD is one of the harder Mystery Dungeons around. Honestly, having just reviewing Baroque a few weeks ago, I was surprised that I would consider PMD: EoT to be a harder and more complicated game.

One of the really nice things about PMD is that it’s not just a solo character repeating the name mission until you are utterly bored out of your mind. Here you can have a team of up to four characters (Up one from the previous games) and missions are constantly changing.

The game is a wonderful balance of Fushigi Dungeon style gameplay and the Pokemon RPG’s. Your characters learn attacks at the same level as they would in Pokemon Diamond/Pearl and they can still only keep four moves at a time. Yet there are some key differences as well. If a Pokemon in D/P has two potential “Pokemon Abilities”, it has them BOTH in PMD. This means some Pokemon like Skitty or Geodude suddenly rise in value in the Fushigi setting compared to where they are in the turn based RPG’s. This holds true with certain moves as well. In Pokemon D/P, Growl is an utterly worthless move. Yet here in PMD, it is amazingly effective. This makes Explorers of Time feel highly original and yet reassuringly familiar all at once.

One of the neatest things about this game is that you can interact with other players. This have never been done before with Fushigi dungeon games aside from the earlier PMD games. Time/Darkness however, takes it to a new level, allowing you to interact through email and text messages in addition to “Wonder Mail” codes. Is your team defeated in a dungeon? Choose to be rescued by a friend. You’ll send an SOS to any friends you have registered as friends. If someone chooses to accept, you’ll get to keep all your items instead of losing them and starting the dungeon over. You can also show your thanks by giving them an item. You’ll also be able to save your own friends when they get into a jam themselves. Eventually you can even send your team to a friend to use as training partners and vice versa. This is a much beloved feature of Pokemon Crystal that returns to the Pokemon franchise for the first time in over half a decade. THANK YOU FOR THIS.

You can also use Wonder Mail to unlock new dungeons and Pokemon in addition to new missions. For example, if you text “DUNGEON” to 41411 via your mobile phone, you’ll be given a very special mission involving an injured and exhausted Charizard. If you want, email me or leave a comment at the bottom of this review and I’ll give you a code to encounter a Legendary Pokemon. The code only works AFTER you beat the main story of the game BTW.

The Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series is pretty much the standard bearer for Fushigi Dungeon games now. It’s highly innovative with its use of items and leveling up. It introduces a new way to “Catch ’em all” and is the first Mystery Dungeon series to have a high level of connectivity between players. In terms of pure gameplay and controls, there simply isn’t a better game in the history of the genre. If you lover roguelike games or the old AD&D Dungeon Hack video game, the only thing stopping you from becoming a frantic fanboy of this series is the use of Pokemon characters.

Control and Gameplay Rating: Unparalleled

5. Replayability

Like all Pokemon games, PMD has replay value akin to an Elder Scrolls game. The thing just never ends. Even after you beat the game, there are new dungeons to encounter, new Pokemon to face and have join your team, and so much more. Even beating the main story of the game can take as long or as little as you would like thanks to countless side missions you can go on. Even better, the game has made gaining new allies into a much easier process than in the previous games. Before you could only recruit someone if there was a free space on your team, and your team could only be three Pokemon deep. Now you can recruit someone even if your team is full. They join up and you teleport them back to your base.

The game’s story is quite long and there are always new things being added. Heck, by the time you reach the halfway point of the game with Chapter 5, the Link shop and Xatu’s store are still not open for business yet!

Mystery Dungeons usually offer a huge amount of replay that is tempered by the tedious nature of the games. With Explorers of Time however, the sky is the limit thanks to a multitude of options.

Replayability Rating: Unparalleled

6. Balance Rating

Mystery dungeon games are designed to be mean. Generally each time you enter you are forced to start at level 1 and work your way back up. Here things are a bit different. Although some special optional dungeons keep that style of gameplay, for the majority of the game you’ll keep your acquired levels. Enemies will just have different degrees of strengths depending on the dungeon they are in.

The changes to Pokemon abilities, Pokemon item holding and recruiting/retention are a much needed improvement for the game, and I love the addition of texting and emailing when you are in trouble. It means you can get a friend’s attention that much faster than with the previous games, and you don’t have to wait for days waiting for the game to come back.

On the other hand, the game is definitely much harder. I never died a single time in Red Rescue Team. Here I got knocked out of Mr. Rubble three times in a row because my PARTNER was knocked out. This is another big change from the previous games. Here if you OR your partner or knocked out, it’s duingeon over. Before it was only if you were knocked out. This is all the more reason to pick a quality partner with a good move set. So not only has the game gotten easier to gain new allies, it’s gotten a bit tougher too. This is a nice touch.

Like all Fushigi Dungeon games, your success rate depends on how the dungeon levels are generated along with the amount of enemies or the type of items you’ll find within. If you have dungeons that are lengthy but have little to no food items, then you’re pretty much screwed. That’s part of the random nature of the game. Thankfully in most dungeons to can buy items to take with you into the dungeon, or you can bring items in you collected from previous dungeons. ALWAYS BRING AN APPLE people. Always.

Although a half the fun of mystery dungeon games is the lack of balance and a apparent attempt at cruelty towards the player, Explorers of Time does a wonderful job with making the game one of the most balanced in the genre’s history. Sure it’s tougher than the previous, but there are little bonuses that easily balance balance out. Heh. Look what I just did.

Balance Rating: Above Average

7. Originality

For the most part, Explorers of Time is a rehash of the previous two PMD games. It;s the same gameplay, the same character selection process, the same basic origin for the protagonist, and even some characters are back with the same dialogue they had before.

However the changes that are made are quite innovative, not just for Fushigi dungeon, but RPG’s in general. The text/email options add a whole new spin to the game and I think several of the new optional dungeons stand out as quite unique. There are also a few new mini games hidden in the game, with my favorite being take on the old “Who’s That Pokemon?” from the anime series. This was highly enjoyable AND a lot of fun.

Thumbs in the middle here. The new additions and innovations really stand out, but the core of the game is exactly the same as the previous PMD.

Originality Rating: Mediocre

8. Addictiveness

With a nice story, and the best gameplay we’ve ever seen in a Fushigi dungeon game; the newest chapter in the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series is really easy to get sucked into – if you enjoy this sort of game. You’ll find yourself going into dungeon after dungeon trying to raise your character’s level or your overall team ranking. Maybe you’re trying for a new items or to recruit another Pokemon to your team. Maybe you just want to see what is going on with the core story. Regardless, the game offers so much and it is easy to find yourself saying “Oh just one more level and I’ll quicksave.” only to find that one level being “just one more dungeon.”

Again, even if you’re not a fan of the Pokemon franchise, the story and gameplay and the myriad of options help to make this game accessible and addictive – far more than most other Fushigi games.

Addictiveness Rating: Good

9. Appeal Factor

Fushigi Dungeon games are not popular. Even though PMD Red/Blue sold better than any other game in the genre’s history, they were still a drop in the bucket compared to the core RPG Pokemon games. However, considering these mystery dungeon games feature characters from the most successful video game franchise of all time doesn’t hurt. Neither does the highly improved gameplay and options PMD contains compared to other Fushigi games.

This style of gaming is certainly niche at best, but compared to Baroque which is another Fushigi game, Explorers of Time/Darkness will easily outsell it. Why? It’s the same core game after all. The answer is simply. A better defined plot with actual developed characters and a more innovative style of playing. Oh, and it is prettier.

PMD is the mystery dungeon series for people who aren’t fond of mystery dungeon games. Even then, the appeal factor is mediocre at best due to the nature of the games. A lot of Pokemon fans weren’t fans of the original due to the difficulty level and how different it was from other Pokemon games. Other embraced it as one of their favorite Pokemon games ever.

Appeal Factor: Mediocre

10. Miscellaneous

Chunsoft really threw a lot into this game. From new ways to connect with players, to including over 1000 character portraits, it’s amazing how much is packed onto this tiny little DS cartridge. The game is both 100% faithful to the Fushigi style of RPG’s and yet is unmistakably Pokemon in every way possible.

This is one of those rare times when a sequel is as good, if not slightly better than the original. What Explorers of Time lacks in originality, it makes up for with improvements in graphics, plot, recruitment, and gameplay. The game still lacks the town building and dating sim aspects that make Azure Dreams the best game in this genre, but along with Explorers of Darkness, EoT has an easy grasp on second place.

I can’t think of a Fushigi Dungeon game that has offered more characters, enemies, dungeon variants, or options that this game. Simply incredible.

Miscellaneous Rating: Unparalleled

The Scores
Story: Good
Graphics: Good
Sound: Above Average
Control and Gameplay: Unparalleled
Replayability: Unparalleled
Balance: Above Average
Originality: Mediocre
Addictiveness: Good
Appeal Factor: Mediocre
Miscellaneous: Unparalleled
FINAL SCORE: VERY GOOD GAME

Short Attention Span Summary

Let’s make this easy. Right now Explorers of Time is the best DS game and the best RPG game I’ve played this year. Will still hold both or either spot by the end of the year? Probably not. But unless I am really wowed over the next eight months, it’s going to be a shoo-in for my top ten of 2008.

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    • Alex Lucard

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