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

Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness
Genre: Dungeon Crawler
Developer: Chunsoft
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: 04/21/08

I have something of a love-hate relationship with the Pokemon franchise; on one hand, adorable animal-like things are fantastic and the AWWWW factor of characters like Charmander and Pikachu is undeniable, but on the other hand the games themselves are functionally uninteresting to me because, sadly, they generally encompass the exact same thing each and every time: catch Pokemon, fill in your Pokedex, be the best, yadda yadda. The games are certainly not bad by any means so much as they’re generally the same formula ad infinitum; in an action-oriented context this can be done without the player noticing so much, but in an RPG-oriented product, it’s more noticeable.

On the other hand, I have more of an acceptance for Fushigi Dungeon games; from Izuna to Shiren the Wanderer to Chocobo’s Dungeon to Torenko, I’m generally okay with all of the various attempts at the genre (yes, even Nightmare of Druaga, which would have been perfectly fine if not for the monsters five levels your better chasing you down and brutalizing you all the time). The CONCEPT is certainly one that takes some getting used to; what sort of a person would want to play a game where when you die, you lose all your stuff and go back to level one, right? But after a while, you just learn to, well, not die, or find ways to keep the stuff that matters most to you. Different games have different rules, of course; in Izuna, you don’t lose your levels, in Chochbo’s Dungeon you don’t lose anything, Shiren is really more of a throwback game, and so on, but most of the games have the core gameplay in common: square movement grids, turn-based combat, deep dungeons, lots of battle.

So the idea behind Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is pretty sound, I’ll give them that much: take the ideas and concepts in Pokemon and stick them into a Fushigi Dungeon world? Sounds like solid gold, yeah? Well, apparently so, because the first series of PMD titles sold rather well, both because of the name attached and because, frankly, they were less “hardcore” than your typical dungeon crawling excursions; you don’t restart at level one when you kick off, sorry, faint, and items aren’t as useful and unrecoverable as they are in other FD style games, essentially making this “My First Dungeon Crawl”, more or less. And while Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Masters of Darkness essentially continues the tradition of being accessible to the Pokemon crowd, it also does enough that it’s worth a look, even if you played the first games to death.

The story, such as it is, starts off in a similar fashion to the first game: after answering a series of personality-test questions and pressing your finger to the DS screen (which actually took several attempts for me to get right, sadly), you’re dumped into the game as whatever Pokemon your personality matches (or whatever Pokemon you provided the proper answers to get, if you’re cheating). From there, you’re given the hook: your Pokemon is, presumably, YOU; a human who’s been turned into a Pokemon, somehow, but you can’t remember much beyond your name and the fact that you’re a human (or were, in any event). From here, however, the games go in wildly different directions: the previous game saw you and your partner (in my case, Charizard and Pikachu) start your very own Rescue Squad to help out other Pokemon; this time you and the Pokemon you meet when you first wake up (in my case, Torchic and Pikachu; I like fire and electric Pokemon so I tend to stick to what works) opt to join an Exploration League, which is essentially a GIANT-SIZED version of the original Rescue Squads. The core storyline basically combines a number of different elements together, including helping your ally overcome his/her fears and become confident in themselves, dealing with a deceitful and selfish group of rival Pokemon, getting back your memories, finding out what’s happening with the Time Gears (as one would imagine, gears that control time in the areas they reside within) that are being stolen, and figuring out the weird powers your character has that allow you to see events in the past and/or future by touching things.

In general, the story is about what you would expect from a Pokemon title; it’s cute and amusing and does what it needs to do in order to keep you interested while still maintaining the Saturday Morning Cartoon dynamic. If you’re a fan of the Pokemon world, you’ll find the story adorable and endearing, but if you’re in this for the dungeon crawling you won’t find the story to be off-putting or anything; occasionally there are segments where you’ll be reading through ten minutes of plot or so, but mostly the plot stays out of the way of the gameplay, so FD fans who aren’t looking for talking won’t be put off either.

Visually, PMD:MOD is bright, colorful, and absolutely adorable. The character sprites are easily discernable, animate well, and are generally pleasant to look at, and the dungeons, while Spartan, are detailed well enough that their names appropriately describe what you’ll be seeing within them. The various talking head segments of the game are lively thanks to the character portraits popping up as your characters talk (and when they level up), which helps to add personality, and the various cutscenes you see as you play are generally pretty and vibrant. The in-game tunes are also pretty fitting to the game; they’re cute and work very well with the presentation of the product, if nothing else. There’s no voice acting, so everyone talks in the “pipipipipipipipipi” style we’ve come to expect from non-disc titles, and the sound effects are mostly relegated to the smacking sounds of combat and various sounds for the special effects of laying into someone with Ember or Thundershock or what have you; in both respects, these work about as well as expected.

Gameplay-wise, PMD:MOD is exceptionally simple to play, which works well in its favor. Simply put, most of the time all you’re really doing is puttering around a dungeon smacking the heck out of other Pokemon, which is easy to do with either the stylus or the D-pad and buttons. The entirety of the experience in dungeons is turn-based, meaning that every time you move, regardless of what the move is, everything else on the same floor moves more or less simultaneously, in a “You-Allies-Enemies” order. Attacking foes is as simple as pressing a button or tapping on them with the stylus, though you can also throw held items or use Pokemon special moves on them, either by going to your battle menu and doing so or by setting a move as the default special move, which can be used with a simple button combination/stylus motion. In other words: movement and combat are easy as can be, thus making the majority of the game a snap.

You’re also equipped with a Treasure Bag, which is meant to store all of the odds and ends you need for exploration or find down in the dungeon, of which there are many. Pokemon fans will recognize most of the tools of the trade almost immediately; there are various seeds and berries, each of which have different effects (healing, resurrection, curing status ailments, causing sleep, etc), training machines to teach your allies new moves, accessories that raise different stats or enable various effects, and elixirs to refill your special moves to maximum (as all special moves have limits of how much they may be used before you run out). Some items are specific to the PMD universe, however, though they may seem familiar to FD fans, such as Orbs that can be used for a number of different effects (making foes afraid of you, revealing the entire map, revealing traps in the dungeons, etc), Sticks/Thorns/Rocks that act as ranged combat weaponry to deal damage from a distance, Gummies, which increase the IQ of the Pokemon eating it (each of a type matching the types of Pokemon, so feeding a Red Gummie to your Charmander is better than feeding it a Blue Gummie, you see) which in turn learns it various special abilities, and Apples, which fill your Belly.

See, in almost every FD game ever made, your characters have some sort of declining stamina bar that is replenished by eating stuff (like Gauntlet, “Wizard needs food badly”, that sort of thing); while the bar is full your health replenishes, but if it empties you start taking damage, IE starving to death, until you eat. Generally, anything consumable fills SOME of your Belly, but Apples (and Gummies to a lesser extent) fill your belly considerably. Think of them as rations and it makes more sense.

The various dungeons are also set up in the Sorting Algorithm fashion, meaning that the dungeons you face next are enough of a challenge to earn you major Experience to level up, while dungeons prior end up being a cakewalk later, thus balancing the game nicely. The ten to fifteen hours it’ll take you to blow through the story will give you a reasonable challenge, but for those who are looking for the hardcore FD experience, PMD:MOD has your hookup in the form of a ton of extra dungeons and quests that have you facing off against all sorts of Legendary Pokemon in tough dungeons and such. You’re also offered a lot of nifty tools to help you out in reverse; aside from the various items and equipment you can find, you can store items and weapons in Treasure Town (as you lose these if you bite it in the dungeon) as well as shop for more useful items, and you can Link special moves together (like, say, Focus Energy and Ember) to make heavy-damaging combos that only take up one action (and make moves like the aforementioned Focus Energy way more useful than they are on their own). You can also recruit the various Pokemon you save/battle onto your team to help you out in dungeon exploration (you have up to four spaces for team members, though larger Pokemon take up more space on your team and thus allow for less actual members), and if you happen to pass out in a dungeon, you’re not totally beat; you can send out an SOS, either by Wi-fi connection (to E-mail, locak friends, or even cell-phone text messages) or by Wonder Mail passwords (which you could dump onto a forum or into an E-mail) that allow friendly players to brave the depths of the dungeon to save you from your defeat.

In short, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness is a pretty beefy experience. Everything gone over above is really only scratching the surface of the game; there is a lot more to the game than one would first expect, and you’ll find a lot to do with the game for many, many hours.

Buuuuuut… there are some problems. The biggest one is that, even though your allies are generally customizable in their behaviors, they’re still not very bright. See, your allies can be directed in a very general customization sense; you can dictate what moves they can use and how they behave, but you can’t dictate, for instance, that the level five escort generate common sense enough to RUN AWAY FROM ENEMIES TEN LEVELS HIS BETTER, and thus he’ll end up confronting a foe that smites him on one hit because you couldn’t move your lead Pokemon fast enough to intercede in the battle. Your allies may also wander off at certain junctions in the paths you take, meaning that if you’re using the option to move quickly through the dungeons, you might come to an intersection only to find out one of your party members took a wrong turn and is now surrounded by hostile Pokemon in an entirely different room. Sorry you just got smeared, Machop, but you should have been following everyone else! See you back at the guild hall!

It’s also not very original. What elements aren’t aped from other FD titles are aped from the original two PMD titles; aside from a fourth party member and the ability to connect to other players over Wi-fi for rescue missions, everything done in PMD:MOD has been done elsewhere. Some of the game elements are also kind of annoying as well, even in the context of the sort of game this is; while it’s absolutely fantastic that you can save at any time (all handheld games should do this) it is not fantastic that you only have one save slot (And while it’s a good game, it’s a hard game to recommend; if you’re into Pokemon, you might not be looking for the sort of dungeon crawling experience that a PMD title gives you, and if you’re into FD titles you might not be looking for a cute, cuddly-wuddly Pokemon-filled game as opposed to something with swords and shields and a loss of everything the exact second you pass on. It’s a good introduction to the FD series of games, and it has a decent amount of challenge for those looking for such a thing, but it’s generally most appealing to a fairly narrow audience, which is kind of a shame.

If you’re a fan of Fushigi Dungeon-esque titles and a fan of Pokemon, you will most likely have run out and grabbed yourself a copy of one of the two new Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games, but if not, they may well still be worth an investment. The games are generally simple to play and challenging enough to give you a fun challenge without completely beating you into submission. Casual players will have a lot of fun with the story, and hardcore players have hundreds of hours of exploration in hardcore dungeons to look forward to, so both camps can have a good amount of fun with this. It’s different from its counterparts in a lot of ways, and may be too easy/hard for some types of players, but as an interesting novelty product it’s one of the most enjoyable DS titles you can pick up this year.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: GREAT
Originality: POOR
Addictiveness: GOOD
Appeal: ABOVE AVERAGE
Miscellaneous: GOOD

Final Score: GOOD.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness is a worthy follow-up to the original Red and Blue Rescue Team titles released in 2006, and a fun and enjoyable standalone game in its own right. It’s absolutely adorable and cute for those who are looking for that sort of thing, and it’s very easy to play and enjoy if you’re a Pokemon fan, while still offering optional hardcore challenges for the Fushigi Dungeon veteran. It’s not very unique, there are some issues with the AI at times, and the game plays by rules that might put off certain gamers, but if you are the sort of person who enjoys all things Pokemon/Fushigi Dungeon, or just someone looking for an ascending challenge, Explorers of Darkness is definitely something you’ll want to check out.

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