Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky - Staff Review  

If This Game Were a Pokémon, It Would Be Magikarp
by Glenn "7thCircle" Wilson

Very Easy
20-40 Hours
+ Dungeon crawling has a fast pace
+ Innuendo-filled plot good for unplanned humor
- No challenge whatsoever
- Pokémon mechanics are poorly implemented
- Bland, templated side quests
- Too much lengthy, repeated dialogue
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   Silently sobbing, a solitary shape shuffles out from the sizable shadows of the setting sun, slowly strolling toward a stronghold on a scarp. Habitually brushing tear-soaked straw off his sole possession, an unsympathetic stone inscribed with an uninterpretable design, the sorrowful figure recalls past failures and dreams of future disappointments. Alone in a crowded city, sleeping on a haystack in a damp hole, too timid to know friendship, satisfying hunger with berries while the true emptiness inside expands unabated, he mumbles to himself out loud, predicting the upcoming lapse in confidence that will damn him to another lonely night watching the sun descend into the ocean with his standard companions: the berries, the straw, and the stone. Wretchéd belief! Why must you curse sentient beings with higher intelligence so? Conditioning how we behave and removing rational thought, merely believing in an unborn action transforms it into reality, and just how a lion concealed in golden grass lies in wait, knowing the next movement will not occur until a grazing gazelle approaches within the range of attack, the pathetic creature crying in the shadows only initiates his approach toward the iron portcullis at the very moment when his belief in failure is so absolute, no other denouement could occur, and indeed, he dejectedly walks away from the structure, glaring disappointedly at his rock through watery lenses. Unbeknownst to the boy, life progresses in circular movements, and as the end of one path often initiates the start of another, so begins the story of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky.

   To be less dramatic and more accurate, the game opens with a personality test for the player. Ostensibly, the results determine which happy, excitable Pokémon the protagonist will be, but the wording in the test's conclusions seems set on creating insecurities. For example, if the test determines that the player is jolly, it follows up a seemingly positive trait by claiming that the gamer is an emotional wreck who balances the laughter in his life with regular, uncontrollable sobbing and sadness. For another example, the test might find that the gamer is solitary in nature, then explains that the gamer is a depressed, lonely individual so embarrassed by his need for solitude that he forces himself into social situations in a false attempt to appear normal. For a game marketed toward children, it's beyond bizarre that the opening hurls personal insults at the player as though they are facts. The connection between the test results and the ensuing avatar are also tenuous: being jolly means you are a Totodile, being lonely means you are a Bulbasaur.

Most of the characters are snivelling pansies. Most of the characters are snivelling pansies.

   The strange set of beginnings — the personality test followed by the introduction of the pathetic partner — gets even stranger over the next few scenes. Less than thirty minutes after the DS is powered up, the partner will already be declaring that his life was meaningless before he met you, how you complete him, and how much courage he has because of you, and the two of you sleep in a room together as you gaze out at the full moon. It's very weird. Friendship as an empowering force is as cliché as it gets, but PMD takes it past the extreme in just the first chapter. The dialogue is full of awkward prepubescent sexual innuendo, and if the lead and the partner are the same gender... let's just say this game is more bromantic than Army of Two, and Nintendo put so many bro-hugs and "I love you, mans!" in it that even a bar full of drunk fraternity brothers would be ashamed.

   While it is tempting to call the story meaningless, which it is, and move on to the gameplay mechanics, PMD has a major problem: there is an onslaught of repeated dialogue. Once Lead and Partner shack up in the guild and start exploring with each other, the gameplay and story follow an unchanging pattern that repeats every day and every chapter. Outside of the dungeon it becomes a deluge of text bubbles, most of them being identical from day to day. Every chapter ends with Partner giving a long-winded speech about how deeply he cares about Lead, how courageous he is now, and how Lead completes him — the exact same speech he gave thirty minutes into the game. Repeatedly. Over and over. Lead's internal monologue regularly explains how deeply he cares about Partner. There are too many NPCs who each need their fifteen minutes of fame in every cutscene involving the guild, and these lengthy scenes take place a couple times every chapter. There is an overarching story about saving the world, naturally, but it gets buried under the unskippable dialogue emitted from every ADD character in the game who needs to yell about how happy/timid/scared/stupid/greedy they are.

The rest are hyper morons. The rest are hyper morons.

   As for the dungeon crawling, Chunsoft took its standard Mystery Dungeon formula and grafted Pokémon mechanics into it, then dumbed down the difficulty to better suit it to the target audience of mindless children who must purchase all things Pokémon. Dungeons are randomly generated every time they are entered, and when the player acts — be it by moving, attacking, or using an item — all friends and foes on the floor take an action in turn. Characters, statistics, and attacks are taken from the Pokémon series, so a grass dungeon will be filled with Oddishes, Roserades, and some Normal Pokémon to flesh things out. To attack, Pokémon can either use a standard, weak swipe, or can use one of its moves. Moves in PMD include a large swath of abilities taken straight from the Pokémon series. Some deal massive damage, some are ranged attacks, and others inflict status ailments or boost the user's abilities. The downside is that moves can only be used a set number of times in each dungeon, so if a powerful attack only has ten uses it would be prudent to save it for a dire situation rather than using it on every foe.

   There are several flaws in this implementation. First, only Lead can be controlled; other party members are set to either run off independently, usually resulting in death, or stand passively behind Lead. The issue here is that the game uses the Pokémon series' elemental weakness chart, so if Lead is a water type, and it's a grass dungeon, he will be weak to nearly every enemy he faces. Once Partner's AI is figured out, it's fairly easy to approach enemies so that even when he's set to hang back and not help, the foe ends up next to him and he will attack it. Possibly because elemental weaknesses can increase the difficulty immensely, the game is balanced so that, as a whole, it is mindlessly easy. If Lead is a fire type and he hits a grass dungeon, the world is his slaughterhouse. Even in a situation where Lead is weak to a dungeon's type and Partner isn't strong against it, which is the hardest PMD gets, it's still much easier than other Japanese randomized crawlers like the Izuna and Chocobo series. When Lead or Partner fall, the punishment is light: some random inventory items are lost along with half of the unbanked money. It's by far the most inconsequential punishment for dying in any game of this subgenre.

Enemies are usually outclassed and outnumbered. Enemies are usually outclassed and outnumbered.

   When an enemy is defeated in the dungeon, there's a small chance it will offer to join Lead and Partner's team. This is the only way to "capture" Pokémon, and it is exciting when a new, strong ally is gained, but several dungeons in the main story are restricted to just Lead and Partner, so recruited team members end up feeling tacked on and useless more often than not, like it was added as a mechanic because Pokémon is all about catching them all, not to improve the gameplay experience. The controls are good, however only one attack can be set to a shortcut command; the menu must be opened and drilled into to use any of Lead's others moves. For those who don't have the properties of every Pokémon attack memorized, their descriptions are buried in a menu, and looking them up takes an absurd number of button presses for something so crucial. Outside of the dungeons, items must be identified one at a time. Factor in text bubbles and pauses for effect, and it can take a few minutes just to identify all the items in the inventory.

   The presentation is acceptable, but not very good. Neither Chunsoft nor the Pokémon series are known for their attempts at sophisticated background music, and the low standard is reflected here. Visually, the graphics are in 2D and sprites are well detailed and clear, recognizing characters is simple, and the text is readable. Much ado is made in the game and manual about the awesomeness of connecting to friends wirelessly, but unless you have a buddy who wants to explore dungeons with you, none of the activities are remotely interesting or worthwhile.

   While Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky makes constant attempts at humor, the efforts mostly fall flat. There are some intentionally funny lines worth a laugh, but the main source of entertainment comes from hopefully accidental, twisted things. The plot itself, since I played as a male and my partner was male, seemed to be about two gay adolescents falling in love. It's blatantly there in the "I need to tell you again how much you mean to me" dialogue. There are other sources of humor such as the guild master who is obviously stoned all game, and a scene with an adult leading a child down a secluded mountain path with an anus-shaped cave in the background. It's the only reason why someone should consider playing this bad game. It's easy, mindless, and boring, and the Pokémon mechanics just don't work that well as implemented in a Mystery Dungeon game. The long, slow disaster of a story has the potential to elicit some "so bad, it's good" laughs, and that's reaching to find something positive in an all-around dud.

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