"It's convincing enough that even I found myself believing that my team's actions and attitude could have a sufficiently broad reach as to make an actual difference."
The Mystery Dungeon series of Pokémon games hasn't been around as long as the main series, but with three distinct generations under its belt, it now feels like a well-established part of the universe. And much like the first few generations of the main series, the Mystery Dungeon games have made big changes for the better with each new entry. Gates to Infinity still has a few minor stumbling points, but it improves on the previous generation, Explorers of Time/Darkness, in every way.
As in the past, Gates to Infinity puts you in the skin of a human who is transported to the Pokémon world to help resolve a problem that requires a special perspective. In this case, the issue appears to be a simple rescue mission, but you learn that it is also a philosophical rescue — Pokémon all over have lost their trust in each other and are giving in to a generally negative attitude about the future. Why this matters and why a human would be needed to help are details you learn over the course of the game. The story occasionally seems a bit naive to an extremely jaded adult like me, but it's told well, and it's convincing enough that even I found myself believing that my team's actions and attitude could have a sufficiently broad reach as to make an actual difference.
Gates to Infinity plays quite differently than games like Pokémon Black/White, although it is based on the same underlying principles. You encounter the types of Pokémon and the moves that you're familiar with, but rather than wandering through grass and caves from city to city, you live in one city and make your way through dungeons in search of items and new companions. You generally travel through those dungeons in a party of four, and you can choose whether those four stick together or split up to attack more enemies at once. Previous games employed an IQ mechanic that required you to both level up and use rare items to teach these tactics to your teammates, but Gates to Infinity has thankfully done away with that system entirely, hugely improvement to the overall flow of the game. Combine this with the fact that simply walking through dungeons makes your party members regain HP over time, and you have a game that makes it very easy for you to say "I'll just play one more mission" over and over, and it's hard to put down even after the closing credits, when the challenge level goes up via the addition of new gameplay elements.
Unlike other Pokémon games, every member of your team earns experience at the same rate, whether or not they're in your active party. When you enter a dungeon with a party member you had been leaving on the bench, they instantly gain all of the levels their experience entitles them to, and you are given the choice of how to allocate any new moves and (if it's time for them) whether to let them evolve. It's a bit of a double-edged sword, since Pokémon who join the team late can never catch up, level-wise, but the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. It removes the necessity of grinding for levels, and since I spent 60 hours with the game before reaching the end credits, I still felt like I'd gotten my money's worth.
Speaking of getting your money's worth, this is the first Pokémon game I can think of to offer DLC for cash. Each purchase grants you a dungeon geared toward improving specific types of Pokémon, finding certain types of items, or providing an ultimate challenge (one DLC dungeon consists of 99 floors). I bought one, and although it was only a few dollars, I'd still say that it's only worth a purchase for players who are really dying to get the particular benefit offered by the dungeon.
Gates to Infinity makes one more important alteration to the Pokémon formula: as you use moves, they level up. Leveling up a move gives it more PP and makes it hit harder and more accurately, and the experience gained by a move is shared across all Pokémon who know it. This helps keep basic moves like Quick Attack relevant throughout the game as well as helping those aforementioned late-joining members of your team make up for being lower leveled than their companions. It's a great tweak to the system, albeit one that I'd be surprised to see make the transition to Pokémon X/Y when they're released later this year.
One thing that this game has in common with X/Y is a significantly upgraded graphical engine. Environments and Pokémon alike use 3D models, and they look great. I'll admit that my library of 3DS games is not the biggest, but this is definitely the best use of 3D that I've seen yet. There's great motion in cutscenes, the walls of the dungeons really pop out from the floor, and if you choose to display the minimap on the top screen, it floats over the top of everything beautifully, adding information without getting in the way... as long as you've got the 3D on. If you play in 2D, the minimap is not quite transparent enough to be helpful, but this game looks so good in 3D that I only played in 2D when I absolutely had to.
And it doesn't just look great, it sounds great. There are quite a few music tracks that accompany the dungeons and story events, and I really enjoyed them. As far as I could tell, they are all unique to this game, but a few tracks contain clear references to classic Pokémon melodies. The dungeons' music matches their environments nicely, providing a background to your gameplay that enhances it the way that game music should.
As in previous Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games, the controls work well, but are a tiny bit too complex for their own good. Each button on the 3DS has a function, and a couple of them have two, but the only button that caused me any trouble was B. B brings up your inventory when you're not moving, but makes you dash if you're currently walking. With the addition of an analog stick, they could have eliminated the issue altogether by using the R trigger to dash instead of its current function of allowing the d-pad to move you diagonally. That said, it feels like the sensitivity of whether the game thinks you're moving has been improved, so this issue has changed from a frequent problem to an occasional gripe.
In my review of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness/Time, I said that the series was improving, but was still more "fender bender" than "winning the Indy 500." Using that same scale, all of the upgrades made in Gates to Infinity have us now up to at least "Sunday drive in the canyon." It's enjoyable through and through, and the introspective nature of the storyline will leave you thinking about what effect a more positive attitude could have on your own life. It's easy for me to recommend this game to any Pokéfan, regardless of whether they've played prior Mystery Dungeon entries.