I love a good roguelike. And I definitely love Mystery Dungeon games. For those unaware, the Mystery Dungeon moniker is actually its own meta-franchise. I discuss this point in my review of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX, a remake of the first generation in the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon spinoff series.
The second installment in the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon (PMD) series came paired, much like the main franchise Pokémon titles. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time & Explorers of Darkness were released in North America for the Nintendo DS in 2008. Also, like many franchise titles, this PMD installment received a third game. Similar to Yellow, Emerald, or Platinum in the mainline Pokémon series, this third Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers game brought together aspects of the previous two while adding its own charm to form a semi-definitive capstone experience. That game, released in late 2009, is Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky.
Entering this experience 13 years late has given me a unique perspective on this title, especially after playing the polished Rescue Team DX for Nintendo Switch. At its core, Explorers of Sky is very similar to its original counterparts. To that end, I point readers to John Tucker’s 2008 review of Explorers of Time & Explorers of Darkness, as it captures much of the game’s experience, and I share most of John’s opinions therein. I especially agree with his high graphics score. The art style has aged well, and the attention to detail cannot be overlooked. Whether on the DS or the Wii U Virtual Console, the second generation of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon looks great.
Explorers of Sky stands out due to the enhancements and bonus content. For starters, while no soundtrack was ever published for these games, Explorers of Sky has an unlockable Sound Test menu where players are free to listen to the entire soundtrack at their leisure. That’s over 100 songs! Players can now enjoy the music that much more. As for the quality of the music itself, I must mention 8-Bit Music Theory’s video showcasing leitmotif use in these games. The central thrust of this video essay is that there are three connected motifs that we may think of as the “Time,” “Darkness,” and “Sky” motifs. Playing the game and listening mindfully throughout makes the experience of playing this game increasingly worthwhile.
The most significant additions to Explorers of Sky are five standalone “Special Episodes “unlocked during the course of the main game. You can access them by saving the game, returning to the title screen, and choosing to play the Special Episode from a separate menu. Special Episodes start the player at a set level with virtually no inventory unless you reach a Kangaskhan Statue. These allow players to pull items from their main game’s Kangaskhan Storage.
The story and character development in these Special Episodes justify the significant boost in my story sub-score compared to that in John Tucker’s review of Time & Darkness. Some players may view one or more of these stories as throwaways. Still, I doubt anyone could deny that Episode 2 (focusing on the origin story of Guildmaster Wigglytuff) and Episode 5 (too spoiler-worthy for me to even describe) are irrelevant or poorly written. These stories wonderfully flesh out the experience and bring so much personality to the Pokémon characters in the game that I feel the main story is virtually incomplete without these fine supplemental materials.
The postgame experience, like many Mystery Dungeon games, is brimming with content that’s arguably more fun and expansive than the main scenario. Unlike my experience with DX, I found Explorers of Sky challenging from start to finish and beyond. That said, Explorers of Sky offers fewer punishments for failure than Time & Darkness, and it contains more postgame content (such as the Shaymin Village) with more items, skills, and features to make conquering the full postgame more manageable.
Whether you are interested in this game because you love either Pokémon or Mystery Dungeon-style roguelikes, Explorers of Sky is a great way to scratch that itch. Access to this game, however, is a problem as of 2022. Copies of the original DS cartridge are prohibitively expensive, regularly running over $100 (USD) for secondhand copies in good condition. In addition, while it was listed for Wii U Virtual Console, all purchasing functions ceased operation as of August 2022. If you previously purchased this game for Wii U VC, you might want to boot up your console and make sure you have it downloaded, as digital download services from the Wii U eShop will cease entirely in March 2023. Fans have speculated that Wii U Virtual Console titles could be brought to Nintendo Switch, but there are no guarantees. Even if some DS ports are made available on Switch, Explorers of Sky may or may not make the cut. So, if you wish to soar the sky of this unique Pokémon title, your best options now are to pay hefty sums for a used copy or hope for another port in the near future!