Look up the 25 top-selling video games of all time, and you’ll find every original installment of the main Pokémon series on the list. Even Yellow, Fire Red, and Leaf Green show up there, and they’re essentially re-releases of older games. In fact, even when you include both the originals and the retreads, Emerald is the only main series game that misses the list. I’ve been a fan of the series since I maxed out the clock in the original Red at 256 hours, so I was cautiously optimistic about having fun with this offshoot, even though I haven’t played any previous Mystery Dungeon games.
As has been true of previous Pokémon games, Explorers of Darkness and Explorers of Time share the same story. There are only two differences between the games–two game-exclusive items and three game-exclusive Pokémon each–neither of which are compelling reasons to choose one over the other. The story is not Shakespeare, but it’s not horrible either. What seems like a fairly straightforward “stop the badguy” quest takes some twists and turns that won’t surprise older players, but will definitely make younger players think.
An important element of storytelling is the method used, and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness/Time seems to try to follow the method used by TV shows such as Lost. There is a central mystery, a struggle to determine who is really good or bad, and flashbacks. A lot of flashbacks. Unfortunately, this is not a choice that works out very well. The frequent flashbacks almost always serve as reminders of things that happened earlier in the game, and there are several that look back to what happened merely minutes earlier. In addition, the story scenes are extremely long–so long that several of them have save points in the middle so that you can quit and come back without having to hear the whole thing over again.
Although it’s quite different from the standard Pokémon games, the gameplay is fairly similar to the previous Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, with just a few tweaks thrown in to improve the experience. The recruitment system is the most affected, having been completely overhauled. You no longer have to purchase areas to recruit allies, there’s no question of their mood, new recruits get sent instantly to your home base, and each dungeon floor has a handy menu option to tell you who you have and haven’t yet recruited on that floor. If you played the first game and hated how recruiting worked, you will really appreciate the change.
You play as a Pokémon (rather than a trainer), and are teamed with a partner who will be with you throughout the game. After a certain point in the game, some of the Pokémon you beat in dungeons will ask to join your team, which will allow you to go out as a team of up to four rather than just you and your partner. Unfortunately, there’s no Pokédex in the game, so it’s difficult to know whether you’ve recruited ’em all.
The game is divided into days: each day, you get to go into town to prepare for adventure by getting your items ready, after which you go to a dungeon and proceed through its randomly-generated levels, where enemies appear at random, even after you begin walking around on a floor. Items come in standard RPG flavors–health restoration, status correction, temporary buffs, status infliction, etc. It’s important to note that the bosses in this game are just as vulnerable to statuses as other enemies–I won many fights by throwing an item that put the boss to sleep and then beating him to a pulp while he slept. Actually, as long as you hang onto a few status-inflicting items, getting to the boss fights will generally be more challenging than fighting the bosses are.
While you’re in a dungeon, nearly everything you do is turn-based. Even moving takes a turn, so if you start a floor within sight of several enemies, you don’t need to worry about them running up to you–they can’t move until you do, and they can only move one square for every square you move. I like this, as it keeps some of the nasty surprises out of what is essentially a random battle system. Under normal circumstances, your teammates will string along behind you, which means that the main character is almost always the one who takes the first hit from enemies. Your teammates won’t generally move into place on their own during a fight, either, which leads to many annoying situations where you have to waste a turn during battle just so that you’re not the only one of your group actually attacking the enemy.
The game includes two concepts that help govern your companions’ behavior: tactics and IQ. You learn tactics as the main character levels up, and they allow you to do things to your teammates like stick with you, spread out on their own, and avoid enemies. IQ skills are learned through feeding individual characters items called gummis, and they allow your characters to do things like not giving an enemy a status it already has. Most of these skills are things that you’d want your characters to have by default, and the number of gummis it takes to improve a character’s IQ is so great (especially given the scarcity of many types) that the system is useless and leaves you with a cast of dumbed-down teammates that will have you all the more frustrated because you know they don’t have to be so stupid.
This game offers some multiplayer options that are both interesting and out of the ordinary, and as long as you know someone else who has the game, you’ll probably appreciate them. For example, when you die in most dungeons, you can request a rescue via wi-fi, local wireless, or even password. When your friend rescues you, they can choose to send you a Pokémon to join your team and help you avoid the need for rescue in the future. It’s also worth noting that you can continue playing after the end credits with a greatly increased level of challenge. The difficulty actually goes up enough that you’ll probably want to spend a while leveling up before you continue the story, even if you beat the final boss without much trouble.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness/Time takes excellent advantage of the DS’ two screens. You are given several options of what should appear on the top screen, at least two of which I found useful enough to use for long periods of time. The bottom screen is used for gameplay and an automatic minimap that is extremely useful in the game’s randomly-generated dungeons, some of which are full of long, twisting hallways. The gameplay is all shown from an overhead perspective, and fans of the Pokémon series will find all of the characters to be very recognizable. Some that haven’t shown up in a while may even spark feelings of nostalgia–I grinned the first time I saw a Raticate.
Like so many things about this game, the best word to describe the sound is “workmanlike.” Most of the time, it just gets the job done. It’s not fancy, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either. Many of the sound effects are identical to what you’d hear in the standard Pokémon games, and the music does a good job of matching the rest of the series. The one exception was the song that played over the end credits–it was a very nice piece, and it made sitting through the credits a lot easier to do.
There is only one control scheme available, and while it’s learnable, it’s also fairly complex. In fact, one of the options for what should display on the top screen is the control scheme, which really helps at the beginning. Once you learn the controls, you shouldn’t have too much trouble with them, with the exception of moving diagonally and dashing. When moving diagonally outside of battle, you often overshoot your destination by a square or two, which leaves you wasting as many steps as you were trying to save. Dashing is accomplished by pushing B while moving, but pushing B when you’re not moving brings up your inventory. This dual use, combined with a very particular interpretation of when you’re moving or not means that if you want to dash very often, you should be ready to see an awful lot of your inventory.
Triumph or train wreck, it’s always interesting to see an established series take a detour and try something different. The Mystery Dungeon games are definitely a different direction for the Pokémon series, but they’re more “fender bender” than they are “winning the Indy 500.” There’s fun to be had, and there’s nothing particularly broken in the game, but there are many better games available on the DS. Those who liked the first installment will enjoy this one as well, and will appreciate the improvements brought about by the second screen, but weighing in at only 30-40 hours of mediocrity, it’s probably a better rental than purchase.