When it comes to RPGs, Nintendo has found a groove in the popular Mario universe. From Square Enix’s Super Mario RPG to the Paper Mario series and Mario & Luigi series, the one common characteristic is quirky style, clever writing, and a unique spin on the makings of an RPG. And though Paper Mario: Sticker Star wasn’t as wonderful as The Thousand Year Door, the recent Bowser’s Inside Story was a wonderful masterpiece. The bad news is that it’s nearly impossible to live up to that game’s expectations but the good news is that Dream Team is an enjoyable ride that succeeds in riding the curtails of its success.
Dream Team begins with a special invitation for Mario & company to take a vacation to the land of Pi’illo. While the earliest instinct is that they’re being set up, the real antagonist, Antasma, revolves around the dreams of the townsfolk and is typically encountered through the dreams of the awkward, lanky Luigi. And though the story starts as usual with Peach being captured and Mario & Luigi springing into action to save her, a more sinister plot unravels several hours into the game. No, the story never enters the realm of AAA blockbuster RPGs but if you’re accustomed to previous games in the series, the game’s clever self-awareness brings it to life.
What I appreciate about RPGs in the Mario universe is that they bend the lines of what is and isn’t an RPG. Though everything is tied together with a story and NPCs and the like, the actions and controls always seem to harken back to Mario’s platforming roots. Everything from actively interacting with the environment to having strong action elements within battles leads to an experience unlike others. Dream Team certainly continues this trend, especially in the numerous Dream World explorations that flatten the experience back to a wonderful 2D platforming experience.
Secondly, these Mario RPGs all have a strong amount of charm that reaches from the colorful environments and cartoony characters to the lively musical scores reminiscent of the days of the SNES. Couple in a large amount of witty dialogue and a functional leveling and badge system, and you’ve got a strong RPG experience. Dream Team encompasses all of these elements but doesn’t add many new mechanics to the RPG experience (unlike Bowser’s Inside Story that added the rank-up system, lengthy interactive boss battles, and a high amount of variable gameplay).
The expert achievement system is a nice plus, however, for those looking for a more challenging experience throughout the gameplay. This system gives you achievements for dodging a certain amount of attacks in a row, or timing your attacks perfectly. Each achievement gives you points that accumulate over your adventure and after reaching certain milestones, you’re rewarded with special items that have different effects based on your expert progress.
As for the game’s “gimmick”, the ability to jump into the dream world, I really enjoyed how the writers used this as a medium for putting just about anything they wanted to in the game. Luigi dreams up all sorts of bizarre attacks featuring large versions of himself, multiples of himself, and well, a more handsome version of himself. Battles consist of controlling a powered up Mario (who has fused with Luigi) and in the dream world, you can move Mario to dodge enemy attacks. Thus, his attacks are uber-attacks, where a single well-timed jump will rain a slew of Luigis on the enemy or a well-timed Hammer will hit every enemy on the screen through a multiple Luigi shockwave.
The super attacks are even more bizarre, called Luiginary attacks, where Luigi does all sorts of wonderful things to destroy the enemy. These are each new mini-games such as rolling a Katamari Luigi, Stacking Luigis, or forming a giant hammer made of Luigis. These attacks add to the variance of battles and are a welcomed addition.
There are also crazy renditions of normal enemies in the dream world. For instance, many of the enemies will appear in groups of around 20 and each of them must be killed (thus making the heightened effectiveness of Mario’s attacks much more useful). The ability to move Mario in battles makes counterattacks evolve further, creating fast thinking strategy portions of the battle. For instance, if a row of enemies are attacking at once, you may want to move to an area where your jump will be followed up by a second jump to kill an enemy behind. Or, there’s a group of enemies in the desert that either start high and end low as they approach you or vice versa. In order to successfully hit this enemy, you have to find the group that will be low once they reach you and jump on their head.
In the adventure portion of the dream levels, imagine a 2D dungeon of interconnected levels that you must explore. Luigi can interact with the environment based on different visual cues and he can be touched in the real world to affect the environment in the dream world. One example fuses Luigi with a tree and moving his mustache in the real world to move the branches of the tree and sling Mario. Another example fuses Luigi with a constellation and thus produces a large stack of Luigis that can allow Mario to access higher places or hit switches.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that the game does allow you to play on your own eventually, the game is bogged down by gameplay interruptions in the form of excessive tutorials for quite some time. These were some of the worst tutorials in terms of explaining things that were beyond obvious to the gamer. Not only do these hurt the flow of the gameplay, but they also ruin many of the puzzles throughout the game. For the most part, puzzles are fairly simple to figure out anyways, but the fact that the game practically tells you what to do for much of the game can be quite annoying. The simple ability to turn off tutorials would be a blessing but instead, the first 10 or so hours are plagued by constant tutorials.