Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Gates To Infinity is the latest release in the “Mystery Dungeon” series, a spin-off of the ever-so-popular core Pokemon series. Though the main series has been going strong for nearly 20 years (!!!) in Japan, the Mystery Dungeon games have quietly become a mainstay of their own – Gates to Infinity is the ninth such title in eight years (though only six have made it to the states). I had never played a Mystery Dungeon title until GTI, but having grown up in the hey-day of Poke-mania has made me a huge fan of the franchise and has given its main series the distinction of being the only RPG I ever regularly play for fun. So how did GTI play to a man who tends to avoid such things (even if they’re painted in a Pokemon coat?) Surprisingly…well.
The game begins with an unseen voice speaking to another unseen voice via a dream sequence. The latter voice is that of an unknown entity in the Pokemon world seeking help from the other voice, which turns out to be you the player. You are then transferred to the Pokemon world and asked to describe what your appearance is: Are you a Pikachu, Tepig, Snivy, Oshawott or Axew? For the first time in a Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game, the player gets to choose who their Pokemon avatar will be in addition to getting to choose their partner/best friend Pokemon (out of the four left after the player chooses his/her own appearance). In previous versions the player was asked to answer personality questions to semi-randomly create what their Pokemon avatar would be and you’d be stuck with it throughout the main game. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would have been to have gone through the game as a Pokemon I didn’t care about, so being able to actually choose which creature you get to be is a big plus in this title. Now, it would have been cool if they personality questions had been incorporated in some other way – say, to perhaps introduce the “Natures” concept from the main series into these games – but I think most fans will be happy to see them go.
I chose Snivy as my character and decided to take Pikachu along for the ride. That ride consisted primarily of a narrative consisting of two constants: the player-controlled character’s continuous dreams about the voice that’s asking for his help in the Pokemon world, and your partner’s mission to build a Pokemon Paradise in the midst of what starts out as a rubble-ridden area. For much of the first part of the story your character’s story takes a backseat to your partner’s mission to create the perfect Pokemon tow, which makes for a good framework in introducing the player to all of the game’s mechanics, areas and quirks.
The most important of the areas you’ll encounter is the mystery dungeons. For the unfamiliar, mystery dungeons are maps that are randomly-generated each time you enter them, meaning that no quest will ever play out the same way as it did before. For much of the game your goal in these dungeons will be to meet a job request that usually entails either retrieving an item/Pokemon or fending off an outlaw Pokemon that needs punishing. Within these dungeons your character and his partners move along on a grid-system, which doesn’t change during combat with enemy Pokemon. So, although the turn-based move input from the main series is also utilized here, there’s also the added element of having to position your Pokemon in the right spot in order for their attacks to have an effect on the enemy. Attacks vary in range, allowing for a variety in combat style depending on what you prefer. Combat itself was relatively simple to learn and not much harder to master, my only knock on it being how silly the partner Pokemon can be with their own attacks. Thankfully, you’re given a liberal amount of control over what kind of actions your partners can take, but being too restrictive (which is tempting at times) will make for an unpleasant experience if you want them to survive more than a few dungeon floors.
You will also come across a variety of items in the dungeons that are main-series staples (TMs, berries) as well as ones that are Mystery Dungeon exclusives (status-affecting orbs and seeds). I think it’s worth noting that while I would never use, say, an X Accuracy in the main RPG series (where Pokemon moves are more crucial than items, overall), I frequently used similar items in Gates to Infinity because their implementation didn’t feel as clunky here as in the main series. The game was very strict in how many items you could carry with you at a given time at the beginning but eased up a bit as you went on. Still, items don't stack in your bag as they do in the main series, so if you decide to carry two Cheri Berries, it takes up two item slots in your bag. Initially I found this to be annoying, but after becoming more active in my item usage I realized that the spirit of the game seemed to be for you to actually USE your items and not hoard them, which ended up making for a much more fun experience in the long run.
As a newcomer to the series I was satisfied with how the game introduced the player to its combat and item systems, inserting pop-up text boxes that described how specific actions could be taken or what certain items after you picked them up for the first time. What I wasn’t okay with was how sluggishly-paced the game was for the first 2-3 hours of gameplay. This i mostly attributable to the player actually playing very little in that first 2-3 hours, with the bulk of the accumulating minutes coming from time spent in dialogue after dialogue after dialogue. It’s a shame that this felt like a problem because the dialogue was well-written and much wittier than I expected. However, there’s just SO MUCH of it early on that it makes it feel like cycling through the dialogue scenes is the game and the dungeon crawling is just a side-gig. This eases up the further you make it through the game, but I fear some will struggle to get past the initial hours and put it down before making it far enough to really dig into the dungeon exploration.
If you do manage to make it past the word-heavy first act, you’ve got a lot in store for you. Through the story there are dozens and dozens of dungeons that open up for you to explore, each with their own sets of Pokemon (made up primarily from those found in the Unova Region from Pokemon Black and Pokemon White) for you to interact with. As your Pokemon Paradise grows, you’ll also find you're also able to expand both its size and capabilities as to what it can provide for you (for some reason, Nintendo has asked reviewers to not reveal specific details as to what these expansion opportunities are, but just know that your little useless piece of heaven won’t stay useless for long). Most importantly, though, following the main story there’s a ton of incentive for players to keep playing. There’s a companion mode feature that you unlock about halfway through the story that enables you to take a break from the main action and play as other Pokemon Paradise citizens. There’s a Magnagate augmented reality feature that utilizes the 3DS camera to capture zones in real life that can be accessed to enter special dungeons in which players can explore and retrieve items for their main game. There’s even a co-op local multiplayer option to allow you and three other friends to participate in special missions (I did not have the luxury of testing this out, but it seems like a pretty nice bonus). Without even getting into the “gotta catch ‘em” collecting aspect and forthcoming DLC (the first offering of which is free until April 30, by the way), there’s a lot to do in Gates of Infinity.
Graphically, the game makes the most of the 3DS hardware and is a terrific outing as the first polygonal Pokemon title to grace a handheld. I’ve never been a huge fan of seeing Pokemon made from polygons as opposed to sprites, but the models here are good representations of their sprite-based forms in a three-dimensional landscape. Although I’m more pleased with how the upcoming Pokemon X and Pokemon Y appear to be handling three-dimensional Pokemon (they’re more cel-shaded in their look, preserving the cartoon-like spirit of the first five generations), the models here could easily have been used and I would have been okay with it (or at least would have grown used to it). The 3D effects were well-done, but I didn’t see much use in having the feature turned on except during some cinematic scenes that occurred throughout the story. Still, for those whose eyes can tolerate it better than mine, know that you shouldn’t be disappointed.
The biggest knocks I’ve heard about the Mystery Dungeon series are regarding its repetitive nature and its lack of variation from title to title. While combat and exploring can feel like more of the same at times, I’d personally argue that that’s the case for most if not ALL role-playing games, with the value in such titles coming in the mastery of that repetition in order to make for the perfect playing experience to fit your personality. As for the lack of change between titles, I can’t say for certain that’s the case since this is the first Pokemon Mystery Dungeon experience I’ve partaken in. Playing devil’s advocate again, though, can’t one say that at its core the main Pokemon series hasn’t changed at all since its debut in 1996? Each game begins the same way and asks the player to conquer essentially the same set of obstacles en route to becoming a Pokemon champion. Those games are far more fleshed out and deep than that example permits, but I also believe it’s unfair to blame a game like Gates to Infinity for not changing its formula much between titles while bestowing love upon the primary games when those too have remained stagnant in many ways.
Really, at the end of the day, Gates to Infinity and future (and past) Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games should not be held up against the main series and judged. In and of itself, GOI is a fun experience that big-time Pokemon fans (especially younger ones) should enjoy. As a first-time Mystery Dungeon player, I can also recommend the game to anyone who might be on the fence about jumping in and exploring some dungeons. Not everyone will enjoy it, mind you, because it’s not the Pokemon they know and love. However, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity has a lot to offer if you give it a chance. Yea, it might be easy to learn and easy to conquer, but I can also see how one could easily fall in love with it, too.