Will this game send you soaring or drop you flat on your face?
(For those unfamiliar with the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series, see my review of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness)
As dedicated readers understand, I’m amongst the large group of gamers that would consider themselves Pokémaniacs. I’ve been playing Pokémon since the original and still find interest in each of the series’ new iterations to the classic RPG format. And though I have yet to tire from the tried and true strategic RPG format that has made Pokémon so great, I will be the first to admit that the series’ recent spin-offs provide no amount of excitement for me; I understand Nintendo’s reasons for creating as many Pokémon labeled games as they can (Pokémon=Money) but I’m a little disappointed with the lack of a broad appeal in their spin-offs.
My problems with the games lie more in the execution than in the actual idea. For Pokémon Ranger, I like the idea of using Pokémon for purposes beyond battling. However, the touch screen based controls are annoying and far too repetitive for my tastes. As for the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series, dungeon crawlers have proven to be a successful format over the years but this series hasn’t evolved the format at all since then. Thus, I’m content with the massive amounts of leveling and party building required in the classic Pokémon titles to create a formidable team but typically quit prematurely on the aforementioned spin-offs.
The latest installment to the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series of spin-offs hit my desk a week or so ago and as I looked at the box, I realized that Nintendo had followed the same strategy of game marketing as in its classic Pokémon RPG’s. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky is actually a enhancement of the two Mystery Dungeon titles released in April 2008 (Explorers of Darkness & Explorers of Time), akin to the set of 3rd installments we’ve seen for each of the original series’ titles (Pokémon Yellow, Crystal, Emerald, and Platinum). So, I guess you could say it’s a spin-off of a spin-off. But does Explorers of Sky add enough significant changes to the table to make it succeed like the other 3rd installments or is it merely an attempt to rake in even more dough from the Pokémon name?
Change is Necessary
As I stated before, my biggest complaints with the Mystery Dungeon series to date are that the game makes no attempt at evolving an archaic form of dungeon crawling. Now in the second set of games (story-wise), there were really no major improvements made to the game’s functionality or format between the first two series of games aside from an addition of online functionality. With that being said, Explorers of Sky furthers the problem by its indifference to change and thus does little to win back a gamer’s heart who’s already been bored by the lack of innovation to a stale format.
As I admitted in my review of Explorers of Darkness, I actually enjoyed the first installments to the Mystery Dungeon series because the inequities in the game’s format were overshadowed by the initial enjoyment of taking a piece of Pokémon and adding it to a classic dungeon crawling format. However, by the time I had played through the first thirty minutes of Explorers of Darkness, I realized that the lack of any change in the format continued what was an already decreasing amount of interest by me. Thus, the fact that Explorers of Sky really changes nothing from this hurts the overall appeal even more to me.
In fact, there really aren’t any key changes to the actual game itself (in a broader assessment of the game). As with previous “3rd additions” to a series, the plot of the game actually doesn’t change. The eight new dungeons are playable via “special episodes” that are unlocked on the main menu as you play through the story. These are the real additions to the story and do give you an interesting parallel view of some of the other Pokémon’s stories within the main story. Aside from these episodes, though, the only real additions to the game are new shops and items as well as the ability to start out with a either Phanphy or Riolu (which only happens if you pass the personality test in a certain way). Thus, without any real changes apart from Explorers of Time & Explorers of Darkness, there is little incentive here, even for Pokémon fans, to buy this game if they have played either of the two aforementioned titles.
Now, you may be thinking of the fact that Pokémon Yellow, Crystal, Emerald, and Platinum were also essentially the same games as their predecessors with minor tweaks added and thus they should not be judged differently than Explorers of Sky. The former statement may be true but let me emphasize the parts of these games that made them so downright successful. Pokémon Yellow added the least noticeable changes of the group but did create large parallels to the TV series and changed some of the plot. Pokémon Crystal introduced genetic breeding where players could actually pass on moves to Pokémon that normally wouldn’t learn it by breeding it with another Pokémon (the game also added plot elements and made catching Suicone much easier to catch). Pokémon Emerald enhanced the Battle Tower into the Battle Frontier, an entirely new area to explore after the main adventure as well as adding various subtle tweaks to the game’s format. Pokémon Platinum added an additional area to the game with additional plot elements and made some Pokémon change in form.
The deciding factor, however, that separates this 3rd installment from other 3rd installments in the Pokémon world is that the traditional games had so many major changes from generation to generation. In this case, the Mystery Dungeon series really hasn’t changed in any major form from the original format seen on the GBA/DS back in 2006. The fact that this 3rd installment was released literally a year and a half after the other two (from April 2008-October 2009), it's even more disappointing that there wasn't more added to this title. I know it’s been run into the ground, but the lack of change in the series has created an amount of staleness that prevents the game from appealing to a large crowd of gamers and keeps me from recommending it to anyone who's not a huge fan of the series.