"The roguelike is a sub-genre of role-playing video games, characterized by level randomization, permanent death, and turn-based movement. (...) Games are typically dungeon crawls, with many monsters, items, and environmental features." - wikipedia.org
When I first played a Pokémon Mystery Dungeon game I was struck by how similar it was in style to one of my old time favorites - Azure Dreams to the PS. I'm not sure how well known or popular Azure Dreams ever was (or is), but I put in so many hours into that game, without ever even finishing it. As with most roguelikes, the gameplay to Azure Dreams is fairly simple, and contains a whole lot of dungeon crawling in randomized levels that get increasingly harder. The penalty of dying is different from game to game, but normally you end up losing everything. In Azure Dreams the challenge is reaching the top floor of a tower, each floor being filled with treasures to find and monsters to fight. The trick to Azure Dreams is that everytime you leave the tower, you lose all your levels meaning you have to start from scratch each time. With you however you can have an amount of pets that fight for you, pets that will keep their level and thus be your main weapon against the monsters in the tower and towards reaching the ultimate goal of the top floor. It might sound confusing but is simple, in the end it means going in and out of the tower a whole lot of times, leveling up your pets to always be able to reach a bit further. The biggest critique against roguelikes has probably always been its repetiveness, it is basically designed around redoing the same thing over and over until you get it right.
|Inspiration for Pokémon? Some of the Azure Dreams pets - angelfire.com|
But then again, many, many games have this kind of gameplay as their core idea, games that usually end up being insanely popular. Tetris, Mario, even a game like World of Warcraft can be said to have this as their main selling point. And eventhough the main goal of most roguelikes is to grind through dungeons, there are often surrounding goals that can be achieved through all that dungeon crawling. In Azure Dreams and the current Pokémon Mystery Dungeon game I am playing, Gates to Infinity, a secondary goal is to build up a society outside of the dungeons where you can further increase your effectiviness inside the dungeons. Both Azure Dreams and PMD require you to gather a strong team of fighters to be able to counter all the kinds of mobs inside the dungeons. To me, roguelike is a game genre I can play for hours and hours on end, and simply not get bored of.
This strong and new found love for roguelikes in general and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon in particular has made me think that the PMD franchise is seriously underrated and unjustly frowned upon. Admittedly I've only played two games so far, but I know they are fairly similar in style and that I would probably enjoy all of them about equally much (ie a lot). Overall the PMD games are probably considered very simple roguelikes but to me that is probably the only really bad thing to say about it. When I read that the DS games had received an average of 6.5 score from ign.com I wondered if the reviewer disliked the games compared to other roguelikes or compared to completely different games. I for instance had loads of fun with a game like PMD: Explorers of Time, which was the first PMD I played. Now I realize that there is individual taste and that a 6.5 doesn't mean everyone will think it's just an "okay" game, but it insinuates that it's not a well designed game which I just don't agree with. Again, compared to what? To me it feels like at least this reviewer is hammering down on things that normally are at the core of a roguelike - dungeons that feel the same, and overall repetiveness. Interestingly enough these PMDs have received a much higher overall score from players than from "pro" reviewers. When I saw that the game I'm currently playing, PMD: Gates to Infinity, had received the low score of 4.5, I felt like I needed to give my PoV on this game series, a PoV from someone who actually likes the repetiveness and embraces it.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon - Gates to Infinity Review
If you like Pokémon and you like roguelikes, you've definitely come to the right place with the PMD-series - offering a whole lot of both. In fact I'd start out right away by saying, if you don't find Pokémon absolutely awesome, you might consider PMD GoI (and pretty much all the other PMD games) a bit heavy on the Pokémon. In GoI you get to start out as one of 5 different Pokémon and also choose one of the remaining ones as your partner Pkmn who will be with you pretty much throughout the game. Depending on your choice you will get different types of skills, but GoI is a fairly easy game overall making the choice more one of taste than one of tactics.
In GoI the main story is about a human being pulled into the pkmn world to save it from "some big threat", and while the story progresses you can do the usual quests which in GoI means taking on jobs to go into dungeons and solve different issues - be it to subdue a boss of sorts, finding and item or rescue some stray pkmn. The story is far from boring although not very deep, but there is a lot of it. I've had cut scenes taking what must've been 15 minutes, and the story progresses fairly quickly meaning that you can have really long cutscenes between every other dungeon that you complete. Because of this I can definitely feel like GoI is a bit heavy on the dialogue side, which fortunately is saved by some really well written and funny characters in the game. The two main characters, namely yourself and your sidekick are probably the least interesting, but your surroundings, both the starting city and the society you build up throughout your playing contains some characters that had me laugh out loud and really feel for them. As a big fan of the whole pkmn franchise I simply love seeing pkmn in this personal and character driven way, considering how plain and comparatively insipid the pkmn are in the main game series. This is something I've mentioned before, but sometimes I really wish they'd borrow the idea from Digimon with pkmn that actually have personalities. Some of the interaction between the socially hateful Scraggy and the aloof Quagsire are simply hilarious and the way the loudmouthed Rampardos is trying to get the Cinccino to notice him is charming. This isn't a game just filled with pkmn that are simplistic and overly good, but with some really well written characters that really add to the overall feel.
The gameplay is pretty standard roguelike and if you've played any of the other PMD games you know what to expect. Every now and then a wild pkmn defeated in a dungeon will ask to join your team, and there are many different pkmn to catch. Just as in the main series, these come with different types that are stronger or weaker against other types. This is something I wish the game would make more of a tactical choice, and although there are certain game elements that reward you for giving some planning to your group composition, overall they really don't make much of a difference in the main story game mode since just about everything you can encounter can be overcome with relative ease. This is the only big problem I have with this game - it's a bit too simple and the big challenges are far apart and not even they are really that difficult. The game will shower you in useful items, meaning you very rarely run out of healing items or other things needed to be able to progress. You need Elixirs to up your PP, otherwise you eventually run out of usable moves. In the beginning I made sure to use the Elixirs as little as possible, assuming they'd be a rare commodity. After some gaming I have more than 60 lying around in my bank and I end up vendoring the ones I gather because the dungeons will provide you with more than you'll ever end up needing. After more than 30 hours of gaming I've only died once in the main story (after hours of easy gaming I was surprised by a pkmn that actually two shot me), and that is not because of my leet skills or cautious game style. It's unfortunate because there are many features in PMD GoI that could be used to force the player to do some real planning and thinking, like how certain types of pkmn get stronger certain days, but the easy difficulty level renders most of them pretty obsolete.
You can't control the rest of your team more than giving them general directions, such as staying together or wandering off on your own. As far as I know this is common for roguelike games and it works well. Because of the easy level of the game I almost always have my entire team walk off on their own, and I very rarely have to worry about them. The AI is nothing special, you can tell your team which skills to use so that they don't get stuck using Tail Whip five times in a row against a mob. Although not clever, the game play is simple enough to make sure the AI won't annoy you either. There are two things that keep me really interested and going in this game - finding the "hard parts" in the dungeons and advancing the village. Most dungeons will have one or several levels where you can find rooms filled with monsters or secret, harder to get to areas where the mobs are a lot tougher than the rest of the dungeon. When you enter these areas the difficulty level rises by a lot, and although far from as challenging as some of the harder roguelikes, they still require tactical thinking and good usage of items to be able to survive.
If you end up feeling like the storymode is either too simple or too much story, GoI offers two other modes for those who just want to get into some dungeon crawling action. The first one, Companion Mode, allows you to suspend your story mode and set out into a dungeon with a second team - simply allowing you to do some dungeon crawling without all the dialogue and storymode interrupting your gaming. The second one is called the Magnagates, a feature I quite like since this is where the game offers some real challenge. By using the camera and looking for round objects in your surroundings you can open up a "magnagate" (walking around your home looking for them is actually more fun than it sounds), a dungeon in which you play a preset team of pkmn and encounter a bit more difficult enemies. You start each dungeon without any items, further increasing the difficulty, although your team keeps any levels you might've gotten previously. The big surprise to me was that if you lose a team member he is gone forever. I haven't even figured out how to fill out your team again, although I assume it is by having wild pkmn join, which means you need to be a lot more careful not to die in the Magnagate dungeons than the storymode and companion mode ones. My preset team started out with three pkmn and I accidentally lost one meaning that every Magnagate I do now is with only two pkmn on the team. Everything gathered in either mode will be sent to the main story mode.
Eventhough I'd love for GoI to be more challenging than it is, it still gets the overall gameplay right. I still find myself drawn in and wanting to do just that one more dungeon all the time. There are many things to do, many pkmn to love, and wanting to explore yet another dungeon just doesn't get boring. Without spoiling too much I can say that the storyline turned out to be more interesting for this kind of game than I initially thought, and although still not comparable to proper story driven games it at least offers some tiny surprises. If you enjoy the roguelike game style and happen to also be a pkmn fan, I don't see any reason not to play this game - not for the challenge, but for the experience. And maybe hopefully in the future, a PMD will be released with some increased difficulty - to me everything else about this game is just about perfect.