Friday, June 27, 2008

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time review

As the back of the game case says, "The contents of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time/Darkness are almost the same.". Thus, this review applies to both. But, since I bought Explorers of Time, the review will be labeled as such.

Developer: Chunsoft
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: April 20th, 2008
ESRB Rating: E for Everyone
ESRB Notes: Mild Cartoon Violence

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team was the 100th game to be added to my collection. It was more than a milestone, though. It was also a damn good game. Over a year later, sequels are released in the forms of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time and Explorers of Darkness. Do the new games measure up to the old? Or is it a case of a sequel falling short of the source material's excellence?

When it comes to the majority of Pokémon game releases, storyline isn't usually a strong point. It's often just "Be the best and catch 'em all!", and little more. The Mystery Dungeon games, however, have comparatively deep and interesting plots. Note the word "comparatively". This isn't exactly Dostoevsky, but it is a step above the challenge to be a Pokémon Master. It all begins with the you washing ashore on a beach. When you awake, you have no absolutely no memory of anything whatsoever, save for two things: Your name, and the fact that you're a human. Or rather, that you were a human, because for some unknown reason, you're now a Pokémon! So there you are, a person with almost no memories, in a land you don't know, in the body of a Pokémon. How can you get back? Why are you a Pokémon? Who will feed your cat while you're away? The answers to most of these questions are answered throughout the storyline (I guess Fluffy just ate your couch or something), accompanied with a few slightly predictable twists here and there. Over all, though, a good story, and the last little bit almost made me cry a teeny bit (But then again, I'm a real sap).

"Oh, no, I'm fine... Mind passing me my tibia? I think it landed over there..."

The personification of the Pokémon was something that really impressed me. Just imagine any Pokémon out there, try and picture what it's personality would be like... And that's exactly how it is in Explorers of Time. Bidoof's just as stupid and useless as you'd assume, and Sunflora is such a stereotypical early-teens girl that it's almost scary. Really, even the Pokémon who's personalities I'd never even considered smack me in the face with how accurate they are. I'll meet a new Pokémon, watch it talk for a while, and just get this feeling like "Yes. This is how this Pokémon would act if it could speak.". Some really amazing stuff.

The Pokémon you become at the beginning of the game isn't predetermined or random. The game starts with a personality test of sorts. You're hit with a random selection of ten or so questions, and the game determines which Pokémon most accurately reflects your personality. Apparently, I'm a Pikachu. Never saw that coming. Still, pretty cool.

The core gameplay mechanic of the Mystery Dungeon games is quite different from your standard Pokémon title. It still has RPG elements, sure, but it's a dungeon crawler. See, when you wash up on that beach, you're greeted by an exploration team hopeful. He (Or she) gets you to join up with him (Or her) and form your very own exploration team (Which you can name, by the way). From then on, you can take on jobs posted on bulletin boards, and then off you go to the dungeon. A mystery dungeon, as it's called, changes every time you enter it. It will always have the same amount of floors, but each one will change completely if you leave and come back. Furthermore, if you perish within a mystery dungeon, you will be returned to the surface minus several items and all your money. You can save yourself the loss by getting someone to come to your aid, and I'll talk more about that later. Of course, if you want to get to that quickly, you can just hit Ctrl+F, bash in "multiplayer", and click down to the next result. See ya there, Mr. Impatient.

The gameplay is simple, yet fun.

While spelunking, you'll run into many different Pokémon, and almost all of them are hostile. What else can you do but take 'em down? Well, besides run like a disgraceful little exploration team reject, that is. There are three conventional ways of attacking: Throwing at item at an enemy, directly attacking them, or use a special attack. What differentiates a normal attack from a special one? Well, normal attacks are weak, basic little moves that have no special effects whatsoever. Your opponent is damaged, and that's it. The special attacks, however, are just like those you know from the main Pokémon series. Thundershock, Tackle, Water Gun, and many more. The one downside to special attacks is, like in the main games, they can only be used a limited number of times before exhausting all of their Power Points (PP). When all of a move's PP are gone, it's useless until you either get a Max Elixer, die and get revived with a Reviver Seed, or leave the dungeon. Basically, there's some strategy involved, and not only in choosing which move to use. There's also the same four attack limit from the main series, so deciding if increased strength is worth the decreased PP is an important decision to make.

Speaking of attack strength, there really isn't any way to determine if one attack is stronger than the other. There's no strength value or anything assigned to a move like in the main series. Really, the only way to judge how good a move is by its additional effects. Thunderbolt affects all enemies within one tile of the user, while Thundershock only affects one enemy. Okay, so Thunderbolt's better. But if two moves both have the same effects, there's really no way to decide which is better without taking the plunge and trying the new move. And then, if the new move sucks, you gotta pay 500 Pokébucks (Or whatever the currency's called) to get the old move back. I'd kill for a number value telling me if Quick Attack is better than Slam. Well, not really kill... Although maiming is a possibility.

If you're anything like me, you probably have the type alignment table memorized by now. Electric attacks can't harm Rock Pokémon, Normal attacks can't hit Ghost Pokémon, etc... Well, you can forget a few of those, because some changes have been made. There is no longer any such thing as a type resistance that causes an attack to do nothing. So yes, you can Thunderbolt a Graveler and Tackle a Misdreavus. Of course, these attacks are incredibly weak in this situation, but still, they do hurt the formerly impervious foes. They also hurt my brain with the inconsistency... Or maybe that's because it's 3:30 AM and I'm still writing.

Of course, you can always get other members of your exploration team to take over if you come across a type disadvantage. Or rather, you should be able to, but the partner AI in this is borderline brain dead. The standard tactic you can assign to a partner, "Let's go together", makes it so they stick with you as you explore a dungeon. That's nice, but if an Ursaring and three of his buddies start pounding on you, don't expect your team to help you out. See, the problem with the "Let's go together" tactic is that your partners take it a little too strictly. Even if your face is being pounded in, they just stand there until an enemy comes into striking distance. They won't advance on your assailants at all. But that's just the one tactic. They can't all possibly be flawed, can they?

Sadly, they are. Well, some of them are. Out of all the tactics, the only ones you really ever need to use are "Let's go together", "Go after enemies", "Stay here", and "Get out of here!". All the other ones are so useless I can't even remember what they're called. The latter two I just listed work fine, but it's the first two that are the problems. I already went over the masochistic nature of "Let's go together", so I suppose I should describe just what is so terribly wrong with "Go after enemies". Like "Let's go together", this tactic is taken far too seriously by your partners. They will track an enemy until they get close enough to strike, even if it means running all the way to the other side of the floor you're on. And then, when they finally meet and defeat this foe, they just wander around stupidly until you find them again. Looking at the map while this happens is painful, really. The little yellow dot representing your lost partner just dashes around, flying through corridors and screaming through the level's more open areas. Unless you can somehow manage to get in the same room as them or run into your disconnected pal head-on in a corridor, he'll continue to run in circles like a Torchic with its head cut off. Telling it to "Stay here" works, I'm sure, but it's a whole lot of effort to go through just to stop your Kabuto from bolting about like an idiot.

It can be so hard to find good help these days...

The actual missions you take on in these mystery dungeons are varied, yet the same. Sometimes you have to deliver an item, other times you have to find a stranded explorer, and other times you have to take down a wanted criminal. No matter what the mission, though, fulfilling it is basically the same: Go into the dungeon, keep going up/down until you reach the right floor, find target, save/deliver item to/defeat target, leave. There are some story-centric missions that manage to change things up a bit, but other than that, it's just a series of "get there" missions.

But, for some reason, I really don't seem to care. I can keep going to all these different dungeons for days, see the same things in different sprite sets, yet still have fun. It's the thrill of exploring the unknown. The rush of taking on unknown dangers. The fulfillment of saving a lost comrade. And, of course, the pursuit of the rest of the story. So yeah, it's repetitive, but it's fun. If you don't mind a bit of routine, you should be good to go.

Explorers of Time is a rare example of a modern, sprite-based game that actually looks pretty damn good. Each Pokémon has a vast array of poses and animations, from getting hit to charging up to walking. That may not sound by much, but multiply that by 491 and it becomes quite the different story (I say 491 and not 493 because Arceus and Shaymin are absent). Plus, each Pokémon has at least one "portrait" assigned to it. A portrait is what appears when a conversation is taking place, indicating who is talking. In some cases, if the Pokémon talking is startled, happy, mad, or otherwise expressing emotion, the portrait will change to reflect this. So really, there's quite a few graphics for each of the Pokémon in the game. Including sprites and portraits, I'd say there's easily over 5000 graphics for the characters alone.

The main hub town is very colourful and varied in appearance, from the Western extreme of Sharpedo Bluff to the North-Eastern, cliff-side exploration team guild. In contrast to the bright and brilliant hub town is the relatively dark and dismal array of mystery dungeons. There are maybe 20 different sprite sets that the dungeons are crafted from, from beach to cave to forest. I suppose I can't fault it too much, though. The sprite sets do have to be relatively simple for a random dungeon creator, after all.

A few cinematics help tell Explorers of Time's story, often taking advantage of both the DS' screens (As seen both below and in this review's topmost screenshot). To top things off, the Pokémon "portraits" mentioned before are all drawn by Ken Sugimori, primary designer of nearly every one of the first 251 Pokémon. He even illustrated the box cover and the booklet! Yes, I'm a bit of a fan of his, and I'm not afraid to admit it. He's seriously the best of the official Pokémon artists, and having him working on Explorers of Time is icing on this delicious graphical cake.

Still no takers on this beautiful seaside property. I wonder what's turning them away...?

So on the whole, Explorers of Time is a pretty visually pleasing game. A whole whackload of sprites are crammed into that cartridge, and while it may not look much better than the first installment, it's still pretty darn nice-looking.

The audio in Explorers of Time is pretty, well... Basic. There's no Pokémon cries, and I'm pretty sure all the Electric attacks use the same sound of crackling electricity. Actually, it's not so much the sound of crackling electricity as it is kind of a buzz followed by a sort of crashing sound.

The music helps make up for the shortcomings of the sound effects. I commonly get the town music caught in my head, and the tune from in a few of the dungeons pops in every now and then, too. Of course, it happens more often if I'm not pumping K.K. Slider into my ears, but you get the point.

And now, on to the multiplayer aspect... Oh, hello there, Mr. Impatient! Sorry to keep you waiting. Now then, there isn't any actual "direct" multiplayer in Explorers of Time. As I said earlier, if you perish while exploring, you can avoid losing your loot by sending out a call for help. You can try to find a friend locally, or take it online. When online, you can try to track down a registered friend directly, post your distress message on the game's server, or copy down a password. Except for the second method, local is exactly the same but, you know, local. The direct contact and "bulletin board" methods are self-explanatory, but the password version does need a bit of explanation. When using password, you get a long code you can copy down onto a piece of paper or post on a message board. Someone else copies it down, punches it into their game, and goes to rescue you. When they're done, they give you another password which you can enter into your game, and you're saved. It's even possible to thank people with gifts and such if you wish so. Really, this is a pretty cool system they've set up here. I've already found a neat little community that acts just like the exploration team guild in the game. Post your code, they help you out, and it's done. I wouldn't be surprised if there's a dozen or more additional groups just like this dedicated to helping out the less skilled players out there. It's so cool, I almost want to go mess up and die just to get rescued again. Almost.

I can see Explorers of Time lasting me for quite a while. As of now, my team is still in the range of level 45, so I've got quite some ways to go still. Even though the story line does end, the game keeps going for quite some time. I'll keep playing until the end, I'm sure. Because...

I wanna be the very best... That no one ever was...


Storyline: 8.4/10
Sure, it's not the deepest of storylines, but the plot in Explorers of Time is probably the closest we'll get to something truly epic in a Pokémon game. I still can't get over how perfectly they nailed the personality of all the Pokémon... Insanely accurate.

Gameplay: 8.8/10
Explorers of Time may be a little repetitive, but it deals with it in the best of ways. Still, though, not being able to determine the strength of special attacks is a real bugger, and the breaking of the type alignment kind of irks me. But still, good fun.

Graphics: 8.7/10
The graphics may be simple, but they're by no means underwhelming. I love how bright and cheery that things can be, making the contrast of the more serious moments even more noticeable. And come on, it's got Ken Sugimori all over it! Just can't go wrong when Sugimori's involved.

Audio: 7.0/10
The audio is probably the closest thing Explorers of Time has to a low point. the lack of Pokémon cries is pretty disappointing, and the sound bytes used for some attacks are incredibly generic and often reused elsewhere in the game. But damned if that music isn't catchy!

Multiplayer: 9.8/10
I absolutely love what they did with the multiplayer here. Posting S.O.S messages and coming to the rescue of others makes me feel like I'm actually part of the game. It's just too darn cool.

Longevity: 8.9/10
I can see Explorers of Time keeping me busy for a while. I've still got a lot of leveling up to do, and there's at least 400 more Pokémon for me to track down. I'd better get to work.

OVERALL: 8.8/10
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time is a real gem of a game, especially for a spin-off. It's certainly not for everyone, though. Some big sites may give it a 6.5, but really, these guys just aren't the ones the game is made for. If you like exploring, Pokémon and slightly repetitive (Yet fun) dungeon crawling, this game is for you. Just don't be surprised if you end up turning into a Pikachu in the process.

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The Duck Has Spoken.


NickClick2 said...

I don't know about the storyline. I abosolutely loved it. The storyline drives these games. You should of gave it a higher score.

Ninten_ruler said...

All the Mystery Dungeon games are are dumbed-down Roguelikes. I got the first one, and did not enjoy it nearly as much as NetHack, ADOM, or Baroque. However, this one may be better. Any comments on whether this one is better, and if I should try it?

PsychoDuck said...

@ ninten-ruler:

When it comes to difficulty and being dumbed-down, Explorers of Time is in the same boat as the first two games. If you didn't like Red/Blue Rescue Team, you probably won't like the new games either.

The Duck Has Spoken.

H, a level 72 torchic who is cheering for the writer of this review said...

OMG YOU ARE SO AWESOME!!! I loved this game. I recently beat it, and like the storyline after the dialga thing. hahaha I read this and I was like "OMG THIS PERSON ROCKS!!" it kinda freaked me out the picture of a torchic and a pikachu since I became a torchic and a pikachu of course had to be my partner! No worries, I was bawling at the end. I'm a major sap. LOVED IT!!! great story line. and you rock!

Diyrachan said...

I got it and loved it. Best pokemon game! I went and took my time, but my sis killed it in less that 12 hours, without fainting!

Anonymous said...

I love this game, too! I cried in a couple of parts... and I never cry! I am a pikachu and my partner is Toto the totodile. I find it interesting to see the different combos of starter team mates. The town tune really IS catchy!