Pokémon spinoffs aren’t an uncommon occurrence. They usually happen a few times each game generation, each one expanding slightly in terms of the roster and the plot. Some are certainly more casual, others have rivaled the main series in the RPG department, bringing new gameplay mechanics. Generation five introduced us to the surprisingly good Pokémon Conquest, while Pokémon Ranger utilised the touch screen. The one that never really fit though was Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, the collaboration with The Pokémon Company and ChunSoft, based on ChunSoft’s own “Mystery Dungeon” formula. The latest in this spinoff franchise – Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity, is the first in the series to feature 3D graphics and new mechanics, but will it break the shackles of its ingrained formula?
As with the main franchise, the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon spinoffs always begin in much the same way. You are turned into a Pokémon and summoned to a world inhabited only by Pokémon. Your eventual partner finds you unconscious, tries to help you remember, before remembering he will be late for an important meeting. Unlike the rest of the series, you directly choose which Pokémon you wish to represent you and the Pokémon you wish to be your partner. Your partner wishes to create a paradise where fellow Pokémon can rest easy, while at the same time adventuring with his friends and helping those in need. The tale is light-hearted for the most-part, with plenty of twists along the way, but it’s far from compelling as the script lacks finesse. A huge amount of time is wasted with exposition that is littered with flashbacks with only minor alterations or additions, meaning you tread on old ground frequently. The less said about the Victini scenes the better.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity is quite the looker compared to its fellow compatriots, evolving from the 2D sprites of the Nintendo DS instalments to some smooth 3D visuals. These are properly modelled ones as well, not the poor blocky excuses we’ve seen in the past from other Pokémon spinoffs. However, the dungeons might have got a facelift, but they still mostly feature long corridors and small rooms despite on occasion opening out to larger open areas. Both Paradise and Post Town have a host of unique shops and attractions, but they merely act as a hub for your adventures.
For the entire campaign, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity tries to paint the illusion that there is plenty for you to do. It entices you by steadily introducing new features, such as adding new buildings to Paradise and assisting with the requests. But largely the game revolves around dips into randomised dungeons with minor objectives. On occasion, you will find the game descends into a gauntlet of mystery dungeons, culminating in a rather anti-climactic boss fight. As a whole, the appeal of ChunSoft’s “Mystery Dungeon” format is rather limited at best, but here the fluff surrounding it is mere window dressing.
One major success that the game has under its belt is the revamp of the Pokémon move sets. Each one has a rank that can be raised by any member of the team who shares the learned move – so for example a Pikachu with Quick Attack can raise the level of the move for everyone, including the low-level Emolga with the same move. These are permanent, so another Pokémon who learns Quick attack will reap the same benefits. While it does make it very easy to rely on one move throughout the adventure, it also vitally improves the PP value each time around, making what might be a low PP move worth the time investment.
If there is one thing that gets in the way more than anything else, it would be the rather clumsy interface. Not only can you never change the text speed or efficiently skip text, you also have to deal with a less than ideal item storage system, not being able to just say no outright to learning a new move, having to close an open request gate if you forgot to do anything before the mission; the list goes on! Even building up Paradise suffers from how badly the text and dialogue choices are implemented, as you can’t use stored money to buy new structures or prepare new land for expansion. The needlessly inept interface feels rather amateurish as a result, getting in the way of the gameplay more often than not.
As for the rest, the companion mode takes out the gauntlet runs at the cost of structure. There are other unfortunate traits as well, such as characters not levelling up before entering the dungeon, meaning you need to cycle through reams of text that is poorly laid out. Multiplayer dungeons are an interesting concept, but lack much in the way of vision. Even the Magnagate feature, where you use the 3DS’ camera to find circular objects to create new dungeons to explore with a predetermined team, feels gimmicky because it is reduced to a side mode outside of the campaign. Long term fans will find new dungeons post game may have the old hunger system return, together with the option for new maps via DLC, but the campaign outstays its welcome far too quickly for anyone but the dedicated to take any notice.
Ultimately, it is ChunSoft’s “Mystery Dungeon” formula and its unwillingness to collaborate in a meaningful way with the world of Pokémon that makes Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity fail to impress. By sticking with its guns with the majority of the game design, the good work with revolutionising how each of the moves work goes to waste. It’s clear the target audience for this are younger than a lot of the fans of the franchise, but there are conveniences such as being able to modify how fast text scrolls by or how the item storage system works that just aren’t addressed. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity is definitely not going to tide you over until the next main series generation.