Neal and James review essentially the same game, with essentially the same contempt.
[Editor’s Note: Since Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time/Explorers of Darkness are virtually identical, it seemed pointless to have two reviews of what amounts to the same game. With that in mind, we’re compiling the thoughts of Neal and James into a single article. – JL]
Neal Ronaghan: When Pokémon first hit the world, I was a huge pre-teen fan. However, once I got older, I moved away from the Pokémon limelight, or at least I did until the release of last year’s Pokémon Diamond/Pearl. In an effort to procrastinate from my studies, I bought Pokémon Pearl and got involved in the wild world of monster collecting once more. So when the second DS outing of Chunsoft’s Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series rolled around, my interest was piqued.
James Jones: I had actually kept up with the Pokémon series, perhaps a bit more than I would care to admit. My first course of action was to look at the history of the Mystery Dungeon series. I avoided discussion of the first Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, in order to stay "pure." I understood it was a random dungeon affair, and that I should be ready for that kind of stuff. I wasn't.
Neal: The game is, at heart, a kid-friendly version of the Mystery Dungeon dungeon-crawling series. It begins with you answering a series of questions to decide what kind of Pokémon you are from a set of sixteen different Pokémon. Every starter creature from the main series is included, and other famous Pokémon such as Pikachu and Meowth are in there as well. You then choose a partner out of a reduced amount of Pokémon.
The actual dungeon-crawling brings some challenge to the table and its intense repetition doesn’t make the game as kid-friendly as Chunsoft might think it is. Its intense repetition doesn’t make the game as kid-friendly as Chunsoft might think it is. See what I did there? Imagine that instead of two repeating sentences, there are generic repeating dungeon floors with the same stupid enemies constantly re-appearing, and you attack them with generic attacks over and over again. And if you die, you have to repeat everything over again.
James: The gameplay ranges from passable to abominable. The mechanics work well enough, but they're put into the game so poorly that it boggles my mind. Every dungeon is randomly generated, a feature that has several repercussions. Firstly, these randomly-generated dungeons almost always have terrible layouts. There are long hallways that go nowhere, spawns by the exit, and chambers that are isolated from the rest of the dungeon by hallways that wrap around the entirety of the floor map. Secondly, a dungeon changes every time you go back to it, which is a problem because each dungeon is so poorly laid-out. Often times you're forced to traverse long paths to nowhere twice (up and back) that otherwise you would have already known lead nowhere. If, God forbid, you have to come back to a dungeon for a second run, you're no better off than the first time you completed it. Imagine if Zelda games did this! It would be intolerable. Thirdly, the game requires that dungeons have multiple - sometimes dozens - of floors, because it's possible to spawn at the exit to the next floor. Some dungeons have over twenty generic floors!
The dungeons are also full of traps and ambush rooms (called Monster Houses); these ambush rooms throw you against ten or more enemies at once, they're annoying, and they occur way too frequently. They don't really serve any observable purpose except to frustrate the player. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon has several other annoying game mechanics just like this one.
Take, for example, the inability to grind character levels. The game has a "hunger" mechanic; if you don't eat your character will die, so you have to bring food into each dungeon with you. Since you have limited carrying capacity, the need to carry around food is irritating in itself, but the real problem is when you run out of food. Simply put, you can't afford to linger in any dungeon for risk of exhausting your food supply. The best way to deal with being too low a level to progress is to simply turn the game off and restart the dungeon. Sometimes you get better luck; sometimes you get sodomized even worse than before. The food problem is made worse by the fact there are many places where dungeons go back-to-back-to-back. You never get a break to stock up at a store, so you're forced to survive on what you find lying around. For example, there was a series of over sixty floors (four dungeons) that I had to grind through before I ever got the opportunity to get more food.
Neal: I hated that part of the game.
James: Battles would work better if you could control your partner. The fact is that you can't until you beat the main game; even then, you can only control ONE member of the party at any given time, and you can only change outside of dungeons. Your partners are run by A.I., and not the good kind of A.I. either. Turtwig loves to sit behind me while I fight a room full of baddies. They don't react differently to other Pokémon types, and they don't know what skill to use when. Turtwig has three Grass type moves and one Dark type move (for you Pokémon virgins, Dark types are strong against Psychics), yet he seems bound and determined to not use the Dark type move against any Psychic types. There are other A.I. "strategies" as well, and they're all equally ineffective.
Neal: Agreed, the A.I. in this game is really awful. You can have a party of up to four Pokémon but they’re all stupidly controlled, and usually one will get separated from your group and get slaughtered after being singled out by an enemy.
They try to spice things up by including non-story missions involving one of two things: finding Pokémon or items, and/or battling and capturing a naughty or evil Pokémon. At first this isn’t too bad, but after a while the game’s boring combat system catches up to you. The non-story missions are really the only way you can level up before you go on story-based missions; however, there are certain parts of the game during which you go on a series of story missions. If you're under-leveled for these sections you are quite simply screwed, as there is not much of an opportunity to level up or even get items to heal your character. I often found myself sprinting through dungeons to get to the end because I had no healing items or revives!
In addition to the non-story missions, there’s also a really obnoxious mini-game during the main game that places you in the role of a sentry at your Pokémon exploration guild. If you are a Pokémaniac, this game is a piece of cake. However, not everyone knows every creature in the series so the repetitive sentry duty gets old fast.
James: That mini-game has one benefit: get a perfect score, and you get a Reviver Seed that brings your characters back to life. I played it ten times before the FINAL final battle in order to rack up Reviver Seeds and achieve what was, in effect, invincibility.
Neal: So it does have some use, but it was still annoying. The one thing that didn’t annoy me was the story. It’s your standard Pokémon fare, meaning it's really cute, but it is actually quite charming. The game is actually quite story-heavy, and you might find yourself caring about your Pokémon a little bit.
James: Yeah, the best part of the game is the story. It's superb. In fact, it's so enjoyable that it almost saves the game.
Neal: It creates a cast of characters that are fairly interesting, but I have to admit that by the end of the game I was sick and tired of endlessly hearing “AND THREE! SMILES GO FOR MILES!”
James: Smiles can bite me. But as charming as the story is, I can’t say the same for the graphics. The first Pokémon Mystery Dungeon titles began life on the GBA; they were released on the GBA and the DS (Red Rescue Team on the GBA, Blue Rescue Team on the DS). In that case the primitive graphics were forgivable; however, the graphics of these titles still look only slightly better than GBA material. They're colorful, but not very detailed. Of course, the randomly-generated dungeons are really generic-looking. The odd thing is that there are story portions - done in the Pokémon art style - that are really beautiful. The fact is they're the only thing saving this title from being just graphically unacceptable.
Neal: In all honesty, I didn't have much of an issue with the graphics. They aren't top-of-the-line DS graphics by any means, but I wouldn't call them "graphically unacceptable". I would just call them graphically average.
James: The DS is capable of much better than the GBA. Given that all the in-game art is sprite-based, these games should look better than this. It's only a very small step up from the Rescue Team set, and those were for the GBA.
The strangest thing about Mystery Dungeon’s presentation is how it uses the top screen. You'll never forget how to control the game, because the top screen is primarily used to display a list of control commands. There's a whole litany of ways they could have made better use of the top screen. For example, putting the map there would make a lot more sense than putting it on top of the game proper. In a white dungeon the white map gets lost.
Neal: The game actually does offer an option to change what the top screen displays, and you can change it to the dungeon map or use it as a status screen for your team. Regardless, the use of the top screen is piss-poor and this game could have easily been done on the GBA.
James: I feel the same way about its sound and music. Some of the music is really pleasing to listen to, while the rest of it ranges from ho-hum to just irritating. The sound effects are the standard material from the Pokémon series. It's not really stuff that you'd want to hear, but it works.
Neal: Which is the last thing you could say about the design of this game’s online functionality. The “online” rescue system is one of the supposed selling points of the game. The way it works is that if you die in a dungeon, you can send out a rescue request to a friend via e-mail, text message, or telling them a password. Regardless of the method used, a password is required. Then your friend can save your team, and you're spared instead of getting killed and losing items and money. When James and I tested this, it worked fine besides the fact that I ended up in a string of events in which I died and wasn’t allowed to request a rescue. I believe it was on the fourth try when I was actually able to be rescued. I still have no idea why this happened! There’s also the fact that none of this is actually cooperative; I don’t think I’ve ever played an online portion of a game that was more detached from actual human interaction than this one.
James: I have some more random ranting to get off my chest. You can recruit more allies by beating up enemies; some of them will offer to join your "Chimecho Assembly." From there you can select what Pokémon to add to your team (two besides you and your partner). So I spent a lot of time with team members in the side-quests to get them up to my level, only to find that I can't take them anywhere their help would be needed! This renders them useless, considering I usually have to babysit them. What a waste of time!
And if I could throw in a bonus rant, this game starts out with a personality exam. In the results segment it rhetorically asks if people look at me funny. Why yes, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness, people have started looking at me funny...they've been doing that because I'm SO ANGRY AT YOU.
Neal: The other thing that really got on my nerves was the fact that your Pokémon can’t evolve until you follow an absurd set of events in the post-story. I just want my damn Charmander to be a freaking Charizard and my stupid partner Chikorita to be whatever the hell that evolves into. And if that stupid grass Pokémon continues to stand idly by while I attempt to fight enemies, I will throw her stupid little plant ass out the top of the frigging cave!
James: Amen, brother. And in case anybody is wondering what the difference is between Explorers of Darkness and Explorers of Time, the short answer is that there isn’t one. In fact it says so on the back of the box! And I quote: “The contents of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time/Explorers of Darkness are almost the same.” The only difference we could find was that you fight Dialga first in Explorers of Darkness, while you fight Palkia first in Explorers of Time. Of course, this order flips when you play the second quest.
Neal: James, I think I speak for us both when I say that Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time/Explorers of Darkness will only appeal to Pokémaniacs who enjoy incredibly repetitive gameplay, practically GBA-level graphics and sound, and computer partner A.I. that’s so dumb you’ll want to stab yourself in the eye. If you don’t count yourself among this select group, you’ll want to spend the twenty hours that James and I can never get back on something more rewarding!