This time-warping sequel is equally funny and twice as complicated as the original.
In their newest RPG, the plumber brothers dabble in Chrono Trigger-style time travel and meet their younger selves, Baby Mario and Baby Luigi. Crying ensues. The first Mario & Luigi game was radical for a number of reasons, so it's disappointing that its sequel sticks to the same formula, though it's still quite unusual compared to most other RPGs. The game design philosophy for Partners in Time seems to be, "Double everything!" Having four characters to control independently, each with his own dedicated face button, leads to some very complicated battle situations. The platforming is thankfully no more difficult than in the last game, since the characters are always grouped into pairs (no running around solo this time). The babies like to ride piggyback, so usually you can keep all four guys together and just control them with A and B.
Bigger is sometimes better. Partners in Time makes fantastic use of the dual screens to set up cooperative puzzles, with the babies on the top screen often exploring areas that their older counterparts, on the lower screen, can't reach. Glancing from one screen to the other feels quite natural after a brief learning period. The coordinated attacks in battle, which are now tied to items rather than innate abilities, ask you to nimbly press the four face buttons in ways designed to feel easy to use but hard to master.
Bigger is sometimes not better. The emphasis on increased complexity does not serve the battle system well, and it doesn't help that the Bros. Items are poorly balanced. At first, having the babies involved in battle seems like a fun addition, and it adds variety to the early sections of the game which would otherwise be extremely easy. But as you get deeper into the game, the growth in enemy resilience outpaces your growth in strength, so battles get longer and longer. The enemy attacks also become tougher to avoid, and enemies begin to take multiple turns in a row. With the X and Y buttons now involved, dodging and counterattacking feels more like a brain teaser than a natural response, so it's not surprising that the battles become utterly exhausting at some point. Eventually, bosses and even some regular enemies have so many hit points that the only reasonable way to kill them is through repeated, precise use of the Bros. Items. Most of these items are fun to use on occasion, but they take on a different role when you have to use them dozens of times in a single battle, executing numerous perfectly timed button presses each time.
There is no single factor to blame for the breakdown in the battle system which has worked so well in every other Mario RPG. It's a combination of several things: the lack of variety in normal attacks (jump and hammer are all you get, and they can't be upgraded); the increasing dependence upon Bros. Items as enemies get tougher; the lack of Bros. Points or something similar to limit how often Bros. Items are used (since they are found plentifully in blocks); and perhaps worst of all, the ridiculous life point totals granted to boss enemies, which means you may have to dodge the same three attacks for an hour or more, all the while having no indication of how close you are to fully depleting the boss's stamina. Yes, the timed button presses are still a great idea and are still fun on a certain visceral level, but they are no substitute for careful balancing of the other parts of the battle system. I doubt many players are going to finish Partners in Time enjoying the battles as much as they did at the start of the game.
I have to harp on the combat flaws because a good chunk of the game is spent in battles. Everything else about the game is aces, though. The puzzles are sharp and slowly increase in difficulty and complexity. There's a good bit of exploration possible, though it's entirely optional and often results in such meager rewards as a few coins or a bean that can be traded for an arguably useful badge. The graphics aren't much different from what the GBA game offers, but they still suit the game perfectly and look equally good on both screens. The main characters have an expanded animation set that allows for surprisingly detailed physical communication during story sequences, which is very important since none of the plumbers or babies have written dialogue.
The new story takes place in the Mushroom Kingdom, not some lame Bean Kingdom, so it has more distinctive characters and plot elements that draw deep from the Mario franchise while also introducing the sci-fi time travel material and a new enemy: the evil Shroob aliens who have invaded Peach's peaceful land. The hilarious script was a major reason for the first Mario & Luigi being so memorable, and while Partners in Time doesn't noticeably improve upon its predecessor in this respect, it deserves commendation just for matching that level of quality. Few video games are written with this much care, so it's easy to appreciate. The writers probably had a tougher time with this one, since they would have less creative license with the many familiar Mushroom Kingdom characters in the sequel, but the handful of new characters work overtime to lend distinction to the script. Stuffwell is a talking, robotic suitcase who serves as narrator for the mute plumbers and babies, and he has a penchant for making up fancy words. Then there are old characters with new personalities, like the slang-slinging Hammer Bros., who deserve their own spin-off story after this inspired appearance. There's even a cameo by a much adored refugee of the Bean Kingdom…
My opinion of Partners in Time is smeared by the battle system's flaws, which become more of an issue towards the end of the game. However, this is by far the best RPG currently available for the DS, and its use of the dual screens opens up gameplay possibilities that just aren't available on any other system. Taking twenty hours or so to complete, it's also going to last longer than most portable games. Fans of the other Mario RPGs should definitely check out Partners in Time for its terrific story and brain-twisting level design.