A collection of improvements surround the same random dungeon-crawling gameplay. Video of the first dungeon inside.
Before sitting down to play Explorers of Darkness, the complement game to Explorers of Time, I reminded myself that I'd bought the previous Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Blue Rescue Team for the Nintendo DS, had some fun, and then petered out and never finished the game. After an hour of play with the new game, I felt in serious danger of repeating history.
The truth is that the gameplay of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers seems pretty much identical to the gameplay of the previous Mystery Dungeon games. You play as a Pokemon and walk around randomly generated dungeons. For every move you make, each of the enemies on screen makes a move of their own. It's a strange strategic turn-based real-time hybrid where you explore dungeons that are never the same twice and risk losing items, money, and your progress through the dungeon (but not your experience) if you die. Along the way you get to choose Pokemon partners to take in with you, gather helpful healing and battle items, rescue Pokemon in distress, fight groups of wild Pokemon, gain levels and learn special moves.
This style dungeon-crawling is rogue-like and can be both challenging and addictive. That's probably why Nintendo and developer Chunsoft didn't really change the formula from the last game to this one. They just decided to up the ante with a more vibrant palette, a more involved story, an integrated Wi-Fi rescue system, and all 490+ Pokemon up through the Diamond and Pearl era.
A look at the opening cinematic squence for Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Explorers.
The first thing that Nintendo was eager to tell us about Explorers was that it had improved graphics over the previous version. It's true that the graphics were marginally improved in this version, especially since the previous DS game was also a Game Boy Advance game. Still, the game was all sprite-based and nothing specifically gawk-worthy. However, on second glance, things seemed to pop off the screen. There's a more vibrant, lively palette of colors that takes the simple sprite art and somehow ennobles it. It's a subtle difference that one can appreciate only once they've stepped back and realized the amount of art that goes into 2D games. Scripted story sequences use it to make the world feel more alive and important than the comparatively utilitarian universe of the previous games.
Another change to the game that I noticed was the larger role that the story took. The game starts by asking you random series of questions and having you press the touch screen for an "aura" reading, then choosing the Pokemon that best suits you for the game. You get to pick your partner Pokemon from a small selection, and before you know it the game has you washing up on a beach with amnesia. At this point, you're introduced to your less-than-assertive partner, and the tale of his mysterious treasure of an old stone from some ruins, the Koffing and Ekans who stole it from him.
You are plunged into your first dungeon for a gameplay tutorial to get it back, where you are summarily inducted into the Wigglytuff guild for exploration teams. The whirlwind doesn't stop there, because you get introduced to a Loudred drillmaster, an officious Hoot-hoot, and an absent-minded Wigglytuff who apparently is in charge of it all. Before the game finally gives you a little breathing room, the story sends you off on a second dungeon run. That's where my play experience ends, but later on in the game there will be the option to choose to go on missions to save lost Pokemon, fetch treasures, or even track down and bring criminal Pokemon to justice. Eventually, a Pokemon comes from the future to disrupt time and plunge the world into darkness. Sounds like fun.
Gameplay footage from one of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Explorers' randomly generated dungeons.
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time and Darkness also improves on the connectivity of previous games. In the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series, a player who runs out of HP in a dungeon can opt to keep their money and items and wait to be saved by another player going into the same dungeon on their copy of the game and "rescuing" them. In previous games you needed to exchange passwords, but in these new Explorers games you can send out a general distress call over Nintendo Wi-Fi to anyone in the world willing to save you, or just to your friends. Players can even opt to register an e-mail address so they can get automated messages when a distress call goes out. You can even set it up to receive a text message on their cellphone via email if you're daring enough.
Finally, what's a Pokemon game without minor difference in Pokemon populations and items between two otherwise identical versions? Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time and Explorers of Dungeon may not bring much new to the table, but there are very definite improvements over the previous games to tempt fans of dungeon crawling, Pokemon, or both.