Nintendo’s massive Pokemon series has at this point spun itself out into so many brands that it can be a bit hard to keep track of what’s going on. One of the fixtures of the Pokemon spin off landscape is the Mystery Dungeon series – an amalgamation of Chunsoft’s classic Mystery Dungeon franchise, that practically invented the rogue-like genre, and Nintendo’s Pokemon games, the games have been around since the GBA days, and although critical reception has always been muted at best, they’ve found themselves a healthy audience that swears by them.
In a way, it’s easy to see why: they take hardcore dungeon crawling and party and resource management, and they mix it with the charming worlds of Pokemon.
The newest installment in the franchise, the 3DS exclusive Gates to Infinity, is now finally here. And unfortunately, unlike the previous games in the series, it is a hard game to recommend. I have personally always liked the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games- their charming characters and moving stories, along with just the thrill of dungeon crawling that is just about hard enough, has kept me captivated.
However, while Gates to Infinity retains the trademark charm and wonder of the previous installments, it streamlines its core game design so much that it essentially gets rid of any depth or scope for depth that it may have had.
Let’s start with the positives first. Gates to Infinity is the first game in the series (and might actually be the first handheld Pokemon game period) to be in 3D, and it looks absolutely charming.
The visuals are a treat for the eyes, gorgeous and lush and bright and colorful, and even the system’s signature 3D effect actually adds to the graphics instead of detracting from them, as is all too often the case. It sounds good too: the series has been known for having some nice, catchy and upbeat tunes, and sure enough, that’s the case here.
What’s also excellent as always is the storyline and the characterization. For those of you who might not have ever played the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games, the idea may actually come as a bit of a shock, but the series has always had some deeply, emotionally engaging storylines, that captivate you and involve you in spite of their all too frequent absurdity.
Happily enough, Gates to Infinity gives us more of that as well, and a few younger players might shed tears at the end, even though the entire story and the ending itself is going to be a bit familiar in the way it plays out to anyone who has played the previous games in the series.
What is also good about Gates to Infinity, at least at a glance, is the battle system, which plays out a bit differently from the mainline Pokemon games. While it is still turn based, functionally speaking, it gets a bit more hectic. A bit like Fire Emblem: Awakening, battles take place on a grid; everything that you ever do constitutes an action and ends a turn, from moving towards or away from a enemy, using an item, and of course, attacking.
Everything you do comes at a cost: yes, you might decide that moving away from the enemy will be good in the short term, but this gives your enemy to either land two attacks on you, presuming you are still in range, or to chase after you, essentially nullifying the reason for moving away in the first place.
It’s not terribly complicated, and after some of the more complicated battle systems 3DS games have got, like Fire Emblem or Soul Hackers, or even the mainline Pokemon games. What makes it worse is the fact that several mechanics that did lend a lot of depth and complexity to the battles before have all been stripped and removed here. Take, for instance, Hunger.
Veterans of the old games might remember the Hunger mechanic: while you were in the dungeons, your Pokemon’s ‘bellies’ would eventually get empty; however, the upside of this would be that the Pokemon would be able to regenerate health between battles by ‘digesting food.’ However, as their bellies reached zero, your Pokemon would get fatigued and would begin to lose health.
This meant that you had to look around in the dungeon for food to feed your Pokemon, but that in itself was a danger: what if you ran into more battles, and wasted precious time? What if you just got lost, and wasted time trying to find your way out? And all this while your Pokemon would be getting hungrier and hungrier, and its health would eventually start to deplete.
It was a great mechanic, that added the ‘survival’ component to the dungeon crawling. Considering that not a whole lot of dungeon rogue-like games are available to the mainstream in the US, mechanics such as this, and even item management, are now all gone. You are never short on any items you need, for example, the penalties for dying are a lot less harsh, and stats seem to draw from a common team based pool than individually for each party member.
Another big knock against the game is that while previous Mystery Dungeon games have always starred all the Pokemon available at the time of their release, this one does not, with only roughly 150 Pokemon available, and not even all the Unova Pokemon making an appearance. This even takes away the novelty of having all Pokemon accessible to you at once, which was a part of the old games’ allure to hardcore Pokemon players.
Really, there’s a lot of problems. Don’t get me wrong, Gates to Infinity is still a good game… it’s just a good game for younger players. Unlike previous Mystery Dungeon games, which could be enjoyed by all players even if they were geared towards children, this one takes its streamlining a step too far and leaves us with a game that, while younger members of the audience will fully enjoy, everyone else will find harder to appreciate. As much as it pains me to say this, unless you are buying this for a kid, stay away from this one.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo 3DS.