Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Pokemon and Rogue make for strange bedfellows, but I've always had a soft spot for the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series. There's something inexplicably compelling about becoming a Pokemon in a world where humans are just bedtime stories, and interacting with an adorable society run by the critters themselves. Chunsoft's spin-off (technically crossover, but we can argue semantics in the comments) marries the persistent levelling of the core Pokemon games with the dangerous randomly-generated dungeons of Rogue and its descendants, offering a mash-up of two disparate genres that typically overcomes cumbersome mechanics with playful personality and charm.
Gates To Infinity is the first Pokemon Mystery Dungeon title on 3DS, and as such, comes with some interesting new tweaks to the formula. Gorgeous 3D visuals, intriguing AR functionality and an exciting city-building element gave younger fans plenty to be excited about - and us older lapsed Pokemaniacs something else to look forward to.
Sadly, a confused attempt to simplify the dungeon crawling makes this the weakest series entry to date.
The basic premise remains intact. As a human who wakes up from a nightmare to discover that they've become a Pokemon in a world where mankind never existed, you'll pick from a paltry five options to determine your skills and appearance (the Generation 5 starters, Pikachu and Axew), and then choose a partner from the remaining four. Your new pal luckily happens to be a trusting individual who believes your story, and asks for your help in
organising a bizarre cult from which there's no escape creating a "Pokemon paradise." This forms the framework for a familiar gameplay structure: delving into randomly-generated dungeons on story missions or an infinite number of optional objectives in order to level up, raise money, recruit new cultists team mates and collect resources to turn a patch of barren ground into a thriving commune town.
Okay, seriously, I'm going to try and ignore the cult overtones. Even though you beat up fellow Pokemon until they agree to live in a commune, donate all their resources to you, obey your every whim and attempt to convert others. Morally it's on par with the whole Pokeball dilemma, so let's not overthink this.
Thankfully the town-building is easily the strongest part of the experience. Delving into Mystery Dungons rewards you with building materials to create all manner of outbuildings and facilities, including dojos, farms and even minigame vendors. Creating your very own little piece of heaven is a fantastic way of compelling you back into yet another dungeon, and gives you a real stake in the saccharine world rather than casting you as an outsider.
Though intensely addictive, Paradise is just frippery surrounding the core dungeon-crawling gameplay. Whether you're following a story objective or pursuing an infinite number of optional jaunts, you'll assemble a party and enter some themed multi-level mazes packed with enemies, traps and the occasional surprise. Like most Roguelikes, these dungeons are randomly-generated and grid-based, with all enemies on the floor moving with you in an odd blend between isometric exploring and turn-based battling. It's very basic, but functional and frequently good fun, despite some weak team mate AI that needs continual shepherding. Using familiar Pokemon abilities in battle is as addictive as persistently levelling up, and the crisp 3D visuals do a great job of bringing the action to life.
But it doesn't last. Previous Mystery Dungeon games have always attempted to provide the deep risk vs reward mechanics that typify Roguelikes, and the stiff difficulty to boot. In contrast, Gates To Infinity excises practically all of the threat, challenge and depth that we're used to from the series. HP now automatically regenerates every time you take a step, meaning that any injury can be shrugged off by running laps. This used to be countered by a depleting 'hunger' gauge that forced players to carefully ration their movement (do I strike out for treasures or make sure that I can complete the dungeon in time?), but this mechanic has been all but removed, meaning that there's little or no penalty for failure or death beyond time spent traipsing through the same old dungeons. Expect tedium to set in very quickly indeed.
Some will argue that this is acceptable for a game aimed squarely at a younger audience, but I don't buy that for a second. When we were kids, we thrived on games that game us a tough challenge to sink our teeth into. We honed our skills, discussed strategies in the playground and eventually triumphed. More to the point, gamers of any age deserve deep, involving titles - not just pandering fan service.
Bizarrely, this streamlining and simplification is incredibly inconsistent. Complex menus lock away even the simplest functions like AI behaviours and moves behind a needless number of information panes, while inelegant dual-trigger controls make a meal out of the basic battling. When in town, you have to manually take money out of your deposit box every single time you want to buy something, while only a single quest can be attempted even if multiple objectives can be found on the same floor of the same dungeon. Gates To Infinity streamlined the wrong part of the game... and the worst is yet to come.
Daft and frankly dismal storylines have always plagued the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series, but the earlier games were well aware of their failings. Their plots were largely glossed over, playing second fiddle to the dungeon crawling itself and acting as little more than an excuse to propel players into the action as quickly as possible. Gates To Infinity, however, opts to ram its simpering and nonsensical story down your throat at every opportunity. Reams of awkwardly translated dialogue (expect "that Pokemon" instead of "him" or "her" as a basic example) take an age to get to the simple point, miring you in a mediocre morality play for what amounts to countless hours. The needlessly wordy narrative constantly gets in the way of your adventure, stopping you from delving into optional dungeons time and time again in the name of story progression, while not providing strong characters or anything approaching an interesting overarching tale. It's a poorly-delivered and obnoxiously lengthy story that wasn't worth telling in the first place.
All might have been forgiven if the dialogue and cutscenes were skippable or we could adjust the text speed. But we can't. In a shockingly inconsiderate design decision, we have to sit through the laboriously-scrolling drivel as what little excitement we have gurgles down the drain. Even vendors and NPCs spout far too much excrutiatingly slow babble at you before letting you browse the store or create a new facility. Tutorials that could have taken ten seconds take ten minutes. Experienced players will probably ragequit in disgust, while the younger target audience will find themselves bored... or more likely patronised to the extreme.
It's a crying shame, because Gates To Infinity eventually hits its stride after several thankless, hopeless hours. The shorter optional missions are a good fit for handheld dungeon crawling, granting a welcome sense of pacing and urgency, while the Augmented Reality mode lets you generate optional random dungeons by scanning circular objects in the real world (very strong direct lighting is required, but it works well). There's a wealth of content, both in the campaign, infinitely-generated optional missions and post-game quests, meaning that 20 hours is probably the bare minimum you can expect for your money. However, a truly lazy approach to streetpassing that will be broadly useless in the West, along with a smaller Pokemon roster and lack of features compared to any previous Pokemon Mystery Dungeon title (there isn't even a personality test that assigns you a Pokemon based on your likes and dislikes, which used to be the most interesting part of the game!), makes me wish that Chunsoft had tried to push the franchise forwards in meaningful ways rather than confusing the issue.
If you're looking for a 3DS Rogue-lite, take a look at The Denpa Men: They Came By Wave, which costs a third of the price (and uses Augmented Reality in much more interesting ways). Pokemon fans, if you've already completed Pokemon Conquest, X & Y are on the way. Hang tough, and hope that the jump from 2D to 3D doesn't hit the core series as badly as the tie-in.
- Workmanlike dungeon crawling with Pokemon flavour
- A wealth of content including addictive town-building
- Vibrant and expressive 3D visuals
- Over-simplified combat removes danger, depth and variety
- A shocking amount of terrible, poorly-translated UNSKIPPABLE dialogue
- Inelegant interface and inconsiderate timewasting design quirks
- Small choice of starters; lacks personality test, useful streetpass features and meaningful new features
The Short Version: Addictive community building and a cornucopia of content can't quite save Gates To Infinity from its confused developers. In an effort to streamline the franchise, Chunsoft have only succeeded in making a dungeon crawler that's too simplistic for experienced players yet too finicky and verbose for its younger target audience. There's some fun to be had here, but you'll have to work hard for it.