If it is one thing that Pokémon most definitely is, it is consistent. Year after year, each generation sees the release of paired titles of varying colour, with sequels and/or expansions to the corresponding covers being released in the following years. On the gameplay level, the consistency continues to permeate every single main-series game, and without fail each title sees us battling, capturing Pokémon and training them up, as well as adhering to the usual formula of battling gym leaders and then an elite four to become the champion. So it seems counter-intuitive that Pokémon would exist in a format that is anything other than entirely quantifiable, predictable, and absolutely consistent. The Mystery Dungeon series of Pokémon games represent a true break from the predictable and quite literally a journey into the random, the unpredictable and the ever-changing. The fifth title in the Mystery Dungeon series, ‘Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky’ is a continuation of the basic idea, which involves entering into randomly-generated dungeons to battle against Pokémon at your leisure. Sound appealing to you? Then please continue, as there is more information to follow, with a few of my own opinions scattered in here and there for good measure.
Pokémon by Personality
The premise of the game is relatively straightforward, with the whole thing beginning with a ‘personality’ test. I wouldn’t worry; the game’s not going to pry around in your psychological affairs, it merely wants you believe that it is being innovative by choosing a Pokémon for you based on your answers to the various questions it presents you with. Personally, I dislike any situation where choice is taken out of my hands and I have to jump through hoops simply to choose the Pokémon that I’d like for the adventure but since it was so early on in the game, I thought I’d better not let this one get me down.
Testing my Patience: An arbitrary test determines your starter Pokémon
You are also able to choose a partner Pokémon, with your choices being restricted mainly to the starter types typical of the main series of games: water, fire, or grass. Four new starter Pokémon are thrown into the mix in the form of Phanphy, Shinx, Riolu (a beast of a Pokémon in the main-series games), and Vulpix. The reality is that your starter Pokémon really doesn’t make that much of a difference to your success in the game, it really comes down to who your favourite Pokémon is and who you’d like to be on your team. The human involvement in the story fades instantly, since for the gameplay itself you are physically transported into an all-Pokémon world where you become the selected Pokémon, after which you play through the adventure in the guise of your chosen creatures. Nifty!
After what feels like way too much beach-based soppy introspection of your main character in the cut-scenes at the beginning, your starter and partner Pokémon meet ‘unexpectedly’ get stuck in to the meat of the whole thing. The gameplay itself is quite unlike any other of the Pokémon spin-offs (aside from the other Mystery Dungeon titles, of course) in that you move through randomly-generated dungeons, encountering enemy Pokémon in a turn-based manner like in the main series of games, but on a grander scale and with all Pokémon using their moves in quick succession.
The only time that there’s really any action is when you encounter wild Pokémon in any one of the many random ‘dungeons’ that you enter. The action plays out in an identical manner to the previous Mystery Dungeon games in that you encounter an enemy, hammer the A button to use a pathetically weak, standardised attack or assign one of your Pokémon’s moves to be a ‘set’ move, which can then be used by pressing the left trigger button and the ‘A’ button simultaneously. Whilst this gameplay mechanic may be instantly gratifying and allow the player to run around and get stuck into the action instantly, it sadly only remains entertaining for a very, very short period of time until you realise that all you’re going is running around and mashing the attack button until something noteworthy happens (which is itself an extremely rare occurrence).
Repeat ad nauseum: The gameplay repeats in this manner and never seems to vary
There is a little bit of strategy involved in the positioning of your Pokémon, and you can actually bring up a grid overlay to look at the general position of your main and partner Pokémon relative to your opposition, but the term ‘strategy’ is perhaps a little too strong, here. Most of the time, you will end up just setting yourself in a position that is simply within range of the enemy and watch your partner Pokémon follow your lead in attacking the foe. In truth, the gameplay feels like it’s about 95% observation and only 5% player participation.
More Poké, More Problems
In my opinion, this is the main problem with the game in general. The whole thing feels like you’re simply watching from a distance as the action unfolds before your eyes. It’s an experience similar to leaving an old-school Nintendo game’s title screen on for long enough for it to begin automatically displaying a demo run-through of the gameplay while you, the player, simply hit buttons on a controller that was unplugged many minutes ago. While it may seem like things are involved in the action, it still feels very much like you’re one of those overly-pushy parents on the sidelines of a football pitch screaming at the top of their voice for their child to pass the ball as the child does exactly the opposite. I feel that further analogies would be superfluous here, since the point is that your input in the game seems inconsequential at best.
This aloofness from the gameplay is only reinforced by the fact that you are only able to directly control your main character (whose picking in the first place you had virtually no control over) while the Pokémon you actually got to pick from an actual list simply follows you around and attacks automatically based on the move priorities that you have chosen beforehand. While this can actually work to your advantage if you’re in a dungeon whose type is weak to your partner Pokémon’s type, it can lead to catastrophe; if the opposite situation arises in that your partner is a fire type and you’re in a water dungeon, the likely result is that he’s going to go and get himself a one-way ticket to failure city. If I am defeated in a main-series Pokémon game, I am willing to accept this defeat since it almost certainly is a result of my own failings in the training and controlling of my Pokémon, but since the Mystery Dungeon series allows you relatively little control, the whole thing can become very frustrating very quickly.
The game partially redeems itself by retaining the type matchup mechanic of traditional Pokémon gameplay, allowing for some absolute annihilation in dungeons that are of a type that is weak to your main or partner Pokémon. The ability to pick up or ‘befriend’ Pokémon along the way means that you have the opportunity to add to your team, which is an occurrence that occasionally takes place after defeating an opponent. I won’t deny that absorbing a powerful Pokémon into your team can shake things up a bit and add a little variety, but this variation isn’t enough to keep the game afloat in the choppy waters of Pokémon main-series greatness.
Sweet moves, bro: Moves can be learned, an aspect of Pokémon magic that is retained by the game
A selection of Wi-Fi features also manages to extend this game’s longevity from half an hour to perhaps 45 minutes (perhaps an hour if you’re really bored), including the ability to access some extra missions or help out other players by rescuing them from a dungeon they may be trapped in. The graphics of the game aren’t shockingly bad, either, but they have undergone very little improvement since the release of the previous Mystery Dungeon games.
The retention of some features of Pokémon sadly doesn’t translate to the game holding on to the magic of the main series of Pokémon games. The format of this game (and the Mystery Dungeon games in general) strips away the teamwork, training and nurturing aspect of Pokémon, which is what made it such an appealing game to play in the first place. Nor does the game manage to properly portray the sentiment behind the roguelike genre, since the punishment for being defeated in the game is less than a gaming equivalent of a slap on the wrist. As an attempted marriage of the two genres (or more accurately, the attempted pouring of the roguelike genre into a Pokémon-shaped mould), the game falls short by quite a considerable degree, and the Pokémon/Mystery Dungeon amalgamation is a union that should rightfully end in divorce. The more likely scenario however is that more of these games will be churned out, offering a slightly different roster of starter Pokémon and a new collection of words that follow the ‘Pokémon Mystery Dungeon:’ prefix on the cover.