Review by WildSnivy

Reviewed: 12/01/15

Pokemon: Super Mystery Dark Souls

Prepare to die.

I'll gladly go on the record as saying that, as far as spinoff franchises go, my favorite is by far and away Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, or PMD. Ever since the announcement of Blue and Red Rescue Team back in 2005, PMD has always had a special place in my heart. It combined the turn-based strategic combat of the original Pokemon series along with rougelike elements of all things, whereby dungeon floors, items and enemies are randomly generated and therefore there's a potentially limitless number of instances to explore and defeat. So here we are, ten years and three editions of PMD later, at Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon. After the sheer brilliance that was Explorers of Time/Darkness/Sky and the minor letdown that was Gates to Infinity, almost every PMD fanatic has been on the edge of their seats to see what the fourth installment of the series has brought to the table. So how did Nintendo do this time around? My name is WildSnivy, and today we're taking a look at:

POKEMON SUPER MYSTERY DUNGEON

THE GAMEPLAY:

The first thing you do when you spin up PSMD is pick out a Pokemon for you and a Pokemon as your partner. The quiz has made a fabulous return and it is a welcome readdition to the game, but unlike EoT and EoD, if you're not happy with the Pokemon you got, you can have the option to pick one manually instead, much like GtI. This is a great compromise between the two systems in my opinion, since it allows players the flexibility to play what they want without having to game the system or get lucky on the quiz. Of course, there's nothing inhibiting players from binding themselves to the quiz results, and of course the game permits that as well.

You are then shortly tossed into your first few dungeons (although for story reasons your partner doesn't show up for the first three or so), the founding basis of any good PMD experience. The engine is pretty much Gates to Infinity's over again; fewer floors that require more time to fully explore as opposed to the EoT approach of more, spatially tighter floors. Between the two systems, I strongly prefer this one, as it engages the player significantly more than in previous installments. Although "stair spawning" is still a thing (spawning in the same room as the stairs to the next floor), it happens much less frequently than it used to in EoT and BRT, and I see that as a good thing. Players are now encouraged and have a reason to explore more of the dungeon before moving on, and as a result they have more quality time spent playing the game instead of just breezing straight through a full dungeon in five minutes or less.

Hold items also have more importance now than they did in the previous three games. Scarves, bows, ribbons and the like have all been scrapped. They are looplets now, and they more or less function in the same way, but with a major new twist. Each looplet has three or more sockets in it for emara, magical gems that spawn inside dungeons and can be socketed inside the looplets themselves. Each emara has its own passive effect that gives the looplet extra added bonuses that disappear as soon as the instance is over. Some emara provide passive boosts to combat statistics, others can provide intel to you pertaining to enemy and item locations, others still can provide nifty passive effects such as trap nullification and attack barrages. And occasionally, you'll bump into the Awakening emara, which will either trigger Mega Evolution or just sheer God mode for your Pokemon. Finding and socketing one of these very rare emara is always a treat, even if it doesn't last the entire dungeon. The system as a whole is great; like I said, it gives hold items a bigger purpose than just being a straight stat boost for your characters, and actually forces you to sometimes make hard calls pertaining to what emara should be socketed and what should be destroyed in its place. And in my opinion, its implementation into the game is pretty good overall. None of the emara are particularly overpowered by themselves, although there are some very powerful combinations out there for you to find.

You may have noticed that so far I managed to avoid talking about the combat system itself in the game. I'll get to that in a second, but to put my criticisms in perspective, I need to talk about the systems in the previous three editions first. Blue Rescue Team and EoT were pretty much equal on the combat difficulty scale in my opinion; it wasn't particularly hard, but the later dungeons provided enough of a challenge to the point where your skills were actually tested to capacity. It got hard at points, but it was far from unfair, and in my opinion was calibrated perfectly, especially EoT. Gates to Infinity numbed the difficulty noticeably, and any PMD veteran noticed it almost immediately. Dungeons felt too easy at times, and although it was the first game of the series to place more of an emphasis on exploration than combat, it was still hard to ignore the fact the combat felt softened up.

Whoever was in charge of PSMD's combat must have had nightmares about GtI, because the difficulty level of combat has been ramped up from disappointingly easy to almost Dark Souls levels of hard. You will die. You will die a lot. And leveling seems to be a much slower process than it used to be compared to earlier games. Type matchups don't seem to carry nearly as much weight as I think they should in a game like this, and your moves' damage doesn't appear to scale as much as the enemies' HP does as the game progresses (you'll notice this especially in postgame dungeons), even with the move experience mechanic brought over from GtI. Meanwhile, enemies start to do insane amounts of damage to your party in one turn, and will start to one shot you from full HP. It got to the point for me where I had to do a story critical postgame dungeon with just my hero, and I was actively going out of my way to avoid combat. Not because I was typed against the enemies there. Not because I didn't have options to engage them. But because I did so little damage to them and they did so much to me, by the time I hit the fourth floor of the dungeon, I'd gone through almost a full page of Reviver Seeds and still had three quarters of the dungeon to clear. For a postgame plotline that hinges on one character reappearing from the main story, I feel like I should be able to at least contest the enemies in the dungeon once the main game is beaten. This is no longer the case, and I consequently feel like the combat has been massively overtuned in this game. The game gets very hard very quickly, and although Pelliper Island provides a relatively simple way for you to self-rescue in this game if you're defeated, I'm not particularly fond of how this was handled. I feel like a beautiful balance was struck in EoT and EoD as far as challenge was concerned, but the past two games have deviated from that point so much in both directions it's honestly a little frustrating. Whereas GtI didn't have a difficulty curve as much as it had a gently rolling difficulty hill, PSMD's difficulty curve is so steep it has an overhang, and I can't see that as being anything but daunting to newer players.

With all that said, however, I get the feeling Nintendo knew what they were getting themselves into on this one. They revamped the combat system to be comparatively punishing, so they did a few things to balance it out. Reviver Seeds are much easier to come by both in dungeons and through the shops (five for one Gold Bar is a fantastic deal, and the price through Kecleon shops has dropped sharply). The new pushing mechanic is slightly annoying at first, until you realize that it is an amazing tactical tool for getting teammates into position to fight. The new Alliance system has replaced move linking from previous games and now allows your team to launch a set of coordinated attacks at one enemy, allowing you to quickly focus them down instead of having your team trying to DPS multiple targets individually.

Recruiting has been revamped in a big way as well. Instead of defeated foes volunteering to join your team as in previous renditions, you'll instead do jobs for various clients, who will then offer their services to your team via Connection Orb. Some clients, such as those involved in beatdown missions, come to your team as level 50s if not higher, and will most certainly be useful to you if you take a job in a high difficulty area, where your hero might not be as effective. Experience is given out to all of your team's members as well, not just the ones in the dungeon, so you aren't necessarily punished for using your bruisers when they are available. But seeing as how the game requires some serious muscle on your team to get through the higher end dungeons, and you'll likely only be at level 25-ish by the start of postgame, you're going to need them.

I see the goal Nintendo was shooting for, and for some people these changes will be welcome variations to the familiar PMD formula. I don't mind having a more combat-focused experience in a game like this; after all, most people don't pick up a Pokemon game if they don't expect to fight with them. In this case however, I can't help the feeling the difficulty has been turned up a bit too high. This doesn't bother me as a veteran of the series, but for newcomers, this would not be the game I first suggest to them.

THE STORY:
PMD's storylines seem to have been increasing in quality with each new installment, with each one providing a more flushed out setting and characters along with a coherent and compelling plot to go with. The setting of PSMD is massive and absorbing. Whereas PMD games in the past have had only one city area, which more or less served as a base camp for your expeditions, here we have five huge continents and a number of towns, from which you can then access a wide variety of dungeons and content. Nintendo clearly pulled out all the stops for this game when it came to giving the player things to do, and I couldn't be happier with the result.

The characters don't suffer in quality either as a result of the setting's scope. Each individual Pokemon you meet and talk to on your travels is memorable in some way or another. Your partner is pretty much Italy from Hetalia for the first third of the game, and some of the dialogue you have with them is the funniest Nintendo has written for the series. The denizens of Serene Village (and all the other towns for that matter) are not just idle NPCs just hanging around to spruce up the scenery. Each one is actively doing something and willing to talk to you, and as a result you get a setting that actually feels alive. Not to mention you are encouraged to talk to people, as you can recruit some NPCs for your team that way. And finally, for the PMD veterans, there are some very sly references to the previous games that some NPCs will slip in. (eg. Corphish looking for his guildmaster, Drapion plugging Team AWD). I actually felt engaged and excited as I ran around town talking to everyone, which is not something I can say for the previous games nearly as confidently. This game is a prime example of how to expand the vision of your series without losing focus on the characters and the atmosphere. Nintendo hits this nail right on the head.

Unfortunately, the main plotline of PSMD is not up to the quality you would expect judging from those previous two paragraphs. The plot itself isn't necessarily bad; it's actually pretty good as soon as it gets rolling. But that's the thing: it takes way too long to get to that point. Your character doesn't really get involved in anything until maybe the halfway point of the story. Until then, you're quite literally stuck in a perpetual loop of sidequests that really don't contribute to the story at all. I didn't necessarily have a bad time doing this; I was certainly enjoying myself, and I definitely wouldn't say my time felt wasted. But I was curious to when we would actually be moving along to the actual plot itself. And yes, I know that previous three PMD games were on a slow boil when it came to plot-intensive activity, but at least you were actually doing something. In Blue Rescue Team, you're actually out in the field performing rescue missions for your crew, while slowly trying to figure out how and why you got pulled into the Pokemon universe. In EoT, you're taking expeditions for Wigglytuff's guild, while also trying to figure out why you suddenly got psychic powers from grabbing an apple. Here...you're going to school. And running "jobs" as "unofficial" members of the international expedition society. And you're doing next to nothing to either figure out why you lost your memories or why the supernatural event de jour is occurring. It feels like a step backwards in that respect, and from a storytelling standpoint, it feels like the game is just stalling for time.

I like the premise of the plot here, and I'm not going to dig too far into it for the sake of spoilers. But the concept is good, even though I feel like it's borderline ripping off GtI's story in the process. The threat is real, and because of that absolutely wonderful world building I mentioned earlier, you feel genuinely motivated and compelled to avert its onset. That part I really, really liked, and in that respect, this might be one of the better-told stories in the series. The execution, however, needed more work put into it, and there will be a few instances where you refuse to accept the direction the plot goes at times (you'll know them when you get to them). It's a very mixed bag in my opinion, but the parts that are good are very, very well done.

THE REST OF IT:
I got through the main story in about 20 hours with cutscenes, and there's absolutely no way that I'm done doing everything the game has to offer. There is a metric ton of quality PMD content on display here, and the value you get in exchange for your money is outstanding. Although you don't necessarily have a reason to go through the entire main story a second time (Pokemon games have never really been big on second playthroughs), it's entirely possible to do so for those that are interested.

The game is on par with GtI from 2011 as far as graphical fidelity is concerned, but the effort put into the models and assets is readily apparent. All of the starters look downright cute, their evolved forms look downright awesome, and the scenery and panoramic shots look downright gorgeous. Everything looks and feels the exact same way it needed to look and feel, and Nintendo should be lauded for the work they did on this game graphically.

This is to say nothing of the sound design, which is just as great if not even better. The sound effects are again similar to GtI, which still hold up pretty darn well, but you're going to be interested mostly in the game's soundtrack. You should not be playing this game muted, because otherwise you miss out on some of the best dungeon crawling music ever put into a PMD game. Older tracks are also revamped and plugged into the game's side dungeons, and serve as an awesome throwback to the series' previous renditions.

THE CONCLUSION:
I want to give this game a 9/10 so badly, for simply being one of the mechanically best submissions to the PMD family. Although the game is unforgivingly hard at times and can be difficult for newer players to jump into, it's hard to contest with the sheer amount of content and quality gameplay available for you. Visually, acoustically and functionally it's one of the prettiest installments to date, and is certainly worthy of your time and money.

The problem is that, seeing as how it's a PMD game, I have to compare it to the rest of the PMD series. And next to the nearly legendary Explorers of Time and Darkness, PSMD falls short. The story is not well executed, boss battles happen with almost no prelude or atmosphere, and after the cakewalk that was GtI's combat system, this feels like a very violent swerve in the other direction in comparison.

With that in light, I have to give this game the highest possible 8/10 that I can give it. If you have past experience with PMD, then this game is a must own in every respect. If you're new to the series, I'd recommend you test out one of the earlier titles first, and then see if you're hungry for more.

Cheers,
WS

Rating: 8

Product Release: Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon (US, 11/20/15)

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