So, I have a confession to make. I’ve been playing a Pokémon game.
Okay, that’s kind of a laughable confession seeing as how I’ve “caught ’em all” way back when the original Gameboy game came out. Mock all you want, it was a pretty solid RPG, and the collecting via link-cable trading was a clever way to create a social aspect to the game. (Too bad the money-leeching trading card variety took over; but I digress.)
But! I am not playing Diamond or Pearl, but Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon (PMD) is the latest Western release of the Mystery Dungeon series of games developed by Chunsoft. Mystery Dungeon is a series I learned about last year via GameSetWatch’s @Play series of blog posts about roguelikes. You play the part of a Pokémon yourself, rather than a trainer, and you go off on rescue missions facing up against rogue (*cough* sorry) Pokémon who have been driven wild by strange natural disasters. And yes, this is definitely a roguelike. You can faint from lack of food. Dungeons are randomly generated, everything is turn-based reacting to player actions, and the random number generator can drive you mad (eventually).
In a lot of ways, PMD starts off feeling like nethack-lite. You can keep experience and levels even if you fail a dungeon, coming back in at a higher level to give it another try. You can also bring in multiple pokémon with you, where you control one main character (or later on, whichever you designate to be the leader) and the other pokémon are AI-controlled. As well, you can generally hoard items and choose which ones to bring into a given dungeon dive with you at the start.
Ok, so from what I understand, the other Mystery Dungeon games allow you to hoard items to some extent – but keeping levels? While at first glance this made the game feel easier, later on when trying to clear a dungeon that expects you to be starting at level 50 and you’re coming in at 45, it begins to feel like you’re being asked to exp-grind. Brrrr.
But thinking about it some more, I suspect that this wasn’t a deliberate attempt to move towards exp-grind-scariness. Allowing the player to keep exp levels means that the game can stick true to the source material. Your Pokémon gain the same abilities in PMD as they do in other Pokémon titles, at the same levels. I suspect that they also gain levels from exp points at the same rate as they do in other Pokémon games. What this means is that Chunsoft didn’t have to mess with Pokémon canon; nor did they have to deal with the nightmare of trying to edit and rebalance the level rates and abilities of some 300+ different Pokémon.
And for the roguelike purists (aka masochists), there are dungeons unlocked later in the game which allow (okay, force) you to start at level 1 and work your way from scratch, becoming something more like a standard roguelike dive. Wish Cave allows you to bring in items and extra party members, but forces a save at the start (forcing you to commit to those items you brought with, which are likely to be lost if you fail to complete the dungeon). Purity Forest gives you zero concessions – you bring in your lone leader Pokémon, no items, starting at level 1, and you won’t be able to recruit any additional help along the way. It’s friggin’ hard, and I haven’t completed either.
The eventually-hardcore roguelike nature of PMD also helps explain why the reviews were so mediocre. I finally just ignored all but the reviewer I found who actually mentioned “roguelike” – coincidentally, one of the only reviews really praising the game. But the player looking for a roguelike on their DS is going to have very, very different expectations than the player looking for a new Pokémon game. And may God have mercy on their tormented souls if they expect to go into this game and catch ’em all! It is possible to recruit one of every Pokémon in the game onto your rescue team, but that’s a little bit like trying to tame one of every type of monster in Nethack – or a better analogy might be trying to ascend with a tamed monster until you’ve ascended with ’em all, since recruits have to survive until you complete or escape from the dungeon without fainting. It’s no wonder that most of the hardcore players who wrote the online guides to the game expressed a lot of frustration.
But if a roguelike is what you’re expecting and looking for, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon isn’t a bad way to go. If nothing else it can keep you occupied until the original Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer comes to the DS on March 4th.