The Pokémon Mystery Dungeon spin-offs have long been fan favorites due to their addictive rogue-like gameplay and accessibility as dungeon crawlers. Adding in a charming cast of recognizable characters and a light-hearted narrative has created a winning formula. The latest entry, Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon, has managed to expand on these lovable traits, offering the most complete package we’ve seen from the series yet.
Opening with a rather hallucinogenic sequence, you’re first asked to take a short personality test to determine the Pokémon you’ll play as, as well as the partner who will accompany you. Once you’ve had a bit of a ponder and have worked your way through the questions, the game will present you with a Pokémon that most closely represents your likeness based on the answers you gave. These playable characters consist of all starter Pokémon from the six main series games, as well as fan favorites Pikachu and Riolu.
Ultimately, this feels like an arbitrary process, but understandably still entertaining for its intended younger audience. After taking the quiz, you can then pick for yourself if you’re unhappy with the creature you were compared to — the same goes for your partner. When I was told my spirit Pokémon was a Bulbasaur, I couldn’t swap quick enough, opting for the dream team of Pikachu and Charmander — the same pair I’d worked hard to attain in the previous games. While it’s nice that you no longer have to blindly reset for your ideal pairing, it did make me wonder why I wasn’t just given the option to choose from the beginning.
After picking your Poké-pals, you’re thrown straight into the story. You wake up to find you’ve been turned into a Pokémon, but seem to have no recollection of your life as a human. It’s the classic case of amnesia which sets the opening for every Mystery Dungeon game. While in a daze from all of this, you get attacked by a group of hostile Beheeyem before being swiftly rescued by a friendly Nuzleaf with a southern accent. He teaches you the adventurin’ basics and welcomes you into his hometown in the light-hearted manner you’d come to expect from the spin-offs.
Nuzleaf offers to look after you until your memories start to return, and in the meantime you’re enrolled into the local school where you meet the main cast of characters and, more importantly, the partner who you’ll be spending the rest of the game with. By gaining new friends and gradually starting to explore dungeons, the story begins to unravel. Generally, it’s an exhausting tale filled with childish dreams of exploration. And yet there’s a certain charm to it all and just enough heart-warming moments, grand-scale cutscenes and dark twists that keep you drawn in for the duration.
After comfortably settling into the starting town and getting to know the recurring Pokémon, I was eager to jump in and start exploring. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The first six hours or so are ridiculously linear. And that’s my biggest gripe with the game. Day after day in-game, you’re drip-fed tutorials while unable to explore the “dangerous” world freely as a child and instead have to spend hours learning all about it through walls of dialogue at school (as if it couldn’t get any more patronizing for adult players).
During the opening hours, the ratio of dungeon crawling to scrolling through text is disheartening. It’ll certainly feel like a slog to anyone who’s already experienced a Mystery Dungeon game and knows the mechanics inside out. When you occasionally catch a break from the painfully tedious storytelling and do get to explore a dungeon early on, it does manage to redeem itself — that is if you’re a fan of the equally repetitive gameplay, of course.
Personally, I can’t get enough of the rogue-like adventuring. The dungeons you explore are procedurally generated locations, hence the “mystery” behind it all. This means the floor layout will never repeat itself, thus keeping you on your toes no matter how familiar you think you are with the surroundings. Sure, it’s always going to have the same number of floors, recurring enemies and general terrain, but the chance of discovering something new has never failed to appeal to my tastes. It’s addictive and brings out my obsessive nature, causing me to search every inch of each floor to find new items and uncover the map layout previously unseen on the bottom screen.
Unlike the premise of dungeons, the core gameplay couldn’t be anymore repetitive. You wander around a floor, battling any Pokémon that gets in your way in order to find the next set of stairs to progress. Once you’ve reached the next floor, it’s the same old story until you’ve managed to escape the crazy maze. Every experience in a dungeon is largely the same and, even environment-wise, you couldn’t tell one area apart from another. If that’s the case, why do I keep coming back for more?
Honestly, I find the experience enjoyable, and it’s certainly not one without its depth. The battle system is fairly similar to any mainline Pokémon game you’ve played — there’s just a greater focus on action. Everything is turn-based; take a step and all opponents, including those not visible, will also make their move. Coming into contact with an enemy won’t trigger a battle sequence as all action takes place on the fly. With regard to tactical play, this means it’s quite possible to plan your movements to avoid unnecessary encounters.
Should you come into contact with an enemy, you can choose to battle or attempt to make an escape. Either way, the creatures found in dungeons are hostile beings and serve as the main obstacle. As such, you’ll be required to use your repertoire of moves, abilities and items to fight them off — many of which you’re sure to recognize from the main series. What makes this game unique however, is how character position plays a big part in the effectiveness of combat. For example, some moves can reach enemies from a few grid spaces away and cause them to be lured closer, making for some strategic planning and satisfying outcomes.
Aside from familiar gameplay mechanics, it’s the items which do well to shake things up. Magical seeds and orbs have powerful effects, from confusing all enemies in the room to revealing the floor layout. There are also wand items which, when used in the direction of an enemy, will knock them down a peg with a debuff. Gemstones known as “Emeras” can also be picked up and inserted into jewellery to grant all kinds of temporary buffs to the player. The wide variety of items and inventory management to keep on top of ensure the combat is never stale, yet always challenging.
While I do find the gameplay enjoyable, the main problem is that it doesn’t feel like there’s any purpose until you’re around six hours into the game (a good quarter chunk into the story). This is when you join the Expedition Society and are granted freedom in accepting requests from Pokémon. These can include rescue missions, battle challenges or item retrievals, which see you reach a specific floor in a dungeon. Ultimately, it’s the same fetch quest type deal, yet it feels so incredibly addictive to pursue.
By completing requests, you form a “connection” with the client critter, adding them to the list of team members you can bring with you on your expeditions. Just by talking to certain Pokémon in the hub world, you can make a connection. These can even lead on to a further string of connections by being introduced to their group of friends. Considering every single Pokémon features through this system, there’s no shortage of types to try out and no limit to species you can access. Even Legendaries can be obtained early on, providing motivation to regularly complete quests and talk to more characters to form further bonds and expand your ecosystem.
With over 120 accessible dungeons and 720 Pokémon to collect, there is plenty to get on with after finishing the 22 story chapters. At 28 hours, I had seen only half of the available Pokémon and formed connections with around 90 of them, making the content pretty good value for the money. Ultimately, it all boils down to whether or not the gameplay manages to hold your attention. Due to its repetitive nature, it’s best enjoyed in short bursts — great for those looking for something to pick up and play until the next mainline Pokémon game is released.
Once you’ve played one, you’ve played them all, and Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon feels no different in that regard. But it’s that familiarity that’s to be loved. Fans of the games will enjoy the gameplay and typical heart-warming tale, but might find the first several hours of tutorials rather tedious. On the other hand, it’s a perfect place to start for those who are looking to get into the Mystery Dungeon series, as the spin-off’s latest is arguably the greatest, and this is the most welcoming one yet.