When you first open your eyes to the world of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity, you are asked who you see as yourself. Already, this is a little different from what I remember in previous gams. I distinctly remember something of a personality test in previous games in the series, with different combinations of responses leading to different Pokémon, but this time, you just get to pick from a choice of five—Pikachu, Snivy, Tepig, Oshawott, and Axew.
After you select who you will play as, the game opens with you falling out of the sky and onto your partner (whom you also choose from the five above, excluding yourself). Your partner (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll call this Pokémon Pikachu, since that’s who I chose) asks you to accompany him to Post Town, which is just past a small, simple dungeon that serves as a good tutorial and introduction to the game.
After reaching the Town, Pikachu describes his goal to you—he wishes to create a Pokémon Paradise. Apparently Pokémon in the world are getting less and less friendly (and this is quickly apparent in the first few story quests you take), and he wishes to create a place where Pokémon can just get together without all the malicious distrust and trickery that seems to have pervaded life elsewhere.
And malicious they are. This theme of distrust and friendship, while not new to Pokémon, is a little bit of a darker theme in Gates to Infinity. It’s one thing to have underhanded dealings to “take over the world” Team Rocket-style, but it’s another to do so out of distrust or a sense of “this is the only way to survive in this world”. I was taken by surprise by how bleak all the inhabitants were in spite of the extraordinarily colorful world surrounding me.
As such, the game has two layers in how it plays—the first is all your adventuring, which is linked with all the story quests and requests you take. The story covers your journey as an adventurer, learning more about the lore of the Pokémon world, returning trust to the Pokémon who have forgotten how to, and of course searching for the reason you (as a human) were transformed into a Pokémon. Requests are paltry quests into a dungeon that you’ve already visited, either to defeat a strong Pokémon or to search for an item. These reap rewards and Paradise Points necessary for the part of the game explained below.
The second is growing your paradise. While Post Town comes with many shops and services, the majority of facilities are only available after you expand your Paradise. To do so, you must first have the money and materials necessary to clear out the land (since Pikachu had purchased the Paradise at a discount, the land is a bit of a dump), and then you must have the money and materials to build the facility of your choice. The more Paradise Points you have, the more types of facilities you can build. You can also upgrade your facilities and recolor them, provided you have the materials.
Facilities include specialty shops, which sell items at cheap prices and buys them at high ones; minigames, where you can win many treasures at once; dojos, where you can train your Pokémon’s moves; and fields, where you can grow various types of berries. All of these are extremely helpful and make your journey much easier in the long run. My current favorite is the Sunken Treasure facility, which is a minigame where you can control Starmie using the tilt function of the 3DS to guide her towards the treasure boxes. One play-through can net me 15 new items, so it’s very worth it.
The catch is that you can’t always take requests. One request takes up a day, and after a certain number of days the story starts to advance and you’ll find yourself having to focus on that instead of trying to build up your Paradise. This is where Companion Mode and the Magna Gate comes in.
In Companion Mode, you can play as any of the other members on your team. As that Pokémon, you can take requests or expand your Paradise for as many days as you want without worry of a time limit. All the items and money you find in Companion Mode automatically transfer to your main party once you quit this mode (you can switch back and forth any time you’re allowed to save your game).
With the Magna Gate, which you access from the main menu before you load your game, you use your camera to find a round object. The size of the object and its color determine the difficulty of the dungeon and the type of dungeon (and the type of Pokémon you are, I believe). You’re then whisked off to this dungeon—not as your main Pokémon but as the Pokémon preset for the dungeon—and you can start your exploration there. This way, you can find many items typically out of your level range and possibly some rare ones you can’t find elsewhere. This is probably also your only chance to play as the other starting Pokémon.
Exploring the dungeons is extremely simple, but time-consuming. As many of you know, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon is of the roguelike genre, and as such, its gameplay is a unique mix of turn-based battle plus strategy on a grid system. Every move you make takes a turn, and all units, enemies and party members, are included in this turn-taking. Luckily, it’s less tedious than it sounds because everything moves so quickly that, sometimes, it feels like you’re just moving again and again like in a real-time battle.
It’s actually the moving around and exploration that takes up most of your time. The dungeons are elaborate mazes that change every time you enter, with many turns and corners so you have to constantly be pressing around on the D-pad or Analog pad. I don’t like how the hallways are so long and twist around so that you can’t just dash (B button) all the way to the end, but this is perhaps a good thing because it prevents you from wandering too far from your teammates should they get caught up in battle without you.
The controls are simple, although there are certainly many button combinations to watch out for (this button allows you to turn without moving; this button opens the menu; this button automatically opens to the item menu; this button allows you to use special attacks, etc.) which can be extremely confusing in the very beginning. I like how you can toggle the bottom screen and switch between the dungeon map, the status screen, and a list of all the controls.
In this sense, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon is very easy to play. If you have a question on what to do next, you can generally try taking a request and Pikachu will let you know if there’s something else you have to do. If you forget your controls, you can pull up the list of buttons. If you forget what an item does, you can always read the (very thorough) information window.
As a Pokémon game, the growth system is very similar to that in the original series. You level up after earning enough EXP, and at certain levels you learn moves. Each Pokémon can only learn 4 moves, so you’ll have to juggle around which ones you want to keep. At certain levels, your Pokémon will even evolve.
Here, again, the game takes extra steps to make things easier for you. Any EXP you earn is automatically shared between every team member—including the ones in Paradise. This means that even those weak Pokémon you recruit later in the game will still become much stronger so long as you keep fighting. In addition, you can relearn moves at a facility in Post Town, so you don’t have to worry too much about which move to keep. This allows you to be flexible with your strategy.
Moves are trickier in this game than before. While in Pokémon, you can obviously forget a move if it’s weaker in attack strength than a new move (for example, Scratch vs. Slash), in Gates to Infinity moves you use get stronger as you use them more. Thus, by the time I had learned Slash, Scratch was actually just as strong and had more PP to boot. This move level is also shared between all of your team, making certain moves grow much quicker than others. For example, if two of the Pokémon know Quick Attack, both Pokémon’s Quick Attack usage will count towards the EXP.
These differences, while slight, makes me think about how to raise the Pokémon differently than in the main RPG series. This, in addition to other differences such as playing as a Pokémon, colorful characters that are important to the game and not just throwaways, a more solid story, and a beautiful environment completely sets this game apart from the main Pokémon series for me—not just in gameplay but also in atmosphere and the way I think about the Pokémon as well.
In addition, I like how the game makes everything so accessible and easy to understand without holding your hand (some of the battles are still very difficult). There’s even a synopsis of what you’ve done so far that appears whenever you load up your save file.
Food for thought:
1. While you’re adventuring, sometimes a Pokémon will want to join you. This happens more often than I thought it would. Whenever this happens, you can either keep this Pokémon on your four-person team or you can have the Pokémon automatically return to Paradise, and pretty soon you’ll have a pretty varied roster of what you can choose from.
2. Upon defeating one of your party members, the wild Pokémon may even evolve. In these cases, it’s best to just run! These evolved Pokémon are incredibly strong… I feel like this is rubbing salt in the wound, but it’s because of this I love my Escape Orbs.
3. …unfortunately, using one also means you’re forfeiting your request.