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Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness (& Time)

For: DS

Haven't we caught them all enough times already?

Product: Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness | Developer: Chunsoft Co., Ltd | Publisher: Nintendo | Format: DS | Genre: Adventure | Players: 1 | Networking: wireless (adhoc) | Version: US
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness DS, thumbnail 1
Space hoppers. Leg warmers. The Soda Stream. These are all iconic crazes that have come and gone over the years, leaving an indelible mark on the consciousness of those lucky enough to have experienced them. Sadly, they now rank as only distant memories, unlikely to take hold of our lives again in any meaningful manner aside from nostalgic whimsy.

The same can't be said of card game turned video game and anime-money-spinner Pokémon. This is a fad that stubbornly refuses to fade respectfully into rose-tinted obscurity; despite the fact that it's now celebrating its 13th glorious year of merchandising mayhem, it still manages to pull in a considerable amount of cash regardless of the fact that the kids that played it back in 1995 will be in their 20s by now. Clearly, this evergreen franchise has considerable stamina and cross-generation appeal.

If you need convincing further of this fact then you only have to look towards the seemingly endless supply of Pokémon video games. The DS has already experienced the likes of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, as well as spin-off titles like Pokémon Ranger and Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team. Now the popular handheld is playing host to yet another instalment in this long-running lineage.

As the title might suggest, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness (and its blink-and-you-can't-tell-the-difference counterpart, Explorers of Time) shares a particularly strong bond with the preceding DS Mystery Dungeon title, which we reviewed a while back and weren't all that smitten with. For those of you that are interested, the series is actually part of a much older franchise of games coded by Japanese company Chunsoft, who was also responsible for the surprisingly decent Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer.

All of these titles share a similar theme: you're given a randomly generated dungeon to explore then descend through a series of levels, fighting enemies and collecting valuable items along the way. All of these titles can trace their ancestry back to a crusty old PC game named Rogue, and as a result this entire sub-genre of RPG has been christened 'Roguelike'.

One of the most infamous facets of these games is the fact that once you die you're unceremoniously stripped of all your experience points, possessions and gold before being dumped back at the start of the game. It's a harsh and punishing mechanic and is the gaming equivalent of poking someone in the eye, punching them in the stomach and then pushing them down some stairs, but as we stated in our review for Shiren it actually works quite effectively as it rewards the player for taking their time and considering their actions.

Because Explorers of Darkness/Time is aimed a younger audience that might possibly be disheartened by such sadistically punishing game design though, Chunsoft has broken with tradition and tinkered with the core principle a little. When you expire in battle you're simply dropped back to Treasure Town (which serves as the game's central hub) minus your items and cash, but you thankfully retain all of your experience. The missions you've completed up to that point are saved as well.

Aside from this change, Explorers of Darkness does little to deviate from the existing formula. If you experienced Blue Rescue Team then playing this latest episode becomes an increasingly monotonous exercise in 'spot the difference'. Disappointingly, very little has altered here.

There are a few new items scattered around each dungeon but the overall structure is practically identical – the player is tasked with various assignments such as rescuing lost pokémon or tackling overtly hostile ones. The pokémon in question usually reside deep within a dungeon, meaning that a fair amount of trekking is required to complete each mission. If successful, you can return to the town and splash your reward money on items, gear, cheap booze and loose women (okay, so the last two aren't strictly true).

As you progress through the game your pokémon become more powerful and consequently learn new special moves and attacks, each of which must be assigned in a sub-menu before it can be utilized in combat. You also get the opportunity to recruit new pokémon to your team, although just as in the previous game you can only take a limited number into each mission with you. The appeal of collecting all the different species of pokémon is transferred quite neatly from the more traditional games such as Diamond/Pearl, but it's unlikely that you'll make use of every single one of the hundreds upon hundreds of cute little critters present.

Although the game gives the impression that it's taking place in real-time, the action is actually turn-based, with each footstep you take counting as a turn. Because Explorers of Darkness doesn't give any explicit indication of this fact, many newcomers will be fooled into thinking that if they stand still, they're at risk of attack. However, the opposite is true – essentially you control the pace of proceedings. Enemies only move whenever you move (or use an item, or indulge in any activity that constitutes the use of one of your turns).

But despite retaining much of what makes Chunsoft's titles so addictive and playable, Explorers of Darkness is a rather clumsy amalgamation of two distinct (and some would say downright incompatible) brands. And to get an indication of just how detached they are, you only need to compare Shiren with Pokémon Diamond. The two come from completely different ends of the RPG spectrum and appeal to two very different audiences, and as such the wisdom of fusing them together is questionable.

It's for this reason we can't help but deem the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon lineage to be a bit of a flop. Granted, it makes the ageing Mystery Dungeon franchise more accessible to newcomers by reducing the pain of death and dropping in familiar characters, but in doing so it also compromises much of what makes Chunsoft's range of games so engaging, unique and innovative.

Chunsoft fanatics will probably balk at the idea of shelling out money for yet another entry in the series (especially when it's so clearly inferior to the likes of the recently published Shiren) and poké-manics will be bitterly disappointed to discover that the collecting and training aspects that make their favourite franchise so compelling are all but absent. Alas, this appears to be one craze that is dangerously close to running out of steam.
Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Darkness (& Time)
Reviewer photo
Damien McFerran | 13 June 2008
It may be mildly diverting and moderately entertaining, but this latest entry in the Mystery Dungeon series sadly fails to improve on its already disappointing predecessor
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