In 2006, the Pokémon franchise entered the realm of the mystery dungeon series, an RPG franchise created by Chunsoft that’s included titles such as Chocobo’s Dungeons and Shiren the Wanderer. Chunsoft’s up to it again with Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Time--and its counterpart--Explorers of Darkness for the Nintendo DS. Is it another Mystery Dungeon cash-in or do Pikachu and pals help the series ascend?
Explorers of Time’s narrative is strictly told through text accompanied by in-game cutscenes. It opens with your Pokémon hero washing ashore on a mysterious island. Your partner discovers your Pokémon unconscious and resuscitates you. After some brief exposition, players discover that they’re actually a human trapped in the form of a Pokémon with no memories of anything before being revived. The entire sequence is very reminiscent of Link’s Awakening.
With no other choice but to go along with your newfound partner, players will eventually join up with Wigglytuff’s Explorers Guild, a rag-tag bunch of do-gooders that work tirelessly to explore the vast reaches of the world. For the next several hours, the plot remains fairly bare bones, forcing players to set out on various side missions that have no substance, until finally reaching a point where the main narrative resumes. This portion of the game feels more like a tutorial mode and lasts entirely too long.
Once the main story picks up again, players are hurled into a mystery revolving around the Time Gears, five items that keep the natural flow of time in sync. A criminal named Grovyle steals the gears one by one, plunging the regions into a perpetual state of darkness where time stands still. With the help of renowned explorer Dusknoir, the team sets out to thwart Grovyle’s evil plot. However, just when things seemed wrapped up, the game throws a curve ball leading into the final portion of the game. Players who are willing to endure the initial few hours will be rewarded with a decent tale, and one of the more unusual stories in a Pokémon game to date.
Though Explorers of Time is part of a pair of titles, it is nearly identical to its counterpart with the exception of the Pokemon available on each card. At the start of the game, players will be paired up with two Pokémon--one that serves as the main character and one that serves the partner--as determined by a personality quiz administered at the start of the game. After an initial meeting, the duo is thrust into a situation that forces them to work together in a segment that serves as the game’s basic combat tutorial.
Explorers of Time is a mystery dungeon title, also known as a roguelike, that focuses on randomly generated dungeons and a strong emphasis on character stat building. A majority of the game takes place in these various dungeons, with each consisting of numerous levels. Hordes of enemy Pokémon, traps, and other obstacles await unsuspecting explorers. Players remain in these dungeons until the final level is cleared or until their primary objective is completed. Certain excursions into dungeons are prompted by the main story arc, while others are completely optional.
When not out exploring dungeons, players dwell at Wigglytuff’s Explorer’s Guild. This area serves as the game’s primary training grounds, and later on, as the central point for undertaking new adventures. Once your team is ready, players can select various jobs from the bulletin boards within the guild, or be assigned primary objectives that further the story. Optional missions involve escorting Pokémon to certain floors of a dungeon, finding a lost Pokémon, catching an outlaw Pokémon, or delivering items to Pokémon.
Though most of these missions are optional, many of them are required to advance the game to the next day where main mission objectives are again available. Mixed in with these optional missions is also a mini-game in which players must identify Pokémon entering the guild by the outline of their footprint. At first the jobs serve as a glorified tutorial, but they quickly turn cumbersome.
Explorers of Time also features one of the most annoying cutscene sequences ever, and you can’t skip it. It’s triggered at the end of a mission, whether the player succeeds or fails. Players return back to the guild to enjoy some well-deserved grub, enjoy a good night’s rest, and then wake up to take roll call. By the tenth time it quickly becomes ridiculous, and you can expect to endure this sequence dozens of times.
The main missions in the game pit players into a massive dungeon typically broken up into two segments and culminating with a boss encounter. If a player or his partner falls in battle, they will be sent back and have to attempt the dungeon again. On top of that penalty, players will lose all money collected, and some of their inventory. In order to alleviate the challenge, players can randomly recruit defeated Pokémon and have them join their party. Parties consist of up to four Pokémon at a time and are set up before each mission back at the guild. In order to avoid the loss of precious items and progress, fallen players will have the chance to issue a call for help to their friends with a copy of the game, either via local wifi or the internet.
Another unique aspect during dungeon sequences is that your Pokémon will become hungry as they run or use special moves over and over. Players have to worry about their health meter and hunger status. Text cues will prompt the player to feed the Pokémon, and if neglected, eventually the screen will flash when your hero is in danger of passing out. The hunger element doesn’t come into play very often and each dungeon contains ample amounts of items to remedy the condition.
For a handheld game, Pokemon Mystery Dungeon provides a lot of entertainment value. The main quest will take around 20 hours to complete, but if a friend or relative wants to get in on the action you’ll have to wipe the lone save slot.
Explorers of Time utilizes both a traditional control scheme as well as a stylus option. Most players will find the traditional D-pad and button scheme more natural. While the majority of the action takes place on the bottom screen, the top screen can serve as one of many different components, such as an alternative spot to view the text logs, the current map, or your Pokémon party’s stats.
During dungeon segments, players engage in combat by approaching an enemy Pokémon. While there are no true random encounters, once spotted by an enemy, it can be tough to escape. The area is broken into square grids, much like a strategy RPG, though movement is permitted horizontally, vertically and diagonally. Combat is done by attacking an opponent with a basic attack, or using one of four available special abilities. Though the familiar strategy of which moves are more effective against certain types of Pokémon come into play, the execution amounts to little more than button mashing.
Players are given no visual cue that it’s their turn to move other than seeing their opponent move last. Pokémon need to also be facing the correct direction in order to land an attack, and lining up attacks sometimes costs the player a turn. Most of the time when an enemy is one space away in any direction, an attack is possible, but when the enemy is around a corner, not all attacks will work.
This combat system is unintuitive, and will leave most players frustrated after seeing an enemy attack several times before they get a turn. The entire process is mind-numbingly repetitive and offers little variety. Enter a dungeon, run around, encounter an enemy, and move on. Even the boss battles follow this same pattern.
Surviving many of the later dungeons requires a mastery of both item management and team makeup. The typical health and special move replenishment items are available, but other, more unique items like the ability to stun every Pokémon on-screen--including yourself--up the strategy level. Brute force is not the best idea, and grinding isn’t a fail-safe, either. It’s all about having a balanced party.
Controlling your party members is troublesome at best. Players have the option to issue several movement instructions to their partner Pokémon, but not to the rest of the party. In addition, players can control which special abilities their partner can use, but they can’t control when their partner will use them. You have even less control over the remaining Pokemon.
Playing Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is very different from your typical Pokemon experience. Battles are in real-time and the party aspect forces you to look at how your critters work as a team. It sounds great in theory, but the repetitive execution is antiquated—even by dungeon crawling standards.
Unlike the typical dungeon crawler, Explorers of Time’s numerous overworld venues manage to showcase an aesthetically pleasing, vibrant style. Many of the game’s cutcenes include sequences that deviate from the overhead perspective to present a more dramatic, storybook look.
Because they’re randomly generated, the same can’t be said about the dungeons. There’s a wide variety of themes, but the overall look is similar. Some are just downright bland and ugly, while others, like some of the forest dungeons, are a bit more lively. Layered effects also are present at points when weather conditions come into play, amounting to the best-looking parts of the game.
The game’s soundtrack features tunes that are well-suited to the various dungeon themes. Since the Pokémon all speak like humans, the traditional Pokémon language is absent, as well as any of the sometimes-annoying sound effects associated with talking Pokémon.
Explorers of Time does very little to expand upon the original entry into the series, and relies too heavily on the Pokémon brand. As a dungeon crawler, it succeeds in delivering a solid level-grinding experience, though it’s a bit on the easy side. As with any RPG, the narrative is crucial, and once it picks up, the story is fairly rewarding. Fanatics, or those who enjoy the grind, will find a passable experience, but for everyone else, stick with the classic Pokemon releases.