Despite their RPG underpinnings, roguelikes and Pokémon don’t exactly make the best of bedfellows. But that didn’t seem to stop Nintendo and Chunsoft from pairing the two up once more for Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity, the latest installment of the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series (and the first developed for the 3DS). On the surface, Gates to Infinity actually appears to make some strides for the franchise, taking advantage of the console’s added horsepower to offer improved visuals and new features like StreetPass functionality and downloadable content. However, the game is still held back by the same grueling gameplay found in earlier titles, and that's something only the most ardent Pokémon fans will enjoy.
Like previous Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games, Gates to Infinity begins with your avatar inexplicably transforming into a Pokémon. After hearing a telepathic plea for help, you’re whisked away to the Pokémon world, where you meet your first Pokémon partner, whose ambition is to create a paradise for other monsters. With the mysterious plea still lingering in the back of your mind, the two of you team up and set out to explore the land.
"The game is still held back by the same grueling gameplay found in earlier titles..."
From there, you’ll meet other Pokémon and become embroiled in the fate of the world, but the story doesn’t get much deeper than its initial conceit. That’s not entirely a bad thing, though. The narrative clearly skews toward a younger audience, with its themes of friendship and working together to overcome hardships, but it is still charming in its own way, forming the major driving force behind the adventure. The presentation is also quite nice, with colorful 3D visuals and a catchy soundtrack framing your journey through the Pokémon world.
It’s just a shame the underlying gameplay doesn’t match these pleasantries. Unlike a traditional Pokémon title, Gates to Infinity tasks you with exploring “mystery dungeons,” randomized caverns whose layouts change each time you set foot in them. It’s an interesting concept on paper, but in practice it proves to be ill-suited to the Pokémon series, particularly the story that Gates to Infinity tries to weave. Exploring nondescript caverns hardly feels adventurous, especially when they serve as a means to advance the narrative, and they quickly become the most rote aspect of the game.
It doesn’t help that you’ll be crawling through these dungeons for the bulk of your journey, which makes the experience all the more monotonous. The gameplay revolves around taking on jobs from the Request Board, which typically involve rescuing a certain Pokémon (by locating them in one of the game’s randomized dungeons) or recovering a specific item. After completing a job and earning your reward, you’ll be taken back to the hub area, where you’ll repeat the process ad nauseam until you hit the next narrative spurt. This should be familiar to anyone who has played any of the previous Pokémon Mystery Dungeon titles, so fans of the series will already know what to expect when they step into Gates to Infinity, but everyone else will be put off by the severe lack of challenge and variety in the gameplay.
"...it is still charming in its own way..."
You’ll also be battling other wild Pokémon throughout your expeditions, just as you would in a traditional Pokémon game, but even this has been reduced to its most rudimentary elements. Combat still plays out in turn-based fashion, with type alignments forming the primary challenge of each encounter, but you only have control over a single Pokémon; the rest of your party members act of their own volition. This wouldn’t be a problem if they didn’t also lack any basic sense of self-preservation. However, they’ll frequently go out of their way to attack an enemy, even if they’re at a distinct type disadvantage, and should they get separated from your group in the midst of a battle, they’ll continue wandering the dungeon on their own until you either reconvene or they’re knocked out by a foe. Should this happen, you'll be left shorthanded for the remainder of that quest. You can tweak their settings slightly from the game’s menu, but even then you’ll still run into occasional problems with the partner AI, making it a constant annoyance.
Pokémon fans, especially those who have played any of the previous Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games, may eke some enjoyment out of Gates to Infinity’s charming storyline. Everyone else, though, would be better served choosing one of the console’s other role-playing offerings. There are moments of fun to be had with the game, particularly when the narrative hits its stride, but with little variety in the quests you’ll be taking on, and no real depth to the combat, the experience grows old very quickly, making it a difficult recommendation.