The Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series has always felt a bit out-of-step with the rest of the Pokeverse. Its general lack of difficulty ruined the delicate balance that makes dungeon-crawlers worthwhile, making the games a bit of a chore to play. That’s why it was a pleasant surprise when I got my butt whooped early on in Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon because I wasn’t paying enough attention. With this game, the series has finally nailed the challenging rhythm that it needs, but without sacrificing the color and personality of Pokemon.
What do you do when you’ve been turned into a Pokemon and sent to a world without humans? Become an explorer and try to save the world from a mysterious plague that’s turning everybody into stone, that’s what. Delving into relatively short, randomly-generated dungeons with a group of three Pokemon is what you’ll be spending most of your time doing, but you’ll be up against some stiff opposition. Enemy Pokemon can easily out-level your party, and come with a full complement of nasty attacks that they don’t hesitate to use. They can poison you, put you to sleep, and some of them can even hurt you far before you’re able to see them.
To fight back against these foes, you’ve got to find magic stones that make you stronger, help you navigate better, and insulate you from status abnormalities. The trick is that these stones shatter quickly after you enter a room and they only last for the duration of your current adventure, so you’ll have to gather them strategically in each dungeon as you go.
That means that every trip into a mystery dungeon is a balancing act between exploring for magic stones and getting through the dungeon without running out of important items like food, healing berries, and elixirs that recharge your moves. Standard issue for a dungeon-crawler, yes, but previous games in the series were so generous with supplies that strategy was almost unnecessary. You’ll also have to keep the standard Pokemon elemental system in mind, matching your party’s strengths against the enemy’s weaknesses, and boss fights are particularly tough, often requiring you to be loaded up on magic stones and equipped with your own nasty tricks to turn the tide of battle in your favor.
Gotta catch 'em all
You really can catch ‘em all in Super Mystery Dungeon. That means every single Pokemon, ever (including every form of most multi-form Pokemon, like all 28 Unown symbols). If you’re looking to collect as many Pokemon as possible, check around town and at the tavern every day - you might meet somebody new who will join you in exchange for a friendly chat. Also make sure to stick around in a dungeon if you’re told there’s still something available after you’ve finished your quests. It’s usually a wandering traveler or a Pokemon in trouble who will join you once you find it.
This more challenging approach to dungeoneering hasn’t sucked the charm out of the game, however. The lively soundtrack sets the tone of each kind of dungeon quite well. The dungeons, while still a bit repetitive-looking, have more personality and variety than they did in previous Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games. Most importantly, the Pokemon you meet are vibrant and detailed. They even move through the dungeon the way you’d expect them to, from Dragonite’s ponderous wobble to Victini’s hyperactive scamper. Each species has a distinctive personality, though necessarily broadly drawn since there are over 700 of the suckers.
This series has always let you recruit a variety of Pokemon to join your team, but Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon has really gone overboard, offering every Pokemon in history as a potential dungeoneering partner - even the huge ‘Legendary’ Pokemon. It’s a super-fan’s dream that involves navigating a giant in-game social network in order to find potential allies who want you to complete quests in the mystery dungeons. Everybody is connected, so if recruit one party member by completing its request, you’ll gain access to its friends and spread your connections even further.
Recruiting through quests (like finding a missing item, beating up somebody who is giving them trouble, or even just visiting their secret dungeon base for a cup of tea) and social interactions is way more fun than the random recruitment found in previous Pokemon Mystery Dungeon titles, and it keeps you playing as there’s always a tangible reward for adventuring.
The only downside to this tremendous team roster is that it’s not available at first. You’ll be forced to play your main character, an unevolved starter Pokemon, in all the storyline missions you undertake. You can’t even swap your currently controlled character like you can in non-storyline missions, which is an obnoxious restriction when you hit a dungeon full of enemies that exploit your main character’s elemental weakness. In one ground-attack heavy dungeon, my fire-type Fennekin literally pushed another character in front of her the entire way, because walking in the lead was proving too lethal.
These restrictions contribute to a sluggish start, where the story takes its sweet time ramping up, sending your character to Pokemon school and interspersing each story mission with several days of random exploration. Everything opens up the longer you play, especially once you can finally leave your starter town and choose from a wider roster of Pokemon on non-storyline missions (don’t worry - experience is doled out to all Pokemon, whether they’re in the active party or not), but there’s a significant time investment before you’ll have full access to the world and to your team selection options. By that point, it’s easy to start feeling the repetition of the mystery dungeon formula, so I recommend playing in shorter doses to get the most out of this huge game.
A stronger difficulty balance, greatly improved recruitment system, and fairly brief dungeon-crawling missions have made Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon the strongest entry in the series so far. It has a nice all-ages appeal that challenges without being too frustrating and revels in the vibrant personality that makes Pokemon such a beloved franchise. If you have the energy to get over its slow start and occasional storyline-related annoyances, it’s a worthy addition to your 3DS library.