Amidst of all the controversy this month over Game Freak and Nintendo announcing the upcoming DLC for Pokémon Sword and Shield, a short. little announcement also sneaked its way through the Nintendo Direct – Pokémon Mystery Dungeon was being remade for the Switch. In true Nintendo fashion, a demo of the game was made available the same day, and eager Mystery Dungeon fans are now able to get a taste of what this remake has in store: An updated art style, some modern conveniences, and all the familiar dungeon diving and Pokémon rescuing they know and love. For these players, the game presents just the right mix of nostalgia and freshness.
But what does this demo have to offer a gamer who has never played a Mystery Dungeon game in their life? A gamer who, like me, may enjoy Pokémon and may enjoy roguelikes, but never had the chance to see how the two could meet?
Today, I offer my brief impressions of the demo as such a player, and present to you the good, the bad, and the ugly that could be awaiting you when the full game releases.
The Good: Presentation
Probably the best thing this game has going for it is the new art style. With a hand-drawn, pencil-like aesthetic, both the Pokémon and the locales that surround them have a beautiful and unique finish. The game is great to look at, from the opening title screen and right into gameplay. The dungeons can be a little on the stale side compared to pre-made locations, as they are procedurally generated, but overall the game’s visuals offer massive appeal. At the same time, the character portraits that accompany the dialogue bring some great artwork with quirky and amusing facial expressions.
As for the dialogue itself – this is clearly a game made for kids. Being a game entirely populated by wild Pokémon with nary a trainer in sight, the characters all speak in full English sentences throughout. The characters I’ve met so far are all friendly and welcoming to each other, eager to help solve the problems of others and generally be good neighbors. It makes for a bit of an odd contrast when you jump into a dungeon and begin battling endlessly spawning Pokémon one very floor of each dungeon – but I accept that I need to suspend my disbelief in a game meant for children.
Finally, the quality of the story itself remains to be seen. Starting up the game, you are given a personality quiz to help determine your Pokémon’s nature and species, which masterfully identified my relaxed nature in the first playthrough. My assigned Pokémon was determined to be a Psyduck, though the game lets you change your PC to whatever Pokémon among the starters you choose. When the story opens, the player character claims to be human who’s been mysteriously transformed into a Pokémon. How this plot turns out, I can only guess – I can only assume it’ll be a major part of the full game.
The Bad: Dungeon Crawling
Unfortunately, despite its beautiful exterior, I didn’t find myself engaged with core gameplay elements. As noted above, the dungeons feel a bit stale and empty compared to the overworld, with nothing but assorted rectangular rooms and straight hallways between. It’s an old, rote formula from the early days of Roguelikes, but lacking entirely (at least in these demo stages) the variety necessary to make the simple layout interesting. Combat is as simple as a button press, and the game even provides a one-click “explore” button that will do all your walking for you.
While the game does put four attacks on each Pokémon and the familiar type advantage mechanics from the core games, it does little to make up for the fact that you’ll mostly be mindlessly wandering through an easy, uninspired maze. The only other level of complexity I found in my short playthrough was a hunger mechanic (again, reminiscent of early roguelikes), but the game throws so much food at you, it’s mostly just a trivial chore.
The Ugly: Movement
I’m not usually one to shy away from simple or even easy titles, and I can usually appreciate a game meant for kids for what it is and find the value there (I’m actually a pretty big Kirby fan, as well). But one mark this Mystery Dungeon remake has against it that I cannot see past is the movement. Moving your characters around the dungeon is slow, clunky, frustrating, and sometimes even unresponsive. Moving in diagonal lines, which should be as easy as moving your joystick up and to the left, randomly decides not to work. Simple directional inputs come with a variable amount of input delay. To top it all off, your partner Pokémon, a companion who comes along on all your mission in the demo, frequently gets in your way.
The game offers solutions to many of these flaws: a sprint feature that lets you run in a line, a button press to dictate diagonal motion, and an option to swap places with your partner. But even these features aren’t the best implemented and just serve to underline these inherent problems rather than mitigate them. These issues impacted my pay experience enough that I was tempted to just put the demo down before reaching the end point.
While I’m not ready to pass judgement on the game in its entirety – after all, this is just a taste of what’s to come next month – I will say that I am very wary of picking up or recommending this title at this point. I love the art design and the core gameplay concepts, but the execution, in this novice Mystery Dungeon player’s estimation, leaves a lot to be desired.