That Time I Became a Pokémon in Another World
You frequently see comments on how the Pokémon mainline series has remained very… consistent mechanically, and while I do believe that some criticisms about this tendency are valid, read my review of Pokémon Shield and Natalie Rambles About Pokémon for more details, they are a bit undermined by how the series does innovate by way of spin-offs. A subset of the Pokémon enterprise that is home to several quality games that help the series into unique or interesting directions. But the most celebrated of these spin-offs is likely the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series, which gave Pokémon a more in-depth and emotional story, a more challenging battle system, and a degree of mechanical familiarity while being a very different take on an RPG.
However, it did not do exceptionally well in terms of sales, with the most recent 3DS entry just skirting over a million units according to the most recently updated sales figures, and when it came time to bring the series to HD via the Nintendo Switch, the decision was made to instead remake the very first entry of the series, Rescue Team Red and Rescue Team Blue. Complete with all the innovations the series made up until this point, and a few others to help modernize and streamline it for a more modern audience.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon Rescue Team DX Review
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Mystery Dungeon DX follows an unnamed and self-insertable human protagonist whose reality is flipped turned upside down as he wakes up in a world solely populated by Pokémon. A world that, coincidentally, is also undergoing some trying times in the form of rampant natural disasters that are causing Pokémon to become lost in winding dungeons, and making others berserk and wild with unrest. Or at least something to that effect. Despite having no real reason to care about this world or anything in it, the protagonist is quick to agree with their newfound otherworldly companion when they suggest they pair up and form a rescue team to aid Pokémon in need during these trying times. Thus sending the pair on a quest that has them save incidental friendly side characters from unfavorable fates, learn the origins of the rampant natural disasters, and strive to bring balance to this world.
While the narrative is one that conforms to genre staples, it is nevertheless a story that thrives thanks to its focus and simplicity. The entire game takes place around a central hub location, Pokémon Square, the ultimate cast of characters is not especially large, and said the cast is not particularly deep or nuanced. However, their simple and transparent personalities do a lot to endear the player to them, with every character having identifiable quirks, a certain charm all their own, and reactive dialogue relevant to the current happenings in the story, that helps make the characters feel like parts of the world, rather than just simple set dressing. As the hours go on, these characters begin to feel comparable to neighbors or co-workers, individuals who the player does not know intimately, but is familiar with regardless.
The primary exception to this is the player’s partner character who, in an effort to not give the protagonist too much personality, occupies the mold of a passionate childhood friend, voicing out against opposition and defaulting to an optimistic outlook even as the world is threatened by divine threats. They are very much the emotional heart of the story given their proximity to the protagonist, often driving scenes with their spirited reactions and doing a lot to endear themselves. And despite being a Pokémon game, Mystery Dungeon DX does have a fair share of dire and dour moments, most notably the fugitive arc seen in the middle of the game, which casts the player away from the comfort of Pokémon Square and their other recruitable party members and leaves them stranded with their partner. It really does little to hide or sugar-coat the fact that they are running away from an angry mob that wishes to murder them, forcing them through a harsh part and foreboding part of the world that is conveyed mechanically through a notable difficulty spike and a series of imposing boss battles.
Even though the game is never too ambitious and does not push the envelope too much, the final product is still admirable in its execution, its ability to ascribe a specific Pokémon species into a character with a definable personality, and attempts at crafting a compelling character-driven story. However, it does falter after the fugitive arc wraps up and the story pivots into its final section far too abruptly, carting the player into larger and longer dungeons with more imposing enemies and relatively little time to breathe or accumulate the power needed to face the threats seen in the final two dungeons of the main story. It strikes me as a result of development not going as smoothly as intended, or possibly a slightly misguided attempt to focus on the highlights and rid the story of filler. In practice, however, it causes the game to halt both mechanically and narratively if the player wants reasonable odds of success, and given the mechanical inner workings of this take on the Mystery Dungeon trappings, players will want to boost their odds as much as possible.
For those not familiar with the series, and its related subgenre, Mystery Dungeon games involve characters traveling through grid-based randomly generated dungeons where health, hunger, skill charges, a limited inventory, and a total loss of items and currency held upon death encourage a more thoughtful and deliberate approach to exploration and combat. It is a dungeon crawler with a sense of permanence, where even casual grinding or farming involves the possibility of losing everything and starting over. While the difficulty and intensity of this gameplay are toned down compared to other titles, these tenants still remain in Pokémon Mystery Dungeon DX.
The proper game loop goes something like this: Collect items and money while exploring floors in search of the stairway of progress. Recruit up to five friends per dungeon run to boost the power of the base three-character-party and gain more options for teams in the future. Preserve your party’s HP, hunger, and PP through conservative movement, move usage, and switching out the playable character. And bulk up on randomly generated quests that are in the same dungeon so the player can rescue Pokémon in need and be rewarded with rescue team points, money, and items. As this loop continues, the player’s team will accumulate resources and universal EXP that helps keep all recruited Pokémon useful to some extent… but not others.
Take, for example, how the more the player uses a move, the more powerful that move becomes. This is a great concept that allows for a steady accumulation of power through something that can be applied to various other Pokémon. Yet its usefulness and practicality are limited by the fact that this is Pokémon we are talking about, and Pokémon features so many gosh darn moves. Rather than recognizing this reinventing the movepool for all 400+ Pokémon featured here, Mystery Dungeon DX instead carries over the movesets wholesale. This negates the usefulness of leveling up and empowering moves and discourages the player from ever-changing them, as they can level up moves so dramatically that they become better than the base version of new moves.
This happened with moves like ember, flame burst, water gun, and bite during my playthrough, to the point where I was still using them even during the end game, and my team was past level 50. I wanted to switch these moves out, but the numbers— or rather bars, since move information is represented using bars instead of numbers for some daft reason— never convinced me that this was a good investment. This entire situation could have been revised by streamlining the movepool and making the core difference in moves be type, physical, special, range, and effect, but they didn’t, and it kinda stinks.
Moves also happen to be one of the most reliable ways to accumulate and develop power in this game due to its unique approach to stat building. Levels come relatively slowly after a certain point, the statistic boons they bring with them are often minor and unnoticeable, and stats like HP, in particular, are dramatically lower than their equivalent in the mainline games. These slow and low gains make it hard to accumulate power as the game escalates and enemies gain access to larger health pools and stronger moves. Making Mystery Dungeon DX a game where the best way to boost your damage and resilience is through move grinding or boosting stats using vitamins and special gummis.
This would be fine if these items were plentiful, but they cannot be purchased regularly, and are considered valuable as such. So if the player does want to boost the stats of a character, they will typically want to ensure that they will continue to use said character, otherwise, they wasted their investment. It is a game that encourages players to make hard long-term decisions for really no reason while giving them so many options, between Pokémon and moves, that it is hard to feel confident in one’s investments. All of which could have potentially been avoided if the game simply copied more of the mainline series’ mechanics wholesale.
It is such an odd, rigid, and weirdly antagonistic design that could have been made more rewarding and approachable in so many ways. A universal movepool would make it easier to transition between similar characters. A task or resource-based passive boon system, such as increasing stats by a set percentage, would accentuate the growth of your entire rescue team over time. And for as much work was done to streamline the menus and UI in general, it still lacks staples to make the process of heading out for a dungeon run as seamless as possible, such as a loadout system.
It is all unfortunate because once the player is in the zone, traveling through dungeons, completing quests, hopping between their party of three controlled characters, the game is pretty wonderful. There is just enough tug and tension to keep the proceedings engaging, but it is not too constant or too unpredictable to become overbearing, making it something of an ideal grind or podcast game, and one that I actively wanted to invest dozens upon dozens of hours into.
However, the higher level and persistent mechanics made me constantly feel like I was fighting to preserve this niche of difficulty as dungeons became more demanding during the post-game, in regards to difficulty, team composition, and overall length, deviating from what I consider to be the ideal length of 20 floors. Long enough to feel like a voyage, yet not long enough to drain the party of their PP and the toolbox of restorative goodies.
Still, I had every intention of grinding enough confidence to get to the 50 floor dungeons eventually, and in an attempt to expedite this process I attempted to evolve my main characters, a Mudkip and Torchic. A process that only provides a small amount of power, as evolutions universally boost all stats by 3 and HP by 10, but I figured it would make a substantial enough difference… only to regret my decision immediately. I evolved my starter self-insert Pokémon, a Mudkip, into a Swampert, and rather than reprising a modified version of the unused walking animation created by Creatures Inc. for Pokémon Sun and Moon, Spike Chunsoft decided to make their own, as they did for most, if not all, of the Pokémon in Mystery Dungeon DX.
What walking animation they settled on for Swampert, a quadrupedal creature, walking on their two hind legs while holding their forelegs in front of them, never touching the ground with them or moving them in a meaningful way. And it looks like trash. It looks awful. I do not think I have genuinely seen a worse animation in any game, and I cannot think of a decision I ever made in any game that I regretted more than this.
Normally, I would have backed up my save file before making a decision like this. Unfortunately, due to the imposed single-slot autosave system of Mystery Dungeon DX, and the egregious inability to backup save data from the Nintendo Switch, I had to live with this decision. Even after another hour-long play session days after I made this incorrect choice, I still hated looking at my main character. So much that I outright stopped playing the game then and there, as I felt like I made the wrong choice, and there was no way for me to remedy it.
Now, the worst part about this is that, aside from this one instance— this one unignorable and constant instance— I genuinely love how Mystery Dungeon DX looks. Its storybook art style, detailed tiled and custom environments, clean UI, beautiful illustrations, and overall vibrant color palette all make it a very attractive game. It has genuine cutscenes whose detail and vibrancy is a rarity in the series and even goes to the extra effort to make its main characters emote using their models during story sequences. It is some high-quality stuff and shows the dedication of the game’s developers, but its look does falter due to some technical and budgetary reasons. Such as how certain models had to be compressed or clearly did not receive the same amount of attention as others, the mixed success of the developers’ efforts to apply a texture filter to each model, and the fact that some font choices are very difficult to read when playing the game in handheld mode.
The soundtrack also deserves special mention for revising and revitalizing the score of the original 2005 title, putting together a series of banger remixes that heightened every dungeon run. The way the composer manages to blend in modern digital instrumentations with the original tracks gives the score its unique flair that both pays tribute to what came before while ascending it into something new.
To conclude my thoughts, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon DX does a lot right and establishes what I hope will become a base that the subseries can build off of from here. The game has its problems, presentational and mechanical, but the core of the game, the emotional drive of its story, and its compelling gameplay loop are evident that there is something of great value here that could, and should, be refined with yet another entry. Possibly another remake, or possibly a new game entirely.
As its own product, however, I am walking away from Pokémon Mystery Dungeon DX with more mixed feelings. It is a game I dearly want to love, and a game I was happy to have played, but its imperfections and shortcomings piled up throughout my playthrough, enough for me to end my time with the game prematurely.