Mid August of 2017 a cousin and I decided to have a game swap. I lent her Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney and she let me borrow Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky. I’m not quite sure exactly what to expect going in. I loved the main series Pokémon games but my only exposure to Mystery Dungeon was when I did a Let’s Play of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team nearly two years ago.
I overall liked the game. It wasn’t incredible, but I enjoyed it for what it is; an interesting new way to play Pokemon that I considered sort of a light, kid-friendly version of something like Dungeons of Dredmor. The most surprising thing about it to me is that it was technically a roguelike, since that genre really didn’t take off until maybe around 2011 or so. It was kind of ahead of its time, actually.
My biggest problems with Red Rescue Team were the story, which I found quite boring and safe as far as RPGs go, and some quirks with the gameplay itself. For example, I wish the controls were a bit easier to get used to, and I hated how you had to fumble around with menus to so much as see your partner’s health.
I went in with okay expectations. I was hoping the UI and controls would be a lot better since they’ve had a few years to figure stuff out and they’re on the DS now with more buttons. That and the two screens. I can’t wait to figure out what they decided to do with the second screen. And I wasn’t expecting much more from the story than the typical unchallenging romp you get from these companies who want to appeal primarily to kids.
I loved that the quiz returned that decides what Pokémon you play as. Now this feature has always been something I loved about these games. The fact that you’re not quite sure what you’re going to be chosen to play as, even something you do not typically like, is a feature I’ve always enjoyed. It makes these games feel more real somehow. In the first Mystery Dungeon, the game chose for me to be a Squirtle. In this one, the game chose Treecko. Not my favorite starter, but I always like him in how different he is from other starters. I picked Meowth as my partner since as you all know, I cannot go a single Pokémon game without picking a really weird team.
I’m not going to lie, the first couple hours of the game had me a bit worried. It started identical enough to the first game that I thought this one was just going to be no more than a glorified port. Your partner is one of those guys who talks so much about friendship, getting along, and how everything is going to work out that it almost comes off as cringe-inducing. Overly optimistic characters I find unrealistic.
The only thing from the early game I really enjoyed was the guild. In the first Mystery Dungeon I remember your party was really the only guild members that had a place to stay. Making it instead a small, selected group of individuals similar to something like a Boy Scout troop is a much more interesting dynamic.
It adds context to how important people in the guild are since not just anyone can join. And the number of members were small enough that you could feasibly remember them all and pick favorites.
Admittedly the writing of most of the side-characters is very spot-on as well. Everyone talks in their own special little ways that feel realistic. For example, there is a Bidoof in this game who is written exactly how I’d imagine a Bidoof to talk, with “by golly”s and “Oh geez”s appropriately placed in his dialog. It’s charming, and it adds character.
The guildmaster Wigglytuff and his right-hand man Chatot have great chemistry as well. I’ve always loved Wigglytuff ever since I was a kid, but I never imagined he would play the role of a creepy leader with untapped powers you never really got to see.
I also need to remember that this game was riding off the heels of generation 4, which was extremely new at the time. Thinking about it, that might explain some of the random starter choices during the character quiz, like Shinx or Munchlax. Who aside from Little Cup players remembers Munchlax? However I never found it too intrusive, and these new characters were integrated and written in a way that makes sense, as suppose to the game screaming “Hey! Look at all these new guys! Aren’t they cool!?”
But the game’s story overall was still pretty safe for the first few hours. The Time Gears were interesting artifacts, but they were really just plot macguffins for a little bit. But then something happened. Slowly but surely this game transformed into not just another Pokémon game, into something truly special.
This game revolves around a rogue Grovyle who is stealing these Time Gears, and and noble and well-spoken Dusknoir teams up with your guild to stop him. You apprehend the Grovyle and then it’s revealed that him and the Dusknoir are from the future, and that removing Time Gears from their rightful places, it causes time to halt in that area. Okay... that’s kind of cool. That’s actually a really interesting way to end the world as suppose to the typical “summon a monster” strategy.
But then, Dusknoir takes you and your partner, and drags you to the future with him when he returns with Grovyle. It is then revealed that he was the bad guy the entire time, and Grovyle was actually attempting to save the planet by stealing the Time Gears.
This blew me away. I’m typically pretty bad at seeing plot twists coming, but this sort of reveal was one of the last things I expected from a Pokémon game where the depths of the plots are typically paper-thin.
The writing from this on transforms from something kind of interesting into something truly extraordinary. The writing picks up immensely, almost as if someone else completely took over. The apocalyptic future is something you actually see, and play through, as suppose to something you’re just told about.
The most fascinating thing about all of this to me is that this is coming from a spin-off Pokémon game. The plot twists and reveals are well-timed and never come off as contrived. It feels like there are real consequences to you actions. Inconsistencies are explained in reasonable ways. The villains, each and every one of them, have interesting motives. There is legitimate well-written character development in this game as your partner slowly learns to trust Grovyle more.
Heck, they kill off your hero! They would never do that in a main series installment! Now given Dialga deus ex machinas him back to life, which I typically hate, but given the context it seems like less of a cop out here than this usually is. That’s not the important part though. What I’m trying to get across is what for a series typically written like a Saturday morning cartoon and nothing more, this game has blown me away. Explorers of Sky isn’t written like a typical Pokémon game, it’s written like a traditional RPG, and a really good one at that!
I talk a lot about how I see potential in a lot of projects, almost to the point of which it annoys some people, but this kind of payoff is the exactly the thing I’m talking about. I mean, come on Game Freak. You have a universe with over 800 fictional and well designed animals, and the most interesting thing you can think to do with them is something I’d watch on television when I was ten? Twenty years, and you’re still doing the same “good guy beat bad villains” plots? This is one of the reasons why I enjoy fangames guys, because good narrative can come from the most unexpected places. And who knew it could also come from a spin-off barely anyone has heard of.
Speaking of stories about the future, I figured I could talk about how weird this game is after playing some of the more recent Pokémon games. There is a group of Pokémon that call themselves Team Skull in this game, and Explorers of Sky even does the whole Primal Legendaries thing before the actual games did. It’s super strange, and I feel we may owe this game more credit than we thought.
But just, wow. What an interesting story to come out of an unexpected place. Bravo… hold up, let me look up what company Nintendo commissioned to do this…
Spike Chunsoft!? The Zero Escape and Danganronpa guys!? Whaaa…? No wonder I love the story.
So as phenomenal as the story may be that still leaves the gameplay. And while I do enjoy it, it isn’t as mind-blowing as the narrative is. In fact, it really just feels like more of the same. The core gameplay is similar, which is fine, but not much substantial is added aside from the fourth generation Pokémon. Heck, even the confounded menus are almost identical.
You know what really bums me out though? The fact that they didn’t really do much with the top screen. Now, I’m pretty certain this game was a launch title, so it could have very easily been one of those cases where it was planned as a GBA game at first. Actually, I’d kind of prefer it if it was that. Because what the top screen actually does is kind of pathetic.
The top screen, the entire time, just displays the controls. I am not even joking. It’s quite static too, almost as if it was literally thrown in at the last minute. Now you can change what the top screen displays, but all of the options leave something to be desired. That and I didn’t discover this feature until maybe the third to last dungeon in the game. Not sure who’s fault that one is.
You can have it display your party’s stats, which is pretty cool. Although it really only displays their health, gender, and if they have a status ailment. You can have it display the text log, which I never payed much attention to anyway. You can have it display your current task, meh. And you can have it display the map, which is actually kind of helpful since the game still plasters it over your view Diablo-style.
Aside from that I think they made traps a heck of a lot more common, they added these secret shops, and these giant rooms full of monsters that seriously reminded me of the Monster Zoos from Dungeons of Dredmor. I hated these. I very rarely survived them unless I brought a Spurn Orb or something.
You AI partner is still dumb as rocks sometimes, and they still have that abhorrent feature where if a single plot-important character dies everyone is just ejected from the mission. I’ve always hated that. Perhaps if there were more AI tactics options that could make things more bearable. Like maybe an option for a party member to explore, but then return to you when they’re at low health or something.
Aside from that though my only real issues are all super nitpicky. I sort of with the Grovyle was a different Pokémon. The fact that he was just an evolved form of my guy made it look like he was my dad or something. I also really wish you can use Orbs during bosses, that there was an easier way to get Reviver Seeds since they are borderline required for some fights.
Overall though, I really, really enjoyed this game. For the first time ever, I played through a Pokémon game for the sole purpose of advancing the story. It was quite a ride and I can’t wait for the opportunity to arise for me to try the next Mystery Dungeon.