Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Mario and Luigi: Dream Team (3DS) Review

 
To preface this review, I just want to say that I love RPGs. Some, hell, most of my very favorite experiences in gaming have come from RPGs or action RPGs. A good RPG with a great atmosphere, engaging story, interesting characters, and solid gameplay has won me over time and time again. To make things more relevant to this review, the original title in the Mario and Luigi series, Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga for the Game Boy Advance, is one of my favorite games of all time, and maybe even my favorite of the nine current Mario RPG games. So when I say that Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is just kind of boring, it's not because "I'm just not into RPGs".

Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is a polished game. It looks great, it sounds great, and it plays great. It also has a really interesting concept: using a sleeping Luigi as a conduit to dive into various "dream worlds" as the brothers explore an island that was once the home of a kingdom of pillow-headed people known as "Pi'illos" (still pronounced just like "pillow" though...I think). All of the components are in place for a truly imaginative experience and a memorable RPG. There's just one problem: the game just isn't that captivating.

But let praise be given where it is due. The gameplay is tight and responsive; Dream Team uses the same sort of turn-based, contextual action-focused battle system that all of the previous Mario RPGs have employed where timing certain button presses can both deal more damage to enemies when using attacks and also allow Mario and Luigi to avoid the attacks of their foes. It feels very satisfying to pull off attacks and every sound effect and cue in battle just feels good. The feeling of impact when you jump on an enemy, the satisfaction in getting an "Excellent" when successfully pulling off a stronger attack with precise timing and execution; it's all very gratifying. The game is also very pretty, presenting a colorful world built from an interesting mix of 3D environments and 2D character sprites. Some of the character artwork is really impressive, especially on some of the larger characters in the game, which possess an impressive amount of detail and personality. The animation on all the different characters and monsters in the game is also top-notch. The soundtrack is high quality as well, with series and RPG veteran composer Yoko Shimomura returning to compose the tunes. Each track fits its environment well, and there are several stand-outs, such as all the battle themes (the standard battle theme which doubles as the main theme of the game is one of the reasons I was persuaded to pick the game up; it's just so dang catchy), and several of the area themes, chiefly those of Somnom Woods and Dreamy Somnom Woods, are very pleasing to the ears and fit their environment perfectly. Although some of the music does begin to get repetitive after a while and I found myself getting sick of a lot of the tracks in the areas that tended to drag on a bit too long (this might be more the game's fault than the music's though...more on that later).

The game also has some genuinely great moments. Most of the boss battles are a lot of fun and there are some regions on Pi'illo Island that stand out much more than others. I got a lot of enjoyment out of exploring the resort town of Wakeport, meeting its denizens and participating in a fun trading quest. I love detailed towns in RPGs and Wakeport has a very fitting atmosphere and a lot to do in it (at least upon your first visit). The highlight of the whole game for me, however, is easily the Somnom Woods region. You don't explore it until late in the game, but the developers really did save the best area for nearly last. The region has a fantastic presentation and atmosphere and the overall level design of the region is fairly engaging as well. If the rest of the game was more in line with the inspired, interesting atmosphere of Somnom Woods, this review might have been a lot different...
 
Dream Team's mix of 2D character sprites and 3D environments looks quite nice



So Dream Team is polished, it's competently made, and it has some fantastic moments. But...

Dream Team on the whole just isn't that interesting or engaging, and there are a number of reasons for this. For starters, I've seen all this before and done all this before. The overall structure of the game, as well as its plot, themes, etc. are all very banal. The game starts with a slow opening full of tutorials (there are way too many intrusive tutorials across the game as a whole actually), then Peach is kidnapped, then you proceed to go from area to area on one errand or another; there's the traditional late game fetch quest that has been in every Mario and Luigi game, and the game culminates with a long, painfully drawn-out slog through yet another lava-filled castle.

In addition, Dream Team may have a fresh coat of paint in terms of its setting and dream concept, but underneath all that, this is just Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story again (the previous game in the series). The mix of 2D and 3D environments and the idea of manipulating the outside world to affect an inner world is ripped straight from that game, as is the way the player acquires new special attacks, and as are the giant Luigi battles, which can either be an exciting highlight or a frustrating mess depending on if the gimmicky touch-screen and motion controls want to cooperate or not (the final giant battle culminates in an awful motion-controlled sequence where one screw-up means you have to start the whole sequence over). During these battles, sometimes I would go to flick the touch-screen with my stylus and I would either not press the screen firmly enough or miss altogether and while this may technically be my own fault, something like this would not be a problem if I could just press a button or use an analog stick. Also, I don't know what Nintendo's obsession with tilting the whole 3DS to perform actions is, but it's just not as fun as they think it is; at best it's mildly amusing, and at worst it's less precise than traditional controls and hampers the experience.


Most of Dream Team's core concepts, like the giant Luigi battles (below), are borrowed from Bowser's Inside Story (above), where they were brand new ideas


The generic, cliché environments in the game do little to help this overwhelming feeling of familiarity either. This is supposed to be the exciting new land of Pi'illo Island, but it actually is just another romp through "grass land", "desert land", "mountain/snow land", "beach land", "forest land", and "lava castle" in roughly that order as well. I don't mind familiar environment tropes in games as long as the area does something new and interesting with the trope or otherwise has some kind of captivating atmosphere, but lately most recent Mario games have proven again and again that they are content with not doing anything new, interesting, or captivating. With the exception of the forest region known as Somnom Woods that I already mentioned, none of these very familiar environments offer anything particularly interesting. The beach area is just your typical tropical beach area, the desert is dull and uninteresting, and the mountain region just seems to drag on forever and ever, and I was so sick of its musical theme by the end of it (at least the snowy region of the mountain has a different version of the theme, but it's still based on the same melody). The level designs themselves are decent, but nothing new for the Mario and Luigi series and nothing special really. Pi'illo Island as a whole also feels less like an organic world open to exploration and more like a bunch of levels artificially glued together, which doesn't help the game's overall generic feel much. Just compare the map from Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga's Beanbean Kingdom to Dream Team's Pi'illo Island:


The Beanbean Kingdom (above) is an open, interesting world; Pi'illo Island (below) is nine levels glued together

But the "real world" of Pi'illo Island is only about half of the total space you'll be traversing in the game. There are also dream versions of every single area. And they're even more dull. Seriously, these sequences should have been amazing; I mean, just imagine what the crazy dream worlds of the Mario universe look like (besides this, of course)! Well, whatever you're imagining is far more interesting than the lazy jumble of identical rooms that make up each dream world. These sequences just aren't interesting visually or atmospherically, which makes slogging through them a chore, especially since you are required to go through them after making it though the very lengthy real world sections. The game just isn't paced well. After exploring a large region of Pi'illo Island and fighting a boss, you feel like you should make some progress and move somewhere new, but instead you still have a massive dream version of that area to get through, with another boss waiting at the end of that. And even besides that, there are also other smaller dream sections that exist in each region in addition to the main dream section (although many of these are admittedly optional). This whole process of real world region followed by large dream world sequence repeats for every new area you visit; it's very predictable and gets very old quickly. The dream worlds possess the same environmental theme as their accompanying real world regions (just in a more abstract way), as well as an alternate version of their musical theme, so it all feels incredibly redundant. Most notably though, the dream worlds don't feel magical or special; they feel generic and uninspired, like walking through a particularly busy screensaver or something (again, the dream version of Somnom Woods is the exception because it possesses something most of the rest of the game seems to lack: a captivating atmosphere). Maybe part of the issue is also that Mario and Luigi's real world is already so fantastical itself, that there's not much contrast when entering into the dream worlds, which only seem slightly more nonsensical. But really, that's not an excuse, because the bottom line is that it just feels like not much thought or effort was put into the dream worlds' visual design or atmosphere, and if they had put more effort into this department, I'm sure these sequences would stand out more.

Although they have a boring atmosphere, the dream sequences do bring the game's main new gimmick to the table: Luiginary abilities. Within the dream world, there are things called "Luiginary Works" which are basically pieces of scenery that Luigi's dreamy self can combine with. After doing so, the player can mess with Luigi's sleeping body located on the 3DS's touch-screen in order to affect some change in the dream world. Again, it's an idea carried over from Bowser's Inside Story, where certain actions outside would affect the levels inside Bowser's body (and in that game, certain actions inside also affected Bowser in the outside world). These actions range from simple things like pulling Luigi's mustache to manipulate Luigi-themed tree branches that can launch Mario into the air and rubbing his nose to make him sneeze and blows objects from the background to the foreground, to more complicated abilities like manipulating the flow of time and the law of gravity. The most frequently used and the deepest of the Luiginary abilities is when Luigi splits apart into multiple "Luiginoids" that Mario can use to perform a variety of actions, from forming a giant stack that can jump super high to turning into a Luiginary tornado that can hover over pits. These abilities are fun to use and have their merits, but in the end, a neat mechanic just isn't enough to make me look past the bland dream environments. The dream areas are also very linear (as is most of the game as a whole) and just feel like monotonous trips from point A to point B across various identical-looking rooms. Usually, if I'm going to be exploring a large area or going through any kind of lengthy, time-consuming sequence in a video game, especially in an RPG, I need it to have some kind of interesting atmosphere or level design, and while the level design in Dream Team is adequate, overall things just aren't very engaging atmospherically.


The dream worlds are an uninspired mess of shapes and colors, and all sections of a given dream area look identical to one another


The Luiginary abilities also carry over to battle in the dream world, although with unique battle-specific attacks that are unlocked as the game progresses. While in the dream world, Dreamy Luigi fuses with Mario, which allows Mario to perform a bunch of interesting Luigi-powered attacks. These attacks are actually really fun to do and mastering the ones that are more challenging to pull off effectively feels satisfying. Controlling Mario as he uses a crowd of Luigis to form a massive hammer to smash foes is both very gratifying from a visual standpoint and from a gameplay one. Battles in the dream world are quite a lot of fun, if not a bit repetitive (although I never got tired of the flurry of Luigis that followed and mimicked my hammer attacks). Battles in the real world aren't as interesting to me, mainly because I just don't like most of the real world special attacks you can unlock in this game (I like all of the dream world ones though and more importantly, I found them far more manageable and usable). The easier ones get dull really quickly and maybe I'm just unskilled (even though I've been playing this series and Mario RPGs with similar context-sensitive actions for years), but I swear some of these attacks require super-human reflexes, while others rely too much on wonky motion control (of course). There is one attack that tasks the player with memorizing which order a bunch of Marios and Luigis jump out of a cannon and then with pressing the A and B buttons accordingly for each brother as they descend on a foe and then the game expects you to repeat the process with the brothers descending in the opposite order. Mario and Luigi fly out of the cannon at lightning speed and they both look identical besides their red and green colors, and all in all I just found it nearly impossible to tell which brother was which and memorize their order. Basically, this attack was useless to me because I just found it unusable, and a lot of the real world attacks follow suit; they're hit or miss and it's really lame when I just can't use certain attacks in an RPG because I either find the mechanics of them totally unwieldy or unwieldy enough that they aren't worth using in lieu of a more reliable attack. One or two screw-ups when using these attacks and they do very minimal damage, which made it far more practical for me to just stick with the ones that I could perform competently, which in turn means I was sticking to only about two or three different special attacks in real world battle for most of the game, which is repetitive and boring. To be fair, there is an option to slow the attacks down to make them easier to perform...but that's getting into Super Guide territory and I ain't havin' none of that (even though there's so much of that in this game, it's often hard to avoid all the ways the game wants to hold your hand and never let it go).
  
All in all, the action-based battles that have been present in every Mario RPG since the original on the Super Nintendo are still fun, but battles just get awfully repetitive, especially early on when your list of available actions is very limited (but late in the game wasn't much better for me because of all those attacks, Mario's in particular, I found too troublesome to use). Besides special attacks, the bros. can use items, jump on foes, or whack them with a hammer, so there's not much variety (why did they ever get rid of the awesome elemental abilities from Superstar Saga, anyway?) Battles, even standard battles with common mooks, also go on for way too long sometimes. Besides performing Mario and Luigi's attacks, there's also the lengthy process of waiting for the enemies to attack and trying to dodge their attacks (and even common grunts often have multi-part attacks). Boss battles, on the other hand, are an even worse offender as some of these baddie's attack turns seem to go on forever, with some of the bosses seeming to perform no less than three lengthy attacks in a row when it is their turn. During the last boss in particular, I felt like 70% of the battle was just waiting for my turn. The game isn't very challenging by any means, but it still feels a bit unfair when I get two chances to do something (with one chance usually being wasted on healing in the tougher fights) and then have to endure a painful three-minute gauntlet from a boss.


Luiginary abilities are the highlight of the dream sections both inside battle (above) and outside battle (below)

Drag. That's what this game is: a drag. It just drags on in every department. Slogging through the real world areas, and then slogging through a drawn-out dream section, and slogging through every little battle that can drag on for too long themselves. This feeling of everything being stretched out to its limits carries over to the whole game. This game just drones on and on, and at times it feels like the developers simply didn't want players to finish the game. You should encourage me to want to delve further into your game, not push me away by artificially dragging out every aspect of the experience. There's also that drawn-out late game fetch quest I mentioned earlier which has you retreading back through every main area. I normally don't really mind this kind of thing, as I like revisiting places to cover all the ground I couldn't reach before due to lacking a certain ability, but this game was long enough already and this really feels like obvious padding to just stretch things out even more. Then there's the final dungeon, the aforementioned lava-filled castle I've seen a million times before, which is so needlessly drawn-out that it took me about four sittings just to get through it. The main part of the dungeon is basically repeating the same exact lengthy sequence three times, and fighting the same boss three different times. Why do I need to repeat all this three times? Again, do you want me to complete your game or not?

*sigh* And now there's the plot...I'll warn you right now, there's going to be spoilers. Although, I will say the general direction of the plot was spoiled for me before playing and all it really did was make the whole affair slightly less disappointing for me, because if I'd gone in completely blind, I probably would have been vocally cursing at how uncreative Nintendo is these days. So if you're like me and you like new, original plots and villains in your Mario RPGs you might want to be spoiled if you plan on playing this game. Honestly, after how bafflingly disappointing Paper Mario: Sticker Star's "story" was, you'd think Nintendo was purposefully defecating on my fond memories of the brilliance of the pre-Sticker Star Mario RPGs at this point (in fact, just stop reading this and go play Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga; it's still the best of the Mario and Luigi series).

The plot could have been something special, but it falls prey to Nintendo's recent insistence on homogenizing every single Mario game and making the plots in these games as trite and as stale as possible. Things start out intriguing if a bit unoriginal: our heroes are invited to Pi'illo Island for their third(?) group vacation at this point in the overall Mario series, an ancient place that used to be home to the now supposedly extinct race of fluffy Pi'illo folk, but which is now a tourist spot that has attracted attention from all corners of the Mushroom World. Again, not the most original of concepts in the Mario series, and I can't help but feel that this plot was just an excuse for the developers to cram as many cameos from the whole of the Mario and Luigi series into the game as they could, using the excuse that they were all either taking a vacation or otherwise heard about the island being the new hot spot, but there was still a lot of potential here. A new villain known as Antasma, an awesomely-named and awesome-looking "bat king", arrives on the scene and sucks Princess Peach into the dream world, forcing the brothers to embark on yet another quest. It's eventually revealed that Antasma was responsible for the Pi'illo Kingdom's downfall long ago before being sealed away in the dream world. Now he's making his return and Mario and Luigi have to try to help the newly-reawakened Pi'illo ruler Prince Dreambert stop Antasma from spreading darkness across the world and all that. While the immensely worn-out cliché of a kidnapped Princess Peach is groan-inducing, Antasma was still a new face and if he was anything like his very reputable Mario RPG villain brethren (the Shroobs from Mario and Luigi: Partners in Time not included), and taking into account the interesting dream-based set-up, we could have had something intriguing here. The war between Antasma and the Pi'illos should have been the focus in this story, and with some more character development between Antasma and the Pi'illos, this could have made for a fairly simple, but nice new story in the world of Mario.

But then Bowser shows up.

Yup, suddenly Bowser! People complain about Ganon hijacking the plot in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, but Dream Team is on a whole other level. Twilight Princess's inclusion of Ganon is elegant compared to Dream Team's handling of Bowser. Bowser literally just randomly shows up out of nowhere because "he heard the princess got captured and that's his gig". That's slightly humorous (if a bit of an overdone joke at this point in the Mario RPGs), and I wouldn't mind Bowser playing some kind of role in the game, maybe as a side villain the brothers encounter every now and again (similar to his role in most other Mario RPGs), but what isn't humorous is that Bowser, who has zero connection to anything going on the story, ends up being the main antagonist and final boss of the game. Bowser and Antasma team up for a while, but Bowser ultimately ends up being the primary threat. Instead of developing Antasma more and having something new and interesting, Bowser is artlessly shoehorned into the game (half the time he doesn't even seem to know what's going on and Antasma has to explain everything to him), and as a result Antasma is not given the attention he should have been given and ends being a very uninteresting villain himself. The outcome is a game with two boring villains instead of one interesting one.


Top to bottom: 1.) New villain Antasma shows promise 2.) Bowser shows up and hijacks the plot 3.) Instead of being able to develop into an interesting new antagonist on his own, Antasma now has to carry Bowser around with him (literally)
 
And the story is also boring as a result. It wasn't much to begin with, but it had potential to at least have some kind of interesting dynamic between Antasma and the Pi'illo folk. Anyway, there's a magical wish-granting MacGuffin (what is this, the 70th one of those in a Nintendo game now?) that the villains want to get their hands on and spoiler alert but they eventually do and use its power to build a big, generic floating castle, where they sit in the sky for the entire second half of the game and don't do anything until the heroes get enough power to arrive at their doorstep and beat them up. The adventure culminates with both a battle against a gigantic Bowser and one against a smaller, but still larger-than-normal Bowser, with the princess being rescued in the end (and Antasma? He gets an anticlimactic, pathetically easy penultimate boss fight before the main event with the larger-than-normal Bowser and exits the scene with little fanfare or impact). It's tired, it's boring, and I'm sick of it. It also has no business being in a Mario RPG, a series that has typically subverted the Mario stereotypes and delivered interesting new villains and situations. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars has a gang of sentient weapons. Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door has a secret society that lives on the moon. I mean, the Mario and Luigi series itself went from a game where you play as Bowser for most of the game and the villain is an insane talking bean who took over the Koopa King's castle, turning it into a giant theater and enslaving all his minions with mind control.

Mario and Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story ends with (spoilers for that game ahead) Mario and Luigi starting a fight with Bowser. Just as the battle begins, the credits begin to roll. While the outcome of the battle is shown during the credits, the player doesn't participate in it because we don't have to; we all know how it's going to turn out. It's almost as if the developers of Bowser's Inside Story knew that Mario and Luigi's fight with Bowser is cliché and predictable and thus found it appropriate to end on that note rather than deliver another in-game fight. In fact, the whole entirety of Bowser's Inside Story is playing against the tired old Mario and Luigi vs. Bowser plot by delivering a completely fresh experience where we play as Bowser trying to reclaim his castle and minions, all the while having Mario and Luigi still present for a bizarre adventure in the villain's bowels. Dream Team follows this by stupidly and lazily pitting the brothers against Bowser in the same kind of plot that the previous game thought was boring. Um, what?

Even though I'm very sick of him right now, I don't particularly mind Bowser being a frequent antagonist in Mario's main platforming adventures as long as the adventure itself is something fresh, but the Mario RPG series, which is far more story-heavy than a Mario platformer, has up to Sticker Star and Dream Team existed uniquely as a special canvas for developers to go wild with their creativity and explore unheard of new avenues of Mario's universe. Dream Team started to do this, but then for whatever reason (I have this sinking feeling that Shigeru Miyamoto had something to do with it...) they decided to tastelessly shove Bowser and a general feeling of stagnation into their creative project. What's the point in having such a generic, stale plot? How does this benefit the experience? I just don't get it.

Despite its relatively shallow plot, Dream Team's script is massive, with the game being full to bursting with dialogue. A fair amount of effort was put into the script, and I appreciate the dialogue of minor NPCs changing throughout the game and in response to what is going on in the story, with some humorous quips that can be easily and entirely missed by less thorough players. Unfortunately, the humor which has always been a staple in Mario's role-playing adventures is very hit or miss in Dream Team. There are some genuinely charming characters and funny moments (the Zeekeeper is a highlight and I'm quite fond of the "Elite Trio", who originally made their debut in Bowser's Inside Story), but often times jokes either go on for way too long or get irritating after they are repeated ad nauseam. The first time a character makes the silly exclamation of "Let me nap on you!", it's silly and a bit comical; the next five times the same character repeats this "joke", not so much. A lot of the dialogue just ends up being wasted time and the game isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is, especially compared to all of its Mario RPG brethren. Also, in addition to Bowser being shoehorned into the game, there are also other characters from the previous Mario and Luigi games that just seem to show up on Pi'illo Island for no better reason than it's a popular vacation spot or for no special reason at all. I'm fine with Starlow returning from Bowser's Inside Story mainly because the plot needed someone to wait outside and mess with Luigi's sleeping body while Mario and Luigi explored the dream world and I also actually enjoyed seeing residents from the Beanbean Kingdom (the setting of Superstar Saga) such as the Hooskis and Beanish folk. But it's never explained why Broque Monsieur, a block collector who ran a small shop in the Mushroom Kingdom in Bowser's Inside Story, basically runs the entire tourist operation on the island along with his fellow Brocks, and Popple the thief from Superstar Saga shows up for a few brief scenes and one boss fight that could easily be removed from the game without sacrificing much. Altogether, I appreciate the references to Superstar Saga and the Beanbean Kingdom throughout the game, but some of it just feels forced and ultimately it all just makes me wish I was playing the superior and more original Superstar Saga instead. Dream Team as a whole just feels so much lazier than previous games in the Mario and Luigi series.

Dream Team is full of familiar faces, although some of these cameos feel forced


Between the familiar plot, terribly-handled and awkward jamming of Bowser into the story, clichéd areas, uninteresting atmosphere, and incredibly repetitive structure, I feel like I had to force myself to finish this game, and that's not a good thing. The bottom line is that Dream Team just isn't all that engaging, especially if you've played any of the other Mario and Luigi games or any Mario RPG in general. A Mario RPG about going inside of dreams should have been marvelous, but the tired plot, tired villain, tired locations, and uninspired dream areas all bring the experience down. One captivating area and one very captivating area, plus some fun and unique mechanics in the form of the Luiginary abilities just don't make up for an overall lackluster experience. A polished game does not equal a special one, and neither does Dream Team exist in a vacuum where it can avoid being compared to its superb forebears in the Mario RPG series: games like Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars, Paper Mario, Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, Super Paper Mario, and Mario and Luigi: Superstar Saga. I had issues with Bowser's Inside Story (I'm not crazy about the 2D sections in that game either), but at least that game is clever, creative, full of new ideas, and a fresh and original experience. Solid gameplay also doesn't mean anything in an RPG if the atmosphere and plot are dull. I feel that Dream Team is mainly just a big missed opportunity; it should have been something truly wondrous, but Nintendo's current insistence on blending every Mario game together by using the same environmental clichés and the same old Bowser kidnaps Peach plot, as well as AlphaDream's (the second-party developer of the Mario and Luigi series) choice to make the game a re-skin of Bowser's Inside Story just end up making the game boring. Dream Team has more heart than Paper Mario: Sticker Star, I'll give it that, but it is still a far cry from the Super Mario RPG elite. I think it might be time for Nintendo to rethink the whole Mario RPG series, maybe retire the current Mario and Luigi and Paper Mario series and do something brand new. If the series, which was once one of the Nintendo's most creative and interesting, continues on as it is now, it will inevitably become a worn-out and empty husk of what it once was. And that makes me sad.


If my opinions in this review sound familiar to you, than you probably watched Yahtzee's Zero Punctuation review of this game. Yes, I did watch his review, as well as several others, before writing this, but his opinions didn't affect mine at all (nor did anyone else's). I simply wholeheartedly agree with most of his sentiments about the game in the review and I recommend you give it a watch. I don't always agree with Yahtzee, but he always makes an intelligent (and often hilarious) argument and sometimes he just really nails it.


1 comment:

  1. Here's my honest 4 year late review of Mario & Luigi: Dream Team over @ http://www.thelategamer.com/video-game-review/late-mario-luigi-dream-team-review/

    ReplyDelete