The Mystery Dungeon series got its start as a franchise spin-off; the very first MD game starred Torneko/Taloon from Dragon Quest IV battling procedurally generated smile slimes and drackees. Crossovers therefore come quite naturally to the series, which has more licensed entries under its belt now than chapters starring Chun Soft's own homegrown hero, Shiren the Wanderer.
Even so, Mystery Dungeon and Pokémon have always struck me as an ill fit. As I've noted in previous reviews, Pokémon hinges on collection and gathering, accumulating a party full of monsters that gain permanent level boosts and skill improvements. Mystery Dungeon, of course, revolves about impermanence, failure, and trying again from scratch, drawing on the legacy of Rogue and its progeny. I've reviewed a few Pokémon Mystery Dungeon titles over the years, and I always find them lacking—the Pokémon concepts undermine the integrity of the MD spirit, while the MD elements suffocate the value of strategy that defines battling in true Pokémon RPGs. It always kind of works out to be the worst of both worlds.
Still, I couldn't help but hold out hope for the latest mash-up. Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon follows closely on the heels of last winter's Etrian Mystery Dungeon, which managed to strike an effective compromise between the permanence of Etrian Odyssey and the fleeting ephemerality of roguelikes by incorporating a host of unique additions and mechanics—things like defensive forts and roaming super-bosses. There's potential here for PSMD to do likewise, to aspire to be something more than just the most toothless and generic iteration of Mystery Dungeon, to dig deep into the crossover property and find a unique and compelling interpretation of the venerable console roguelike brand.
The question is, does it? A few chapters into PSMD, the answer appears to be yes—but I'm not sure if it goes far enough.
You can spot some influence from Etrian Mystery Dungeon right away. PSMD looks a far sight prettier than the last Pokémon crossover, 2013's mediocre Gates to Infinity, featuring vivid, verdant graphics and a more zoomed-out viewpoint that gives players a better overview of the labyrinth than in the last game. It also bares its fangs much more quickly—enemies hit harder from the outset, and just a couple of super-effective hits against a party member's type are all it takes to put them down for the count. To counteract this boost in difficulty, though, you have a touch more control over your team than in the past. When a computer-controlled party member blocks your way, you push them ahead of you rather than brushing them aside, a feature taken from Etrian Mystery Dungeon.
PSMD encourages cautious, thoughtful play, which makes it a welcome change of pace from previous Pokémon roguelikes, where you could blunder along heedlessly until nearly the end. While the game does tend to be fairly generous with resources to heal and revive your party, resource-management kicks in fairly early here. Your unlimited default attack inflicts barely any damage against foes, forcing you to turn to your finite special moves to be effective in combat. It's generally the same affair as previous games in the series, but the rebalancing of attack and defense power changes its nature from a sleepy slog to something with just enough tension to keep it interesting.
Otherwise, it's more or less business as usual: You take the role of a human transformed into a starter pokémon, venture into dungeons, ally with other creatures, and try not to die. Combat plays out with a semi-turned-based style, as each action you take allows every other creature in the dungeon—ally or enemy—to take an action as well. Combat makes use of the standard rules of pokémon types, with each creature's four skills taking the role of swords and spells.
As ever, PSMD features a ridiculous amount of story text in service of a fairly mundane and kid-oriented tale, though the game begins with a few mysteries that have the potential to turn what appears to be a fairly insipid "school days" anime plotline into something more involved. For once, though, I feel motivated to keep playing this Pokémon Mystery Dungeon adventure despite the dopey plot—a welcome change of pace from the past few entries of this crossover series. I still have a ways to go before I'm ready to weigh in on this RPG, but my impressions so far suggest a game that may not be precisely essential but should nevertheless prove enjoyable enough to most RPG fans to warrant a play... even if you found Gates to Infinity as lacking as I did.