Pokemon Mystery Dungeon-Blue Rescue Team: Decent gameplay, bad everything else

It’s always sad to see a game with great potential somehow miss the mark and end up as barely average. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Blue Rescue Team unfortunately falls into that category in my book: it’s a game that could have been awesome, had it not been hampered and dragged down by a slew of issues too glaring to be ignored. 

But first, let’s expose the genesis of that game. The Mystery Dungeon series, known as Fushigi No Dungeon in Japan where it originated, is indeed an interesting one. Created by Chunsoft in 1993, it’s a series of roguelike games based on the exploration of randomly generated dungeons and featuring a tweaked turn-based battle system, in which enemies make a move every time the player makes one. Nothing too original here, but the series distinguishes itself from other roguelikes by pairing this dungeon crawling with characters from well-known RPG franchises that virtually have nothing to do with the roguelike genre, thus creating interesting cross-overs featuring familiar characters thrown in unfamiliar settings. So far, the series has been meddling with Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy and of course Pokemon. (There is also a sub-series featuring an original character called Shiren the Wanderer, which I will cover in a future post.)

Blue Rescue Team is the very first game of the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon sub-series. It was developed by Chunsoft and published by Nintendo in 2005(jp) and 2006(na, aus, eu) for the Nintendo DS. A companion game called Red Rescue Team was released for the Gameboy Advance at the same time, and ironically, it managed to garner better reviews than the DS version, despite being on an older system. That’s not to say that the DS version was panned: it was actually rather well received, both by critics and players. So much so, in fact, that it spawned three sequels, turning thus into a full-blown series that lasted the lifetime of the DS and continued to the next generation of handhelds by making the jump to the 3ds with its latest installment, Gates to Infinity

When I picked up that game, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted. I expected a simple and straightforward dungeon crawler with a bit of cutesy thanks to the Pokemon factor. I have never played a Pokemon game in my whole life, but I knew the basics of the series’ gameplay enough to anticipate interesting battle mechanics based on clever elemental combinations. At any rate, I expected a mellow and easygoing game, lounging somewhere at the relaxed end of the dungeon crawler spectrum. 

What I got instead was a half-hearted attempt at roguelike dungeon crawling that oozed laziness through every pixel and thus ended up as a complete underachievement. Like I said, this game could have been great, had the right amount of gusto and passion been put into its development; instead, it’s barely average, and here’s why.

The Good

First, let’s dive into the gameplay. It’s quite competent, and turns out to be the best-handled part of the game. Blue Rescue Team features the tweaked turn-based battle system present in all Mystery Dungeon games, in which enemies make a move every time you make one. Fights take place directly on the field, on a grid similar to a chess board. You have the choice between four different moves during battles, and items can also be used. New moves can be learned during the course of the game as you level up, or purchased in a dedicated store for a consequent amount of money. The interesting elemental combinations I expected were present, but their underlying mechanics were absolutely not explained in any way during the game, which was a real downside for a beginner like me. I guess Blue Rescue Team was primarily aimed at hardcore Pokemon fans who played the classical games and already knew everything about elemental combinations; but still, it would have been nice to include a small tutorial for the beginners who came here primarily for the dungeon crawling side. We were probably not a huge crew, granted, but that would have been lovely. Instead of that, the player unsavvy in all things Pokemon is left grasping at straws and more often than not ends up using moves randomly, which is slightly frustrating. 

Of course, as you might expect from a Pokemon spin-off, there is a recruiting side to the game: hostile Pokemons may suddenly turn over a new leaf and decide to join you and do good deeds by your side instead of wandering aimlessly through dark caves. But recruitment is not an easy affair: those nasty Pokemons you meet are not exactly in a hurry to join your team, and it takes a good number of fights to recruit any of them, especially knowing that the prerequisite condition to have a Pokemon joining your team is to have the last blow of the fight fired by the very Pokemon you control. There are 386 Pokemons available for recruitment in Blue Rescue Team, and my head is whirling just thinking of how long it might take to get them all. Talk about hardcore completion.

The story feels mainly like an excuse for the dungeon crawling, which is perfectly fine. You are a human who wakes up one day in the Pokemon world, transformed into a Pokemon, and set off to investigate the whole matter, along with a sticky partner who somehow trusted you at first sight and decided to follow you to the end of the world. Oh, well. Classical RPG fare, shall we say. Being a Pokemon novice, I wanted to go with Pikachu, since this is the only Pokemon I know; but you don’t get to choose the Pokemon you play as in that game. Instead, you fill in a quiz with seemingly random questions and the game chooses for you. I thus ended up with Eevee, a cute little fox-like creature, and Pikachu as my partner in crime. 

Menus are globally well designed, even though the way they operate is sometimes slightly puzzling. There is a pleasant variety of items to use during your dungeon crawling, and you are definitely encouraged to spend them rather than shelve them, since you can always get more at the village shops. The game doesn’t punish you too severely when you get stranded into a game over: instead of restarting from level 1 like in the Shiren the Wanderer sub-series, you warp back to the Pokemon village with half of your items and money gone, but all your experience intact, and can tackle the dungeon again after refurbishing. The dungeon crawling includes a hunger factor, designed to keep you on your toes: as you walk around and fight, your Pokemon will get hungrier, up to the point where you will have to feed them apples and jellies to replenish them. I have to admit that this gameplay element rubbed me the wrong way: I saw it as a hidden encouragement to clear dungeons as fast as possible, which clashed with my own habit of exploring floors to the fullest and leaving no stone unturned. Oh, well. This was a minor annoyance, not a deal-breaker, especially since I didn’t really feel like exploring dungeons to the fullest in that game to start with. But more on that latter.

Let’s face it, the gameplay is very repetitive. Your set of four moves gets old really fast, and renewing them involves some grinding, either to level up and get to the point where you can learn new moves or to get the money to buy them. The game, as a whole, is quite grindy: everything requires a healthy amount of grinding, from leveling up to recruiting allies, and that induces a lot of repetitiveness. Still, when all is said and done, the gameplay manages to be satisfactory. Everything works smoothly and is well implemented, and with the right amount of grinding, there is a lot of depth to be found in Blue Rescue Team

The Bad

Things start growing stale when one pores over other aspects of the game. Like, say, the dungeon design: laziness is strong with this one, o yes indeed. Dungeons in Blue Rescue Team are randomly generated, which virtually eliminates any cleverness in the design to start with. But this is a staple of dungeon crawling, after all: it’s a genre that celebrates repetition and strives not on clever level design, but rather on the slightly obsessive process of clearing one similar-looking floor after the other and emerging alive from the whole ordeal. Still, even in dungeon crawlers, there is good repetitive level design, and there is bad repetitive level design; and the level design in Blue Rescue Team clearly falls into the last category.

It’s a bad level design primarily because it lacks variety. It only features two basic layout elements: corridors of various lengths and square rooms of various sizes. Nothing else. No round shapes, no curvy lanes, just a pile of square rooms connected by narrow alleyways. This level design makes dungeons look likes mazes, which is absolutely not coherent with the setting of the whole game to start with: here is a game that is supposedly taking place in a natural environment, with forests, mountains, canyons and so on, and yet features dungeons looking like underground mazes or castle floors. This is very unsatisfying, and even more so as you progress through the game and discover that this uninspired level design repeats itself in every single dungeon, with only color palette swaps to mark the difference between one dungeon and the next. This kills the pleasure and excitement of discovering a new dungeon and leaves you with very little incentive to go on and progress through the game, as far as level design is concerned. Not only that, but this level design can also elicit a feeling of claustrophobia if you happen to be prone to it. I swear that every time I played Blue Rescue Team, I started feeling ill at ease and stressed after spending some time in a dungeon—which is quite unfortunate, since there is nothing to do in that game but trudge through dungeons. 

The Ugly

Here comes the deal-breaker, the last straw that made me throw up my hands in frustration and shove my Blue Rescue Team cartridge back in its box. The graphics, ladies and gentlemen. The graphics in that game are the ultimate display of laziness from the developers, and a supreme insult to the DS capabilities. These graphics are not bad per se, mind you. Bad graphics are graphics that hinder the gameplay or try to pierce your retina with their massive pixels, and that is not the case in Blue Rescue Team. The problem here is that the graphics are over-simplistic, and absolutely not on par with what the DS can produce. This stems mostly from the fact that the game was designed for both the DS and the Gameboy Advance, with the last used as the reference point: instead of creating two distinct versions adapted to their respective systems, Chunsoft played it lazy by downgrading everything to Gameboy Advance level and creating only one game, released under two different names with a few minor tweaks between the two versions. This is seriously disappointing, especially knowing what the DS was capable of, even in these early stages of its lifetime: the very same year saw the release of Children of Mana, an action-based dungeon crawler with splendid and luscious graphics that could make Blue Rescue Team crawl away in shame. 

I said that these graphics were the deal-breaker for me, but it’s a tad more complex than that. I started gaming in the late 80’s, and as an 8-bit era veteran, I never considered simple graphics to be an issue or a deterrent of any sort when gaming is concerned; it takes much more than primitive graphics to make me give up on a game. But Blue Rescue Team is not just any game: it’s a dungeon crawler. And now is the time to introduce my personal theorem regarding dungeon crawlers, which goes as such: if you consider the three main elements that are gameplay, level design and graphics, I can gladly tolerate high repetitiveness and general mediocrity in two of these fields if the third manages to be top-class. Thus, I can stomach boring level design and shitty graphics if the gameplay is great, or endure repetitive gameplay and crappy level design if they come along with beautiful graphics, and so on—you get the idea. And unfortunately, Blue Rescue Team fails to fulfill that theorem. The gameplay is decent, granted, but still not good enough to compensate for the uninspired level design and horribly bland graphics. I called the graphics a deal-breaker because they are the most visible and potent failure, but it’s really the lack of greatness in any of the three aforementioned fields that ruined the game in my eyes and made me give up on it after only a couple of hours, much to my dismay. 

So here I am, left with an unfinished game and a lot of frustrations. Dungeon crawlers are painfully scarce in the West, and here was the promise of not only one game belonging to the genre, but a full series: this seemed like a dream come true! Alas, that dream was not meant to be, and that beautiful promise turned sour, due to an obvious lack of commitment and dedication on the developers’ part. This game feels like a missed opportunity, a shadow of what it could have been, and this is SO disappointing. I’m just relieved that I didn’t buy the full series on a whim, or the disappointment would have been ever more massive: from what I know, the formula was left unchanged in the subsequent DS releases, with Chunsoft not bothering to improve the graphics or the level design even though they were now working on the DS only. Oh, well. 

Still, as Aragorn beautifully states in The Two Towers, “there is always hope”. I stumbled lately on screen captures from the latest installment of the series, Gates to Infinity, and was transfixed by their sheer eye-candy quality. This alone would make that game fulfill my dungeon crawler theorem, which means that I could enjoy it! I thus decided to give it a try in the near future and see if the series can redeem itself in my eyes. As for now, thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Final Fantasy Fables-Chocobo Tales: Cute casualness galore

Cute, cute, cute. This game is just SO cute. It’s the gaming incarnation of cuteness, period. But cuteness is only skin-deep, so they say; and this game seems to somehow know that. Not only is it cute to a fault, but it’s also clever, and much deeper than one could think at first. Let’s take a look at it. 

Final Fantasy Fables: Chocobo Tales, developed by h.a.n.d. and published by Square Enix for the Nintendo DS in 2006(jp) and 2007(na, aus, eu), is a game which I would describe as “cleverly casual”. It features the well-known mascot from the Final Fantasy series, the bright yellow bird Chocobo, in a collection of mini-games creatively glued together into a whimsical story, all peppered with a healthy dose of fan-service for good measure.  

Chocobo Tales brilliantly showcases the expertise and talent of Square Enix. This is indeed a developer that can create amazing games when they put their mind to it, even though their last home console offerings made many a gamer ponder whether or not they had lost their mojo. Chocobo Tales is masterfully refined from beginning to end, offering splendid graphics, beautiful musical themes and rock-solid gameplay. Casual it may be, but it’s so polished you can see yourself in it.

Let’s dive into the gameplay. The core of the game is the Story Mode, which feature a simple yet fanciful story involving a set of sixteen picture books scattered around the world by a malevolent spirit which you have—of course—to defeat. The minigames come into the picture by being contained in the pictures books, and each minigame boasts a handful of requirements which must be cleared to advance the story. Boss battles feature a card-based fighting system straight from the 90’s, using cards that can be collected in various ways through the game world. To complete the picture, the game also contains some so-called “microgames”, which are side dishes of sorts with the sole purpose of letting you earn cards. It would be tedious and pointless to expose every single detail of the gameplay, but suffice it to say that the game bristles with interesting features that all interconnect in a very imaginative way. The game also offers a more casual mode which allows you to jump straight to the minigames and microgames, but only after you uncover them in the Story Mode. 

The minigames are ingenious, original, and as a whole incredibly amusing and entertaining. They are also incredibly picturesque, featuring a beautiful hand-drawn style that makes for pure eye-candy and an even more delightful experience. I tend to disregard and disdain all things casual, and yet I enjoyed myself immensely while playing Chocobo Tales and its glorious cohort of minigames. It’s worth exposing the raw nature of the said cohort, though, for the sake of any potential player: these minigames are virtually all based on a merciless combination of speed, good timing and precision, and they all require good motor skills and sharp reflexes; all that peppered with a luck factor too important to be overlooked. Prepare so for multiples tries, should you tackle that game, especially if your reflexes and motor skills are poor. Still, the challenges posed by these minigames are by no means impossible to meet: this is a game primarily aimed at children, after all, and they wouldn’t make it too brutally hard. I’m far from being brilliant when it comes to motor skills and reflexes, and yet I managed to clear the game without any major difficulty. (I was only seriously stuck once, but I suspect it had more to do with the nature of the minigame involved: it was a race game, and I’ve not played a race game since Sonic Drift Racing 2 on the Game Gear. So I’m quite, herm, out of practice.) In fact, I came to consider Chocobo Tales as some kind of welcomed brain-training which allowed me to dust off my rusted reflexes—and boy, was it funnier than Dr Kawashima’s. 

The microgames are much simpler affairs, and unlike the minigames, they remain entirely optional. They feature stripped-down graphics, on par with what a Gameboy Advance could offer, and basic gameplay based on poking, collecting items and other simple, one-dimensional ideas. Still, they are no less entertaining and can actually be quite challenging despite their apparent simplicity. Depending on your score, you can earn two different cards; but the “gold” ranking, required to get the most precious card of the pair, is just insanely hard to attain. I managed to get it only once, and that was in a microgame based on sheer luck, so no kudos deserved here. Interestingly, some microgames emulate the 16-bit era gaming style, both in visuals and audio; these are absolute Proust’s madeleines for older gamers, delicious treats for veterans to enjoy.

The card battles, which go under the name of “Pop-up Duels”, are a completely different affair, and a thrilling change in style and mechanics. They are a brilliant mix of strategy and luck unfolding as follows: you first have to choose a limited number of cards to bring into a duel (first 8, then 15 later in the game); then, at every turn, three of these cards are randomly selected and you have to choose which one you want to use. You don’t get to see your opponent’s cards, and that’s where the luck factor comes into the picture: good or bad matching of the cards can dramatically alter the outcome of a turn—and even of a duel, for that matter—may it be in your favour or not. There are also a lot of strategies involved, and the whole system is much deeper than it may seem at first sight. Once again, there is a timing notion there: the first to select a card get to attack first in the upcoming turn, which can also change the said turn’s outcome completely. This keeps you on your toes and forces you to think fast, adding some sense of thrill and excitement to the picture. Top this with dynamic animations showcasing a gorgeous hand-drawn style similar to the one used in the minigames, and you have a total winner of a game feature. These card battles were definitely my favourite part of the game, and I just couldn’t wait to face bosses to play them. I loved the sense of urgency and the fast, relentless pace, all the while rejoicing in the absence of any high motor skill requirement. And the satisfaction of picking up the card best fitted for one turn, when strategy met luck in a perfect matching, was just priceless. I have to admit that I performed fist pumps more than once during these phases, not least when a particularly intense duel finally came to an end after many a twist. 

As you may expect from this kind of game, there is a strong emphasis on completion in various fields: Cards collection, minigames requirements, and other points I didn’t mention here. Since I’m not a completist at heart, I just went on with the flow and focused mostly on clearing the game, but there is definitely plenty of material here for the pleasure of the dedicated completist. Out of curiosity, I tried browsing the internet to find out if there were any rewards tied to a 100% completion in one field or in all of them, but I couldn’t find any relevant information. Oh, well. I guess the pleasure of achieving 100% completion is a reward in itself for the hardcore completist. 

All in all, this is a great game, heavy in content and deeply entertaining. I clocked only ten hours at the end of my playthrough, but those were ten dense and busy hours, full of delight and enjoyment. Coming from a person who shies away from anything casual, this is testimony to the sheer quality of Chocobo Tales. Cherry on the cake, it can be purchased for a very cheap price nowadays. 

That’s all for Chocobo Tales, folks. A fine game it is, indeed, and top-class in its field. Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!


Lifesigns: Poking and probing your way through internship

Every once in a while, between a hardcore dungeon crawler and a 70-hours long JRPG, I like to take a breath and relax by tackling a point-and click adventure game. This is actually my second favourite genre after the Holy Realm of RPG, and my taste in the matter is quite broad: I eagerly lap every point-and-click installment that comes my way, from cosy and laid-back affairs like Professor Layton to viciously twisted puzzlers like Myst

Lifesigns falls more on the relaxed end of the spectrum. Developed by Spike and released in 2005(jp), 2007(na) and 2008(eu), this rather innocent DS game is the perfect breather between two intense RPG playthroughs. It is actually the direct sequel to a game called Kenshuui Tendō Dokuta; as you may guess from the title, this first installment was released only in Japan, which makes the decision to release the second one worldwide a bit puzzling, especially since the story picks up directly from where it stopped at the end of the first game. Localization’s ways are sometimes mysterious, indeed.  

Anyway, this second installment follows the rocky second year of hospital internship of Dr Tendo, a young aspirant surgeon who finds himself entangled on a regular basic in all sorts of troubles and affairs—which often includes health issues, as one may expect. Yet surprisingly, there is much more talking than operating in that game. It tends to focus more on the relationships between the characters, the gossip about them and the quirky, funny or dramatic situations that unfold around them, all this treated in a very mundane and down-to-earth way. Think Scrubs rather than ER—albeit a very distinctively Japanese version of Scrubs. Lifesigns is actually pretty much the antithesis of the major surgical game series, the more famous Trauma Center

Does that mean that this game is a dull, boring affair? Well, no. While Lifesigns is by no mean one of the best titles on the DS, it’s also far from being one of the worst. It’s actually fairly average in all departments: from the generic, seen-a-million-times-before anime art style to the omnipresent elevator music, nothing shines or stands out to blow your mind. Yet, nothing is broken either, and the game manages to offer a solid and rather smooth experience, if not a tremendously original one. 

Lifesigns’s focus is most definitely centered on its storyline. Sure, you get to cut a few patients open; but let’s face it, you spend much, much more time running through the hospital and talking with every person you encounter in order to make the story progress. A story that actually manages to be quite entertaining, juggling effortlessly between tense, emotional and light-hearted moments. The game is divided in five episodes, each of them offering three different outcomes, and leading all in all to four different endings; this adds some interesting replay value to a title which would otherwise have very little. As for the characters, they are quite lively, quirky and entertaining, and manage to avoid being complete anime clichés. By the end of the game, I had actually grown quite fond of them, and I certainly won’t mind meeting them again for another playthrough of Lifesigns. That is, in a few months or years, when I’ve forgotten most of it. 

I would like to talk at length about the gameplay; but this is a point-and-click game after all, and a rather simple one at that, and there is really not much to talk about. As in many point-and-click games, you interact with people and objects by poking and prodding them, and watch as the story progresses and unfolds quietly through such interactions. The operations are more fast-paced affairs, requiring good timing and precision; yet, they are far from being as tricky as the ones featured in the Trauma Center series, and failing them is more likely to be due to the occasional lack of accuracy of the touch screen than to some inherent difficulty of theirs. It’s worth noting that failing an operation will grant you an immediate Game Over; but since the game always gives you the option to save before any operation, there is hardly any risk of losing your progress. There is, however, another Game Over occurrence in which you can lose a subsequent amount of your progression, and that takes place during a phase called “Convince”. This is some kind of minigame which must be cleared to advance the story: it requires you to convince a character to act a certain way by feeding them some specific pieces of data stored in your inventory (called “medical record”, for the sake of the hospital setting). These specific pieces of data must be presented in a specific sequence to achieve persuasion and clear the minigame; deviate too much from this sequence, or select the wrong pieces of data to start with, and the game will shove a Game Over in your face. Better make sure to save when you feel a Convince occurrence coming your way, if you don’t want to lose thirty minutes of your progression like I did once after I failed to Convince someone. 

There is a romance side to the game, but it would be absolutely far-fetched to describe Lifesigns as something even remotely akin to a romance sim. You can’t actively woo a potential love interest, and speaking to them as often as you can doesn’t seem to do the trick either. In fact, the requirements needed to end up dating a specific lady are murky at best, and seem to depend more on decisions made at some points in the story than on any active romancing on your part. I had my eye on Aoshima-san, my funny fellow intern obsessed with food, and tried to interact with her as much as I could during the game in the hope of finally dating her; and yet, for some unfathomable reason, I ended up instead dating Kurai-san, the weird operation room nurse with a creepy laugh. Oh, well. I’ll try to do things differently next time, and see who it will turn out. 

The only thing that really frustrated me in Lifesigns was the fact that many issues remain unresolved when the credits finally roll. The game ends up in a very open way, leaving a handful of important matters unaddressed, especially regarding relationships and other possibly more sinister plots hidden between closed hospital doors. This was very likely intentional, and was probably designed to pave the way for a third installment of the series. Alas, this hypothetical third installment was never released, neither in Japan nor anywhere else; and after so many years, there is very little chance that it will see the light of day. This lack of closure, combined to the fact that Lifesigns is the continuation of an ongoing story, gave me the vexing feeling of having caught a soap opera on the fly and watched a handful of episodes before it was abruptly cancelled, just when I was starting to get interested. Talk about disappointment.

Despite this, I would still recommend Lifesigns to any fan of point-and-click games. The genre’s popularity and representation is not exactly at its peak right now, and it would be a pity to pass on one of its members, especially since the DS and its touch screen are so, so perfectly tailored for point-and-click galore. Given that nowadays, you can get your hands on a copy of that game for just a handful of dollars, pounds, euros or whatever your currency is, there’s definitely no reason not to indulge in a bit of poking, probing, nipping and tucking. 

Thanks for reading, and be my guest anytime!