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Import Review #273

Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of the Sky
Developer: Chunsoft
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: Roguelike
Release Date: 04/18/2009

Although readers here at Diehard GameFAN are probably not aware of this, this is actually my third review of this game. I’ve reviewed it for a publication across the ocean as well for an upcoming issue of Beckett’s Pokemon Collector Magazine. Now it’s time to write about it here where I have unlimited room to jibber jabber.

This is the fifth Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game released by Chunsoft, although it’s still only the second game in the series, storywise. The first two games were released simultaneously for the Game Boy Advance and DS. I reviewed Red Rescue and Blue Rescue back in 2006. The GBA version went on to win our “Best Turn Based RPG” and our “GBA Game of the Year” awards. In late April of 2008, Mark and I reviewed Explorers of Darkness and Explorers of Time respectively. Although we both felt these games were an improvement over the last generation of PMD, neither went on to win any awards. (It was a nominee for “Best DS game” and “Best RPG” though.)

Now a year later, here I sit with ポケモン不思議のダンジョン 空の探検隊 AKA Pokémon Fushigi no Dungeon Sora no Tankentai AKA Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of the Sky. This time around, PMD is getting the Pokemon Platinum treatment. That is to say, we’re getting a remix rather than a whole new game. PMD:EotS features an expanded story, more dungeons, more items, more questions, and some Pokemon that weren’t in the previous games, along with Giratina’s origin forme (The game doesn’t feature Rotom’s new formes however). For those of you looking for a whole new chapter or who don’t understand why people like Crystal, Yellow, or Platinum, this is almost certainly a pass for you. But what about those games who enjoy the PMD games better than the core turn-based RPG’s, or those who just enjoy a good Fushigi Dungeon?

This is where I insert my usual commentary about how I draw two different Pokemon related paychecks for the sake of full disclosure. On one hand, you are more than welcome to take this review with a grain of salt and a bit of skepticism. On the other hand, it means I get Pokemon games before most of the Japanese press and can spend a large amount of time with the game, thus giving you, our audience, a more in-depth review (and without having to translate Famitsu and other publications). One final but important note. Although the translations used on various Pokemon fan sites are not 100% correct I will be using them for the purpose of this review in case any of you decide to look for a walkthrough, FAQ, or the like. I will also add that when EotS hits Stateside, several names in the official localization will be different from these fan translations. Finally, I’ve added some new screenshots of the game. If you have a Pokemon fansite, feel free to use them. Now, let’s explore Explorers of the Sky!

Let’s Review

1. Story

The core plot of Explorers of the Sky is exactly the same as Time/Darkness. From my original review of EoT:

Like the first tandem of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games, you play as a human who as been turned into a Pokemon by mysterious means. Also, you have amnesia. When I first saw this, I groaned. I thought this was going to be like Teen Wolf Too where it is the same exact plot as the first but with only minor cosmetic changes. How wrong I was.

The game puts you through an Ultima IV type personality quiz that determines what type of Pokemon you are. In the first two games I was a Machop and then a Charmander. This time…I got Skitty. You can then choose the type of Pokemon you want as your partner.

The game revolves around your partner finding you on a beach, nearly downed from having fallen overboard. Together you both decide to join the Explorer’s Guild and the rest of the game focuses on your adventures in the guild. Here you meet he leader, the slightly retarded (or is he?) Wigglytuff and his second in command Chatot. You’ll also begin to discover that your main character has the psychic ability of psychometry, which is the ability to see the past or future of someone by touching an object they handled. You’ll also discover the main plot of the game, which revolves around the “time gears,” ancient objects that control time itself and how something happens to them.

Your characters will be able to do infinite side missions that take you away from the main plot. These missions can be anything from exploring new dungeons to saving lost Pokemon, to bounty hunting. You can even start to recruit new members to your team or try hidden mystery dungeons, each with their own theme or special hindrances.

I actually liked the plot of Explorers of Time far more than the first tandem of games in the series. Unlike those, Time and Darkness do deviate from each other plotwise and characters in this game are far more developed and interesting. It’s really neat to see Pokemon you would never use in a tournament or in the core RPG series really taking center sage and shining here.

The story is mature enough for adults and would-be “hardcore” gamers, but still appropriate for children and fans of the more innocent nature of Pokemon. The game is still a little whiny and your partner is as emo as the one in the previous games, but the game still tells a wonderful story about friendship and saving the world in a way that it still manages to be fresh instead of cliche.

In addition to this we now have five new optional side quests that flesh out the game’s story even more. Four of these stories take place in the past and a fifth takes place in the future and is an epilogue to the original ending of Time/Darkness Each of these adventures can be played independently from the main story, and you can play them as often as you want. You can also keep all the items you come across and they’ll be transferred to your main game. HOWEVER, you do have to unlock these adventures first. Here now is a quick list of the special episodes in EotS:

Bidoof’s Wish
Playable Characters: Bidoof (Level 10) and Snover (Level 22!)
Dungeon: Star/Wish Cave
Boss: Jirachi (!!!)
To Unlock: Beat Chapter 3 of the Main Game

Genius Igglybuff
Playable Characters: Igglybuff (Level 17), Banette (Level 15), Skorupi (Level 15), Armaldo (Level 28)
Dungeon: Dark/Dusk Forest And Eastern Cave
Boss: N/A
To Unlock: Beat Chapter 9 of the Main Game

Today’s Scream
Playable Characters: Sunflora (Level 29), Loudred (Level 27)
Dungeon: Source Cave
Boss: A Group of Haunters
To Unlock: Beat Chapter 13 of the Main Game

Charm’s Arrival
Playable Characters: Lopunny (Level 32), Gardevoir (Level 32), Medicham (Level 31)
Dungeon: Southern Jungle, Large Rock Cave, and Limestone Cave
Boss: Weavile, Drapion and Arbok (Sort of)/Ditto (Again, sort of.)
To Unlock: Beat Chapter 16 of the Main Game

Into the Dark Future
Playable Characters: Groyyle (Level 46), Dusknoir (Level 50), Shiny Celebi (sort of)
Dungeon: Temporal Tower, Ice Mountain and the Time Tunnel
Boss: Spiritomb, Primal Dialga
To Unlock: Beat the game

These five stories alone are a lot of new extra content, but the only one most fans of the previous games will be concerned about is the epilogue with Dusknoir and Grovyle. The other four stories add some depth to the supporting cast and are fun to play through, but you could just as easily ignore their existence and never feel like you are missing out on anything.

These five special episodes are just a bit of the extra content provided in Explorers of the Sky, and they help make this game the PMD to get if you don’t own either EoT or EoD.

Story Rating: 7/10

2. Graphics

Again, there is little that has changed from Time/Darkness to here. There are a few new character models and dungeon backgrounds (Like an Arceus statue, Shaymin, and Giratina’s Origin Forme). As such, this is another cut and paste from the previous review.

This is a very pretty game. There is a slight graphical upgrade from Red/Blue Rescue Team, as both of those games centered around GBA graphics. This time, as both mystery Dungeon games are DS exclusives, Chunsoft is allowed to show just what they can do.

The graphics are very cartoon-like, featuring bright and colourful backgrounds. Even in a dank cave or dark dungeon, the graphics have a very family feel, while still being crisp and really showing off that a turn based RPG on the DS doesn’t have to look like it’s from the SNES/Genesis era of gaming.

One of my favorite things about the game are the Shining Force style character portraits. Not only does every single Pokemon have this for when they speak, but they have multiple portraits to convey various degrees of emotion. This is a lovely touch and aside from the cartoon series, Pokemon have never been more adorable.

There is the occasional cut scene or still drawing in the game during important moments. As expected this is when the game looks at its best, but even in dungeons or exploring towns, this is easily the second best looking Pokemon game ever (The first still remains the original Pokemon Ranger.

As much as I hate to say it, Game Freak should take a good look at what Chunsoft has done her visually and add in this style and level of detail to the graphics of the next core Pokemon RPG.

Graphics Rating: 7/10

3. Sound

Again, it’s the same thing. Behold the wizardry of cutting and pasting!

The score of the game is cute and family friendly like the rest of the game, and there are a lot of tracks. My favorite is the traveling music you hear in town, but none of the tracks even come remotely close to the quality of the tracks in the core RPG series. There’s a reason why Pokemon’s songs are as memorable as LoZ and SMB tunes, and it would have been nice to see a remix or sampling of someone of those in the game, even if it was just in one dungeon or in the guild.

Although you won’t be humming any of these tracks after you’ve put the game away, they compliment the game properly and add to the exploration of the limitless Mystery Dungeons in the game, rather then detract from the experience.
Like most DS games, there are no voice actors in Explorers of the Sky. In fact, the characters don’t even have their trademark midi noises for speaking. The only noises in the game are sound effects for various attacks or special effects, and background tracks. Neither are exceptional, but both fit the tone of the game nicely.

I’d have enjoyed some classic tracks and classic Pokemon noises, but I’m not sure if Chunsoft could have used those even if they wanted to. I’ve never actually gotten to look at the licensing agreement between The Pokemon Company and Chunsoft (and if I did, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to comment on it). Still, I would have appreciated even some remixed tracks from T/D since I had to play through it all over again. It could have added a little bit more to the experience rather than, “Done that, been there.”

Sound Rating: 6/10

4. Control and Gameplay

Although my favorite Fushigi Dungeon game of all time is Azure Dreams, I do have to say that the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games are the best built games in the history of the genre. Controls are solid and easy to operate. You can attack diagonally, which simply isn’t an option with most of the games in this genre. I can’t begin to tell you what a wonderful improvement that is. Most of all, PMD has different mystery dungeons, instead of one large one. This means you can face different monsters and challenges depending on which you enter.

Like all games in this genre, dungeons are randomly generating. This means that each time you enter the layout is different. Once you leave a level, you can never go back. You can only keep ascending/descending until you reach your goal or die. You also have to deal with the concept of hunger in addition to hit points, meaning that you are managing two stats instead of one. With randomly appearing monsters that respawn and stats that are always dwindling, Fushigi Dungeons are considered the hardest type of RPG in video gaming, and Pokemon Mystery Dungeon is no exception. In fact, due to imported concepts from the core Pokemon series such as type advantages/disadvantages and Pokemon movers, abilities, and powers, PMD is one of the harder Mystery Dungeons around.

One of the really nice things about PMD is that it’s not just a solo character repeating the same mission until you are utterly bored out of your mind. Here you can have a team of up to four characters (Up one from the previous games) and missions are constantly changing.

The game is a wonderful balance of Fushigi Dungeon style gameplay and the Pokemon RPG’s. Your characters learn attacks at the same level as they would in Pokemon Diamond/Pearl and they can still only keep four moves at a time. Yet there are some key differences as well. If a Pokemon in D/P has two potential “Pokemon Abilities”, it has them BOTH in PMD. This means some Pokemon like Skitty or Geodude suddenly rise in value in the Fushigi setting compared to where they are in the turn based RPG’s. This holds true with certain moves as well. In Pokemon D/P, Growl is an utterly worthless move. Yet here in PMD, it is amazingly effective. This makes Explorers of Time feel highly original and yet reassuringly familiar all at once.

The Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series is pretty much the standard bearer for Fushigi Dungeon games now. It’s highly innovative with its use of items and leveling up. It introduces a new way to “Catch ‘em all” and is the first Mystery Dungeon series to have a high level of connectivity between players. In terms of pure gameplay and controls, there simply isn’t a better game in the history of the genre. If you lover roguelike games or the old AD&D Dungeon Hack video game, the only thing stopping you from becoming a frantic fanboy of this series is the use of Pokemon characters.

Control and Gameplay Rating: 10/10

5. Replayability

Like all Pokemon games, PMD has replay value akin to an Elder Scrolls game. The thing just never ends. Even after you beat the game, there are new dungeons to encounter, new Pokemon to face and have join your team, and so much more. Even beating the main story of the game can take as long or as little as you would like thanks to countless side missions you can go on. Even better, the game has made gaining new allies into a much easier process than in the previous games. Before you could only recruit someone if there was a free space on your team, and your team could only be three Pokemon deep. Now you can recruit someone even if your team is full. They join up and you teleport them back to your base.

That’s not all Meowth and Munchlax have been removed as player characters, but they’ve added Vulpix, Riolu, Shinx, Eevee and Phanpy as potential characters. Some sites are reporting Skitty as a sixth new character, but it was available in the previous game. I should know; I ended up with one as my player character in Explorers of Time. The only change to Skitty is that you can only be one if you are playing as a female protagonist. With five new very interesting characters to play as, you might start a whole new game just to try and get one of these characters.

That’s not all. There are also new shops. Spinda offers a shop where you can turn food items into drinks. Wynaut lets you trade in objects for new items. Do enough trading with Wynaut, and new dungeons will open up for you to explore. Wobuffet also has a lottery type booth. Pay him his fee, and see what you get. Is it a rare item…or a seed?

There are a lot of new dungeons too. The Sky Summit is incredibly long, consisting of ten dungeon sections to make up one large quest. Each section is a dungeon of ten levels, giving you a total of 100 levels to play through. Although you can save your progress to the summit at any time, the eventual reward might be worth playing through in one straight shot – a recruitable Shaymin! Of course, that only happens on your second time reaching the top of the summit. What could be waiting for you the first time? (Note that some websites are calling this a special sixth bonus episode. It’s not. Bonus episodes only involve characters other than your own. As this one features your chosen protagonist, it’s just normal content.)

With the new episodes, nearly a dozen new dungeons, new characters, and a lot of new content, it’s tempting to playing through Explorers of the Sky even if you already beat Time and Darkness. For those who haven’t , you’ll find one of the deepest Pokemon games ever. You will NEVER run out of things to do here.

Replayability Rating: 10/10

6. Balance

Fushigi Dungeon games are designed to be pretty hard. Generally each time you enter you are forced to start at level one and work your way back up. Because this rogue-like is geared for a much younger audience, things are a bit different. Although there are some special optional dungeon, like the Destiny Tower, which keep the classic style of gameplay, for the majority of the game you’ll keep your acquired levels. Enemies will just have different degrees of strengths depending on the dungeon they are in. In effect, it’s a combination of a Fushigi and a turn based RPG.

The changes to Pokemon abilities, Pokemon item holding and recruiting/retention are a much needed improvement for the game from Red/Blue Rescue . On the other hand, the game is definitely much harder. I never died a single time in Red Rescue Team. Here I got knocked out of Mr. Rubble three times in a row because my PARTNER was knocked out. This is another big change from the first generation of PMD. Here if you OR your partner or knocked out, it’s dungeon over. With Red/Blue. it was only if you were knocked out. This is all the more reason to pick a quality partner with a good move set. So not only has the game gotten easier to gain new allies, it’s gotten a bit tougher too. This is a nice touch. The first generation was easier as it was a new genre of RPG being introduced to Pokemon gamers. As they grew older and were able to handle something a bit tougher, PMD has given that to them.

Like all Fushigi Dungeon games, your success rate depends on how the dungeon levels are generated along with the amount of enemies or the type of items you’ll find within. If you have dungeons that are lengthy but have little to no food items, then you’re pretty much screwed. That’s part of the random nature of the game. Thankfully in most dungeons to can buy items to take with you into the dungeon, or you can bring items in you collected from previous dungeons. ALWAYS BRING AN APPLE people. Always.

Although half the fun of mystery dungeon games is the lack of balance and an apparent attempt at cruelty towards the player, Explorers of the Sky does a wonderful job with making the game one of the most balanced in the genre’s history.

Balance Rating: 6/10

7. Originality

It’s nice to see a lot of content added to Explorers of the Sky. However, what’s been added is all fluff. The extra story parts are all optional sub-quests. The extra dungeons are again, just padding to a game that’s 75-85% the same as Time/Darkness. I realize Nintendo and Chunsoft were testing the waters to see if they could give PMD the “slightly different” remix version we see with the Core RPG’s. The problem they forgot the one main thing that makes the remixes so popular: Completely new storylines for the main plot. Pokemon Yellow gave you elements of the cartoon and an interactive Pikachu. Hell, Pikachu actually said “PIka Pika!” Crystal added so many elements, It would take me pages to describe all the changes, and Pokemon Platinum had some pretty big story changes, and also added bonus content, sub-plots and even some slight graphic updates.

What do we get with Explorers of the Sky? The handheld equivalent of downloadable content. If this was a DSI download that could be added to Time/Darkness, that would have been awesome. If this was a direct sequel to the original game, or actually introduced a slightly different storyline, that would have been fine too. When it’s the same story, same characters, same progression, and same ending…that’s hard for me (or anyone really) to justify as a full priced purchase.

It’s nice to see some new things added, but really, it’s all more of the same. The only truly new content that we haven’t seen in some fashion are the new stores (including the ones you may encounter in dungeons). Meh.

Originality Rating: 3/10

8. Addictiveness

I really enjoyed my time with Explorers of Time. It was a fun game, and I really like the more mature, serious tone of the story. It was quite a departure from the usual Pokemon “Let’s get eight badges” plot.

However, the game just wasn’t as fun or interesting the second time around. I knew the big plot twists, and although the dungeons are never the same shape twice, the dungeons in PMD do feel a bit repetitive . Certain aspects and shapes tend to overlap.

I will say I really enjoyed the sub-quests and all the new story points. In fact, after a while I was playing through the game just to hopefully unlock some new content. Some of the new dungeons were interesting and fun to play through, but that’s just mindless hack and slash. These dungeons were merely variations on themes and other dungeons in the other four PMD’s.

If you haven’t played Time/Darkness, then you’ll probably find Explorers of the Sky to be a really fun and entertaining game. If you have beaten one of those games, a lot of this will be redundant claptrap that will only keep you motivated if you loved the original versions of this game and were clamoring for the added content.

Addictiveness Rating: 5/10

9. Appeal Factor

It’s rarely that a remix sells really well. Even a port of a game from one system to another rarely sells as well as the original version. Pokemon, however, tends to be the exception to the rule. Pokemon Platinum was the second best selling game of 2008 in Japan. It was the fastest selling DS game of all time. Hell, it sold one million copies in less than 48 hours, which is very impressive for Japan. Explorers of the Sky is no exception. On its release day, it sold 141,771 games. It managed to outsell Devil Kings Battle Heroes and even Mario and Luigi 3. That’s pretty impressive.

However, it would be interesting to see how many of those people were new to this generation of Pokemon Mystery Dungeon and how many played through Time/Darkness. It’ll also be interesting to see how many people feel disappointed by the new content being add-on instead of a direct change to the main plot. Personally, I’m in the middle. I love the new content and the ability to play as other characters from the supporting cast, but I would have liked some changes to the main story, just to freshen things up.

Here in the states, Fushigi Dungeons have always been a hard sell. Although both generations of PMD set sales records for this RPG sub-genre, again, it will be interesting from a statistical analysis point of view to see how Explorers of the Sky fares when it hits state-side in about six months. Will it outsell Time/Darkness or will gamers be turned off by the game being mostly a rehash. One thing is for certain, Pokemon fans have always been forgiving in this area, but the PMD series is the hardest sell of all the Pokemon spin-offs, and EotS will be the hardest sell of them all. Thumbs in the middle here, due to all the complexities involved. Basically it comes down to this: Did you like the original enough to pay for it a second time with your reward being double digits hour-wise of bonus content? If no, why would you buy this?

Appeal Factor: 5/10

10. Miscellaneous

Much like with my other import reviews, I’ll use this space to discuss a few tips and tricks to help you get through the game if you decide to import this. A warning though: This game is not that import friendly as it is very text based and it’s all Japanese.

Eight New Dungeons: Blaze Cave, Destiny Tower, Devil Seas, Forgotten Woods, Sky Summit, Southern Archipelago, Wish Cave, Zero Island.

Dungeons Unlocked through Recycling at Wynaut’s

Landslide Cave: 3 Items
Tiny Meadow: 6 Items
Oran Forest: 60 Items
End Lake: 100 Items
Zero Island: 150 Items.

The Locations of Ten Legendary Pokemon

Articuno – Mt. Avalanche (Summit)
Celebi – Mystic Forest (10th Level – you’ll need a special item to trigger its appearance though)
Giratina – The Great Hole (30th Level)
Heatrain – Giant Volcano (Summit)
Jirachi –Wish Cave (Bottom Level)
Lugia – Enclosed Sea (B18 – you’ll need a special item to trigger its appearance though)
Mespirit – Quicksand Cave’s Underground Lake
Palkia – Sky Fissure (Bottom Level)
Rayquaza – Sky Stairs (Top Level)
Suicuine – Devil Seas (Randomly Appears. This will take patience)

One last treat – You can encounter all four Regis by going to Watchmen’s cave. On your second playthrough of this dungeon, go to each Regi’s chamber and they’ll be waiting for you.

There you go. Several hints to help get you through the game. My rating here will be a thumb’s in the middle simply because the new content balances out with charging full price for a two year old game.

Miscellaneous Rating: 5/10

The Scores
Story/Modes: 7/10
Graphics: 7/10
Sound: 6/10
Control and Gameplay: 10/10
Replayability: 10/10
Balance: 6/10
Originality: 3/10
Addictiveness: 5/10
Appeal Factor: 5/10
Miscellaneous: 5/10
Total Score: 64
FINAL SCORE: 6.5 (ENJOYABLE GAME)

Short Attention Span Summary
As much as I enjoyed Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of the Sky, it’s 75-85% the same game as Explorers of Time/Darkness. Yes there are new dungeons to explore, shops to purchase things from, and five side stories that let you play as new Pokemon, but it’s still hard for me to recommend the game at full price to anyone who had played EoT/D. If you’ve never played a Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game, then this is certainly the one to get as it’s got all the extra bells and whistles you could hope for. In the end though, Chunsoft’s attempt to recreate the remix magic in games like Pokemon Yellow, Crystal, Emerald or Platinum falls short because all of those games remixed the main plot in addition to bonus content. It all comes down to your love of the Fushigi Dungeon style of gameplay and whether or not you played the original version(s) of this game two years ago.

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