D3Publisher, Cartoon Network and WayForward were definitely onto something in Adventure Time: Hey, Ice King! Why'd You Steal Our Garbage?! Though the title was over too soon, it took players all over the Land of Ooo on a true-to-series nonsensical quest using Zelda II-like gameplay, with a top-down overworld and side-scrolling towns and dungeons.
We'd hoped Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I DON'T KNOW! would expand on the strengths of its predecessor and solidify Adventure Time as a strong licensed game series, but unfortunately we found the Wii U edition to be a disappointing step back. Even more disappointing is the 3DS version — a buggy mess whose charms are overshadowed by poor presentation and a very noticeable lack of polish. While gameplay is identical to the Wii U entry, it’s missing some major components that drag this mediocre game down even further.
"Explore the Dungeon" is certainly on the nose. Bubblegum Princess calls for Finn, Jake and other Adventure Time favourites to travel deep into her secret dungeon to stop a prison riot, and before long they're traversing floor after monster-infested floor, picking up treasure and sub-weapons along the way. The single setting of the Candy Kingdom wouldn't be so bad if the dungeons were varied and fun to actually "explore," but each floor is randomized, and the theme (ice, for example) only changes every ten levels. Every five floors there's the option of returning to the surface to spend treasure on items and character upgrades, complete side quests (which usually amount to killing a certain number of enemies and getting a rudimentary reward) and deposit sub-weapons. This format doesn’t work well for a handheld; short bursts of play are impossible, since there is no quick save/suspend function (aside from closing the 3DS, which isn’t ideal).
A boss awaits the player on every tenth floor, and these battles are the most satisfying moments in the game; running from a frantic prison break while collecting treasure, destroying the Ice King's latest ridiculous creation and more feel like classic Adventure Time, and it's here where WayForward's signature creativity is able to shine through. Following each boss battle is an 8-bit styled cut-scene, with all the characters voiced by the show's actors. These silly interludes are funny and welcome, but we couldn't help but wish the entire game showed that personality.
Gameplay is simple, sometimes to a fault. Each character — Finn, Jake, Lumpy Space Princess and more — has a default weapon, a special attack, slots for power-up tokens and a sub-weapon slot. Certain characters have ranged attacks, while others are melee fighters, but sub-weapons add some balance to each character; Finn, for example, uses his sword, but with a sub-weapon like a Kitten Gun, can also fight from afar. Sub-weapons drop randomly and players will have their own preferences. Some characters, like Marceline and Lumpy Space Princess, can float over chasms and get treasure and items inaccessible to other characters, while tokens provide the most strategy and customisation in the game.
Special attacks are built up with a meter, meanwhile, and can be very funny; Lumpy Space Princess, for example, makes an annoyed phone call that damages every enemy on-screen. Some tokens will give the player a health boost, while others prevent certain curses, speed the characters up, prevent recoil from being hit and more.
Treasure that is collected in dungeons can be used on items and on character building, but early in the game players may be agitated by the high price of boosting stats like health and strength, since treasure isn't as frequent in the early dungeons. In a frustrating twist, a "candy tax" prevents you from keeping treasure after going back down into the dungeon, which makes collecting treasure a chore. Dying in the middle of the dungeon sends you back up to the surface with half the treasure, and going back down means starting at the first of the five levels you were traversing. Mercifully, you can retry boss battles, but will lose half the treasure in the process. The consequences of dying make for a challenge, but can also be very irritating when spending a lot of time playing only to die at the worst moment.
The story, written by series creator Pendleton Ward, will please fans of the cartoon with a surprising twist ending that plays into the show's mythos (and is considered canon, according to D3Publisher). But for a game based on a property with so much character and personality, Explore the Dungeon has a disappointingly generic presentation. Aside from the cut-scenes, the top-down 3D environments contrasted with pixelated character sprites isn't especially pleasing on the eye. While the voice acting is top-notch the characters' repetitive phrases wear thin, while the background music is without any flair or distinguishable trait. The 3DS version takes the voice work and reduces it substantially, with characters’ dialogue in the main game being replaced with “Wa Wa Wa.” This may have been to save memory space, but it doesn’t help any. The frame-rate, already choppy, suffers greatly with the 3D effect and our game froze more than once, forcing us to restart our 3DS.
Unlike the Wii U version, there is no multiplayer to be found here, taking out a ton of replay value and fun. BMO (the talking Game Boy-like character) appears on the touch screen, but there is no use for it other than to offer the same annoying phrases and occasional tips about power-ups or dangerous enemies.
Adventure Time: Explore the Dungeon Because I DON'T KNOW! for 3DS is less playable than its Wii U counterpart, and its cut corners show everywhere; it’s not the game that Adventure Time fans deserve or should expect from a developer like WayForward. While the story takes some fun turns, the gameplay is too dull and one-note to keep players interested in the long term. If you absolutely have to play every Adventure Time game, go with the Wii U version — otherwise, steer clear.