Review: Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (3DS)

A never-ending dream

If there was more justice in the world, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team — or Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. as it's known in Europe — would enjoy the same level of hype and anticipation as some of its prestigious predecessors on the 3DS in 2013. And yet, rather like its snoozy subject matter, it drifts into view on a cloud, does a somersault flip off its fluffy platform and executes a well-timed stomp on the release schedule. This may be a quirky and at times utterly bizarre action RPG, but beyond the one-liners and delightful ideas is a game crafted with the utmost care and loving devotion.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is the fourth entry in this handheld-only series; after a positive start on the Game Boy Advance the franchise ran into sales trouble with Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time on DS, and the formula needed a fresh angle to draw gamers into what are, ultimately, involving and lengthy game experiences. Bowser's Inside Story delivered that, bringing Mario's arch-nemesis not just into the story, but also making him a playable character; it was a title bursting with creativity and fun characters. It helped to solidify what the AlphaDream-developed series is all about, which is to exist in its own peculiar version of a fictional video game world where a duo of chubby mustachioed brothers run around fighting monsters, only to talk over their next moves in Italian. That brazen creativity is important, and perhaps unlike rather conservative 3DS contemporary Paper Mario: Sticker Star, this new entry doesn't fall back and rely on established characters. Dream Team brings the crazy, which is a relief.

We do have a returning cast, of course, with Princess Peach once again a damsel in distress, Toadsworth the erudite and aged little companion and Starlow, the yellow Star Sprite that first appeared in Bowser's Inside Story; and of course, the brilliantly self-obsessed Bowser, with an almost frat boy-like personality, naturally has a role to play. Aside from that, it's a fresh location and cast of characters: Prince Dreambert is an earnest ancient creature that seeks help rescuing fellow pillow-type creatures; the Bat King Antasma is a new villain, a squeaking caricature with an inability to speak his Ws properly. Dreambert has his moments but isn't the strongest character to grace the franchise, but Antasma is a treat, while side characters include a cockney-geezer thief who's wired to the gills, a big flirty yellow cube and an image-obsessed sea horse; the tone is always humorous and bordering on surreal.

Pi’illo Island is broken up into multiple locations that can be considered as "worlds" with their own themes — we go from a tourist park, to a desert area, and at one point climb a mountain, for example. Each area represents its own challenges and native monsters to tackle, and it's in progressing through the world, learning new abilities and exploring that Dream Team strives to maintain our interest.

And it succeeds in that goal. This, rather like its predecessors, is a title that tasks you with gradually leveling up, gaining experience and moves to tackle the increasingly tough challenges. The difficulty curve is almost perfectly judged, as we always felt a little ahead of where we needed to be to vanquish a certain foe or to get past an obstacle in the environment; for those that do struggle or fall behind, it's possible to restart any battle after failure, and an "easy" option beefs up the bros. to have a better chance. There's depth to the setup with obtainable weapons, outfits, badges and buffs — which are found, bought or won by completing tasks — and when you manage these elements along with working on your real-time combat skills, it's unlikely that the "easy" option will be needed. It's worth emphasising, though, that as a result it'd be a stretch to describe this game as challenging, as its focus is on uninterrupted fun; if you want punishment, there's a cruel "Hard" mode unlocked upon completion.

The basics of movement and battles carry over from the earlier titles in the series, which are a proven structure to emphasise the 'fun over frustration' goal of the title. It's all about timing, ultimately, with two basic moves — Jump and Hammer — accompanied by items of various uses, to boost HP (health points) and BP (bros. points), the latter of which are needed for Bros. Attacks; as in the overworld, each brother is controlled separately with A and B. They're turn-based battles, with defence consisting of dodging and possibly countering with a jump or swing of the hammer. The Bros. Attacks are those seen so often in the marketing for the franchise as a whole, with each brother having distinct moves — carried out with their sibling — that are unlocked by finding the relevant Attack Pieces in the overworld. They often use variations of the classic timed button presses, with the occasional bit of Circle Pad control, and for the most part they're creative and intuitive to execute.

The standard double-teaming takes place in the main world, but an area of equal importance is the Dream World. As is obvious with a location called Pi’illo Island that's occupied with fluffy ancient beings of the same name, the quirk here is that Luigi can fall asleep at immediate notice. Pi'illos are trapped in nightmare chunks cast off from an ancient battle between Prince Dreambert and Antasma — we'll leave you to discover the rest of the story — and when Luigi rests his head in key spots Mario can literally leap into his dreams. In these areas we meet Dreamy Luigi, a more self-assured and heroic version of the "green 'Stache'" (as Bowser calls him); though you initially run around with both brothers as normal, things soon shake up.

As you progress through different areas of the Dream World you discover Luiginary powers, in which Luigi is absorbed and offers up vital assistance, often with related interaction on the touch screen. It's in these powers that the developers flex their creative muscles, with environmental puzzles that utilise these abilities; you scratch Luigi's nose to make him sneeze the background to the foreground, manipulate time, temperature and even gravity, roll up dozens of Luigis into a ball, and particularly memorably you can air-swim in an anti-gravity bubble. Those are some examples, and for the most part they're delivered with a sparkling finesse, with puzzles that — like the game as a whole — are clever enough to please without actually providing a stern test. We did say for the most part, as some Dream Worlds — there are so many — do feel overfamiliar or lack a clever touch.

Battles are also shaken up in the Dream World, with Dreamy Luigi merging with Mario to boost his attacks; a Jump is followed by dozens of 'Luiginoids' that dish out follow-up attacks on a wide area, while a hammer strike is similarly buffed to damage a whole line of enemies. Luiginary Attacks, meanwhile, are unlocked in the same way as Bros. Attacks and offer up some of the best fun to be had in the battle arenas. Like the real world equivalents, these special attacks sometimes rely purely on button timing, but can also make use of the 3DS' motion controls. The mention of tilt controls on 3DS can lead to bouts of panic for some, but they work brilliantly here; the required movements are always subtle, and the option to quickly switch the 3D effect off with a tap of the R button makes sense. It says much for how well the tilt controls work that some of our favourite attacks — Luiginary or Bros. equivalents — used them, though it does make playing on the morning commute a rather self-conscious affair.

So the Dream World is an excellent inclusion, replacing the bizarre internal workings of Bowser's Inside Story for a fantastical twist of the related overworld. Luigi is the star here, and no more so than in the rare but outstanding giant battles, where a stressed out Luigi summons his Luiginoids to form one enormous representation of himself, with little Mario riding his cap. As in the previous DS entries, the system is held sideways for these battles, controlled with the stylus on the touch screen — lefties are accommodated, thankfully — and the move set is smaller. Although stereoscopic 3D is inevitably sacrificed, these sections — apparently developed by Good-Feel — look fantastic, with the pixel-based visuals switched up in favour of shiny and appealing polygons. The greater horsepower of the 3DS allows these battles to be more impressive in scope, with far greater movement and animation flair being brought into the action, as a mixture of skilfully implemented swipes and tilts are employed over the course of 15 riotously entertaining minutes each time around.

On paper, that's a lot of variety to pack into one title, with varying graphical styles tallying up with a lot of move-sets and skills to master. It all feels simple and logical, however, and the pacing of the story does a solid job of easing you into the nuances required. It feels meticulously planned, combining chaos with a solid foundation to prevent it all from toppling over like an unbalanced tower of Luiginoids. There's the dichotomy of pixel-based character designs running around a 3D environment in stereoscopic visuals, switches to polygons whenever the game feels like it, terrific music that doesn't irritate despite repeated plays — like the Battle theme that we probably heard hundreds of times — and an approach at accessibility in a campaign likely to last upward of 40 hours.

Oh yes, this is a long game, to the point that it openly mocks itself in later stages for its interminable closing Act — when a character says "This is REALLY the final battle" and you're dubious, you know it's roped you in. That playtime doesn't even account for sub-tasks, collecting everything and replaying favourite battles for prizes; yet it's here that the game slips from whimsy and unfettered creative spirit to self-indulgence. The story is witty, and the gameplay is a lot of fun, but it's an epic undertaking to get to those closing credits, with lots of script and dialogue lines to read as you go. For roughly three quarters of the experience — spread throughout the whole — we feel that the progression, exploration and plot are finely balanced, with the hours melting away. At times it falls short of that ideal, however, with some fetch questing and re-traversal having the potential to test the patience of those without the time or desire to see it through to the end.

And this is our only notable complaint; rather than craft an experience that the masses will happily see to the end — as the balance is so accommodating for all gamers — this feels like a gift for the dedicated, obsessive fans of the franchise. That's a contradiction, and in those occasional spells where the new moves and fresh attacks don't arrive regularly, when it becomes a matter of hunting down items for townsfolk or clambering through environments jumping into dozens of battles, those without stamina for the quest may start to switch off. We don't complain about a 40-hour+ game lightly, but if some of those hours are a slog that only a certain type of gamer will enjoy — and even for that audience there may be some "when will this part end?" moments — it's easy to see why, despite its accessibility, it'll feel like an experience for established fans rather than a title to win over a new audience.

Conclusion

In the hands of Mario & Luigi enthusiasts and those up for an epic but light-hearted quest, this is an indispensable must-have for the 3DS. In a universe apart from any other series starring the famous brothers, this once again shows the merits of a studio investing itself whole-heartedly not just in one game, but a whole franchise. It can be a glorious contradiction at times; simple but complex, accessible but lengthy, varied but familiar. The enthusiasm and unrelenting creativity behind Dream Team means that it flirts with going too far, truly being an adventure for those willing to stick it out over the long haul, which perhaps dents its ability to appeal to all 3DS owners.

Yet such is the obvious talent and commitment in the project, and its unique style in the current games market, that it's an adventure worth embarking upon.

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