With the Pokémon series nearly ready to celebrate its 18th birthday next year, some of its many spin-offs have become enduring gaming traditions in their own right. The Mystery Dungeon games are a prime example, combining classic roguelike dungeon crawling with the endless appeal of playing as Pokémon, and as the series' first entry on the 3DS, Gates to Infinity brings the formula into the third dimension for the first time. It's charming, addictive fun with a focus on accessibility that makes Gates to Infinity an excellent starting point for newcomers and younger players as well.
Our story begins with a dream about a Pokémon in danger. It's your dream — you being the everyday human playing the game — and when you wake up, you'll see a plucky, fresh-faced Pokémon taking your place in the mirror. Gone are the obfuscating personality quizzes from past installments — here you'll get to select both your character and your partner Pokémon outright. Unfortunately, there are also significantly fewer options this time around, with just five Pokémon to chose from: Pikachu, Snivy, Oshawott, Tepig, and Axew.
Once you've picked your 'mon and partner, you'll leap headfirst into the adventure ahead and — unusually for a dungeon-crawler — it's a journey that's propelled as much by story as it is by grinding for items and experience points. Gates to Infinity weaves together the twin threads of your chosen human-as-Pokémon's dark recurring dreams and your partner's quest to build a Pokémon Paradise, creating a light but compelling narrative that will appeal to children and open-minded adults alike. The storyline feels very much like an after-school special, in that it's innocent and funny but capable of hitting right in the gut — there are quite a few "very special episode of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon" moments — and there's a huge emphasis on "doing one's best".
Just as the story blends two distinct plot lines together, its gameplay is an appealing hybrid that sees you jumping back and forth between top-down dungeon-crawling and captivating town customization in Pokémon Paradise. That said you'll still spend most of your time in the dungeons as a four-Pokémon team, combing the gridded caves for items, battling and recruiting Pokémon, and working your way through floor after floor to find the exit.
Combat in Gates to Infinity is turn-based, quick, and seamless. There's no distinct battle screen, and skirmishes take place out in the open on the dungeon floors as soon as you engage an enemy — or enemies; every once in a while there are epic engagements between a dozen 'mon or more. Holding down the 'L' button brings up an overlay of your four moves, which are mapped to the face buttons. Since you're free to move around (one tile per turn), placement becomes important too, and this makes the combat a good deal more interesting: moves can affect one Pokémon or the whole room, hit from one, two, or several tiles away, or even cut around corners.
From time to time, a Pokémon you're battling will decide that it would rather be friends instead, and when presented with the option you can recruit them to your team. There are a few old favourites returning from previous regions — including Eevee, Marill, Swinub, Wooper, and their evolutions — but most of the 140-odd Pokémon in the game are fifth-generation Unova Pokémon. Whether that's good news or bad news will depend on your own Poké-preferences, but either way, the story helps add some personality to Pokémon you might not have expected to love. We're looking at you, Gurdurr!
Gates to Infinity's dungeons are randomly generated, so floor layouts are unique each time you head out spelunking, but they also fall victim to the classic trap of randomization in that they just don't feel very distinct. Sure, the stairs will be in a different place each time (sometimes right next to your spawn point!), and you won't ever know where a path is headed, but you'll quickly get used to the assets the game randomly arranges to build its world. Once you do, a feeling of déjà-vu sets in very quickly. Luckily, the labyrinth layouts get a boost from some cool sections that take place in outside, ungridded areas. These often feature extremely simple environmental puzzles of the 'push switch(es) to open pathway' variety, but they're also a great breather that helps to break up the dungeon crawl.
Aside from the main storyline quests, many of your expeditions to the dungeons will be made to fulfill requests left by various Pokémon on Paradise's noticeboard. These usually involve either rescuing a Pokémon who's gotten in over their head, bringing back a particular item, or finding and defeating a particularly strong 'mon. True to the spirit of the game, missions of this last type are invariably framed in a positive light, with titles like "Mamoswine is a good Pokémon, but…" and "Klang is at a difficult age…", and besting the rogue 'mon in battle always leads to them promising they'll be nicer in the future.
The dungeons are fun by themselves, but what really makes this game is the fantastic world that surrounds them. Interacting with Post Town's charming residents and shopkeepers is as enjoyable as it is useful, but even better is your Pokémon Paradise. From its humble beginnings as your partner's impulse-purchase parcel of desert land, the Paradise you build throughout the game blossoms into a one-of-a-kind team headquarters. By gathering materials from requests, you'll be able to prepare the land and build everything from shops selling rare items and fields for growing berries to dojos for powering up moves - and even discover a few mini-games. What you put in your Paradise is entirely up to you, and planning and developing your patch of land quickly becomes one of the most engrossing aspects of the game.
In Gates to Infinity's opening moments, the exploration and combat almost feel too simple, but deeper mechanics quickly begin to reveal themselves. These are doled out one-by-one, each with an excellent explanation, so first-timers should have no trouble getting the hang of everything. Moves can "level up" as you use them, gaining extra power and PP in the process, and these upgrades apply across all Pokémon with access to the technique. There are also Team Attacks, room-clearing assaults activated by tapping a touch-screen icon when your party is "in-sync", and Team Skills, passive abilities whose effects range from recovering PP as you switch floors to increasing your chances of landing critical hits.
Another new mechanic is the V-Wave, a daily bonus that gives a particular Pokémon type an extra advantage. It's a fun addition that you'll need to factor into your exploration plans, though if you're dead set on heading out on a day with an unfavourable V-Wave, you can always try your hand at Victini's V-Roulette — if you win, you can change the V-Wave to whatever you like.
There's plenty to keep track of, but there are several design choices that make it wholly accessible for newcomers. For the most part, you won't need to think about recovering after battles, since HP refills as you walk. The hunger mechanic from previous games is also (almost) entirely absent here, so the only thing that will stop you from exploring as far as you'd like is running out of PP - and even then, hitting the 'A' button without the moves overlay up will perform a weak physical attack with unlimited PP.
Trainers used to bringing weaker Pokémon into battle to level them up will be happy to know that those left back at base still gain experience points, so you won't need to worry about planning your team out in advance. You can also recruit new Pokémon even if your party is full, and choose which member to send back, so if you find a 'mon you like you can get started using them right away.
There are item deposit boxes and save points helpfully located before difficulty spikes in dungeons, and you can also do a quick suspend save at any time — a very welcome feature for a portable dungeon-crawler. And when you resume your game, a Layton-esque "Story So Far" screen helps get you back up to speed. The "run" command is also a beautiful example of a user-friendly feature done right: holding down 'B' propels your Pokémon party forward at lightning speed, but you'll automatically stop when you hit a fork in the road. It helps make retracing your steps less tedious, while ensuring you won't miss anything important as you dash around.
Speaking of speed, the familiar Poké-tradition of heading straight for the options menu to change the text speed to 'fast' before beginning a new adventure is not an option here. Gates to Infinity's text speed is slow — think Snorlax, not Sawsbuck — and for a title with so much unskippable dialogue, the molasses-drip speed at which it's presented is a real letdown. Holding down the 'B' button will auto-advance the conversation, but you'll still need to wait for each line of dialogue to spell itself into existence before moving on to the next. And since 'B' also exits out of menus, it's easy to get into dialogue loops with chatty shopkeepers when you're eager to speed through familiar conversations — echoes of the Pokécenter's famous 'mash-'A'-to-heal' loop. It's not that the dialogue isn't worth reading, it's just that it doesn't take that long to read, and not being able to speed it up is frustrating.
There's a similar issue with the Message Log, a transparent text ticker that pops up over the bottom fourth of the top screen with updates like "Pikachu used Thunderbolt" and "Snivy picked up the Oran Berry". The messages themselves are helpful, and it's nice that they're there, but they hang around for an inordinately long time before relinquishing their screen space.
Finally, your party members will sometimes take off after enemy Pokémon on their own, and aside from any AI silliness, the way the game handles these off-screen battles is awkward. There are two options: you can set the camera to switch back and forth to show each turn where it's happening, or you can keep the view on your own Pokémon and keep tabs on the off-screen battles with the Message Log. The latter is less immediately jarring, but it's still odd to have your own movement interrupted with colour commentary when a faraway teammate gets a quick jab in.
The Pokémon games have never exactly been known for their visual flair, but Gates to Infinity happily bucks that trend; this is perhaps the best looking Pokémon game yet. Its world is awash in colour, with vibrant backdrops and beautiful dungeon designs that beg to be called anything but "dungeons", and if these 3D Pokémon models represent the future visual direction of the series, we'll be very happy. Their animations are particularly adorable — Pikachu's brisk, confident walk is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face — and fun portraits add plenty of feeling to the characters' dialogue delivery. The soundtrack is similarly expressive, providing plenty of catchy tunes and moving melodies to match the story's emotional roller coaster, and its rousing dungeon themes will make you feel like a true Pokémon adventurer.
Beyond its charming presentation, the game is chock full of endearing little touches; one of our favourites is the fact that the 'bash/examine' button turns into a 'wave hello/gesture and dance' button when you're facing a teammate instead of an enemy. It's such a small detail, but it's indicative of the heart poured into the game. The writing also gives Gates to Infinity a huge infusion of charm; while the story's definitely aimed at kids, players of all ages will appreciate the fact that each individual Pokémon has a well-drawn personality. From unassuming Quagsire's hidden power and Victini's over-the-top animé-inspired poses to Herdier's Robbie Burns-esque idiom, these really are memorable characters.
While there's plenty of content in the main game, this experience really earns its subtitle via an AR-enhanced feature that lets you discover new dungeons via "Magnagates" in the real world. It uses the 3DS's front cameras to create a unique labyrinth out of any circular object you can find. Once you've scanned your CD, pizza, or frisbee, you'll head down the rabbit hole with a team randomly selected from the game's starter Pokémon and their evolutions. It might sound like a gimmick, but Magnagate exploration is actually a really fun feature — it's a great way to jump in for some quick dungeon-crawling, and all the money and items you pick up along the way will transfer to your deposit box in the main game.
If the prospect of unlimited Magnagates somehow doesn't seem like enough content, Gates to Infinity also offers paid DLC dungeons. Like Fire Emblem: Awakening, each pack tends to focus on a particular feature that will help you in your main quest: one dungeon provides plenty of easy cash, while others hide rare items, or let you recruit certain types of Pokémon, including starters like Pikachu, Snivy, and Oshawott. As a nice added bonus, each download comes with two pieces of classic Pokémon background music.
Rounding out the package is a local multiplayer mode for up to four players, though each trainer will need their own copy of the game. The multiplayer focuses exclusively on Challenge missions, where players can team up to fight their way through more difficult dungeons than those found in the main game. If multiplayer is a big draw for you, it's worth noting that it's not unlocked from the start — we had to play for close to eight hours before we were able to access it. There's also a StreetPass feature that allows you to 'rescue' players you pass if they've been knocked out, or be revived if you've fainted yourself. It's a cool concept, but you'll either need to live in Goldenrod City or have a friend or family member with a copy of the game to get much practical use out of it.
If miles of unskippable dialogue and a Saturday morning cartoon storyline are barriers to enjoyment, Gates to Infinity is perhaps not for you. For players open to some innocent, longwinded storytelling with their dungeon crawl, however, this is the complete Poké-package. Gates to Infinity is a fun, charming roguelike with beautiful presentation, accessible mechanics, and the warm, fuzzy feeling that can only come from playing as Pokémon. And with a never-ending supply of Magnagate dungeons, there's more than enough here to tide Pokémaniacs over until October's generational leap.