Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon is very much a rollercoaster ride, frequently oscillating between highs and lows. Just when you think you can't bear the tedium any longer something interesting happens that pulls you right back in. On the other hand, just when things are starting to get good it levels off and you're forced to plod through boring and unfulfilling gameplay. Ultimately, Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon is a game for those who enjoy some grinding; if you have the perseverance to stick with it long enough, you'll find that it pays off in the long run.
The story drags unbearably long early on, but it does pick up significantly as you and your team move on to bigger and better things. The traditional personality test at the beginning of the game suggests to you which Pokémon are best as your main character and partner, though you're given the freedom to choose from any of the starters or Riolu or Pikachu. Things start out with you being an amnesiac human who finds themselves in a Pokémon's body, and this is where the story really slogs along.
After being adopted by a Nuzleaf living in a Pokémon village and enrolled in the local school, a tutorial that lasts for several hours sets in. Though the characters you meet are charming and all have unique personalities, the sheer volume of tedious cutscenes and the mountains of dialogue dampen an otherwise enjoyable experience. On top of this you're spoonfed the gameplay mechanics at a glacial rate dictated by the game, which makes for an extremely repetitive experience. While these problems do still persist to a certain degree throughout the entire game, it does get better as things pick up.
For the majority of the playtime you'll be wandering around randomly generated, grid-based dungeons that are best enjoyed in short bursts due to their repetitive nature. Every time you re-enter a dungeon the layout, enemy placement and item distribution of each floor is completely new, and while this theoretically means that the content is virtually limitless, the cracks quickly show when you realize how similar every dungeon is to the next.
Once you've seen one dungeon, you've seen them all. While the environments and the Pokémon types may vary between each one, it's still the same old story of wandering around a floor looking for the stairs so you can move to the next floor, which looks almost exactly the same. Fortunately, many missions don't send you too deep and generally end just as things are beginning to get stale, but the issue is nonetheless persistent throughout the whole game. Nonetheless, when a dungeon's floor count gets into the double digits, it can definitely become a chore to keep running into the same Pokémon when you just want to get to the stairs and find a way out.
The battle system bears many resemblances to that of the classic Pokémon series, but here it's tweaked a bit so as to be a bit more live action and strategic. Enemies are visible on the map and you can avoid them, in theory, though this is easier said than done. When an enemy is within striking distance, holding down the L button brings up the four attacks your Pokémon currently knows, along with helpful indicators next to each one that signal which are super effective and which are not. While things can certainly grow tiring with exhaustive repetition, the battles can be spiced up by a variety of strategic options.
For example, certain attacks have lengthy range, meaning that you can pull a Pokémon a few steps out of harm's way and have them launch attacks from afar. Moreover, usage of items such as wands and orbs can turn the tide of a battle very quickly and also assist in other ways. These items can do things such as inflict status ailments on one or more enemies, reveal the location of the stairs, or warp you and your team elsewhere on the floor. While they may add some much needed dimension to otherwise uninteresting battles, it seems that they become a bit too much of a crutch in certain dungeons, with success being nigh impossible if you don't use them.
Additionally, the usage of Alliance attacks and Emeras help give you an edge in combat. Alliance attacks consist of you taking all three team members and having them all attack consecutively in one move on one enemy. While they can sometimes be a bit too powerful for their own good in a typical mission, Alliance attacks are a welcome addition in boss fights and can have some very interesting outcomes depending on which Pokémon and moves you use to pull them off. Emeras are small jewels laying around dungeons that can be slotted into Looplets held by team members and they bestow extremely helpful buffs and benefits, but the catch is that they vanish each time you leave a dungeon. While they serve as a nice addition to combat and can be useful in certain situations, their effects can be pretty hit or miss, with some being incredibly helpful and others being nearly useless.
Pokémon are no longer recruited randomly and are instead won over by completing missions for them via the Expedition Orb. These can range from finding an item a Pokémon lost to rescuing one who went just a bit too deep. Missions are refreshingly diverse and offer a much needed sense of freedom by allowing you to take up as many tasks as you want and in just about any order. When a mission is completed, that Pokémon is linked to you in the Expedition Orb and you're given access to however many friends that Pokémon has. All 720 Pokémon make an appearance here, so there's no shortage of missions being offered. All in all, the streamlined method of tackling assignments and adding more Pokémon to the ranks has never been more satisfying.
One major problem that tends to rear its ugly head from time to time, though, are ridiculous difficulty spikes that completely disrupt the momentum of the gameplay. After completing numerous missions for Pokémon and steadily making progress, you'll suddenly hit a brick wall when you're forced to defeat a boss Pokémon that is literally several dozen levels above the team. Being steamrolled by a humourously overpowered boss forces the player to fall back on cheap tactics, and these battles can sometimes take ten minutes or more to complete.
Additionally, it can be pretty tough to work through the sheer tedium of it all. Dungeons begin to blur together indiscriminately midway through the game and the lack of dynamic aspects within them leads to gameplay stagnating rather quickly. While varying mission objectives greatly help to alleviate the repetition, it definitely is not negated and there are many points where it's very easy to grow bored when nothing new is happening.
In terms of visuals and audio, things have never been better. In free roaming sections the environments are colourful and diverse, with smooth models and animations to populate everything. The 3D effect does a good job, but is mostly forgettable when it's primarily used to simulate space between the HUD and the gameplay. Nonetheless, there's not a lot of application for stereoscopic 3D in a game that's primarily about a top down view of flat environments. The music is a cut above that which is usually heard in the main series Pokémon games, with a pleasing and upbeat mixture of remixes and new tracks to massage your ears.
All in all, Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon is a game that never quite manages to escape bouts of tedium. Repetition that's present in nearly every aspect makes for a game that can sometimes feel like a chore rather than a form of entertainment. All the same, the amount of things to do is staggering and the new form of recruitment through missions makes for a streamlined means of achieving the goal of catching 'em all. We'd recommend this to those of you who don't mind a lot of grinding in RPGs, as there's plenty to enjoy here if you can push on through the copious amounts of padding. If that doesn't sound up your alley it may be best to pass and wait for the next Pokémon game.