Though the core series still delivers by far the most popular kind of Pokémon games, the Mystery Dungeon series has still done a good job of establishing its own identity and setting itself apart. As the third and final game in the DS set of games for the series, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky provides a charming world and a solid story, but the gameplay is rather hit or miss. Suffice to say it can be quite a grind, but the overall experience still makes it all worth it.
The story opens with a multi-question personality test that determines which starter you'll end up playing as. Though you're unable to actually choose which starter is given to you, you do have a choice as to which partner Pokémon you can have as a companion. After the setup you awaken on a beach with no memory as to how you got there, and find that you've somehow been transformed from a human to a Pokémon. Your partner finds you there, and then you rapidly join an Expedition Guild.
If there's one area at which Explorers of Sky really excels, it's building a surprisingly good story. The broad cast of Pokémon you meet over the long campaign all have unique, charming personalities that always keep things fresh, and this goes a long way in making the mountains of text bearable; the plot takes numerous twists and turns. Time travelling plays a significant part, friends become foes and vice versa, and the whole thing ends in a disarmingly poignant way. This is a game you'll want to keep playing for the story; that's something that you don't see often in a Pokémon title.
Gameplay takes the form of your typical dungeon crawler, with obvious Pokémon elements thrown in to keep things interesting. You take your party into randomly generated dungeons, filled with enemy Pokémon and plenty of loot. Each dungeon consists of several floors, with the goal being to find the stairs to take you to the next floor. Once finished with an expedition, you return to your guild where you can stock up on items and sell off whatever items you don't want.
Battles are handled in a streamlined version of the system present in the main Pokémon games. Your Pokémon all know up to four moves and if you happen to run into a Pokémon in the dungeon, you spam attacks until someone faints. Some additional strategy is present via items that can put foes to sleep or cause them to hallucinate, but it still remains a pretty straightforward affair. It's not as deep or as interesting a system as that of the main series, but it fits the style of a dungeon crawler pretty well.
The typical "catch 'em all" mentality is still present here, though it's tackled in a different – admittedly disappointing – manner. After beating a Pokémon in a dungeon you might manage to earn its respect, and it will ask to join your team. It's a decent system, one that's fairly inoffensive on a casual playthrough, but it can be infuriating if you're trying to recruit specific Pokémon. Aside from a few items that can help sway things in your favour, recruitment is random, so you just have to keep grinding the same Pokémon species until one finally agrees to join you.
Missions are handed out via a job board and have a variety of objectives. One job might see a concerned Pokémon asking you to go rescue a friend from a dungeon, while another might see you searching for an item on a particular floor. There's usually a handful of objectives available for each dungeon, and you can take several jobs at once, so there's never a shortage of things to do in a given day. Completion of these rewards you with money, items and experience for your team that allows you conveniences like larger bag space.
The issue with all of this gameplay, unfortunately, is the sheer repetitiveness that permeates it. Though dungeons look different and have unique Pokémon, they all tend to blend together after enough time. It becomes quite a chore to do essentially the same song and dance going from floor to floor, encountering the same Pokémon and items, and spamming the same attacks. The missions help to alleviate this, but even they soon become an exercise in patience as you complete functionally the same fetch quests several times over. The tedium is made better somewhat by playing the game in shorter sessions, but it's still undeniably there and limits one's enjoyment.
From a presentation standpoint, this one does a nice job of creating a charming world. Vibrant colours and expressive sprites are easy on the eyes, and help create the appropriate atmosphere that the story calls for. Though it could be said that the DS was capable of pushing better visuals than this, the graphics are nothing to complain about. The soundtrack follows suit, filled with a collection of rather derivative but fitting tracks that help to flesh out the world more. You probably won't remember many songs from this soundtrack, but that doesn't stop a few of them from being quite catchy.
All in all, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky is a rather fun game, but there are some issues with repetitive gameplay. The meat of the gameplay is found in constantly retreading material and mechanics, so your mileage will vary entirely upon how much you enjoy grinding in RPGs, as this game is virtually one massive grind. With that being said, the great story and charming presentation make this an enjoyable Pokémon side story. We give this game a recommendation, but only to those who don't mind that RPG grind. Otherwise it's still worth a go, but just bear in mind that you might get bored after a few hours.