In the same year that the Pokémon series celebrates its 20th Anniversary, Nintendo has prepared some special events specifically dedicated to the legendary 'pocket monsters' that occupied many, many hours of our childhood and adolescence. Besides the remakes of the beloved Pokémon Red, Pokémon Yellow and Pokémon Blue on Nintendo 3DS next February 27 - the same day that the series premiered on Gameboy back in 1996 in Japan - and alongside a handful of additional games, the Japanese company is ready to release an interesting new episode in the spin-off RPG series, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon, in this case titled Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon. The side series, developed by Spike Chunsoft, debuted in 2005 in Japan (in 2006 in Europe) on Nintendo DS and Gameboy Advance, where - unlike the main series - for the first time the player doesn't play the role of a Pokémon Trainer, but instead takes control of one of those cute mini-monsters - or rather the role of a boy or girl transformed into a Pokémon. This pocket-monster is assigned to you through a sort of psycho-aptitude test before you start the game and, based on your answers, you will play a certain character.
We find the same premise in Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon, where the ultimate goal is to save your Pokémon friends in several procedurally-generated dungeons, with the support of a small group of (Pokémon) allies. While the story of the game is not particularly brilliant, most of the fun in Spike Chunsoft's new title doesn't just depend on great fan service, but also on this particular structure where - mission after mission - the player can catch...ehm... save all the Pokémon, with 120 characters in total (in the main campaign). To make the gameplay more interesting there's strategic turn-based and grid-based (which can be turned on and off via a button on the handheld console) elements, where players can move horizontally, vertically and diagonally.
In fact, Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon is a little bit more challenging and complex compared to its predecessors (even if it's far from being a hardcore RPG/turn-based strategy game), but at the same time it's more accessible to those players who approach this particular genre for the first time. That said, as with all games of this type, Super Mystery Dungeon has a very important tactical component as well, where prudent and careful play by the player is required. Being based on a grid, where each movement by a member of your party (with three Pokémon in total, including yours) also corresponds to your enemy's (we can monitor each step through a useful map on the lower screen of the console), then it's worth thinking about any move before you run into a battle with an enemy. To further enrich this strategic component, there are many items that you can find within the several dungeons you'll visit, starting with some useful gems.
If used in combination with the special bracelets that you receive at the beginning of the game, the gems allow you to gain temporary powers/abilities, and these increase your stats (health, energy, attack, etc.) while you're in a dungeon. Once you complete your mission within it, the power drawn from the gem will disappear, but only if you used it; otherwise, this can be stored in the inventory to be used again, even if we would recommend using them as soon as possible, because your inventory slots are limited (maximum 24 items/slot) and usually these temporary skills are assigned specifically to make your life easier in that particular dungeon and against those specific enemies.
Another "tactical" aspect that players have to consider is your Pokémon's hunger bar; your character consumes this resource with every move that requires a certain amount of effort (such as pushing a companion out of the way if they're in your path on the grid and you need to get past to dodge an attack). To recharge your bar, you'll need specific food (such as apples, for example), and if this gets down to zero, your Pokémon will begin to lose energy (and therefore, health). For these reasons, it is always extremely important to start any mission with a few slots stocked with apples to use if and when necessary, just to avoid to running out of them in the midst of an important battle. With regards to the battles, as we have already noted, combat is completely random, and every Pokémon in your party is assigned four different moves.
Last but not the least comes the structure of the party. One feature that will certainly be tempting to all fans of Pokémon is the presence of the so-called Connection Orb. This branched structure is reminiscent of the constellations, and it will gather all the Pokémon that we free during the main and side quests (for a total of 730 Pokémon). When you free a Pokémon, you can use it as a new member of your team; then it discovers all the new Pokémon connected to it (and which you can unlock later when clearing other missions). Obviously, being able to unlock all the Pokémon will be extremely challenging and complex, and although the main campaign requires about 20 hours, to actually complete your Pokédex you'll need to put in a few extra hours.
While the formulas seen in previous episodes is still here, Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon is definitely a deeper and more complex game, where the tactical component certainly plays a much bigger role than in its predecessors. During our hands-on session we took part in a couple of missions and explored some dungeons on the map, and the experience was enjoyable, but we prefer to be careful in any judgment. In fact, we're eager to see how this particular mission-based structure feels after extended play. While the dungeons are generated procedurally - and no two maps will never be the same - it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to ensure the kind of longevity we're after.