It only makes sense that those who live in the shadows of others turn to dreams to escape reality, taking the opportunity to create alternate worlds where things are different and roles are reversed. Just ask Luigi, the lanky plumber who rose to pop culture celebrity status as the player two to his brother Mario. For three decades, he’s acted as a digitally-crafted wingman, and has seldom been given an opportunity to show that he’s also a brave, dependable and hardworking hero. Thankfully, things have changed in this time of reflection and anniversary, thanks to Nintendo’s planned Year of Luigi. However, even though the green clad plumber is in the spotlight for the first time in a long time, he can’t help but continue to dream.
This week, Luigi’s dreams are the talk of the gaming world, thanks to the North American debut of Mario & Luigi: Dream Team. The fourth entry in the popular, long-running role-playing series and the third release under the Big N’s aforementioned promotional banner, it spreads a lengthy tale over two different realities. The first is what you’d call real-life, or at least the Mushroom Kingdom’s version of that, and the other is the aptly titled Dream World. Not just a basic representation of a default dreamscape, though; said land of sleep induced exaggeration actually exists inside of Luigi’s head.
Developed by AlphaDream Corporation, the thirty-five to forty hour-long quest sends the Mushroom Kingdom’s colour coded heroes to a new location dubbed Pi’illo Island. A vacation spot that is seeking traction, it seems like the ideal place for some rest and relaxation – at least on the surface. However, digging deeper into things proves that that isn’t the case, as the landmass’ idyllic scenery is hiding an ugly truth. What is it, you ask? Well, the island’s original inhabitants, after whom it was named, did not become extinct like folks think. Instead, they were imprisoned in nightmare shards located inside of pillow-shaped rocks, by a devious bat king named Antasma. Now, years later, said items are treated as collectibles, and are snapped up by collectors who research the past, though only a handful of them have actually been discovered.
As per usual, the two plumbers get involved after Princess Peach is kidnapped and taken into the Dream World. Shaken and forced to learn quickly while on their feet, they discover that there’s a chance to save her if they work together. There’s a catch, though: In order to create a dream portal, Luigi must rest his head on one of the Pi’illo pillows. That doesn’t mean he’s a no-show outside of the real world, however, as Dreamy Luigi, an exaggerated representation of the hero who is found within his own subconscious, takes the real version’s place within the sleepy realm. It may be a bit much to wrap your head around at first, but it makes sense in its proper context, offering players a more powerful and much more heroic iteration of the character, who combines himself with his brother during battle sequences.
The entire campaign found within the Dream Team cartridge splits its time almost evenly between the two realities, while still remaining true to its Super Mario RPG roots. As such, there’s no questioning what lineage it belongs to, even if it ventures into some unique territory.
Mechanically speaking, what’s presented is very sound and of high quality, and is devoid of notable issues or glitches. Mario and Luigi interact with every location they come across, be it a desert, a forest, a beach, a mountain, or the Dream World variations of those, through a mix of traditional platforming and quirky Luiginary mechanics. New to the series, the latter list item delineates things that the dreamer can morph into. After doing so, they can be used to alter environments, solve puzzles or create new routes. Ease of use is a benefit, as each one’s usage requires only the movement of the stylus on the 3DS’ touchscreen, where a fast asleep Luigi is displayed. Examples of said actions include spinning the protagonist’s nose to turn screws and fan blades in the Dream World, pressing a button laying beside him to switch temperatures from cold to hot and back again, pulling his moustache to fling Mario towards higher ground and twirling a raft-like bed around to change the direction of a stage’s gravitational pull.
The touchscreen isn’t only used for spinning, tapping and pulling, however. In Luigi’s dreams, he can take his height to new levels, which is made necessary during giant boss battles, of which there are several. Therein, the player must make lines, tap or scribble with the stylus to induce movement. It all works relatively well, but the touchscreen recognition is occasionally spotty, inducing frustration. The giants that one must fight are also cheap and overpowered, dealing wallops of damage with each hit while Luigi’s basic moves only leave a scratch. As a result, I started to hate those encounters and dreaded them. Each one brought little fun into the experience, eschewing enjoyment in favour of unfair difficulty spikes and uninspired designs. Outside of its giant moments, Dream Team is quite easy – almost laughably so, in fact – so those battles’ difficulty spikes make no sense.
Regardless of whether the player finds himself inside or outside of Luigi’s noted Dream World, combat is handled via classic, turn-based tropes, which have been given a Mario Bros. twist. Basic attacks come in the form of jumping boot stomp maneuverers and heavy handed hammer hits, with timed button presses allowing for extra oomph or quick counters. Conversely, special moves (nicknamed Bros. moves) can be earned and used with battle points. Performed in tandem as their delineation suggests, they can make quick work of most of the game’s many encounters, turning battles against basic enemies into an absolute breeze. In truth, this mechanic both benefits and detracts from the experience at the same time. While being able to repeatedly kick shells, throw fireballs or perform other specialties while in combat is a definite plus, the special moves become a crutch and significantly reduce the game’s challenge level.
Separated by each reality, Bros. maneuvers can be earned by finding all ten attack pieces in one area. Doing so requires extra exploration and more challenging platforming, but the benefits outweigh the few extra minutes of required searching. Remaining on-topic, it’s worth noting that these collectibles can be found in both the real world and in the Dream World, where the brothers can combine to perform more interesting moves. One of the best options tasks Mario with rolling a ball of Luigis via tilt mechanics, while picking up stragglers to add extra oomph when said ball is shot at foes, but there are quite a few unique variations.
The downside to all of the above-mentioned gameplay is repetition. Although Mario & Luigi: Dream Team has an interesting and relatively well-designed battle system, it’s very tried and true at its core, and becomes a tad boring after twenty to thirty hours. On top of that, its platforming (which, like the combat, is controlled using an A for Mario and B for Luigi system) can be a bit tricky at times. The duo has a short leash, and cannot be separated for more than a few feet, so jumps need to be timed perfectly in order to avoid having to do them all over again as the result of one character missing his mark. The ability to spin and hover comes into play later on, and makes things a bit easier, but it’s also imperfect.
Also marring the experience is a drawn out narrative that induces backtracking. Although Pi’illo Island is somewhat interesting, it’s not memorable, and neither is its tried and true storyline. Still, there’s a good amount of interesting (and comedic) dialogue to be discovered by talking to NPCs, though you’ll have to take both good and bad together, thanks to some dull, longwinded speeches. Adding on to this problematic thread is the fact that the game simply drags in places. The beginning suffers from a slow, boring pace, but things pick up and get great after that. Then the pace slows down for a long while before picking up for a bit, and then it slows down again. Part of the problem results from the many game-stopping tutorials that appear from the beginning until the end, as new mechanics are regularly introduced. Some of the moves are noteworthy, while others make it seem as if the developers decided to toss in the kitchen sink, but the tutorials are almost always both obvious and yawn inducing.
Simply put, AlphaDream’s latest portable RPG could’ve been better than it is if some restraint had been shown. Sure, there’s bang for one’s buck, but it comes via a game that is simply too long. Streamlining certain sections and reducing the backtracking a bit could’ve helped the experience immensely, and I’m sure that I would’ve had more fun throughout its entire runtime if that had been done. Unfortunately, though, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team flashes greatness then buries it underneath menial tasks and repetition.
Presentation-wise, the game is quite impressive, employing the use of a subtle 3D effect on top of well-animated 2D/3D sprites that bring to mind the Game Boy Advance days. All of its character models are thoroughly detailed and look great, and the same is true of its locations, even though similar environments (ie. deserts, beaches, mountains and towns) have been used in many other games. Furthermore, everything runs well and also sounds great, thanks to the inclusion of a splendid orchestral score that incorporates remixes of familiar Mario tunes.
Despite its flaws and drawn out length, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is a worthwhile investment for those who love the series, as well as general role-playing fanatics. It’s just too bad that what could’ve been a great game is bogged down by so much slowdown, repetition and uninteresting content.
This review is based on the 3DS exclusive, which was provided to us.
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is a good but overly long game, which could have been a lot better if it were streamlined.