I knew something was wrong when the game turned me into Pikachu.
The Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games spin-off your favorite collectible monsters and transform the gameplay into something closer to a roguelike dungeon crawler. I mean, "Dungeon" is in the name. You'd be forgiven for thinking that maybe this series had something to do with tying a Snorlax up and wearing a lot more leather than the average trainer, but those nasty thoughts will be annihilated from your brain by the unending cheeriness that being a Pokémon is all about.
The Fushigi No Dungeon series takes licenses and lets Chunsoft turn them into something closer to a much lighter Diablo-clone, but with your favorite characters! From the outset it feels like Gates to Infinity could be something special, but it doesn't take long for the gameplay and lack of true depth to reveal that this mystery dungeon might actually be scarier than the Snorlax one from your nightmares.
Despite trying to keep this from turning into a witness-stand confession of all the bad places Gates to Infinity touched me, I have to start from the beginning, where players are transformed into a Pokémon of their choice before being flung to Pokémon world and choosing a Pokémon partner. The shrewdly deep mechanics inherent in Pokemon's design, the same gameplay standards that have hooked millions and millions of children since 1996, are completely abandoned by this premise. Meticulously catching, training, and battling are gone, and it's replaced with the brainless click-fest inherent to roguelikes.
I obviously chose Pikachu, the only Gen 1 Pokémonavailable to me. I realize you might want to take my Trainer Card, tear it up, and fling the pieces at my face in disgust, but stepping out of the established genre doesn't mean the franchise has to ignore the original cast of monsters does it? My Pikachu met up with a Snivy and together we set off to find a paradise for Pokémon. The story quickly envelops you and a whole town of supporting characters, but even the purity of juvenile Pokémon do-gooders betrays the way I've always seen Pokémon games.
What about Team Rocket? Conflict in Pokémon games has always boiled down to ethical questions about the monsters that help you on your road to greatness. Team Rocket or some other tie-the-damsel-to-the-train villain puts those issues in front of players, and the experience players had defeating gym leaders or the Elite Four helped to drive the point home: You care about your team. They're not just tools; they're friends.
Gates to Infinity is devoid of those adolescent themes. Instead, you take a job from the Request Board, explore a randomized dungeon, recover the Pokémon or item and head back to town. This is standard for the Fushigi No Dungeon series, but it does little to captivate the player the way an epic quest through Kanto does.
Fighting other Pokémon in dungeons eventually boils down to how fast attack animations will play out. The lack of moment-to-moment variety disappoints. If it weren't so damn beautiful, I'd feel comfortable sticking a fork in it.
The bright, colorful graphics move smoothly and attract the eye. In 3D, subtle depth adds new life to each character on screen. The textures and environments will also appeal to anyone willing to get lost in the lather-rinse-repeat gameplay, but I'm just left wanting Pokemon X & Y. If the assets in a dark, boring dungeon look this good, fans of Nintendo's RPG series should be excited for the next adventure from Game Freak.
While I'd like to let Gates to Infinity off with a misdemeanor, my stack of evidence isn't empty just yet. As the game grows more difficult, you'll add to your dungeon-crawling party. Unfortunately, most of your partners are morons, eager to impale themselves on enemies they happen to have a type-disadvantage against. Snivy did this early in the game, and never seemed to get the message that his energy would be better spent picking up after my Pikachu.
At times, members of my Pokémon party would go missing in a dungeon until I found them a few minutes later... half-dead. Messing with a tactics menu helped a little bit, but frustration quickly took over as my stupid monster friends left me undermanned and ill-prepared for the quest I was on.
Fans of the series and, perhaps more importantly, fans of the Fushigi No Dungeon series will probably be pleased by the enhanced visuals and storyline. Everyone else will hate it. At its best, players might enjoy stepping into the paws of a Pokémon they've commanded for 15 years. At its worst, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity lobotomizes the franchise. While Pokémon Masters rely on their friends to be the best, Chunsoft pulled a Team Rocket, using Pokémon as tools to sell boring gameplay.