The Nintendo 3DS has had a fantastic year thus far. I’d go far enough to say that with the soon-to-be additions of Pokemon X and Y and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, this will be the best year that the 3DS ever has. One of the more recent additions to the 3DS library is Mario & Luigi: Dream Team (Dream Team Bros. outside the U.S.), the latest in the Mario and Luigi handheld RPG franchise. Not only that, the game is one of the lynchpins of Nintendo’s “Year of Luigi” campaign. It is a challenging and whimsical game, but I have a hard time putting it into the 3DS must-play canon. I say so because as I was playing the game, my feelings about it changed radically.
Mario, Peach, Toadsworth, some nondescript toads, and the “eternal understudy” Luigi are all going on vacation from some Bowser-involved misadventure and/or party and/or sports undertaking. Their destination is Pi’illo Island, which you can pronounce however you’d like. The island is named after an ancient race of people who disappeared in a great battle against an evil wizard named Antasma. After the current residents of Pi’illo Island welcome Peach and her entourage of Italians and mushrooms, it quickly becomes apparent that not everything on the island is well. It is unfortunate for Mario, really, because his last vacation in Super Mario Sunshine also went awry as it was less sunshine and rainbows and more sun sprites, talking water guns, and pollution control; he just can’t seem to get a break.
As one might expect, Antasma, the bat-like king, makes a return as do the Pi’illo people, who are incidentally shaped like pillows. Mario and Luigi, with the help of the revived Prince Pi’illo, must stop Antasma from world domination and the like. But the catch with Dream Team is Luigi. That’s right, Luigi. As if proving himself in a series of ghost-busting adventures isn’t enough, Luigi needs to really pull his weight in this game by sleeping. Yeah, sleeping. Since this is Pi’illo Island, everything has a dream theme in Dream Team. The game alternates between two worlds: the waking world and the world of Luigi’s dreams which Mario must traverse. These dreams are somehow connected to a network or matrix of dreams shared by the collective consciousness of the Island.
In the waking world, Mario and Luigi play as they have in previous Mario and Luigi RPGs, but on a 3D plane. Mario leads and Luigi follows, and their jumps are assigned to the A and B buttons respectively. This makes nailing jumps a pain, but it adds something to exploration. Mario and Luigi must learn combos and solve puzzles to move from one locale to another. These puzzles are, on the whole, pretty simple and, while some repeat, I never got sick of them. In the waking world battles, Mario and Luigi alternate attacks and dodge or defend oncoming attacks. Oh, and you’ll dodge them. This is the crux of Dream Team’s battles. I played the game in normal mode, and oftentimes the difference between a successful dodge and a hit was the difference between victory and greeting the pavement with a dead, mustachioed face. Thankfully, the game allows players to restart the battle rather than return to the last save point. Players can even bring the difficulty level down, which you may very well do, especially if you have no nagging sense of pride. This needs to be emphasized: you will die if you don’t dodge attacks. Battles are always happening on ones toes, because each enemy has different patterns to memorize and you are constantly imputing to stay conscious. I played this game in small bursts, because it requires so much attention.
In Luigi’s dreams, the 2D fields are traversed by Mario and Dreamy Luigi. Dreamy Luigi’s field powers vary level-to-level, but include field manipulation, gravity changes, and hoards of Luigis in different forms. These sections are a lot more interesting than the waking world exploration and oftentimes require a bit more thought to continue moving. Many of the manipulations happen by touching a sleeping Luigi on the bottom screen, which is not as creepy as it would be in real life. These sequences are where the creativity of Dream Team is most apparent. In dream battles, Mario hoofs it alone with dreamy Luigis as backup, so turns are reduced from one to two, making dodges and attacks even more important. In both worlds, Luigi and Mario can pair up to do special moves in battle that require minigame-like motions to complete successfully. These are the strongest moves in the game, but while there is a place to practice this in the menu, you may never master them all, or want to.
This might be a spoiler for those who avoid such things, but one of the most exciting and frustrating parts of the game only happens a few times, but is impossible not to mention in its coolness. When the chips are down and an enemy decides to really power up in the dream world, they become giant monsters. In suit, Dreamy Luigi becomes a giant, Godzilla-like being to fight the monster with a hammer, jumping, and the help of his mini-bro Mario. These battles are by far the best looking part of the game, and take full advantage of the 3DS screens by tilting the 3DS so that the screens are vertical.
There is so much more to do in this game that I can’t possibly cover. Know this: this is a full-blooded RPG that deserves to be in any RPG lover’s 3DS. There are collectables, side-missions, mini-games, and puzzles that will surely torture any completionist. The music is fantastic and the art direction, which took some time for me to get used to, works and looks good in 3D. To finish the main story, Dream Team may take close to forty hours: huge for a handheld game.
But the game has its problems though. While the dialogue is whimsical and some humorous, it becomes unbearably absurd at times. After meeting the residents of Pi’illo Island and listening to hours and hours of banter, I had no desire to save them from destruction. Many of the jokes carry on too long and I found myself clicking the buttons constantly to push dialogue faster through pages and pages of it. This slows down the pace of the game and may irk players to the brink. Because when the player wants to reach the next destination there is always, and I mean always, dialogue in the way. Many people have rightfully complained about the tutorials, of which there are many, but I think the real problem is the incongruity of the story, field play, and battle play. While the story is light but heavy-handed, and the tutorials for field play are drawn-out, battles are hardcore, desperation-inducing struggles. Sure, grinding is a necessity here as ever in an RPG, but it won’t be enough unless one grinds unnecessarily. I am not complaining about the difficulty, but it is difficult on a level that doesn’t fit the out-of-battle story and gameplay.
I will say this, I have never felt more connected to Mario and Luigi, because at times the challenge (especially in some of the final, giant battles) feels unfair, and I soon understood that Mario and Luigi need to overcome struggles that the people of Pi’illo island and surely Peach will never understand. I can’t imagine what the strain of battling, even in one’s sleep, could do to a person. Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is a great RPG that rewards mastery, but the mechanics feel out-of-place in its sometimes bothersome story.
Vinny Orsillo | @VinnyOhGames