Mario & Luigi are best known for their side-scrolling, enemy stomping, princess saving action. While itâ€™s true that all of those things are technically present in Dream Team, they take a backseat; role-playing and adventure are the stars of this show.
The fourth in the long-running series of RPGs starring the Mushroom Kingdomâ€™s greatest heroes, the plot sticks rigidly to what youâ€™d expect, had you ever played any kind of Mario game before. The princess is in peril and itâ€™s up to Nintendoâ€™s manliest of men (theyâ€™ve got moustaches) to put things to rights. This time around, thatâ€™s achieved on a fantasy island populated by block-people and pillows (sorry, â€śPiâ€™illosâ€ť); while Marioâ€™s his usual heroic self, Luigiâ€™s most significant contribution is - believe it or not - going to sleep.
Thereâ€™s the â€śrealâ€ť world, then, which Mario & Luigi must negotiate together, and the dream world, which takes place inside Luigiâ€™s sleeping consciousness. Each is populated by a mix of explorable areas, secrets, puzzles, friendly NPCs, and enemies.
Engaging an enemy - rather than the quick win / lose determination of the regular Mario games - engages the gameâ€™s turn-based combat engine (this is an RPG, after all.) Combat is then resolved by Mario, Luigi, and whatever foe theyâ€™re facing off against taking turns to alternately attack and defend. Unlike many RPGs, though, defense can actually be a good form of offence; timing a hammer swing or a jump just so can allow you to turn the tables on your attacker and see them ending their attacking turn by actually taking damage. Itâ€™s a good twist to the otherwise tried-and-true mechanics.
There are a bunch of different attacks you can use, varying from those that you unlock and then always have access to, to those that are context-specific; enemies you jump into, for example, or variations on the jump / hammer theme that only work in certain situations. In general, the attacks work well enough, however things like enemy size and whether you are (or are not) in the dreamworld seem to affect the timing of each (which plays into how successful they ultimately are) for no real reason. It just doesnâ€™t feel satisfactory that these things change, and you can miss out on causing maximum impact for reasons that feel arbitrary.
To keep things interesting, while youâ€™re in the dream world you can access an ever expanding set of special abilities, all of which are engaged by manipulating the sleeping Luigi (who appears on the bottom screen) in some way. You can make him sneeze (blowing things in the dream world around), rotate him (to change gravity), or even change the seasons by pressing a switch. Itâ€™s not something you can do whenever you like, though, and if itâ€™s available you can bet it will form the crux of some sort of simple puzzle youâ€™ll need to solve to move forward.
You can also summon many â€śdreamy Luigisâ€ť to help, who will then form a number of shapes (towers, balls, cones, etc), which Mario can ride to aid his exploration of the environment or solve simple puzzles. Again, however, you can only use these when you have to.
Another twist (one that sounds good in theory but - to me, at least - was much less successful in practice) is the huge amount of variety on offer. Reminder: I said it sounded good, and it definitely does. The problem is that, in order to avoid taking damage (the paramount consideration) in combat, you need to learn your enemyâ€™s attack patterns. Each is vastly different to the last, and they can take some time to figure out their various â€śtellsâ€ť (so you can figure out when to do what, and turn the tables on them.)
The problem, then, is that just as you figure out what to do, theyâ€™re replaced with a new kind of enemy and youâ€™ll never see the previous type again. The matter-of-fact result of this is that youâ€™re always failing; throughout the gameâ€™s 30 or so hours, youâ€™ll constantly fall to ludicrously basic mechanics for the simple reason you havenâ€™t encountered them yet and learning here is by repetition. Itâ€™s frustrating to spend so long with a game and still feel like you suck at it.
Contrastingly, though, itâ€™s - technically - also the easiest game youâ€™ve ever played. Why? You canâ€™t fail. If you lose to an enemy, you can not only retry immediately, but you can also choose - without any penalty I could detect - to play the battle again on â€śeasyâ€ť mode. Easy mode cranks up Mario & Luigiâ€™s stats to ludicrous proportions, allowing you to dominate almost any foe (except the bosses) with just one attack, and trivializing any damage they do to you - should they even get the chance. Just be careful you donâ€™t accidentally choose â€śreturn to main menuâ€ť from the death-screen popup; doing so will exit the game without any confirmation screen, losing any progress youâ€™ve made since your last save (and saving is an entirely manual affair - I lost an hour of gameplay the one time I did this!)
That said, the invention present is often-times genius in its implementation. Some mechanics are unique (or close to it), appearing only once or twice in the entire game. The â€śthrow everything at the wall and see what sticksâ€ť approach might result in a fundamentally uneven experience, but when you find the diamond coal mine it can really rock you off your feet. Iâ€™d describe my favourites, but they really are best experienced in situ and I donâ€™t want to spoil them.
Another place the game truly shines is in the narrative; more specifically, in the way it plays out by way of both Mario and Luigi. With loads of dialogue, the script is hilarious, and the comedic performances of our leading duo (and their supporting cast) is amazing to behold. Itâ€™s so funny, all the way through, taking time to poke fun at all manner of Nintendo staples, pop culture, and even the damsel in distress trope that forms the lynchpin of the story.
Mechanically it uses the 3DS well, without cramming in ideas just for the sake of it. Youâ€™ll have to tilt your console to aim an attack, turn it on its side for a couple of levels, and thereâ€™s even gear you can equip that gets better the more â€śstepsâ€ť are registered by the systemâ€™s pedometer (yep, real world steps.)
Should you buy it? Itâ€™s a tricky one to recommend, in all honesty. Aspects of it (particularly the story and presentation, but also some of the mechanics) are best-in-class, and really shouldnâ€™t be missed by anyone. But itâ€™s also too long, is in dire need of â€śeditingâ€ť (some of this stuff really should have hit the cutting room floor), and lacks the tight controls that fans of Mario expect. If you go into it with the right mindset, it will be worth your time; just donâ€™t expect the usual level of Nintendo polish, because itâ€™s just not up to that standard.