By the Pokémon franchise’s fifth Generation, the Mystery Dungeon series had established itself as one of its most successful spin-offs. With Rescue Team laying the groundwork and Explorers polishing the formula as much as possible, fans were eager to see what was next for PMD as the 3DS began to take the stage as Nintendo’s new handheld. They didn’t have to wait too long to find out, as three years after the launch of Explorers of Sky, the 3DS saw the release of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Gates to Infinity, the most controversial game in the PMD series by a landslide. Many PMD fans harbor strong opinions toward this game; some see it as the series’ killer, while others see it as an underrated gem. Today, we’ll analyze Gates ourselves and find out what caused such a divide.
Released on November 23, 2012, Gates naturally has you exploring through dungeons in a team of up to four Pokémon; once again you have the goals of helping fellow Pokémon, punishing outlaws, and discovering new dungeons. Besides the game’s use of 3D models over 2D sprites, the main difference between Gates and past PMD installments is the addition of town building. You’re tasked with building various shops, minigames, and other facilities in the Pokémon Paradise, the game’s hub world. You get the materials to build facilities by completing missions and exploring dungeons, and they help you earn more items and get stronger, creating an effective feedback loop that encourages both dungeon crawling and building. While Gates takes place in the same world as previous PMD installments, it remains a massive departure from them regardless with its exclusion of certain features and inclusion of new, more experimental ones.
Gates’ story, like the game itself, is a bit of a departure from previous PMD games that garnered a lot of controversy as a result. You’re once again in the role of a human who has transformed into a Pokémon, but unlike previous games, you get to choose which Pokémon both you and your partner are, rather than taking a quiz that determines your character. After literally being dropped into the Pokémon world by a mysterious voice, the player meets the partner and agrees to help them travel to the nearby Post Town for an important meeting. Once the pair reaches Post Town, the partner buys a large piece of land from a Quagsire salesman so that they can create a Pokémon Paradise. Apparently, the Pokémon world has become a violent and cruel place full of more selfish Pokémon than benevolent ones. In response to this, the partner has made it their goal to become an adventurer and create a paradise that can unite all kinds of Pokémon and change the world for the better. The player and partner thus form a team to start completing missions and recruiting new members, while also hoping to find out who summoned the player to the Pokémon world, and why.
One aspect of Gates’ story that has always bothered me personally has been the lack of stakes in the first half of the game. Most of the main story missions end up feeling insignificant, and the world ending threat is built up poorly with their one dimensional underlings getting most of the spotlight instead. Another disappointing parts of Gates’ overall story for me has to be its lack of world building. While it was common for the player to learn more about the Pokémon world than what was shown to them in previous installments, Gates lacks this for the most part. Most of the information about the broader world is limited, largely restricted to a few rude side characters or outlaws, which makes Gates feel more enclosed than prior games as a result. However, one thing the game does a good job at is fleshing out its characters using more than just the main story. For example, near the beginning of the game, Emolga, Dunsparce, and the Legendary Pokémon Virizion join your team. These are some of the most important characters in the game, and using them on your team very early on allows you to form a bond with them not possible with characters in previous PMD installments.
The massive departure Gates has from its predecessors in terms of story and features hasn’t been matched in the core dungeon crawling. Despite this, the gameplay still ends up feeling like a downgrade from the last games, as many of the previous installments’ deeper features have been removed with no clear reason as to why. Unfortunately, both IQ skills and exclusive items, two features in Explorers I thought were incredibly fun and underrated, are notable absences. This streamlining process is especially obvious when it comes to the game’s difficulty. One of my least favorite features added in Gates is how it forces your entire team to share experience. Whenever a Pokémon beats an enemy, every member of your team, whether they’re in the dungeon or not, will receive just as much experience as the Pokémon who beat the enemy in the first place. This results in an extremely easy experience, since all you’ll need to make an army of powerful Pokémon is to grind with a single group of four or less. The addition of such an exploitable feature and the removal of the hunger mechanic makes Gates the easiest PMD to date. While you’re able to keep the game somewhat balanced by rushing through the story and avoiding all side content, that goes against the point of the game’s story and town building.
While the core dungeon crawling feels like an overall downgrade, the new features introduced by the game are more of a mixed bag. The biggest new feature, the town building, is one of my favorite parts of Gates due to it being deep and varied enough to warrant devoting a lot of time to. It’s not perfect; even though the facilities you make are helpful to you and your exploring, it ends up feeling like overkill since your entire team is likely already an army of powerhouses by the time they’ve been built. Nevertheless, building Paradise up and seeing it flourish is one of the most satisfying parts of the game. Another feature found in Gates that I enjoyed was Companion Mode. This allows you to take control of a teammate of your choosing so you can continue to develop Paradise and complete missions even when the player and partner can’t be used in side activities.
Finally, there’s the strangest and least engaging new feature in the game: Magnagates. In this side mode, you use the 3DS’s camera to scan for circles in real life, which then lead to randomly generated dungeons that you explore using a preset team. There is no reason to play this mode since the only rewards to be found in these dungeons are items you can find in the main campaign, resulting in one of the game’s primary new features being a small distraction at most. Unfortunately, the main story had a much more interesting version of Magnagates that involved characters using “Entercards” to manipulate reality and create brand new dungeons. Why you aren’t allowed to use Entercards yourself to make your own dungeons, and instead get a shallow gimmick involving the 3DS’s camera, is beyond me.
Speaking of shallow, how about that roster of available Pokémon? The 492 recruitable Pokémon in Explorers was impressive, so how does Gates follow that up? With about 150 available Pokémon, which is one of the biggest reasons so many people dislike Gates. This roster is almost completely made up of Pokémon found in Black & White’s Unova region, so while seeing plenty of Pokémon not found in previous installments is nice, having almost everything else be removed is a joke compared to past PMD rosters (not coincidentally, this is the same curse Black & White, which cut all old Pokémon in its main game, had). It doesn’t get much better in terms of available options for the player and partner. Explorers of Sky had a diverse twenty or so options, so for some reason, Gates follows this up with a resounding five: Pikachu, Snivy, Tepig, Oshawott, and Axew. While the latter is definitely interesting, since being able to start a Pokémon game with a Dragon-type is just cool, the other options leave a lot to be desired when it comes to variety. This is especially apparent since players are not allowed to recruit the three starter options they didn’t choose unless they buy the DLC dungeons. Considering that Gates already has a weak roster to begin with and previous PMD installments allowed you to recruit the missing starter options without having to pay extra, Gates earns a bad reputation from this, and it continues to be one of the most unanimously hated parts of the game.
Even though Gates’ Pokémon lineup is one of its primary flaws, the game does manage to at least make what’s there look good. In the transition from DS to 3DS, Gates abandoned the sprite art of the previous games in favor of 3D models. As one of the first handheld Pokémon games to be in full 3D, the graphics were impressive back when the game launched and manage to still look good outside of a few blurry character textures. Naturally, Gates also introduces 3D environments to the PMD series, resulting in far more diverse designs for the hub world and dungeons themselves. While Gates looks good even now during gameplay, the cutscenes have unfortunately dated a bit as a result of the character models being so stiff. Although you don’t see them often since cutscenes have little animation, that also has the problem of them potentially boring players. That’s only made worse when you consider the fact that Gates has notoriously slow text speed that can’t be sped up. As a result, Gates’ great art style during gameplay is hindered by bland story animation, which is unfortunate since you spend about half of the main story watching said cutscenes.
In terms of music, Gates fortunately lives up to the soundtracks found in previous PMD installments with its own list of amazing compositions, the single unanimously praised facet of the game by far. While Rescue Team and Explorers were limited by their respective consoles’ soundfonts, the much clearer one found in the 3DS allows Gates’ music to be clearer and more distinct. While I personally wouldn’t say that the tracks themselves are as good as those found in Explorers, Gates still has one of my favorite soundtracks on the entire 3DS. Some of the most beloved tracks to be found in Gates include ”Theme of Hope,” ”Ragged Mountain,” ”Hazy Pass: Highlands,” ”Daybreak Ridge,” ”Withered Savanna,” and ”Glacier Palace: Great Spire”. Even though the music found in Gates isn’t as widely appreciated as that of other installments, I still think it’s more than good enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with them.
All these factors result in Gates remaining as polarizing a game now as it was back then amongst series devotees. To me, it’s a game that had an abundance of great ideas that could’ve been amazing if fleshed out just a bit more. As a result, I’m not entirely sure what to make of it when compared to other Pokémon games. While it’s definitely the series’ black sheep, Gates still has the trademark charm and spirit that has made PMD one of my favorite game series (outside of the questionable DLC practices). That being said, I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who hasn’t played a PMD before, as I believe that the other three entries are much more consistent and easy to get into. However, if you’ve already played a PMD or two and go into this game fully aware of its flaws, I think you’ll have fun experiencing an odd game that doesn’t deserve to be completely forgotten. We aren’t quite done covering the PMD games yet, though. Next time, we’ll go over what is currently the latest PMD entry to see if it was able to address Gates’ flaws and return the series to form.