I’ll be completely honest: there is little about being a Pokémon that, on the surface, seems appealing. An existence of stumbling around in tall grass waiting for some pimply teenager to beat you up, capture you, and enlist you in a never-ending war against your own kind? Leave me out of it, please! It should come as no surprise then that I entered my playthrough of Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX with a healthy amount of skepticism. Yet, after crawling my way through dungeon after dungeon with my Pokémon friends by my side, it was hard not to reach a simple conclusion: Being a Pokémon can be a pretty good time.
Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is a Nintendo Switch re-release of the original Pokémon Rescue Team game released for the Nintendo DS and GameBoy Advance back in 2005. The gameplay and storyline stays largely the same between the two versions, but the most striking difference is the visual style. DX has been visually updated to a style awash in soft pastels and hand-drawn stylings, and the result is a world that feels warm to walk around in — a truly unique Pokémon experience.
While the visuals of the world are enough to draw you in, the gameplay at times seems like it’s trying its hardest to kick you right back out. The game starts charmingly enough–a short, Meyers-Briggs-style personality test helps you determine what Pokémon you should play as, and what partner you should bring with you into the game. You, a human who has turned into a Pokémon, wake up and are thrown quickly into a dungeon to help a panicked Butterfree save its child. This, however, is the beginning of what quickly becomes (and stays) a slog: the dungeon mechanic.
As the central mechanic of the game, a lot depends on how much you enjoy the randomly generated dungeons, especially when later dungeons in the game take 20-25 floors before they’re completed. Unfortunately, the dungeons offer little variety and less interactivity. Most dungeon crawls involve setting your character on auto-move and letting the game fight and explore for you. In addition, the lack of health bars and level indicators on enemies makes every encounter a risk: There were times when I traveled into a new dungeon only to find my team getting insta-wiped by the first encounter. A frustrating combination of tediousness and opacity, this portion of Rescue Team DX can be difficult to work through.
However, the story in between the fights more than makes up for it. Rescue Team DX is a joyfully deep and complex adventure, which leans heavily on the personalities of its main characters — a trait that has, frankly, eluded even the main Pokémon entries at times. Spinning a story of ancient myth, natural disaster, and the power of teamwork, the game is admirably large in scope and frequently clever, both in its plot twists and in the interplay between Pokémon. As mentioned up top, I entered the game as a skeptic, totally ready to find the game twee or cutesy. But I found myself swept up in the story and caring deeply about everyone on my team as we traveled through the world. It’s rare for a game to win more points on the cutscenes than the gameplay — usually it’s quite the opposite. However, Rescue Team DX is a pleasant surprise that keeps on surprising until the very end.
The “franchise you’re familiar with but game genre you aren’t” subset of video games is a category that can be particularly fraught. For every Tetris, there’s a Tetris RPG. For every Super Mario Odyssey, there’s a Mario and Sonic at the Turin Winter Olympic Games. And for every Pokémon, there’s a Pokémon Mystery Dungeon. The challenge, then, at the core, is two-fold: Can you justify your existence in the franchise, and can you offer something novel that adds to it? Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX delivers mixed results on this front. Its novelty — the dungeon crawling, turn-based action, as opposed to the classic RPG style — falls somewhat flat. But its stunning visuals and compelling storyline fully justify its existence in the Pokémon pantheon. By the end of my game, I was quite enamored with my Squirtle. And heaven help any trainer who tries to catch me: I know Hydro Pump and I’m not afraid to use it.