Mario & Luigi: Dream Team dutifully carries on the handheld RPG series' wacky take on Nintendo's flagship universe, but something is missing in this latest installment for 3DS. All of the pieces necessary for another light-hearted and cheeky take on the Mario mythos are accounted for, and each of those parts is just fine on its own. The strong emotional resonance at the center of a Mario RPG, meanwhile, feels strangely absent. This lengthy sojourn has the style and grace of its forebears, but not the soul.
On Pi'illo Island, a titular ancient race of pillow-shaped folk have vanished; a doctor is conducting mysterious "sleep research," and Luigi's unmatched ability to... doze off becomes the key to restoring order across the remote land. It's not long before you stumble upon the first of many stone pillows scattered throughout the game, and these serve as gateways into a dream world accessible only from the island. With a lazy, sleepy state of mind very similar to the Pi'illo people, it's up to Luigi to mesh his consciousness with these dream portals and eliminate "nightmare chunks" that threaten the entire island's well-being, with his big bro. It’s an appropriately kooky setup for a series that has, among other things, taken place inside of Bowser's belly, and the game uses Luigi's dream state in some funny ways, not least of which is a representation of himself, a "Dreamy Luigi," whose power (and good looks) knows no bounds.
The characters you meet along the way are universally charming - a pair of meat-obsessed bodybuilding brothers who refer to Mario and Luigi as "side salads" and "little cutlets" is a particular highlight - and from the mining operation along the Dozing Sands to the beautiful peaks of Mount Pajamaja, there are plenty of things to see and do as you make your way through Dream Team, even if much of it has been seen in previous entries. If you've played any RPG incarnation of Nintendo's mascot - Super, Paper, or otherwise - you'll be as familiar with Dream Team's mechanics as its infectiously upbeat tone. The writing is, as usual for the series, top-notch; the graphics - a mixture of 3D backgrounds with some awesomely expressive, sprite-based characters - are saturated beauty; and the combat is a strict continuation of the brisk, timing-based scraps of the previous titles.
Like a traditional JRPG, you'll select from a small handful of attacks to perform on your foes in a turn-based battle, but you'll also need to pull off well-timed button presses to enhance the damage of your blows - or to minimize an untimely pummelling with some defensive maneuvers. The "A" button controls Mario, the "B" button is for Luigi, and everything in the game follows this duality. Generally, tapping a button just before an attack or incoming strike will augment or eliminate damage, but each enemy type has a distinct skill set and accompanying timing, and a few really step outside the usual. A horde of enemies that change colour by taking damage and can be eliminated instantly if matched Bejeweled-style is a prime example of the sort of crazy, unexpected wrinkles the combat sends your way. Combat makes up the bulk of Dream Team, and it's a fine diversion, uncomfortably escalating encounter rate aside.
Outside of combat, those context-sensitive buttons activate your special moves, letting you do everything from flattening Mario with a hammer in an effort to explore small spaces, to rolling up into a Bro bouncy ball to reach high-up places. While tabbing through the eventual slew of different functions with the shoulder buttons is a clunky slave to the two-button design, environments are designed in a smart way that make the special moves feel as extraordinary to perform as they are necessary to progress.
Exploring the game's dream world uses a 2D perspective that places a greater emphasis on platforming and messing with "Luigindary Works," possess-able items in Luigi's dreams that allow the Green 'Stache to aid Mario's traversal through his mind's vertical topography. Turning Dreamy Luigi into hundreds of Luigis that can morph into different shapes, like a tower or a ball, is pretty rad. So is pulling on Luigi's moustache to manipulate the flinging branches of Luigi Trees. The game uses the touch screen to make these interactions more dynamic but less precise in the process, which is usually fine but can occasionally cause an immense frustration (hello, spinning Luigi Drills). Like the special moves, there are a ton of these Works to discover, some used only briefly, and the way developer Alphadream manages to pack such an immense variety of puzzle elements is pretty damned impressive. Dream areas will have you altering temperatures, gravities, and windflow, to name just a few. It's not always the greatest to control, but the creativity on display often shadows the rough spots.
Dreamy Luigi also changes up the combat a little, too, absorbing into Mario and boosting his stats. You can also perform Luigindary Attacks, which, like the Works, allow you to assemble a crew of Luigis to drop some massive damage on your opponents. The attacks look impressive, but unfortunately utilize crummy tilt and touch controls more often than the "real world" counterparts, Bros. Attacks. Toward the end of the game, some challenges become more demanding than the imprecise touchscreen and gyro can handle. I became routinely frustrated in some of the late-game dream areas, culminating in a specific boss fight that employs borderline broken tilt controls to avoid attacks. Not fun, and a magnified example of how such immense variety can set back the experience.
It doesn't help that the game often leaves you in a given area or situation more than long enough to get tired of its particular features. The game loves its ideas a little too much, often extending your stay in each area via several dull protractions. The game's first half is a mostly well-paced tour of Pi'illo Island's biomes - a beach, a desert, a castle, and so on - but once that's over, the game almost immediately sends you on a lengthy MacGuffin hunt across those very same lands. A later dungeon challenges you to navigate a small hub of rooms with mixed-up doorways that might, say, take you to the other side of the dungeon instead of logically connecting to the next room. Piecing together how all the doorways are connected is a neat one-off challenge, but the game then proceeds to take you to another small area with crazy doors. And then another. Much of this blatant padding is knowingly winked at through some clever dialogue, but throwing in a few laughs before hours of busywork doesn't make it more interesting.
RPGs are known for being lengthy, of course, but the game stretches its runtime to such lengths that it's hard not to be a little exhausted as the game clock ticks onward. During that aforementioned quest for plot devices, there's practically no narrative frame whatsoever. It's hours before the game's villains are even formally introduced, and after that, they're all but absent until the final moments. Mostly, Dream Team is a strangely formless array of combat and puzzle mechanics. The game's writers find ample ways to fill the plot's flat trajectory with interesting chit-chat, but as you reach the end of the adventure, it becomes more apparent that the well-made but disparate pieces aren't jelling together in a satisfying way. It was hard not to think that Dream Team would have been a stellar twenty-hour game as opposed to the good forty-hour one it turned out to be.
The dialogue is fun, the vistas beautiful, the combat snappy, but when it comes to those crucial heartfelt moments in between - the nucleus of the series in several ways - things begin to feel lost. Bowser's Inside Story did a stupendous job of using its setting to give us an surprising, humorous look at Mario's perpetual nemesis. Other Mario RPGs have used multiple viewpoints to build deceptively deep plots with emotional cores. Dream Team gives the audience glances into Luigi's innermost thoughts in the dream world, and those moments are a surprisingly personal window into an immensely recognizable but otherwise undeveloped character. It's too bad that the game never reaches past those brief scenes for something really special; the sublime writing could have carried something goofy and affecting in equal measure, but instead, all that great talk starts to ring a little hollow.
Dream Team's bright and friendly world is an easy one to fall in love with, but by the time you reach the end, that love will have been tested repeatedly by uneven design and a lack of narrative follow-through. Many of its flaws could be reduced to its strict following of the series' formula without expanding on what makes it endearing. Much like Luigi's dreams, AlphaDream's latest is a little pre-occupied with expectations of Big Bro.