"The formula has always been good, and although this game shares a lot of elements with its predecessor, the tweaks this time around are all for the better."
Mario and Luigi have been super bros for an awfully long time now, and as such, they've appeared in many games together. But there's only one series in which you get to play as both of them at the same time, and this is it. Dream Team is the latest in the Mario & Luigi series (the first of them on the 3DS), and although it doesn't make amazing use of the new system's 3D capabilities, it does present a fun experience that just about anyone will enjoy.
In this game, Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and their friends are invited to Pi'illo Island for a vacation. For once, the person inviting them somewhere does not turn out to have foul intentions, but the group's relaxing time off still turns in a stressful direction pretty quickly. A nightmare creature from the distant past is reawakened, monsters are everywhere, and Peach is bound to get kidnapped. It's kind of "her thing." In fact, not too far into the game, Bowser shows up to make absolutely sure the kidnapping happens and to make sure that he's the abductor, rather than some Johnny-come-lately ancient nightmare jerk.
Fortunately, Luigi is there (along with his big bro) to save the day through the power of convenient narcolepsy. Whenever it becomes necessary, Luigi can drop off to sleep in an instant, allowing Mario to access the Dream World and rescue the ancient Pi'illo people the island was named for, whose help the bros need in order to stop the forces of evil.
All in all, it's a fine, workaday plot, but there are a few discordant notes, particularly related to the treatment of Luigi. Sometimes, he's played up as a clutzy buffoon, but at other times, he's shown as a truly brave and capable character who will do anything to protect his big bro. Some of this is related to the difference between who Luigi is in real life and who he is in his dreams, but the distinction between the two is not always clear. Still, even though I wish there'd been more consistency, it's nice to see Luigi get to step up and really shine heroically the way he sometimes does in this game.
Dream Team's gameplay is fairly similar to its predecessor, Bowser's Inside Story, in that Mario and Luigi traverse a 3D real world and a 2D dream world, hitting blocks to grab items and coins, solving navigation puzzles, equipping hammers and boots, and participating in turn-based battles wherever they go. However, it does add a few new twists to keep the experience fresh as you go through the game.
The most noteworthy change is that real world and dream world battles are different from each other. In real world battles, Mario and Luigi battle side by side as teammates. In dream world battles, Mario battles "alone," except that when he executes a jump attack, Luigi then drops down from the sky onto the enemy Mario attacked, plus several nearby enemies. When Mario uses his hammer, Luigi drops down in front of the enemies and uses his hammer to send out a shockwave that hits every ground-based foe, damaging faraway enemies less than frontline troops. The bros' special attacks differ between the two worlds as well, so it's nice that a menu option is provided that allows you to improve your execution of those skills by practicing them outside of battle as much as you want.
The controls in these battles and in both worlds rely almost exclusively on the buttons and the circle pad, and I never had reason to actually complain about their responsiveness. The only thing I didn't care for was that the X and Y buttons do the same as the A and B buttons, whereas it might have been nice to map them to something else. The touch screen constantly includes an icon for your inventory, for example, but I would have found it very convenient to press Y to get there as well. The 3DS' motion sensor comes into play for a few boss battles and special attacks, and it gets the job done well enough, but it's not really great, so I would have preferred that the game not use it at all.
In addition to standard battles, the giant boss battles featured in Bowser's Inside Story make a return here. This time, though, it's dream Luigi who gets giant to take down supersized foes. The mechanics of these battles are different than the others, but simple enough that you don't feel cheated by lack of exposure to the system. They're exciting fights, and though they're one of the few places in the game where the stylus comes into play, they managed to succeed in the difficult task of making me feel triumphant even as I furiously stabbed at my screen.
The challenge level feels good to me, as the game includes both enemies who I vanquished with ease from our first encounter and others who left me diving into my inventory for healing items because I never learned to dodge their attacks. Should you fall in battle, you're given the option to instantly return to the start of the battle with no penalty, and the first time the game can tell that you're really doing poorly against a certain enemy, it will give you the option to slow things down. It only told me about the option once, though, which I appreciated. It was always there if I had wanted it, but the game didn't nag me or remind me that I suck at any point. In addition, you can save (in a single slot) any time you like, but the game also includes save points just before boss fights and other places where you might want a reminder to take a second and not lose your progress.
Dream Team looks good all the time, but rarely great. The 3D effects are underwhelming for the most part and only very rarely come in handy at all. That said, more disappointing to me was the fact that the characters seem to be sort of 2D sprites standing on 3D objects. This look was logical (and done better) in Sticker Star, but doesn't really work quite right at times in this game. That said, the characters are all clear, as are the environments, and you'll never miss a jump because you couldn't see where you were supposed to go.
The one place that the visuals are really cranked up a notch is in the giant boss battles. Everything in them is a 3D object, and battlers and backgrounds alike look very cool. Luigi looks truly giant, especially given that tiny Mario sits on his hat, and although his movements through the environments are scripted, they still serve well to reinforce that feeling that you're playing as a huge, huge guy right now. The last of these battles was my favorite in terms of both looks and gameplay, which made for a great climax as the game approached its endpoint... but to say more about it would mean spoilers.
Dream Team's music is a subtle high point. You don't actively notice it all the time, but it's always there helping the game's atmosphere. The different areas around Pi'illo Island each have their own themes, and the dream version of each area features an appropriately dreamlike (or nightmarish) variation on the area's theme. Once you've completed the game, a "jukebox" option is unlocked on the main menu, and I can actually see myself setting my 3DS down on its dock and just letting the surprisingly large number of tracks play for a while as I work.
If you've enjoyed the Mario & Luigi series in the past, buying this entry is a no-brainer, and if you've never played the series, now's a great time to start. The formula has always been good, and although this game shares a lot of elements with its predecessor, the tweaks this time around are all for the better. It features a good balance of difficulty, allowing casual players to have fun without making things annoying for those who enjoy a challenge. It's not the best plot you've ever seen, and the graphics make few attempts to blow your eyeballs out of your skull, but you shouldn't let those "downsides" stop you from trying out the Dream Team's latest adventure.