As it reaches its fourth installment, the Mario and Luigi series is still able to surprise and produce the unexpected
Where once there were two Mario RPG series, now there is only one. With both Super Paper Mario and Sticker Star pushing the Paper Mario series further away from a role-playing gampeplay, Mario and Luigi now stands as the last bastion of the Mushroom Kingdom's unique take on the popular genre. A series that started with the self-mocking and highly sarcastic Superstar Saga has produced another two titles that, much like the original, thrive on their humorous dialogue and extremely interactive battle system. Dream Team - the fourth and latest adventure on that often ridiculous parallel Mario universe - arrives with a whole lot of expectations on its back, having to both live up to two masterpieces that preceded it, the original game and Bowser's Inside Story, and carry the weight of the Mario RPG games all by itself. Fortunately, for Nintendo fans, AlphaDream once more shows that it is nearly fail-proof, producing an inventive and addictive game that shrugs at all expectations by neither taking itself nor its purpose to seriously.
Not having learned to stay away from paradisiac islands after their sludgy vacation on Super Mario Sunshine, Princess Peach and the rest of her crew quickly gather up their suitcases for a well-deserved rest on Pi'illo island after receiving a warm invitation from Dr. Snoozemore, who is trying to make the island famous by developing a research on an ancient civilization that inhabited the place. Needless to say, trouble arrives not long after the Princess Peach lands on the island. A very drowsy Luigi falls asleep on a powerful ancient bed, causing a portal between the real world and the dream world open up. While Toads, and Mario powerlessly watch, a mysterious creature pops out of the dream portal and carries Peach to the deepest reaches of the dream world. Mario and Luigi have to, then, explore the island, and get to know more about the strange powers that it possesses by learning about its history.
In terms of gameplay, Dream Team works a whole lot like Bowser's Inside Story. The game is clearly split into two completely distinct halves. On the real world, Mario and Luigi go about their business on an isometric perspective, exploring wide environments and trying to get rid of enemies and obstacles to reach a certain goal. Every once in a while, though, the brothers will have to enter the dream world in order to collect something that is vital to progression on the real world. Hence, Luigi will fall asleep on a specific place, Mario will enter the portal, and the game will take a completely different turn. While on Luigi's dreams, Dream Team turns into a sidescroller, but not a very traditional one. Here, Dreamy Luigi, as the game humorously calls him, has ridiculously over-the-top powers, as he will be able to possess objects that are part of the scenario to help Mario reach his goal. The powers are many and varied, including a tower of tiny talkative Luigis, giant fans that create winds that are powerful enough to make Mario float, and gravity-altering switches.
That interesting duality gives the game a great degree of variety. While on the real world, Dream Team is mostly about exploration, dialogues and outdoors dungeons. On the other hand, things on the dream world are more focused on puzzle solving, as the powers that are given to Luigi are nicely used by the developers to create situations on which a lot of planning will be required if the goal is to be reached. Dream Team also creates some smart connections between the real and the dream world. Whenever Mario is in Luigi's dreams, Luigi will appear sleeping on the bottom screen, and players will be able to torture the poor man by pulling his mustache, rubbing his nose to make him sneeze or spinning his bed around. All of those actions will have some correspondent effect on the dream world, and they must be used to help Mario surpass obstacles that seemingly impossible to overtake. Dream Team is, then, able to present two completely different halves that are equally surprising and fun to play through, packing two distinct adventures inside the same software.
The difference between the game's two realms is also visible inside the battles. When Luigi is well awake, the traditional battle system of the series will be in effect, having the brothers perform and avoid attacks individually, occasionally joining forces to perform a Bros. move. When Dreamy Luigi is up, though, he will lend his powers to Mario, making his traditional moves of jumping and using the hammer very different, and replacing the brothers moves with Luiginary Attacks. The different nature of the battles creates two distinct learning curves, because even players who are experienced in the series will have to learn the little quirks of the dream battles from scratch. In addition, the fact that - inside the dreams - Mario is fighting with the aid of a Luigi that can split into many tiny versions of himself to cause wide damage means that even enemies are completely different on both worlds, including the manner with which they attack, defend and behave.
The different styles of battle only come to add to a battle system that is already incredibly stellar. Straying away from more traditional RPGs where navigating through menus is the sole way with which players can act in battles, Mario and Luigi's battle system is fully interactive. Timely button presses are required to deliver the most basic attacks with the full desired effects, and every new enemy the game presents features a completely different set of attacks that must be attentively observed so that they can be properly dodged by the brothers' hammers or jumps. Meanwhile, the special moves (Brothers attacks on the real world, and Luiginary attacks on the dream world) demand astounding reflexes, pattern memorization and even the tilting of the 3DS in order to be performed with excellence. What AlphaDream is able to do in battle with just a pair of buttons is undoubtedly astonishing, as they produce a battle system that is incredibly fun, keeping players on their toes at all times and requiring full attention in its action-filled interactive nature.
The creativity does not stop here, though. Aside from those two types of battles, Dream Team also offers a few Giant Battles during the course of the adventure. Played with the 3DS sideways, and featuring a gargantuan Luigi versus equally huge foes, those duels are extremely cinematic, pushing the 3DS to boundaries that had not yet been reached, and simply epic. However, a few players will certainly be disappointed by the fact that those battles occasionally have the feeling of being a sequence of quick-time events. However, the truth is they require some level of strategy in order to be cleared, and the dodging of some of the giant enemies' attacks can only be done with good levels of skill; diminishing to a certain degree the on-rails feeling that some of the quick-time events bring.
For those who are looking for something extra in addition to the adventure, Dream Team features some of that. Although the game does not feature many sidequests, there are some mini-games to play and assets to collect once the adventure is all said and done, which only happens after more than 35 hours. The battle system is backed up by hundreds of challenges, which include beating enemies without getting hit, performing excellent moves in succession, and nailing Brothers and Luiginary attacks. Meanwhile, on the real world, the brothers will come across hundreds collectible beans, each increasing one of the brothers' stats by one point, and optional dream world segments that have Mario and Luigi rescuing entrapped beings of the island's ancient civilization. Those extras, not to mention a Boss Battle mode and a Hard Mode, give players great reasons to return for some more Mario and Luigi, and the entrapped beings waiting to be rescued might reveal some neatly tucked away level design gems.
Technically speaking, there is little to no doubt that Dream Team is the series' very peak. Although the visuals inside the dream world are occasionally bland, especially the scenarios' backgrounds, the real world is absolutely gorgeous. The art-style shift allowed by the 3DS is very welcome, and the character sprites that are used all around the game are absolutely adorable, getting along very well with the outdoors areas that are bursting with vivid colorfulness. The soundtrack is the perfect companion to the visual's good looks, featuring tunes that are come exploding out of the system's stereos, giving life and excitement to this fantastic little world that AlphaDream so skillfully built.
In the end, Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is a worthy addition to the series. In fact, it is so nicely done that the game is bound to rightfully contend alongside Superstar Saga and Bowser's Inside Story for the crown of being the best in the series. It stumbles in a few areas, especially on the fact that - even in advanced stages of the game - it still seems to think it is necessary to fully explain newly added mechanics that are nothing but an extension of already explained and mastered moves. Still, with over thirty hours of solid gameplay, two distinct worlds that are equally charming and fully developed to their potential, and visuals that are a joy to look at, there is little to complain about Dream Team. The Mario and Luigi series may indeed be the final bastion of the Mario RPGs, but at least fans can rest assured that the legacy that started being built with Super Mario RPG and gained strength with the first two Paper Mario games is in very talented hands, and although it now reaches its fourth installment, it is still able to surprise and produce the unexpected.