Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros.
Mario & Luigi is an interesting franchise, and one of my personal favourites. It basically takes everything you know about traditional Mario, shakes it up a little bit, and then applies some very well designed Japanese RPG elements. It works fantastically, and usually introduces new and interesting mechanics to change up the way it plays, as well as providing an often-requested storyline to a Mario game. Past sequels implemented time travel and a playable Bowser to change things up – but this time the gimmick is sleep and dreams. Despite this dreary concept, Dream Team Bros. manages to provide an enjoyable experience from the moment your head hits the pillow.
Dream Team Bros. doesn’t do a whole lot different with the conventions of its story telling. Mario, Luigi, Peach and the Toads are invited to Pi’illo Island by the mysterious Dr. Snoozemore. The group travel to the island via a hot air balloon, encountering the Bat King Antasma on the way. Following this brief appearance, Peach is kidnapped and Mario must set off on a journey with Luigi to save not only Peach, but also the inhabitants of Pi’illo Island from an ever increasing dark presence. It’s a simple Mario story, with few surprises along the way. Expect some cameos from characters you’ve come to know and love from the Mario universe too, though some fans may be a bit miffed by the direction the story takes (or, should I say, avoids). Either way, I’ll stop talking now to avoid spoilers.
You could easily split the main crux of Dream Team Bros. into three distinct segments – the over world, the battles, and the dream world. The over world itself is rather simplistic – Mario and Luigi move from point A to point B, solving some situational puzzles or platforming segments along the way. It’s where you’ll spend a majority of your time in Dream Team Bros., but not necessarily where you’ll have the most fun. The over world is designed similarly to games like Zelda or Metroid, where certain areas can be explored and backtracked to once certain items and abilities have been obtained. As with any game that attempts to emulate this kind of level design, Dream Team Bros. never reaches the height that games like Metroid might, but it gives good reason to explore. Compulsory exploration is also required to find fragments that unlock new moves for Mario & Luigi to use in battle.
The battle system remains pretty simplistic but also true to form of previous games in the franchise. Mario and Luigi can both carry out certain attacks independently, with a timed press of a button giving the player a damage bonus. Some enemies who aren’t spiked can be jumped on, while those in the air can’t be hammered – so players will have to make some very shallow decisions as to which attack or approach to use. As the game progresses, the player unlocks Bros. Attacks – where Mario and Luigi work together to take down enemies. These attacks usually do more damage and require perfectly timed button presses, but are require “Bro Points” to execute so players aren’t able to rely on them too often. Some of these attacks are shared, but a large majority are unique so each of the brothers retains their own distinct battle style.
When not battling or meandering across Pi’illo Island, Luigi and Mario can both (kind of) explore the dream world. It’s basically a trippy, two dimensional world where Mario has to work with a “dream” version of Luigi to save residents of the island, who are trapped within the dream world. It is Dream Team Bros. own version of being inside Bowser’s gut, if you will. Saving these residents leads to new areas being opened up or items being awarded. During these moments, Luigi’s dream form can also be used to possess objects known as “Luiginary Works” – objects that react to Luigi being manipulated in the real world while he sleeps. These are used to great effect in the dream world and really do a good job at mixing up the platforming so that it doesn’t just become a substandard “jump over the gap” affair. Looking at the dream world objectively, however, it commonly felt a little too regular, and quite honestly it sometimes came across as padding and/or filler.
While everything remains relatively familiar in the dream world, it changes quite a bit too. Mario battles by himself, but is “infused” with the power of the dream version of Luigi. This basically means that while Mario only attacks once every turn, he augments his attacks with assistance from Luigi – jumping on enemies is followed by a shower of Luigi thereafter, for example. Since both of the brothers don’t actively participate in battle during their visits to the dream world, Bros. Attacks are replaced with Luiginary Attacks. These are basically the same as the Bros. Attacks, but are a little bit more fantastical in fitting with the dream theme of the game. Expect to see a group of Luigis group up into a ball and crush enemies using the 3DS’s gyroscope, turn into a giant mallet, or morph into a tornado to deal massive damage. It’s a cool idea that gave the creators a chance to be different without being grounded in “reality” of the situation.
Quite possibly something that I could imagine being one of the more polarising aspects of Dream Team Bros. are the battles between larger enemies and a Giant Dream Luigi. Replacing Bowser in the previous game, these battles give the chance for the game to give itself a grandiose feel – they’re very enjoyable, but something is off about them. You hold the 3DS on the side, in the “book” form, and sometimes tilt the system to manipulate the battles. Despite the ambitious implementation of the 3DS features, I still found them difficult to play effectively – despite their zany and over the top premises. It’s no surprise to see that these segments of the game were outsourced – they’re just lacking a certain kind of polish. It’s not that they’re explicitly bad, they’re just more like glorified quick time event scenes rather than proper battles.
Of course, it’s possible to level up your characters to increase their stats in battle, with players also being able to choose one stat to add extra points to from the roulette. Reaching certain levels also upgrades a “rank” for the player – allowing them to endow a permanent bonus (i.e. space to equip more clothing, etcetera) as a reward for reaching each milestone. A reward is also given to players who manage to complete certain goals in battle – such as defeating enemies without taking damage, dodging a certain amount of attacks in a row, or even perfectly timing button presses during attacks to get “EXCELLENT” rankings.
All of the above mentioned is a nice way to keep players interested in the battles and whatnot, but this is probably the extent of the changeable things in Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. as, besides a hard mode, once you’ve finished with the game’s thirty hour (or more) quest, there’s not a whole lot more to do. It’s still an incredibly meaty experience, however, and it’s also nice to see a selection of “battle ring” options to replay certain boss battles too.
But what makes Dream Team Bros. a hard game to heap effortless praise onto is just how repetitive it seems to be. The game dresses up its repetition with different settings which may distract some players – but it’s designed in such a bizarrely formulaic way that it’s hard not to take notice. You move to a new area, save some Pi’illo, collect some attack pieces, enter a dream world location, defeat a boss, read some dialogue, and then repeat the process. It’s not so much that I’m annoyed about Dream Team Bros. being long – I usually welcome longer games, but this is unnecessarily padded with content that feels like it’s artificially lengthening the game and attempting to distract the player with some pretty colours.
To be fair, these pretty colours are INCREDIBLY pretty, so I wouldn’t blame anyone for being totally distracted by them. Dream Team Bros. utilises a rather unique artistic direction that I wasn’t totally sold on during much of the pre-release media, but upon playing the game further I have to say that I’m totally convinced. Moving away from a traditional 2D sprite based setup and more towards an almost three dimensional (and yet 2D) aesthetic is strange, but feels like more of a natural and well developed follow up to the Super Mario RPG that graced the SNES so many years ago. Many of the areas look fantastic too – but my favourite would have to be a dream-like forest that appears fairly late into the game. The characters themselves are so beautifully animated, with Mario and Luigi being the obvious standouts and having so much character to them. Some might feel the art style is a bit more “messy” or rough when compared to the crisp sprite work of previous games, but the animation more than makes up for it in Dream Team Bros.
The 3D is used to great effect here too – and while it’s not quite as well thought out as in games like Super Mario 3D Land, it’s still implemented into the game play quite well. Depth of field can be used to determine whether Mario, Luigi, or both will have to dodge a certain attack. Other uses include battle scenarios when Mario and Luigi are running into the foreground from something in the back, and 3D does a great job at helping the player judge when the best time to jump would be. Basically, it’s used to great effect (as best it can) in this type of game to add to the experience rather than just being a sole aesthetic improvement.
Easily one of my absolute favourite things about Dream Team Bros. is the game’s soundtrack. The tracks are whimsical, happy, and incredibly infectious – many of them stayed with me long after I turned off the 3DS. Some people might find this kind of catchiness a little bit annoying, but I think it helps if a game as long as this one has tracks that are memorable. In addition to this, the game doesn’t feature proper voice acting, instead utilising very loud, almost parody-like Italian gibberish to illustrate when Mario and Luigi are talking to each other. I hate saying words like this, but it’s incredibly charming and it really gives character to Mario, Luigi and their relationship as brothers. One particular scene illustrates this best – Mario & Luigi are re-united, speak some gibberish to each other and then hug. It’s incredibly heart-warming and it’s further hammered home with some fantastic use of sound and visuals.
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. is a fantastic entry in the Mario & Luigi franchise that manages to maintain the high standard that the previous games in the series have held. It feels like a competent addition to the series, mixing up the main mechanics to provide a unique and fresh take on the Mario & Luigi proceedings. Despite this, it’s hampered by a few issues that I just couldn’t put out of my head – the giant battles in particular are ambitious but don’t utilise the 3DS well enough to truly shine, and some moments in the game feel like generic (while classic) RPG filler. Despite this, I have no hesitations in recommending Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. to anyone who loves all things Mario (or Luigi), or even a competent Japanese RPG. Dream Team Bros. does just enough right to please.