Retrospective: Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros

As Nintendo has persistently tried to tell you for the past few months, 2013 is the Year of Luigi. This means a special paint job for the 3DS, Luigi’s Mansion 2 on the shelves and the Mario & Luigi series of RPGs receiving a Luigi-centric sequel: Dream Team Bros.

It is not Luigi’s Finest Hour. This game does not do justice to the Year of Luigi.

I’ll be fair here: Dream Team Bros. is undeniably a pretty fun turn-based RPG for the first few hours, not least because controlling both characters is a dawdle. Mario and Luigi run in single file, guided by the Circle Pad, and can jump and fight with the A and B buttons – a button for each plumber. The turn-based combat is simple, rooted in jumping on enemies or pounding them with hammers, but it rewards good timing of additional button presses with harder hits. Special attacks see the two team up to kick red shells at foes and scald them with fireballs. It works really, really well on a very simple level – which is both an asset and a serious liability.

Dream Team Bros.' QA report didn't go down well.

Dream Team Bros.’ QA report didn’t go down well.

The plot can be jotted down on a napkin. Mario, Luigi and co. all set off for a holiday on Pi’illo Island, the home of an ancient civilisation revamped as a modern day tourist resort. Bowser turns up with new baddy Antasma in tow and world domination on his mind – and Peach gets kidnapped. Ancient civilisation to wake, princess to save, bad guy to beat: You know the drill.

The game is at its best when the action shifts to the dream world. The Pi’illo people are trapped in stones scattered around the island. In order to free them, Luigi has to nap on the stones, opening a portal through which Mario can enter the dream world and partner up with his brother’s “Dreamy” counterpart (bear with me).

When entering dreams, the world shifts from Animal Crossing-esque 3D exploration to more traditional 2D platforming. The control dynamic remains the same in essence, in that Mario and Dreamy Luigi run in tandem and have their own buttons for actions. The objective in these sections is always to find the captive Pi’illos, fighting baddies along the way.

It’s made a little more interesting – if arguably gimmicky – by sections in which Dreamy Luigi becomes part of the environment, such as a gust of wind in the background or a giant rotating pillar. These elements are manipulated by the touch screen, by poking at Luigi’s face as he sleeps. There’s occasionally a lot of reaching for the stylus in between leaping across platforms, but there’s no denying that it’s at least a little bit charming.

Above all else, the dream sections of Dream Team Bros. are its saving grace. During fights, Mario becomes the sole combatant, aided by a largely unseen Dreamy Luigi. Each standard attack is backed up by hordes of Luigi clones, either by dropping a pile of them on enemies or deploying a hundred of them with hammers at once – each dealing huge amounts of damage. For special attacks, Luigi can roll clones into a giant Katamari of green shirts and dungarees, or stack them into a giant Luigi tower to turn enemies to dreamy mush. The issue with this combat is that the scraps become dull when they revert back to the real world – and there’s a lot of real world gameplay to trudge through.

There's no denying that DTB is utterly charming across every visual style it adopts.

There’s no denying that DTB is utterly charming across every visual style it adopts.

This trudging comes up time and time again. The main issue with Dream Team Bros. is that it doesn’t really know when to quit. After exploring every corner of Pi’illo Island – and its dream world counterpart – to recover Plot Devices A-Z, you’re essentially handed a whole new alphabet of items to recover in order to inch that little bit closer to the final showdown. You feel like you’re dragging your heels through custard, and DTB becomes something of a ball and chain rather than an enjoyable slice of role-playing pie.

One of worst wasted opportunities is the collection of giant boss battles played by holding the 3DS on its side. Played with the stylus rather than with buttons, each scrap sees a giant Luigi face off against a similarly inflated opponent in sequences which alternate between dishing out a single attack and dodging several dealt out in return. Not only are the fights dreadfully slow, they’re also horrendously unforgiving and coupled with a healing mechanic that completely ignores any recovery items you have in your inventory. Fights can boil down to nothing but endless healing until you cave and lose the fight. They come across as amateurly designed in their difficulty.

At times, the fights also rely on the unit’s motion sensors and developers AlphaDream don’t seem to have calibrated them properly. The showdown with Bowser towards the end is such an example: Luigi is meant to be tilted around a precarious platform to avoid Bowser’s incoming attacks, but the motion sensors seemed to completely ignore inputs, sending him off of the platform time after time after time. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.

Let’s avoid this being a complete poison pen letter to a game that is, in places, quite well made. The character art is made up of frame-by-frame drawn sprites, standing out against the smoothly rendered modern backdrops. The soundtrack is great. The script…tries – it tries very, very hard. None of this is quite enough to deem the game unmissable.

What really knocks the game for six is its lack of pace. At 45 hours – if you take your time a little – this is a big game, but it feels very stretched to say that those 45 hours are well spent. Remember that joke in Saints Row IV about stretching out gameplay, and how that game stayed enjoyable even after that because everything you were doing was fun? Dream Team Bros. didn’t get the memo – about the joke or the fun.

What it has in charm, it lacks severely in endearing long-term appeal. If it had been even 10 hours shorter, if the Giant battles were a little more forgiving and if you could even make the dialogue roll by a little bit faster – a real bug-bear after 30 hours – this game might have had a fighting chance amongst the greats. Lasting so long without mixing it up, and not going stale, remains but a pipe dream.

In this, the Year of Luigi, it’s your civil duty not to ignore the other Mario brother – if you need a fix of Ole Green Shirt ’N Dungarees you can’t go wrong with Luigi’s Mansion 2. As for Dream Team Bros: cutesy, innovative ideas couldn’t stave off the inevitable effects of a flawed template – and now that Mario & Luigi has been overshadowed by a certain other RPG on the 3DS there’s little here to keep you entertained.

Maybe it’ll be Luigi’s year in 2014. He’d best sleep on it for a bit to be sure.


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