Mario & Luigi: Dream Team was, before the release of Paper Jam, the most recent game in the Mario & Luigi series of handheld Mario JRPGs. Unlike the Paper Mario series and the original Super Mario RPG for the SNES, the game focuses entirely on Mario & Luigi as, in this case, they travel to Pi’illo Island along with Princess Peach, on vacation. However, as per usual, Bowser has his own malign plans for Peach, which Mario & Luigi must foil. Much of the game plays fairly well, but there are a few gameplay concepts that don’t quite work that ultimately ruin the whole experience.
The game has you controlling Mario and Luigi as you move through the island, accomplishing various quest objectives. As a player, you have a variety of verbs that you can use to complete quests and traverse the world. Rather than selecting your possible actions on the overworld through a menu, because traversal through the world is done as a 3D semi-platformer, you cycle between them using the shoulder buttons. Once you’ve selected your appropriate verb (jumping, hitting something with a hammer, forming a ball and bouncing, etc.) you press one of the face buttons to determine which character (Mario or Luigi) jumps.
Instead of having purely random encounters on the world map, enemies are clearly visible, allowing you to get an attack in by jumping on an opponent or hitting them with a hammer – the two possible regular attacks you have in the game. Additionally, there are team-up attacks, called Bros. Attacks, that you can use in the game as well, which use “Badge Points” (this game’s version of MP), and can do extra damage. Successful attacks by Mario and Luigi can also charge a badge meter which allows for multiple special effects, with up to 3 full charges available to be stored. These effects can range from dealing extra damage, to a quick heal or restoration of badge points. As with most Mario RPGs, successfully pressing a button press at a particular time in your attack animation will do extra damage. The success of Bros. Attacks in particular depends on these timed button presses.
The majority of the game plays very well. Combat is fun and engaging, and the platforming on the world map is handled well. The game also does a good job of instituting a fast-travel system to mitigate any issues with back-tracking, making it less of a chore, and even incentivizing it as you pick up new verbs while going through the game, allowing you to access areas of previous environments that you hadn’t visited before because you didn’t have the verb that let you access them. The writing in the game is also generally funny, with some really good puns in the story and great reaction gags.
One of the new gameplay concepts in this game also works very nicely. At various portions of the game, you will have to delve into the dream world, with Mario and a dream version of Luigi (appropriately known as “Dreamy Luigi”), to free various Pi’illos (the original inhabitants of Pi’illo Island), both for side objectives and to proceed with the story. In these portions of the game, which are effectively dungeons, the game shifts to a 2D perspective, and your verb sets change somewhat, with the player having the options to create various “Luigi-inary works” to traverse the environments. These dungeons are very imaginatively designed (no pun intended), and they fit the idea of a 2D Platforming level designed with dream logic really well.
However, where the game falls flat is some of the gameplay innovations you run into when it comes to their attempts to incorporate some of the new hardware features of the 3DS – particularly the system’s gyroscopic functionality. Several of the Bros. Attacks and Dreamy Luigi attacks require you to adjust your aim, and in term the power of the attack by tilting and rotating the 3DS to line up your shot or roll over masses of Luigis to charge up a massive ball you kick enemies (it makes sense in context). These parts work well enough, somewhat – but they are really awkward to do on a moving bus.
Where things get aggravating is with the segments of the game where Luigi becomes Giant Luigi to fight equally giant enemies in various environments. These involve tilting the 3DS on its side and controlling the game with the stylus and the touch screen. These are very difficult to figure out the timing for, and have no mid-run checkpoints. Additionally, while with most conventional fights the game gives you the option if you lose a bunch to switch into “easy” mode, you don’t have that option with the Giant Luigi levels. This is frustrating because these are some of the most difficult portions of the game – as they change the controls entirely, and the touch-screen controls are rather hit or miss. Further, some of the later Giant Luigi fights add in the already awkward gyroscopic controls, making them borderline unplayable for me, in the circumstances where I ended up playing them.
This is unfortunate, as if there was an option where, if you lost too many times, you could choose to have the game play these portions on their own, we have a situation where the game becomes an un-fun, obnoxious slog, instead of the really entertaining title I enjoyed playing initially.