Mario & Luigi: Dream Team review - sometimes a snooze

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Mario's role-playing forays provide a welcome diversion from the franchise's saccharine, straightforward personality. As great as most Mario games are, the RPGs are appreciably different, almost irreverent in how they twist that fallback of plumber-saving-princess into something weird, wonderful, and witty.

For all its strengths, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team falls a bit shorter than hoped on wit and wonder, but what I find most lamentable is its struggle to be weird, because it has such the opportunity to. Setting half the game in Luigi's psyche is inspired; there's much that can be done with Mario's second-fiddle sibling. Sadly, it's never capitalized on, at least not in the script. Instead, it's up to the amusing peripheral cast and vivid combat to sustain Dream Team, and happily they do, just about. %Gallery-191126%
Dream Team sees Peach again suffer a kidnap-obsessed villain, this time on Pi'illo Island where a (yes) pillow-like race reside in a dormant state. Luigi has to reawaken the Pi'illos to save the day, which he does by snoozing on them, of course. This opens a dream portal for Mario to jump into and do his more proactive day-saving. Play alternates between the 3D overworld of the island, in which the brothers search for the sleeping Pi'illos, and the 2D world inside Luigi's mind.

Mario is joined in the latter by Dreamy Luigi, who has special reality-unhindered powers; think The Matrix: Reloaded, but less angry teeth. On the lower screen, Luigi's dozing visage is prodded and twisted to produce odd effects in the dream, like a palm tree slingshot to catapult Mario with, aimed by tugging Luigi's tache. It's in combat Dreamy Luigi goes all Agent Smith, joined by dozens of other Luigis to either complement Mario as support units or clump together in special attacks.

The Luigi-stuffed special attacks are the definite highlight, even if they drag on a bit in an already long RPG. Still, it's worth 30 seconds or so to roll over lines of Luigis and create a huge snowball of plumber, or jump on one Luigi crowd after another to make a lumbering green tower to stomp with. These very odd attacks look great, require some skill to execute, and deliver satisfyingly big numbers to boot.

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The turn-based combat is strong overall, a bit sluggish initially but solid once the challenge ramps up. Timing jump and hammer attacks is easy for bonuses, but reading enemies' cues to dodge and block is tougher, and Dream Team keeps enemies and their cues fresh throughout. My only gripe is the discrepancy between its real-world and dream form, the former's teamwork-based specials dull compared to the Luigi-en-masse madness.

The creativity and variety of the dream world's combat stirs the imagination, but that only compounds my regret the dreamscape itself is played so straight. Luigi may have the clumsy-but-charming shtick but it seems he's too sycophantic and too plain nice to have anything interesting upstairs. As such, his dream world is a repetitive place to be in, from the samey way it looks to the formulaic process of exploring it, solving a few puzzles, and finding the Pi'illos. I'd love if Dream Team considered what it means to be in Luigi's head beyond the predictable. It feels like an idea that's great on paper, but isn't given the room to be executed interestingly – at least outside of combat – and the result leaves me weary.

Maybe it's expecting too much, but when I see the strangeness of the cast around Mario and Luigi, I wonder why the idea wasn't truly explored. Despite a script that labors the point, straining hard to remind me how oddball it is with excessive use of the same piece of wacky music and WTF-like dot-dot-dot silences, Dream Team delivers a witty, wry wander into the world behind the plumbers.

If only the main Mario games would more often dare to include things like an elite group of Bowser's minions who whisper schemes of promotions and power, or my favorite, a pair of muscular Russian brothers whose crazy beef-obsessed catchphrases like "PRIME STEAK!" are only amplified by them literally looking like slabs of meat. Developer AlphaDream conjures up some interesting characters, but credit must go to Nintendo's localization team, who do wonders at times with dialogue sequences that could otherwise really drag.

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Maybe the greatest difficulty AlphaDream has with Dream Team is the strength of what's come before it. The characters are enjoyably bizarre, but they don't make me laugh out loud, and there aren't many as memorable as the Russian meatheads. Add that to an under-explored premise, and the 3DS RPG is always going to compare unfavorably to its heritage. Taken on its own, however, and for many it will be, it's strong enough.

There are plenty of side distractions to unearth, too. Many more hours beyond the campaign's 40 or so can be put into exploring the world, trying to find the hidden puzzle pieces to get special attacks and beans to boost stats, and uncover the really special items. Necessary they ain't, but the Metroid-like accumulation of powers opens up areas across the campaign, making exploration natural.

Dream Team does a lot of things right, and is a satisfying detour for a franchise that is risking too much predictability in its main guise. It's hard to shake that feeling of a missed opportunity, of a premise not fully realized that therefore exposes some comparative shortcomings. Yet when I reflect on my time with Dream Team, the memories stir an airy, childish smile, the kind few games do. It's just that smile could've been a lot, lot wider.


This review is based on a retail copy of Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, provided by Nintendo.

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