Despite our profound love for it, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars will unfortunately never have a true sequel. But the Paper Mario and handheld Mario & Luigi series have each become spiritual successors to the fan favorite role-playing game. In particular, AlphaDream, which consists of former, prominent members of Squaresoft, has been working on the Mario & Luigi RPG series for the past 10 years. In other words, the Mario & Luigi titles are probably the closest we will ever get to having more experiences similar to Seven Stars. The Mario & Luigi line uses many of the core mechanics from Super Mario RPG, but has continued to experiment and grow in numerous ways with each title. Is Mario & Luigi: Dream Team the mythological Morpheus of handhelds, or is it a plumber's nightmare?
Actually, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team's story revolves around both godlike dominion over dreams, and the problems that occur when you start exploring nightmares. In particular, its charm, hilarity and self-parody moves it into an area of fun that would have fell short if Dream Team only relied on mechanics and graphics. We may have recently released a list of the 10 Best Luigi Appearances Ever, but this title could have easily peaked in the top five of that list based on how much it explores Luigi's psyche, and the comedy he provided throughout the Mario Brothers' adventures through Pi'illo Island.
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team's premise borrows much from previous parts of Mario's library. Princess Peach, her Toad cronies, and the Mario Brothers, are invited to Pi'illo Island by Dr. Snoozemore. After a few mishaps, the Princess' party eventually land on Pi'illo Island and Mario reunites with Starlow and Broque Monsieu, who are each returning from their debuts in Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story.
We eventually find out that Luigi is able to open portals to the dream world by falling asleep on pillows that are actually the petrified remains of the thought-to-be-extinct Pi'illo race. Of course, Princess Peach gets pulled in somehow against her will. We learn that the princess was taken by Antasma, a villain encompassed of multiple purple shadows (who seems to borrow heavily from Count Bleck, antagonist of Super Paper Mario), and is held captive deep within the dream world.
In order to rescue Peach from the dream world, Mario is able to travel back and forth between the real world and Luigi's dreams. A mandatory visit from Bowser and his cronies with Bowser attacking the new baddie (then teaming up... then betraying him), result in some extremely predictable plot points. Luckily, Dream Team's dialogue, visuals, sound effects and music kept us thoroughly entertained throughout it all, despite any cliches that occur.
Mort importantly, the actual dream sequences were visually amazing and encouraged players to press on in order to see what fantastical things Luigi would be able to pull off next in his dreams. These portions are the bread-and-butter of Dream Team and were ingenious in most of its execution.
Since we are exploring Luigi's dreams (ala Mario's Inception-like exploration of his brother's subconscious), there are many nuances to the dream experiences that make me grateful for developers as good and chancy as AlphaDream. This means that you would primarily play as Mario throughout your ventures, but Luigi would be there with you for just about the whole ride.
At first glance, there doesn't seem to be much graphical improvement since the last Mario & Luigi title, but this all changes once you enter the dream levels. Exploring the deeper regions of Luigi's subconscious led to some absolutely bizarre levels that were amazing looking. For those that are new to the series, the 3D effects of the 3DS are efficiently utilized on the field maps of the regular world. But in battle and in the dream world, the effects and fore/background objects pop really well.
The music and sound effects of Dream Team are all excellent; there is tons of nostalgia to dig through. In particular, the soundtrack of Dream Team evolves alongside its plot and the weirder and weirder experiences Mario has. Expect to hear slightly altered rifts of various Mario themes at first. But once in the dream world, these themes warp even further into dazed, lullaby versions of themselves. Combined with the loopy graphics, and free-floating random background objects, the dream sequences are a delight for all Mario fans. The Dream's Deep stronghold area left me just staring at my screen, watching Luigi's subconscious hint at his inner thoughts, as seen in randomly scrawled messages painted in colorful, neon background (e.g.: "Don't forget me, Mario!").
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team plays much like its predecessors. Battles are turned-based, Mario RPG style, where Mario and Luigi can each jump, swing hammers or use special attacks on enemies. Like Seven Stars, Mario is able to do extra damage by timing additional button presses as his jumps land on his enemies. The field map is almost directly taken from Seven Stars where Mario and Luigi are able to move in eight directions from a titled, top-down perspective, and can jump and break blocks as they please. There are some absolutely fantastic platforming elements that occur on Dream Team's field map that rival some of the greatest moments in Mario history.
The dream mechanics of Dream Team led to numerous changes to the core mechanics that were weirdly enjoyable. Unfortunately, these experiments were so frequent that I found myself bored of all of the tutorials I had to sift through during the first half of my adventure. Even when I was 10 hours in, I still found myself trying to skip the tutorials of mechanics that are easy to figure out; if I am smart enough to figure out complex platforming puzzles and beat difficult RPG bosses, then I should be able to rush through the tutorials instead of having them arbitrarily move at a snail's pace. Nevertheless, the slow pacing of the introductory sequences and the overabundance of tutorials (with many unnecessary ones), were the only blemishes I really noticed of Dream Team (except for some predictable areas of the story).
Mario & Luigi: Dream Team is a must have for anyone that has enjoyed the previous titles of the series, and is also fun for fans of Super Mario RPG. Actually, I would recommend this game to fans of both Mario and RPGs in general. The dream sequences were absolutely top notch, and there are so many twists to the gameplay that it never got boring. Unfortunately, Dream Team felt like it had a boring tutorial for every awesome part. But come on, you get to control a skyscraper-sized Luigi and fight a giant robot.
This review is based on a retail copy of Mario & Luigi: Dream Team for the Nintendo 3DS.