Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time
I decided that despite my disappointment with Super Paper Mario and Thousand Year Door, I would devote time to yet another Mario themed role-player. The first 30 minutes of Partners in Time seemed very promising, and I had high hopes after I found out that it was developed by a different team than the console titles. While the game is not all bad, it's got a number of issues that keep it from getting my recommendation.
For those who aren't familiar, the big draw for this sequel is that due to a time travel plot, Mario & Luigi are able to team up with baby versions of themselves to save the mushroom kingdom of both time periods.
The story is nothing very special, but the dialogue can be funny at times. I didn't find myself as amused as I did with Superstar Saga, but perhaps players that haven't completely burned themselves out on these games will find more to like. I do like the writing style here better than the Paper Mario series.
My favorite sequences in this game were the somewhat frequent skits involving the brothers and their baby selves. It's basically visual comedy with no text, and just the occasional excellent one word voice samples being used. They're often based on the adults cheering up the babies after something scary happens and Luigi having something unfortunate or embarassing happen to him. Some of the skits actually managed to be kind of sweet, like when we get to see how attached baby Luigi is to his older self. And Mario & Luigi show constant concern for this kids, and not just because their lives depend on it. They should retire and start families. These scenes can make for nice comic relief at the start and end of lengthy dungeons. Another aspect I like about the stories in the Mario & Luigi games is that despite the many jokes at Luigi's expense, it's eventually acknowledged that both brothers are heroes and wouldn't be able to save the day without their combined abilities.
They try to throw a plot twist at you late in the game, with a couple of hints earlier on, but everything I imagined was more interesting than the actual twist.
The character design of Partners in Time are closer to tradition than the Paper Mario games, though there are some oddities with the duo, like their rather strange eyes. It's better than the Mario from Thousand Year Door who barely even looked like himself. The game seems to use the same graphics engine as it's predecessor on the GBA, but it's rather attractive and having the extra screen makes things seem less confined. As you'd probably expect, there's a lot of bright colors and some really nice sprite animation. You have a similar isometric viewpoint as Super Mario RPG, with the only drawback being that it can be hard to judge certain jumps with the view that's available. There's a fair variety of predictable environments to explore.
The top screen of the DS makes itself useful by having an always-on map screen for dungeon exploration. There are some situations where you have two parties and a screen is assigned to each, but since you won't be controlling both groups simultaneously, it's no improvement over simply switching control of the lower screen.
For battles, having both screens expands the viewable area, and many enemies will have attacks that are busy enough to make use of both. One enemy that comes to mind rides a little rocket up to the top screen, targets you, then comes crashing down.
While some of the Mario RPG's feature timed attacks and defense, they end up being a more critical part of the battle system with this game. Many enemy types (and sometimes variations on the same enemy type) will have their own completely unique attacks that you'll need to memorize and learn to dodge. You don't get much in the way of HP restoration outside of your items, so the key to getting through a long dungeon is not taking damage in the first place. In addition to learning their patterns to be able to dodge, you also have to pay attention to enemy clues (think Punchout) that indicate which of the brothers is going to be targetted, or in which order they will be attacked in the case of a multiple-hit move. Unfortunately, for much of the game, you can simply ignore this aspect of the game and dodge with both brothers at once to avoid all damage. There does eventually come a time when bosses and random encounters will have moves too complex for this to work, however.
You also get a large selection of items that depend on timed button presses. These can be frustrating to pull off because of how confusing the button combinations are. You have four characters, each set to one of the face buttons. For one attack, the characters will rapidly launch themselves at an enemy and you need to press the button corresponding to the right character at the right time. With four buttons and four characters that look pretty much alike, my fingers began to betray me pretty quickly. I eventually learned to compensate, but I never became truly comfortable pulling these moves off.
A larger problem is that there are a ton of enemy encounters, and many of the attack sequences are very lengthy, meaning that a frustrating amount of your time is spent in easy but time consuming combat. It only gets worse with the bosses, who are almost universally easy to beat, but take an insane amount of time to defeat. It's rare that I find myself completely bored and contemplating a break in the middle of fighting a huge boss, but it happened several times with this game. Even if you're using lots of items and doing well with your timed button presses, it just takes for ever to drain their massive amounts of HP.
The controls also present a problem during exploration. The adults and babies each have separate moves for getting around and manipulating the environment, but pulling them off is too time consuming and not intuitive. Let's say you need to hit a switch with a hammer. You'll spend most of your time carrying the babies around, so you first have to press R to separate. Then you have to take control of the babies to hit the switch, and then join the two parties together again. It gets worse with more complex situations. There's a (disturbing) move where Mario & Luigi turn into a ball, and roll over the babies to flatten them out (don't worry, the babies like this for some reason). You have to separate, do the ball move with the adults, hit a button to stop rolling, hit a button to switch to the babies, then rejoin when you're done. If you hit the wrong button, and you invariably will, you'll switch parties without meaning to, and many of these are timed situations.
There really aren't many reasons for me to recommend this one. At worst, it's tedious with irritating controls, and at best, it provides a few laughs and is sort of nice looking. Thousand Year Door, Super Paper Mario, and Partners in Time. I rarely differ this much from the majority of gamers as with these three and it's been a confusing and disappointing couple of months of gaming for me. If you loved the other two games, but all means, give this one a try. For myself, I won't be losing any sleep wondering when Mario & Luigi 3 or the next Paper Mario will be hitting store shelves.