Sunday, April 21, 2013

3DS Review: "Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon"

Luigi is the most overrated underrated character ever.  Seriously, all I ever hear about him is how neglected he is.  How Luigi never gets any love and all that.  Are kidding me?  Luigi gets all the love!  You know who is really neglected?  Mario.  Luigi is always stealing his brother's thunder!  Luigi is everyone's favorite character.  Every person ever prefers playing as Luigi over Mario.  Since New Super Mario Bros, it has almost become a tradition for Luigi to be your reward for completing a main series Mario game.  He always steals the show in the RPGs.  Seriously, I have never seen a "neglected" character receive so much love.

That said, it is pretty uncommon for Luigi to take star billing all for himself.  Outside of everyone's favorite obscure edutainment title Mario is Missing, Luigi has only ever had one game to call his own.  That game was Luigi's Mansion for the Nintendo GameCube.  The 2001 launch title saw Luigi entering a decrepit old mansion and vacuuming up ghosts in search of his brother who was, as it happens, missing again.  The quirky little adventure wasn't all that scary, but it was memorable, and served as a very unique introduction to the GameCube and paved the way for numerous other games that challenged the normal conventions of Nintendo's beloved franchises.  The GCN era featured many games that offered distinct takes on Nintendo tradition, such as Super Mario Sunshine and Zelda: Wind Waker.  And, right from the beginning, Luigi was there leading the pack.

It didn't last.  These days, the Mario series has come down with a bad case of what I call "New Super-itis," resulting in nearly all Mario series games having no unique identity and having the same plastic visuals.  Now, twelve years later, Luigi is at it again, once again providing a breath of fresh air.  A spooky, hilarious, and thoroughly enjoyable breath of fresh air.

Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon for the Nintendo 3DS shows absolutely no symptoms of "New Super-itis" and instead has an identity all of its own.  The basic mechanics are still largely similar to the original game.  Luigi, armed with a ghost-capturing vacuum cleaner called the "Poltergust 5000," creeps his way around various dark and dusty locals looking for ghosts, sucking up treasure, and solving some basic puzzles.  Like the original game, Luigi is unable to jump, so the focus is more on exploration rather than on platforming.  It's a slower, more deliberate style of gameplay compared to the traditional Mario romp.

Though the basic gameplay is much like the original, Dark Moon takes the formula of the GameCube original and mixes it up considerably.  Luigi's ghost vacuuming mechanics are similar to the original, though Luigi must now stun ghosts with a strobe light before sucking them up.  While the original game utilized two analog sticks for the controls, Dark Moon gets by with just one.  It takes a little getting used to, since you can't adjust Luigi's aim independently from his movement, but the controls are expertly designed to work within the limitations.  Once you get used to the changes, you'll be sweeping up ghoulies like it's second-nature.

Dark Moon also places a strong emphasis on examining your surroundings.  Ghost fights are actually fairly sporadic, so most of the game revolves around exploring your environment and doing some light puzzle solving to proceed to the next area.  Now, I use the term "puzzle" lightly.  The complexity never really exceeds looking around a room for a new button to press.  What keeps the game from getting monotonous is the fact that you never really know what will happen when you do press said button.  Secret panels will slide into place, extra rooms will open up, and all sorts of outlandish events may occur as you work your way through each mansion.  A lot of the game effectively boils down to activating a series of incredibly complex Rube Goldberg machines, often with unexpected results.  The sense of discovery in Dark Moon is immensely satisfying, as you never really know what is going to happen next.

Money is also stuffed into every nook and cranny of the game's five mansions, further encouraging you to mess around with every object you come across.  The more cash you stash, the more you can upgrade your Poltergust.  In addition to the traditional coins, you'll also find extra valuable dollar bills and gold bars.  Health-restoring hearts, Golden dog bones that revive you should you lose all your health, secret shiny gems, and all sorts of other collectables are tucked away in the creepy corridors you'll be exploring, so it definitely pays to poke around any suspicious looking areas you may find.  A new game mechanic, called the Dark Light Device, lets you scan rooms for secret clues and invisible objects.  In addition to helping you gather even more goodies and solving puzzles, the Dark Light Device is also used to help sniff out those dastardly Boos, who are once again hidden all around each mansion.  And, once again, they all have terrible puns for names.

Unfortunately, despite the emphasis on exploration, the game's structure often gets in the way of your sleuthing.  Though the original game was broken up into four sections, you were pretty much free to explore any part of the mansion whenever you pleased as they opened up.  This time around, the game adopts a mission based structure for exploring each of the game's five mansions.  In one mission you might be searching for a specific item.  Then in the next you'll be taking the item to a specific room.  Then you'll explore an area you unlocked with the item.  Then you'll fight a boss, and so on. 

Between each mission, Luigi is whisked away to the ghost-proof bunker of Professor E. Gadd, before returning to the mansion for the next task.  Though E. Gadd's dialogue is absolutely hysterical, and a highlight of the game, the mission structure does often break the pacing and the sense of exploration.  You may find yourself wanting to backtrack to a previous area your missed, or explore a new area you've just uncovered, only to be pulled out of the mansion for some silly dialogue, and then plopped back down in an entirely different starting location, with the area you wanted to explore now inaccessible.  The later missions have longer and more open-ended goals, which alleviates this issue considerably.  However, for the first two-thirds of the game the mission structure can feel a little restrictive.

Visually, Dark Moon is a sight to behold.  It uses a stylized, angular sort of visual style not unlike that of Paper Mario Sticker Star.  At first the visuals might appear a bit disappointing, as they lack the intricate details and moody atmospheric impact of the GameCube original's.  However, the visuals are still among the finest on the 3DS, and each mansion has a strong sense of place, making every location feel distinct from one another.  It's a simpler and brighter overall look than the first game, but there are still some incredibly good looking set pieces sprinkled throughout, and it's hard to fault the game for having such a strong style of its own.  The bland, plastic visuals of other recent Mario games are nowhere to be found here!

The sound design is more of a mixed bag.  The music tends to sound rather generic and flat.  While the original game made excellent use of dynamic music to craft an eery atmosphere, Dark Moon's soundtrack sounds more like a Scooby-Doo cartoon.  It's not bad, but it's also not very memorable and falls short of the first game's spectacularly spooky soundtrack.

On the other side of the coin, there's not a bad word that can be said about the voice work and sound effects.  Luigi mumbles incoherently all throughout the adventure, and he's hilarious to listen to.  A ton of personality is conveyed through his various yelps and grunts, making Luigi out to be a very lovable, if not the most courageous hero.  The mansions have a lot of life to them, as well.  All the machines and gadgets you'll be interacting with make all sorts of grinding, creaking, and rattling sounds.  Similarly, there are lots of spooky ambient effects, like howling wind and ghostly laughter.  The sound design is incredibly rich, and some of the best moments come when the music cuts away to let the sound effects establish the tone.

Dark Moon also contains a handful of multiplayer modes, though I have not personally had a chance to try them.  I rather doubt they are worth the price of admission alone, as the single player campaign is really the reason to play Dark Moon.  That said, I'm sure they provide a nice icing to an already excellent cake.  More ways to play is never a bad thing!

In the end, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is a very easy to game to recommend.  It's not without some faults, but they never really get in the way of the fun.  The gameplay is incredibly creative and the adventure is hilarious and captivating, if not particularly scary.  The mission structure does present some pacing issues, but once things ramp up toward the end of the game, Dark Moon hits its stride.  And, perhaps most significantly, Dark Moon at last revives the experimental nature and originality that has long been absent from the Mario series.  If you're looking for an expertly crafted and incredibly creative little adventure, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon should fit the bill.  Even with its shortcomings, it's a must-play.

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