The opening of Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros is slow enough to induce mild wooziness in anybody. A two-hour course of tutorials will do that, especially if you’re familiar with AlphaDream’s Mario & Luigi RPGs. But once you’ve recovered from the soporific effects of being told to press one button per brother for pretty much everything they do, and got past the usual damsel-in-distress plot device, you’ll have trouble kipping through the rest of Dream Team Bros.
Fans of the series already know why. We play these games for two reasons: AlphaDream’s irreverent take on the Mushroom Kingdom crew, and an absorbing battle system that rewards well-timed button presses and careful observation. The siblings may not have the range of attacks of a Cloud Strife or a battalion of Pokémon, but the remix of turn-based RPG conventions in which they star is still involved. Hit A at the precise moment Mario lands a jump attack on a foe to flip him into the air for a second bounce. Time a tap of B with the apex of Luigi’s hammer backswing for maximum damage. Watch your enemies carefully during their turn to learn the tells that will enable you to predict their moves and dodge them, or even land a counter attack.
Every Mario & Luigi sequel to date has had a signature twist – Partners In Time gave you two sets of bros to handle across the ages, while Bowser’s Inside Story let you play as the series’ gleefully evil lizard antagonist – and Dream Team Bros is no exception. It’s tied to the now-traditional wafer-thin plot, which here mainly revolves around the Pi’illo, a race of daftly designed but overly po-faced sentient cushion-headed creatures. They have become legend since the entire lot wound up trapped in the Dream World eons ago, leaving only petrified pillows to mark their passing. It’s not long before a dozy Luigi ends up laying his head on one of these artefacts for a nap, allowing players to plunge into the Dream World for themselves.
While there, you’re effectively inside Luigi’s mind, giving AlphaDream room to explore his psyche. On a more literal level, Mario does his exploring there via 2D platforming, as opposed to the isometric 3D view of the overworld, in a clear nod to Inside Story’s own nod to Nintendo history. If that all sounds incongruously like Inception, prepare for things to go full-on Christopher Nolan shortly after you set foot in these charmingly flat, supersaturated landscapes. Dreamy Luigi – a lionised version of the real one – accompanies his brother for the platforming and is able to manipulate his dreamscape via clumsily named Luiginary Works. He might possess a familiarly proportioned tree, for instance, turning his bristling moustache into a pair of bough-like arms with which to fling his brother to otherwise unreachable heights. Or he could enter a constellation to multiply himself into a tower of clones, which can topple over gaps to press distant switches. Dream logic is in full force, but it at least gives the level designers licence to enliven the series’ basic platforming, which has always been mildly hamstrung by having to control two characters at once.
Battles in the Dream World are similarly altered. They follow the same structure as those in the ‘real’ world, but instead of controlling the bros independently, Luigi merges into Mario, multiplying his every attack. Now when you’ve finished bouncing on an enemy, a rain of ghostly Luigis will follow and pummel your foes, too. Mobs grow correspondingly larger, requiring light crowd management and a change in defensive strategy.
While the real and Dream World playstyles are complementary, aesthetically the latter wins hands down. Yes, the 3D backdrops have a delightful Animal Crossing vibe, but a little antialiasing wouldn’t go amiss to round off ‘straight’ edges that could be mistaken for hacksaw blades. After Luigi’s Mansion 2 and Super Mario 3D Land, it’s also hard not to resent the sprite-based character work, which somehow contrives to look less good here than in the DS games.
Stereoscopic 3D spruces up the workmanlike visuals, and AlphaDream has clearly considered its gameplay potential, too. Enemies can now attack from four directions, and some boss moves recede or advance into the screen – 3D-assisted positioning can provide a mild advantage for both. The Mario bros in turn have special attacks carried out from new vantage points, which is another fresh touch to bolster a formula that’s growing comfortably overfamiliar after three 15- to 20-hour games. The 3D effect’s never forced on you, though, and AlphaDream is smart enough to provide quick toggles where it might clash with control. So you can press R to cancel 3D before the special attack where you tilt the 3DS to gather up a Katamari-style ball of Luigis, then boot the giant green mass at foes.
Throw in the levelling system, ranking system, badge system and a closet full of gear, and Dream Team Bros is as systematically rich as this series has ever been. What it isn’t is as laugh-out-loud funny as its forebears, despite a number of lively returning cast members. The Pi’illos’ dialogue is typically a snoozefest, and it’s really only when Bowser shows up with his elite team that the jokes start to hit home, a maddening five to six hours in. Oh, and new baddie Antasma is a poor substitute for Fawful screen time in this or any other world.
Following the excellent Inside Story was always going to be a big ask, so it’s hardly a surprise AlphaDream never quite manages to conjure up anything better than being Bowser. Still, while the comparison to its predecessor does it few favours, rest assured that Dream Team Bros’ additions and curiously entertaining battles do enough to reawaken the desire to see this adventure through to the end.