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A couple of weeks ago, I played an indie game called Heading Out. Before you begin, the game asks you to clarify rumours about yourself; First love; Relationship status; Your life’s greatest regret. The first hurdle is exposing your vulnerabilities and from then on it takes you down a winding road of vignettes that speak to your unique story. As I was experiencing this, it reminded me of the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon series. In particular, Explorers of Sky, of which I finished a tear-jerking playthrough at the start of the year.

Each of Chunsoft’s Pokémon games begins with a personality test. This interactive experience is unlike anything you will experience in a mainline Game Freak game. Your ‘aura’ will be read by the Nintendo DS’ capacitive touch screen. You will explain what you would do if you saw a friend crying. Your memory will be percolated by images of you eating sticky ice-cream as a child. You will smell the freshly cut grass from when you last laid down in a park, and many more memories will come to mind. Most of the games in this series begin with a similarly ephemeral and psychedelic experience, and though its primary purpose is to decide what Pokémon you are, it does a whole lot more than just that.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon’s personality test, via DyllonStej Gaming.

Mystery Dungeon games are some of the many spin-offs that allow you to play as a Pokémon, though unlike the others, you will play through an epic narrative that bounces between stopping street-level burglars and fighting against cosmic deities. In Explorers of Sky in particular, you will play through the entire game as a first-stage starter. Imagine a Chimchar or Chikorita squaring up to the God of Time.

If there was ever a Pokémon game that tugged on the threads of your childhood, it would be Explorers of Sky. Your adventure in its world will evoke the most absurd power fantasy possible as you grow from barely being able to hold your own against a Rattata to being able to take on a ‘Monster House’ packed with Dragonites, Salamences, and Tyranitars.

Combat mechanics and gameplay in Mystery Dungeon games are far from spectacular. Elements of turn-based battle are fused with tile-based tactics, and the final result is somewhat like a procedurally generated autobattler. But combat is not the reason I hold it in such high regard. You can thank a tender yet brutal story for that.

Explorers of Sky begins as all the other Isekai’s do, on a beach. You are a Pokémon – whichever the personality test at the beginning has picked for you – and you will soon be introduced to your partner in crime. As your nervous friend babbles about whatever, you will be nagged by a sinking feeling that you are not in fact a pocket monster, but a human. Again, like the combat, the plot beats are nothing spectacular. You will journey through the ranks of the austere Wigglytuff’s Guild, fight crime, and ultimately hunt down the missing Time Gears. As is the case in most games, the plot is a vehicle that serves a purpose bigger than itself. It will carry you through a journey of self-discovery, existentialism and moral purpose, all the while disguising itself as a game meant for seven-year-olds.

This happens almost entirely through your relationship with your Guild partner – a timid little Pokémon with as much self-confidence as a sheet of paper flapping in the wind. You compliment your partner perfectly though. Unlike in mainline games in which you are a blank slate protagonist going about their Pokémon League conquest in relative silence, Mystery Dungeon allows you to express yourself with consequential dialogue choices that have a real impact on the story. Even though it’s hard not to find the dynamic corny at times, it’s just as easy to forgive it thanks to the gallivanting-buddy-cop-drama fun you will enjoy throughout. Change comes through the courage and trust you find in each other’s company, and it’s hard not to see your partner as your best friend before long.

Much of the narrative tension comes through the early introduction of Grovyle. This mysterious outlaw is the early-game antagonist, but quickly adopts a much more significant role in the overarching plot. Both you and your partner will form unique relationships with the character, and it ultimately leads to one of the most heartbreaking situations I have ever experienced while gaming.

Spoilers ahead, although the game is 15 years old now.

Remember how you woke up on a beach all those weeks ago? It’s true that you were once a human, though there’s another bit you missed. You are a human from the future, and Grovyle is your time-travelling partner from all those years ago (away?). You both travelled into the past to prevent a world-ending temporal event from destroying your future, though were both separated in-transit, and you have since been transformed into a Pokémon somehow.

As you edge towards the end of the game, the grave nature of meddling with time becomes apparent. Grovyle must sacrifice itself so that you and your current partner can save the present time. This is only a temporary solution, for you must also return to the future eventually too. When that time eventually comes, your partner must be abandoned and left alone as they had started.

It becomes clear that this is no longer a choice, but a written event that is now inescapable. However you finish the game, it will always be alone. Your final goodbye to your partner will impart onto them your courage, and that’s that. Images of your journey together will flash across the screen, much like the memories evoked in the initial personality test, and they will fade just as fast as they appear.

Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Explorers of Sky is a game as much about friendship as it is about memory. Despite angling itself through chibi pixel art and slapstick comedy, your in-game friendships teach you that life is perpetually fleeting. You will lose love – it will hurt. You will one day hear a cherished voice for the last time, and you will go through your life pining to hear it once more. It doesn’t matter how often you return to the sandy cove you first met. You will never see them again. No more dungeons to be crawled. No more candle-lit conversations. All that remains is fading memory.

I finished my most recent playthrough of Explorers of Sky earlier this year. As a pretty emotionally-illiterate teen, I’d never quite grasped the complexity of what the game shows you. But replaying it again now and having lost family, friends, relationships and more, this was a difficult game to see through to the end. Even still, I’m glad I did. As many tough memories that it resurfaced, there were ten times as many treasured ones.

About the Author

Amaar Chowdhury

Amaar loves retro hardware and boring games with more words than action. So, he writes about them daily.

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