A Grindy, But Unique Experience | Pokemon GO (2019) Mobile Game Review

I passed over Pokemon GO in 2016 when the game launched, mostly because I was already burnt out by the series’ main version games (I have early memories of playing Pokemon Yellow and Silver versions, but I have completed Pokemon FireRed [2004] though Black 2 [2014] versions). At the time of GO’s launch, I was simply Pokemon’d out, and the prospect of playing a watered down smartphone Pokemon game that, at the time, only featured basic Pokemon from the series’ first generation did not appeal to me.

Three years later, I’ve finally picked it up, and it’s probably the only smartphone game I’ll keep playing in the long term, thanks to the game’s constant support and events. The game is essentially a creative way for you to get exercise, as it places you onto a map of the real world in which you’ll have to walk to Pokestops (real world places where you can get items for free) and gyms (places that act as Pokestops in addition to being controlled by the game’s three teams: Valor, Mystic and Instinct), as well as encounter wild Pokemon for you to catch randomly, though unlike the main series games,encounters are completely voluntary.

Pokemon GO is a different sort of Pokemon game. “Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eevee!” takes clear cues from GO, albeit GO is reliant off of a constant internet connection and an accurate GPS.

Your goal is to document each and every one of the over 800 Pokemon that now exist, which the game’s developer, Niantic, sprinkles piecemeal through regular updates, including Pokemon from newer games and they increase the likelihood of certain Pokemon appearing certain days through special events that keep the game interesting.

In addition, you’re given field research tasks that can range from anything as simple as battle in a raid (special battles that close off a gym to challengers, but allow everyone at the gym to battle and then eventually catch a rare or highly desired Pokemon), to catching 108 Pokemon. In exchange, you’re given items, Pokemon, and experience points that would be hard to obtain otherwise. In my opinion, field research tasks are a necessary life support system for the game, as it otherwise is way too unbalanced to the point that its grind is not fun (After level 20, a ridiculous amount of experience points needed to level up, though in fair, the only major incentive to level up is to earn items when you pass from one level to the next).

The battle system is the most jarring thing I found in this game, coming from a main “Version” series fan.

EVOLUTION

Pokemon evolution is a mainstay in the Pokemon franchise, as you often start out with cute, fictional little monsters that eventually grow into something badass, often with an awkward adolescent stage 2 middle phase. In the main series of games, you need to only catch each Pokemon once, as they level up by collecting experience points, which is conventional of RPGs of its genre. Pokemon GO’s evolution system ditches this for that of a nonsensical.

Pokemon don’t collect experience points in GO; only you do as the trainer. Instead, you need to evolve and level them up by collecting candies, which are items when you get by either catching a Pokemon, or transfer one you caught to the professor who directs your field research, Professor Willow. The standard rate for candies is 3 for each catch, and 1 per transfer, though they recently doubled this for a special Halloween promotion which, in my opinion, highlights how unbalanced the game is with its exchange rate.

The game lets you use the touch screen of your phone to throw Pokeballs yourself, which can be neat at times, despite the fact that the traditional way (pressing a button) is more effective and reliable. The game has an unfortunate mechanic where missed balls (balls that fail to even connect with the Pokemon) disappear forever, making Pokemon catching uniquely wasteful.

The issue with the candy system is that it required too much of a grind. A total of potential 4 candies per Pokemon does not seem all too bad at first, but when considering that most Pokemon take anywhere between 25 and 100 candies to evolve, you’ll spend most of your time catching duplicates to get the Pokemon you want. Also factor in that many Pokemon have two or three evolutions, you can see yourself needing as many as 150 candies to finally get the stage 3 Pokemon you’re after.

As such, it takes forever to evolve Pokemon, especially if you play the game casually. And as the game’s Halloween promotion has revealed, it need not be this way — like many limits on fun in smartphone games, the candy thresholds are self-imposed. It’s best to wait for a promotion to pick this game up if you don’t want to waste your time grinding.

BATTLES

There are a few varieties of ways to battle. You can either battle other trainers in person by scanning their QR trainer code, you can battle an enemy team’s gym, you can battle this game’s version of Team Rocket, which is a shadowy organization that takes over random Pokestops whose shadow-infected Pokemon you can rescue; and you can battle rare and desired Pokemon in raid battles. Note: Unlike version games, you DO NOT battle wild Pokemon; you can only catch them in voluntary encounters in which you can throw Pokeballs at them and feed them treats, very similar to the Safari Zone in main Pokemon games — though you can’t throw mud at them!

Get ready for Pokemon combat watered down for the lowest common denominator.

The game’s team dynamic makes the battles worthwhile. At the beginning of the game, you can choose one of three teams to join, who fight for turf in real life, though you can change your team later by buying a pricey item. I joined Team Instinct, mostly because I love its mascot (the Pokemon Zapdos), and because I found the other two teams annoying.

With that being said, the game’s battle mechanics are not good, and are a shadow of a shadow of what you can expect in virtually any other Pokemon game. The battle system comprises of you mashing the screen repeatedly to have your Pokemon do their normal move, which fills up a meter for them to do their special move, which triggers a special attack sequence. It completely guts the good battle system found in their handhelds, and falls short of even the few Pokemon brawlers (i.e. see Super Smash Bros.) that exist.

Auto battle mechanics are popular in RPGs these days, where the computer plays the game for a lazy or inept user. But GO’s battle mechanics are somehow worse than an auto battle feature. It’s a barebones RPG battle system for the lowest common denominator.

OVERALL

Despite its flaws, I must admit that GO has a lot going for it. Once you leave everything you know about Pokemon at the door and play the game by its own terms, its something interesting to do daily when you have the time, and it gives you a great excuse to exercise.

The game is greatly unbalanced, and despite being better than its competition, it still displays toxic psychological tactics that pressure players to spend real world money on it, though its grind and through specific limitations Niantic put on the game to make it less fun, such as the 50 coin daily limit you can get from gyms (you get 50 coins for defending a gym for 8 hours, which you can spend on items in its shop) and the limited bag space it gives you (you start out with 350 slots, which is laughable and has never been a feature of mainstay Pokemon games; it’s an artificial limitation Niantic invented to so it could get away with selling players item slots in increments of 50). But the game gets major points for no popup ads of any kind.

It’s not as good as any mainstay Pokemon game, but it is innovative, unique and is its own thing. It leaves a lot of room for someone else to do this sort of game better, but for now, Pokemon GO remains a classic and one of the best experiences you can get out of a smartphone game.

In the sea of trash that is the mobile games market, Pokemon GO stands out as a single, unexpired piece of food that is surprisingly edible and enjoyable, but would in no way be acceptable for human consumption on a traditional storefront. GO is a mobile wonder that would have been been quickly forgotten about had it launched on the 3DS and the Switch, but for now, it’s a king of a trash dominion, and we love it for that.

Pokemon GO (2019) gets an 8/10

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