Pokemon GO started life as a well thought out and genuinely funny April fool’s joke on the part of Google, in which it suggested that they’d partnered with Nintendo and Game Freak to bring a plugin to Google Maps that allowed people to travel to locations and capture Pokemon onto their mobiles from their natural habitats. It’s been quite a while since that video did the rounds, and now Niantic Inc, makers of ‘Ingress’, have attempted to bring that video into reality.
Needless to say, the above announcement trailer for Pokemon GO is something quite far removed from the feel of the product we finally received. Whilst the structure of that title has been approximated, the look and intent to recreate the full original Red and Blue experience by making Pokemon act and behave like real creatures, gathering in their natural areas, is sorely lacking. In fact what’s on display here on modern devices at over 128mb is a considerably more shallow experience than the JRPG that started the catch-em-all craze on just a 2mb Game Boy cart.
Graphically the title abandons the retro look the announcement trailer implied and instead embraces a fully 3D and fully proportioned take on the Pokemon setting, whilst keeping the monsters as you would expect to see them modeled. You create a male or female character under the (brief) guidance of Professor Willow (following the pattern of naming professors after trees; Oak, birch, etc) and selecting from a fairly limiting amount of customization options for your avatar. For the most part the games visuals are surprisingly lacking, given that the world map is literally a 2D representation of the city map you inhabit with your character imposed on your current position. 3D elements such as Pokemon in the area are imposed around you, and gyms or pokecentres are represented too. The game runs at something less than a smooth frame rate and occasionally glitches loading in assets, leading to untextured models appearing on occasion, or invisible pokemon running around. Menus are touch-sensitive and nicely spaced to allow any finger size to interact with them, making for quick and easy navigation. The game isn’t ugly, but models don’t hold up well to being zoomed in upon and it feels like the game is using the camera features to add live backgrounds to combat as a crutch rather than an asset, relying on the ‘but its in our world’ argument.
Sound effects and music are actually quite well implemented and are of a genuinely high quality. The series as a whole has certain recurring themes that the game embraces and even goes as far as to improve upon in some cases. Sound effects are crisp and clear, though most will play the game muted to maintain their battery life, which is a shame as this is the most world-building part of the experience. This games sound design as a whole , coupled with the models of its (not even 151 original) Pokemon selection is the sole reason it’s not hitting the 0 stars mark.
The Pokemon series as a whole hasn’t got a strong narrative past its central theme of ‘get out there and catch them all, defeat the elite 4 and become the best’ and though later games in the series have tried to add more depth to the repeating teams of villains bent on world domination or social/political undertones inherent in a breeding/fighting game, it’s largely a light and breezy experience. GO doesn’t try to achieve any of these things. Past a few moments with Professor Willow, who doesn’t even provide a full tutorial, rather guiding you to make a character and giving you a starting monster to get on with things before vanishing forever. Players are expected to know the concept and get on with things. You can’t really blame the game for that, it’s why we’re all here after all, but perhaps a more full and present tutorial would have been nice? Maybe a help-line in the vein of the phone on the PokeGear from Gold and Silver which allowed you to phone your friends would have been a good way to include a hints and help page. Emulating the experience of using a phone on your phone . . . just saying, it makes sense.
Gameplay then has to become the focus when there’s no story to latch on to, and this is where the game begins to feel a little shallow. You pop up onto a map and walk around until you’re within range of a Pokemon. Tapping it initiates a battle and this consists of you tossing your stock of balls at the monster one at a time with a flick of your finger until it’s caught. There doesn’t appear to be any real skill to this, and some monsters of the same type and level can be caught on the first try or after half a dozen thrown balls. Nor does it matter how accurate you are. I slipped and rolled a ball to the right off screen and somehow caught a Voltorb hovering at the top/centre of my display when half a dozen balls just rolled over or under him when I tried to aim. There are of course hidden stats guiding your success rate, but damn this breaks the immersion. A nice touch is the option to switch to a camera a-la ‘Pokemon Snap’ and capture screenshots, though why this is needed when screen-capture is a built in feature on the games hardware is an interesting quandry. Walking to capture Pokemon should make them feel alive, after all the trailer promised that you’d have to find these monsters in their natural habitats and taking to the fields to find grass types, tracking a single Pokemon down foot by foot. It can be surprisingly annoying when you realize that you’re better off wandering through town, or that you log in to see five of them just sitting around waiting to be caught. There’s no rhyme or reason for Pokemon placement either. I live in a small town in the middle of England and caught 3 water type ocean-themed Pokemon in my first session instead of the grass or city types I was expecting. That was of course before the game froze, threw the entire selection of balls I’d amassed away and crashed, not letting me back on for a few hours. There are MANY bugs in this game, and it’s not well suited for being on a phone which could ring at any moment, crashing it out. The game drains battery life too, much like Ingress before it, which is a pain given that you’re expected to walk around with the game on and open in hand and the ‘battery saving’ mode merely dulls the screen. Trading didn’t make it into the initial release either, but the lack of social features means that this is largely a single player game (no friends list, messaging, fighting or trading folks), with the only real inter-connectivity coming in the form of gym battles. Battle’s aren’t much like they are in traditional Pokemon games. You can only do battle at an enemy Gym, where you’ll challenge its defending Pokemon with a chosen team of six in real-time. Swipe left and right to dodge attacks from the enemy, and tap on the screen to use normal attacks. Type still matters, so keep in mind the strengths and weaknesses of your Pokemon and moves. You can leave one of your own Pokemon at a gym to claim it and earn rewards if it’s not immediately toppled. Due to this lack of combat, and the inability to fight and weaken random monsters you’re instead pressed into a system where you trade in Pokemon you’ve already caught to get candy of a set type to evolve that particular Pokemon. It’s a bit of an ugly mess and means get out there and fling more balls. Eevee get the particular shaft with this mechanic, as you don’t get to pick what evolution of the mega-Pokemon’s wide range. Eggs are found at PokeStops and you can walk around with one to hatch it like in Gold/Silver assuming you’ve placed it into the incubator.
Overall I’m not taken with the lack of depth on offer in Pokemon GO, especially in its representation of our world, which feels like a Google Maps import. For the size of the app on download and the amount of battery power it takes up I’d have liked to see our world rendered as a 2D map and reskinned using the graphics from the classic games or DS era 2.5D maps. The whole of Google Maps managed this with a Dragon Quest swap on a whim, so a game with this much of a budget should be capable of something this simple. I also refuse to accept that a game that’s imported SO MUCH of Ingress can be considered to be in beta as an excuse for its buggy, unstable and plain bad connectivity and design. They’ve literally had years to master this geo-location style and none of that is on show here. The Pokemon IP is what’s really selling this game, not its quality. I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the least polished titles I’ve ever encountered on iOS, and there’s NO inter-connectivity between iOS and Android players, with my wife sitting next to me on her device on the same network in the same location and not being visible on each other’s screens. My game glitched at the ‘choose’ a Pokemon stage and skipped straight to ‘you got Bulbasaur’, no choice, not even the pleasure of flicking a ball at the sucker. There’s very little actual GAME here to play, and really we have to ask ourselves if we’d like or forgive the experience if it weren’t for the Pokemon shell around it. Certainly better and more complete games have launched to no notice at all. Worse, are we telling big studios to drop those experiences and premium titles in favor of vapid, shallow and buggy releases by supporting this kind of rubbish?