Damn! It’s Pokémon Go!

pokemon_go_logoPokémon Go is without a doubt the most successful game/mobile app that has ever been released in terms of pure downloads. Its release has not been without a lot of issues though, and in many ways, has become a template for how not to do it. A collaboration between The Pokémon Company and Niantic, the game has gotten some mixed reviews over all. Given that Pokémon is one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, so how is it that Pokémon Go has garnered such a backlash? Well, let’s take a look as I review Pokémon Go!

Graphics: Average
There is nothing special about the graphics for this game. They’re competently executed but unimpressive. The Pokémon are recognizable as Pokémon, and the “world” is a stylized render of Google Street Maps or the equivalent from ESRI. It’s not inspiring stuff, and leaves you feeling like you’re wandering around on a huge circuit-board as opposed to traversing the real world.

Gameplay: Poor
Pokémon has had an established system of play since 1996,that has, with only minor tweaks and adjustments, survived the test of time. In the video game world, 20 years of using the same basic system is insanely amazing. Niantic threw most of it away in favour of a hybridization of the existing systems with their engine and systems developed for their previous game, Ingress. The result is a buggy, bizarre mess that fails to deliver the augmented reality experience that long time and even more recent Pokémon fans were looking forward too. The missing aspects of the game (like fighting other trainers), and missing core mechanics (like fighting wild Pokémon to capture them) are severe detractors in this area. While Niantic has promised action on some of these fronts, it’s still up in the air.

Control: Poor
There’s not much to say in this category, given the nature of the game. There are not many controls to work with, and those that exist are buggy and in some cases, questionable choices period (control your Pokémon to dodge incoming attacks? What? Aren’t they supposed to do that automatically?). The GPS is also questionable, even when you’re under open sky and away from trees and buildings, with mine frequently placing me 10 to 30m away from where I actually am.

Cost: Average
The game itself is free, and you get a plethora of starting items and pokéballs. Some items can be purchased from an in game shop via micro-transactions which are relatively inexpensive, but could build up quickly if you don’t pay attention. On a pleasant note, in the weeks I’ve been playing for now, it has been entirely possible to play without spending money (I’m level 7 as of this writing), which indicates, at least right now, that it isn’t a “free to play, pay to win” game.

Diversity: Good
The game allows for a level of customization of your personal avatar that is phenomenal in comparison not just with other apps, but also with full on PC, portable, or console games. There are multiple skin tones, as well as a number of hair and eye colours. The only thing preventing this from hitting “Excellent” is that hair styles and eye shapes are not available, and there’s no height/weight modulation either. That said, it is great to be able to play as a POC as opposed to “generic light skinned kid” as I have in so many other Pokémon games!

Gameplay Rundown:
It’s pretty basic at first, load the app, design your avatar, and go! The essentials of the game is that you walk (a lot), and find random wild Pokémon that you will throw pokéballs at until they either run away or get captured. In a way, it’s like you’re in a giant safari park from any of the games as opposed to looking for “actual” wild Pokémon as you would in the portable games. You go to PokéStops (usually landmarks of some sort) where you can get random basic items and sometimes eggs, and battle Pokémon left behind at Gym locations. To spice things up, they’ve added a team dynamic that opens up after you reach level five as a trainer, allowing you to choose one of three options (Instinct, Mystic, and Valor), who you will represent at said Gyms.

Now, this is where things get sticky. There is no effective tutorial for this game, and the official resources are very poor. The internet is alive with people trying to figure out how to play this game. Further, because of the design choices by Niantic, and their use of their old game Ingress as a template for the Pokémon Go world, there have been some serious issues not just around gameplay, but also around the distribution of Pokémon, PokéStops, and Gyms. So at times, the gameplay mechanics will be frustrating because you’ll be wasting items and resources because you honestly won’t know any better. It’s not enough to make you throw your mobile in anger, but it can be a tick off. There have also been a litany of glitches affecting play that have thrown players for a loop, and those detract from the both the smoothness and fun of the game.

Pokémon Go is not the augmented reality game that players were hoping for, or promised via adverts. Niantic has been, up to this point, writing the book on how not to roll out a gaming app that will be a massive hit. To date, they’ve failed at effective communication, failed to adequately use the resources from previous games to their advantage, failed to conduct a smooth staged roll out, and failed to do the basic sort of research on the Pokémon phenomena that could have prepared them for the reality of this game’s release. The hybridized system is too far from the Pokémon franchise’s established baseline, and the Ingress associations brought a load of biases into the game that should have been avoided.

Overall, the game is okay, but nothing more. It’s fun, you can catch Pokémon, but you aren’t going to get the same thrill of battle, discovery, or challenge that you would from the existing games or from the upcoming Sun and Moon entries into the lineage. Pokémon Go represents a serious divergence, and the current lack of features, figure-it-out-yourself attitude to game mechanics (WTF is Stardust and why do I need it to level up a Pokémon?), and constant glitch issues make it an average, at best, entrant to the franchise. So be aware, it is fun, but just don’t expect to recreate experiences from Game Freak and The Pokémon Company games.

Logo image used is from: http://www.pokemongo.com/en-ca/, used under fair use and for review purposes.