Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Pokémon: Let's Go, Pikachu!

Pokemon: Let's Go, Pikachu! Box Front

This reviewer will admit he isn’t the biggest fan of Nintendo’s popular Pokémon franchise despite being on the autism spectrum like its creator Satoshi Tajiri, although the announcement that the next set of remakes, based on Pokémon Yellow, somewhat captured his attention with the indication that it would gear towards newcomers, with his experience of the Fire Emblem franchise being similar before he played Awakening. In keeping with the series tradition of One Game for the Price of Two, the Big N divided the latest remakes into two versions on the Nintendo Switch, marking the first mainline series release on a home console (although one can still play it portably). One of the halves of the gameplay experience, Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!, does contain many nods towards first-time players, which is for the most part a good thing.

When starting the game, the player has a choice of several controller options, the left or right joycon (effectively making the game playable with only one hand, perfect for physically-disabled gamers), the Switch Pokéball, or the handheld screen with both attached joycons, no choice available of using the console’s joycons together. Consequentially, one aspect significantly altered is the system of catching new Pokémon, with monsters visible in and around tall patches of grass and consistently so throughout dungeons such as caves. Rather than pitting the player’s primary Pokémon against encountered monsters, the game allows players to use the motion controls of whatever style they select to throw an in-game Pokéball (the player mercifully receiving a liberal amount to start) to try to capture the target.

While the player readies to throw one of a few types of Pokéball, a ring indicates the rate of capture success, red being the lowest and green the highest, shrinking before enlarging. Players can feed prospective Pokémon different types of berries for effects such as slower shrinking of the capture ring and a higher success rate of capture. When the player throws their Pokéball using motion control and hits within the shrinking ring, the game “scores” their throw, the highest result coming from a capture ring of minimum size, and no score provided if the player hits the monster outside the shrinking ring. Sporadically, encountered Pokémon may move around or make an aggressive move, in which case even hitting it with a Pokéball will cause it to bounce off with no capture attempt made.

If the thrown Pokéball manages to suck in the monster, it will fall to the ground where the Pokémon will struggle up to three times before breaking out, necessitating recapture, and unfortunately, the quality of the throw, no matter how great, has no influence upon the success of capture. Furthermore, the motion controls, this reviewer playing mostly with one joycon, can be somewhat finnicky when the player throws to the side (swinging the joycon straight at the screen makes it go forward, and left and right in those respective directions), although playing the game on the Switch in portable mode allows the player to move the screen to allow for a centered Pokéball throw, with most players likely wishing to only throw straightforwardly, else risk wasting Pokéballs.

Should the player succeed in capturing a Pokémon, the game, depending upon the quality of the throw, will award all living monsters in the player’s party of up to six experience, a definite improvement over prior games that reserved experience for those mons that actually participated in combat. Actual battles only come when the player crosses the line of sight of trainers on routes between towns, in dungeons, and in gyms, with players first sending in their default Pokémon, in this version’s case Pikachu, to fight whomever their opponent sends in, with the options of using one of up to four of a mon’s skills of different types, using an item, or switching to an inactive monster, which unfortunately like other series entries wastes the player’s turn, a step down from the superior character swapping systems in other RPGs such as Breath of Fire IV and Final Fantasy X.

After the player selects a skill for their current Pokémon to use, whoever has the highest agility (or if a skill comes with striking first) executes their command firstly, the amount of damage dependent upon a monster’s type, up to two of which they can have, adding a degree of strategy present in prior entries. The death of the player’s monster necessitates them to send out another in its place, although offing the enemy mon rewards those that participated against it a bulk of experience, with inactive mons also receiving a share of points for occasional level-ups, which may come with the opportunity to learn new skills, or cause an evolution into a more powerful form to occur (although certain items are necessary to make evolutions manually occur).

Defeating all an opponent trainer’s Pokémon rewards players with money usable for purchasing consumables in shops, although the death of all the player’s monsters results in some lost cash and a trip to the last recovery facility, where fully restoring mons is otherwise free of charge. Money is a mildly-finite resource, with players who wish to play more conservatively likely wanting to make repeated trips back to recovery facilities should their party suffer at the hands of opponent trainers instead of using items to heal, although the game ultimately allows the player to rematch gym leaders for supplemental monetary gain. In fact, one can potentially make it through the main quest without using or buying items at all except before the final adversaries, the Elite Four.

Those who have extensive experience with previous Pokémon titles might find Let’s Go, Pikachu! to be easy, although this more casual gamer didn’t think it a total cakewalk, given the potential unbalance in leveling (which may necessitate keeping a few dedicated monsters for regular use plus leveling and minimizing “experimental” mon training) and potential for one-hit kills either by the player or the enemy. The issue of swapping mons is also a mark against the game mechanics, with the mon brought in during the middle of a battle totally vulnerable to the opponent’s command for a turn, the potential for an OHKO also existing in such a case. Regardless, the battle system is definitely a step above other mainline entries, despite its flaws.

Control is generally above average, with easy (if a tad clunky) menus, nonproblematic shopping, an always-welcome save-anywhere feature, and few problems figuring out how to advance the main storyline, the in-game map of the world tracking visited routes, encountered towns, and the facilities available in them. Granted, those playing conservatively might find annoying the desire to constantly return to healing facilities after taxing Pokémon battles, and there are things that one can easily overlook without a guide or talking to everyone, such as a Hidden Move (an improvement in Let’s Go being that these don’t consume monster move slots) allowing for instant conveyance between visited towns. On the whole, interaction could have been better, but isn’t a huge detriment.

The weakest link of the Pokémon games has most of the time been their narratives, with the latest round of remakes once more pitting the player’s character against the sinister Team Rocket, with prominent members being Jessie and James. Let’s Go, Pikachu! doesn’t really delve into the organization’s backstory, and the ending of the plotline is generally anticlimactic. The translation, however, is largely polish, as most have come to expect from Nintendo, with only a smidgeon of slightly-unnatural lines. As one could expect, the story isn’t nearly as much of a reason to play the Let’s Go games as much as say, the gameplay.

The soundtrack, however, definitely takes advantage of contemporary console technology, with much of it sounding orchestrated, some pieces such as an early “Polly Wolly Doodle”-esque Route theme sounding whimsical, and the battle themes being energetic and sometimes toe-tapping. The sound effects are largely pleasing, with Pikachu’s voiced cries sounding absolutely adorable, although the unique cries of other Pokémon are digitized, a few actually sounding like they came straight from prior incarnations of the series. Still, that doesn’t much detriment a superb-sounding game.

Let’s Go, Pikachu! further features some of the best three-dimensional visuals in the current generation of roleplaying games, very well replicating the artistic style of the Pokémon anime short of cel-shading, with a noticeable lack of reskins and believable, reasonably-proportioned character and monster models. Environmental textures, furthermore, rarely, if ever, appear blurry and pixilated as they do in other RPGs with similar graphical styles, the only real issue being some minor jaggies that definitely don’t tarnish a superb-looking game.

Finally, the game is of reasonable length, one to two days’ worth of total playtime, with the tagline Gotta Catch Them All goal naturally heightening potential playtime.

In conclusion, Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! for the most part does a great job bringing the series to a new generation of gamers, given its slightly-more lenient gameplay, and superb aural and artistic direction. For certain, however, it does have its issues, such as the potential for unbalanced combat, finnicky motion controls, some features such as the useful Fly Hidden Move being overlookable, and the unengaging narrative. Admittedly, furthermore, those who have extensive experience with prior installments might find it a cakewalk, but this reviewer believes playing a game should never be a chore, and would recommend it especially to those having minimal experience with the series.

The Good:
+Solid strategic Pokémon gameplay with improved catching and leveling means.
+Catchy soundtrack.
+Visuals do a superb job replicating the style of the anime.

The Bad:
-Can still be a little unbalanced, with motion controls potentially finnicky.
-Some features hard to find without using a guide.
-Story isn’t really engaging.

The Bottom Line:
A Pokémon game geared towards newcomers.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 8/10
Controls: 7/10
Story: 6/10
Localization: 9/10
Music/Sound: 9/10
Graphics: 9/10
Lasting Appeal: 10/10
Difficulty: Unbalanced
Playing Time: 1-2 Days

Overall: 8.5/10

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