I've said for years that if a good Pokémon game were to come to mobile, I wouldn't stop playing it. Heck, I don't stop playing Pokémon GO, and honestly, the quality of that particular title is absolutely up for debate.
So when Pokémon Masters was announced, I was excited. This isn't Pokémon Rumble Rush, or Pokémon Duel, or any other of the random Pokémon games that abuse the brand name. This seems, on the surface, to be a fully-fledged Pokémon game on mobile devices. And now that the game is finally out and I've put hours upon hours into it, I'm not sure what to make of it.
This is a game of two halves because part of me really quite admires this game in a bunch of ways, and it puts a smile on my face. The other half is painfully unimpressed. So let's begin with the positives before we wind down to some scathing criticism…
How to be a master
Pokémon Masters is a 3v3 RPG battler where you collect Pokémon and trainers to join your team and go through a wonderful story mode filled with characters you've loved for years. Or at least, I've loved them for years, and this is the best they have ever looked.
Trainers and gym leaders that have been Pokémon staples for longer than I can remember are now fully rendered 3D characters, talking about their regions, their Pokémon, their towns, their relationships with other Pokémon characters… it's honestly overwhelming at times. Those small hints that Agatha of Kanto's Elite Four knew Oak have been expanded upon, and so many other small character details have been brought into the fore.
This is a Pokémon game for people fond of the world of Pokémon. Not just how cute Pikachu is, not just the mainline RPGs, but everything. It really breathes new life into the characters you know, and there are even Pokémon Rangers in the game, for all five of you who liked the Pokémon Ranger games.
For a Pokémon fan like me, this is a dream come true, and the fact that the Pokémon battles in this game are more interesting than the likes of Pokémon GO is yet another plus point.
In this game, you battle in 3v3 arenas, and the rules of engagement are closer to real-time battles than your standard turn-based affair. Waiting gives you energy which you can spend on attacks, but smart use of buffs, abilities, and sync-moves will be the way to win.
Battles are nicely animated, just like all of the characters, and the sync-moves are just as flashy as the Z-Moves that you've seen in the mainline Pokémon games. Unfortunately though, too much in battle hinges on what level your Pokémon sync-pair actually is, as opposed to any strategy. No doubt, playing yourself and understanding the battle system is more effective than auto-battle, but it's not amazing.
Ah, this is where get into the criticism. There are very few Pokémon in this game, and of course, a majority of the Pokémon you see are earned through the gacha system. That means spending cash just to get a chance to pull the Pokémon you want.
And those microtransactions have been obfuscated in this game, always a major negative from me. Despite essentially being the same currency, Pokémon Masters separates its premium currency, gems, into paid and non-paid gems. Paid gems can be used for certain event pulls and daily discounts, while non-paid gems will only get you one sync-pair every 300 gems. Essentially, it means that the daily discounts on display are only there to tempt you into paying up, and it's not even very well explained.
Then there's the late game, where the issue of leveling up your Pokémon becomes even more pressing. If you don't grind away in Training mode for level-up items, and other materials to unlock level caps and learn new moves, you won't be able to progress. And you'll be grinding for a long time. In fact, I'm auto battling in the training area right now so I can unlock the level cap on one of my sync-pairs.
It's nice that, as of the time of writing, there's nothing stopping you from going into training mode and endlessly battling to stock up on items and increase the power of your team, but you'll also end up spending more time in training mode than anywhere else thanks to the fact you earn so little money from battles.
Damn it, they were so close. Honestly, they were so damn close to launching a truly great Pokémon game on mobile, but they made it a repetitive grind fest. There's nothing fun about tapping on a battle in training and letting my Pokémon haphazardly battle their way to victory over and over again. Sure, I might complete the next most difficult challenge in co-op story or whatever, but immediately after it'll be back to training to prep the next bunch of sync-pair trainers to do my bidding.
It's incredibly tiring, and oh, the co-op mode you unlock after chapter 10 of the story is more of the same, and not worth getting excited about. Saving you the trouble now.