Release Date: August 29, 2019 Platform: iOS, Android Developer: DeNA Publisher: Nintendo Genre: RPG
Pokémon Masters has launched on mobile devices, and the big question is this: will this new game reach the same mass audience, and make as much bank, as Pokémon Go has? It’ll take some time to get an answer to that question, of course, which leaves us with another quandary to ponder: is Pokémon Masters any good?
The answer to that second question would be “yes,” but with quite a few caveats. The Pokémon Company and the developers at DeNa have drawn together a massive crossover here, which spans through every era of Pokémon storytelling. That alone, as a core concept, is bound to be warmly received by fans. Certainly, if you’ve been playing through all the classic games recently, you’ll see loads of familiar faces popping up, partaking in battles and interacting with each other in ways you’ve never seen before.
This unprecedented interconnectivity between Pokémon characters is made possible by the game’s story: a brand new island has been created in the Pokémon world, named Pasio, and it is host to a massive tournament where trainers assemble in teams of three to take part in a new form of battling. Because of this, more fan-favorite characters are appearing on Pasio than you could shake a Sudowoodo at.
The player character, whose name and appearance are chosen by you, has also traveled to Pasio to take part in this tournament. As soon as you arrive, the Kanto gym leaders Misty and Brock sign up to be on your team. The more you play, the more characters you can add to your roster. These iconic trainers and their critters are all rendered in eye-pleasing fashion, with an art style that blends the creature sprites from the games with the character designs from the anime series. It’s a really cute visual language, which feels like a definitive and super approachable version of how this world should look.
Each character has one partner Pokémon with them, and these duos are known as “Sync Pairs.” Going into a battle, you’ll be told which types of Pokémon will be most advantageous from a tactical standpoint, and you’ll choose which three Snyc Pairs to send into the encounter. Interestingly, the suggested type match-ups aren’t always the ones you’d expect, with weakness and resistances getting a little bit of an overhaul here. If you’ve been longing for a Pokémon game that asks you to do something a bit different to the usual RPG battles, it’s well worth trying out the Pokémon Masters way of doing things.
With three Pokémon on either team, and with real-time mechanics to deal with, you’ll find yourself switching between your creatures regularly to dish out damage in the most effective way. Unlike the usual turn-based system from the RPG games, here there is a bar at the bottom of the screen – with several notches on it – that charges up while you battle. Each attack has a certain cost, relating to these notches, so you can’t just do any attack you want at any time. You need to wait for the bar to fill up before you do any attacks, with these gaps between violence being the perfect time to use items like potions to heal up your Pokémon.
Each Pokémon also has a special Sync Move, reminiscent of a Z-Move, that will charge up after a certain amount of turns. Getting to grips with this system is a fun way to spend a few hours, and it’ll feel like a breath of fresh air if you’ve been slogging through RPG battles recently. Here, winning a match is all about timing and carefully selecting your next strike, rather than just doling out the same powerful attack again and again. It’s a neat refresh of what a Pokémon battle can be.
However, once the initial thrill of seeing your favorite characters has worn off, and once you’ve fully learned the battle mechanics, you’ll start to notice that Pokémon Masters doesn’t really offer much depth or variety in terms of its core gameplay experience. The option to play in co-op mode offers a bit of a distraction, and there’s always the promise of more content to come, but the main chunk of the game doesn’t feel particularly compelling. You might put it down after a few hours and feel no real urge to pick it up again.
Whether you speed through the main story or take the time to go to the training area or complete side quests between missions, every facet of this game feels like it’s on rails. You’re either clicking through a conversation where you don’t get to make any life-changing choices, or you’re screen-tapping your way through a battle to progress to the next stage. You can also set conversations and battles to play out automatically, which makes it feel like the whole experience is essentially meaningless. It’s fine as a time-sink on a short commute (although the need to be online means that playing it on the subway is impossible), but Pokémon Masters is not a game that encourages a big emotional commitment. If you could time a robot to tap the screen at the right time, you could probably complete the whole thing without even looking at it.
The more you play, the more Pokémon Masters starts to feel like a Gacha game: you can either grind through levels to earn enough diamonds to scout for new Sync Pairs to add to your collection, or you can spend some real-life money to bolster your ranks faster. There’s a definite endorphin rush when you snare a new character, but since all you can do is send them into yet another battle, the urge to spend money on acquiring these new trainers really is minimal. If you could develop a meaningful story with these characters, those microtransactions might look a bit more tempting.
Let’s not forget that the battle mechanics are fun and the art style is great, and you’ve got to applaud the breadth of this crossover in terms of the deep-cut characters that are crammed in. But even with all of that going for it, Pokémon Masters feels far too pre-determined and repetitive to stand next to the classic entries in the Pokémon franchise. Here’s hoping that Pokémon Sword and Shield can scratch the itches that this one missed.