Pokémon Let’s Go Review

In the context of the full ecosystem, including Pokémon GO

In the nineties, when Pangaea was beginning to separate and ancient proto-reptiles began to wonder what waited for them above the surface of the ocean, Pokémon looked a lot different than it does now. It was one of the most-watched shows on broadcast television, the trading card game generated the same amount of fervor as the games it was based on, and Pokémon: The First Movie made over $160 million at the box office. The video games were, of course, the progenitors of the larger Pokémon craze, but they represented only a singular branch of Pokémania. Pokémon was the games, and the show, and the movies, and the card game, and the other spin-off video games, and the toys, and the books, and the t-shirts, and the pillow cases, and the discussions with your friends at recess, and everything. Its cultural saturation was nearly total.

The Pokémon anime and card game both still exist, but both seem to have found much more niche audiences than they once enjoyed (at least in the West). But, while new Pokémon movies may no longer be enjoying standard theatrical releases (with one notable exception), the franchise’s video game arm has remained incredibly strong. Together, the mobile app Pokémon GO and the recently released Switch titles Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu! and Eevee! form the modern Pokémon ecosystem. They are bridged via wireless communication and the Pokéball Plus, a new device that functions as both a Switch controller and smartphone accessory. While the intention seems to be for these games to compliment each other, each filling in the regions of the Pokémon world that the other lacks, Let’s Go, unfortunately, does not hold up its end of the bargain.

Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu! and Eevee!

Offering an ultimately sterile and confounding take on the original games that started it all, I’m not sure I can correctly identify Pokémon Let’s Go’s target demographic. If it’s designed specifically for young children who might never have played a mainline Pokémon game before, why is it a remake of a game that came out twenty years ago? If it’s intended to be for the group of people who grew up in that time period, there sure are a number of suspect design decisions that seem to ignore those players specifically. If it’s meant to simply be an extension of Pokémon GO for fans of that game, it fails in that regard as well.

Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu! and Eevee! are remakes of Pokémon Yellow, but they feel decisively different from anything that has come before them. In order to make sure that the game wasn’t too heady for a casual audience, Gamefreak elected to remove many of the more complex mechanics that the series had accumulated through the years. Held items, battle-altering equipment a Pokémon can wear, abilities, passive buffs and other interesting effects unique to a Pokémon species, and breeding, the process through which players can create new Pokémon with a purposeful array of stats and moves, are all gone. They’ve been present in every entry of the series since their debuts in Gold and Silver and Ruby and Sapphire, which launched in 1999 and 2002 respectively.

A Pokémon game without these elements is necessarily a shallower gameplay experience, but the desire to kill them in the name of accessibility is understandable, if ill-founded. Lowering the skill-floor is a classic game design technique that allows less experienced players to engage in the same window of play as gaming veterans. Let’s Go’s problem is that removing the complexity from a game does not lower the skill-floor; it lowers the skill-ceiling, the maximum amount of depth the player can engage with. While players of previous games may not have fully understood complicated breeding mechanics or what every ability exactly does, playing through the game in complete ignorance of them was always possible and was just as easy to do. Lowering the skill-ceiling but keeping the skill-floor where it is only decreases the full range of play, alienating many of the long-time fans who have devoted time to learning Pokémon’s many idiosyncrasies over the years.

One of the largest changes to the established formula is the new catching mechanic, which is directly inspired by Pokémon GO. In GO, the player sees a Pokémon on the map and can tap it to engage in a catching mini-game. The player can then use their phone’s touch screen to flick Pokéballs at the Pokémon to catch them. The probability of the Pokémon staying inside the ball is determined by a number of factors including swiping technique, timing, what kind of Pokéball is being used, and whether or not a berry was given to the Pokémon. It’s a fairly simple process designed to work within the context of a game entirely about catching Pokémon.

In Let’s Go, the catching mechanic is almost entirely identical, even in ways that don’t compliment its own gameplay. The Pokémon appears in the overworld, allowing the player to choose whether or not they’d like to engage. This is actually a welcome change. It’s nice to see Pokémon existing in nature, walking, flying, or swimming about as they please. Approaching the Pokémon leads to a catching minigame that is almost a carbon copy of how the process exists in GO with one major exception: controls.

In Let’s Go, if you are playing in TV mode, you are required to use motion controls. They are fairly taxing motion controls, as well. In order to lob the ball at the Pokémon, the player is required to do a full overhand throw at a significant speed. This is absolutely unacceptable in a game otherwise obsessed with accessibility. It is almost offensive to me that the developers have undercut themselves in this regard so significantly by limiting TV play to those with perfect motor capabilities. If you can’t throw the ball, the experience simply won’t be available to you.

Like all Switch games, there’s also an option to play the game in handheld mode. Handheld mode still uses motion controls, but they are the much more palatable gyro-aiming controls used successfully in other Switch games like Breath of the Wild and Splatoon 2. The player aims with either the gyro controls or the right analog stick and then presses the A button to throw the ball. If this feature is implemented well enough in handheld mode, why wouldn’t it be an option in TV mode? The game is so insistent that the player play exactly the way Gamefreak intends that using the Pro Controller or two Joy-Cons put together is prohibited. If the Switch is docked, the player may only use a single Joy-Con in the vertical position. They are not even able to use the Joy-Con turned on its side, which would be much more comfortable. The only exception is the Pokéball Plus, which is covered later in this review.

These control issues would be annoying in isolation, but the practice of limiting player choice in favor of forcing one specific (often uncomfortable) way through the game is not isolated. At every opportunity possible, avenues of choice and opportunities to explore have been sanded down in order to make the “correct” way forward more obvious or, in several cases, mandatory.

One of the more egregious examples of this is a new requirement on when the player can take on a Pokémon Gym. Kanto’s eight Gyms are largely the same in terms of their trainers, themes, and locations in the world, but now each have a requirement that the trainer must pass before being allowed to enter. I was turned away from the front door of the Gym on two separate occasions. The first was at Brock’s Gym, a Rock-type focused Gym. I knew it was coming up, so I made sure I had a few moves on my team that could counter it. My Pikachu learned the Fighting-type move Double Kick and Fighting-type moves are super effective against Rock-type Pokémon, so I was excited to use it. The bouncer at the door, however, demanded that I present a Grass or Water-type Pokémon because those are the Pokémon that the game insists you must use to beat the Gym. While it’s true that a well-trained Oddish would have been slightly more valuable than my Pikachu in that situation, the complete dismissal of my personal approach stung.

Later in the game, I was prohibited from challenging Sabrina’s Gym because my Pokémon were simply too low-leveled. It’s likely that I was going to lose that battle considering that the game wanted to see that I had a Pokémon above level 45 and my highest leveled Pokémon was still around level 42, but if that was the case it would have been more courteous to let me try, fail, and learn why I wasn’t ready than to just be told that I wasn’t yet allowed to challenge the Gym.

This kind of design permeates the game. The next critical destination is often more obviously signaled than in the original game and certain areas, including the post-game dungeon Cerulean Cave, have been narrowed so that they may transform from the maze-like puzzles they previously were into pathways that can be quickly walked through. These areas are now definitely easier to get through and, depending on the player’s reception to the core mechanics of the game, that may very well be a positive.

Pallet Town’s same three houses remain as they were in Poké Red, Blue, and Yellow.

It might be surprising, then, that I actually think Pokémon Let’s Go is a good game. Many of the core aspects of the original games that made them as good as they were are still kept in tact; some of the new changes the developers have made are actually pretty neat; and seeing Kanto remastered in HD is nice. The issue here is that everything has come with a significant opportunity cost. Journeying through Kanto has all the same beats you remember appreciating about it 20 years ago, but it’s also much more linear to a fault. Having Pokémon appear more often in the overworld is fantastic, but the way they are caught is incredibly problematic and, even controls aside, is not actually any kind of simplification on the old process of battling and then menuing over to a Pokéball. Kanto is fully realized in 3D now, but still has the same expectation of abstraction that it did on the original Game Boy. Yeah, Pallet Town is no longer represented by pixels, but it’s still just three buildings (i.e. not a town).

Every thing in the game comes at such an obvious and avoidable price that I feel compelled to be negative about it, but when people defend the game as being “fine,” they’re completely right. The poorer aspects of the game are not strong enough to break Pokémon. If you’re looking to have a fun time for about 20 hours and you 1. don’t have any motor disabilities, 2. don’t care about the experience being shallower than most Pokémon offerings, and 3. aren’t interested in heavily comparing this game to its predecessors, Pokémon Let’s Go is absolutely fine. If any of those three disqualifiers apply to you, however, you’ll likely find yourself hoping that director Junichi Masuda’s statement that Pokémon Let’s Go could serve as the base for the next twenty years of Pokémon is without foundation.

Pokémon GO

Upon Pokémon GO’s announcement, much of the excitement revolved around its AR capabilities, layering the Pokémon world on top of the real world. As time has gone on, this has become less of a priority.

When it launched in the summer of 2016, Pokémon GO captured the world. It was impossible to go outside without witnessing a slowly migrating mass of Pokémon trainers, trudging from intersection to intersection with their eyes glued to their phones. By May of this year, it had been downloaded over 800 times. As of September, it had generated more than $2 billion, which is fairly astounding considering that the game is free to download. Clearly the game is a cultural phenomenon and has been very commercially successful, but, through its over two years of life, it’s also grown into one of the most engaging and rewarding games on its platform.

At launch, Pokémon GO was extremely popular, but was plagued with a number of technical and design issues. Servers were constantly crashing and players had a hard time finding a reason to continue playing after catching whichever Pokémon was their favorite. Now, however, these issues are a complete thing of the past.

The servers now work perfectly. Of course, just being able to play a game should be a base requirement and not a celebration, but I certainly can’t say that every online game has this aspect on lock. Even Pokémon GO Fest 2018, this year’s iteration of the game’s big, outdoor, Chicago convention, went off without a hitch in the face of expected failure. Niantic has procurred enough of that special mystery food that servers love to eat and has fed them generously ever since I started playing regularly again earlier this year.

Technical proficiency, however, wouldn’t matter if the game design wasn’t a marked improvement from where it began. Thankfully, it is. In the early stages of GO, the only tangible goal was to fill the Pokédex. At that time, only the first generation of Pokémon were available in the game which amounted to a paltry 151 Pokémon (minus Ditto, Articuno, Zapdos, Moltres, Mewtwo and Mew, who were not yet in the game, for a total of 145 [minus Farfetch’d, Kangaskhan, Mr. Mime, and Tauros, who are exclusive to certain regions of the world and were dismissed by most collectors because of their difficulty to obtain, for a total of 141]). Outside of getting all of the Pokémon available to you, there just wasn’t much to do.

Now, not only are there three more generations of Pokémon available in the game to collect and battle, there are many more entirely different things to think about. Field Research Tasks, micro-challenges like “Throw 3 great throws” or “Earn a candy by walking with your buddy Pokémon,” are now available to pick up at Pokéstops. These tasks supply players with short-term goals that provide direction outside of aimlessly wandering around, hoping for a rare spawn.

In addition to the regular Field Research Tasks, there are also sets of more involved challenges called Special Research. To catch certain Pokémon that don’t appear through the normal course of play, like Mew and Celebi, multi-tiered Special Research challenges can provide a much longer-term goal. Most Field Research can be completed within a day, but Special Research can take weeks or even months to whittle away.

Timed events are a large part of the modern Pokémon GO experience. Some Special Research, such as the Spiritomb challenge given out this October, have been exclusive to certain events, and I’ve been consistently impressed by how strong their impact has been on the community. I like to go downtown to play GO and every single time I do, without fail, I have found other people tapping away at their phones, talking about whatever raid or Research Task they’re working on. Often they’ll offer up “Yeah, I’m trying to hatch these last few eggs for the Celebi Research. What are you doing?”

“Same, actually. Anyway, want to hit that Cresselia raid at the pier?”

Ventura Harbor on Larvitar Community Day, June 16th 2018. Every single person here is playing Pokémon GO and there are plenty more folks just out of frame.

More than anything, Pokémon GO is a social game. The game does not work in less popular areas of the world because of how the servers prioritize regions with high cellular usage, which is a bummer, but if you find yourself in a suburb or a city, I highly recommend booting up the game and seeing where it takes you. The game is still enjoying a very healthy amount of play, so the odds of meeting someone doing the same thing as you are high.

While writing this review, December’s Community Day has come and gone. Community Days are special events where everyone comes out to their local GO hotspots and attempts to catch as many of a certain Pokémon as they can. Usually for a three hour period, Niantic will turn up the spawn rates of a specific Pokémon worldwide. Players will also have the opportunity to catch a “Shiny” alternate-colored version of that Pokémon if luck is in their favor. This last Community Day was unusual in both that it wasn’t a single day and that it wasn’t focused only on one Pokémon. For three full days, the world was flooded with each of the focus Pokémon from all 11 Community Days earlier this year. Players seemed happy to be given another shot at collecting Pokémon from Community Days they’ve missed to be able to share their experience with their friends.

When I say everyone comes out for Community Day, I do mean everyone. While playing Pokémon GO, I’ve met more elderly game players than while doing anything else in my life. In my town, there is apparently a vibrant Pokémon GO community based in the local retirement homes. One man in his eighties, sporting an eccentric Pokémon-themed ensemble complete with a classic Ash Ketchem hat, told me that him and all of his “Poképals” use the game as their form of exercise. GO rewards players who catch at least one Pokémon every day, which the man said keeps him honest with his walking goals.

Finally, my absolute favorite new feature added to Pokémon GO since launch is the raid system. The game’s first trailer had an absolutely bonkers, completely unrealistic scene with a crowd of Pokémon trainers gathering in Times Square to take on a Mewtwo. Upon landing the final blow, the crowd burst into cheers and applause as they all got an opportunity to catch the legendary Pokémon. I remember thinking at the time that the game seemed really cool, but there’s no way it would have the power to do something like that. A Pokémon app can’t transform New York City in its image. Clearly, this was an audacious form of false advertisement… except it wasn’t.

Nearly exact recreations of the Mewtwo scene from the trailer are now officially part of the real game. I’ve participated in raids around that size multiple times since the feature launched last year and it’s one of the coolest things I’ve done in a video game. Watching a small mob form around a virtual Pokémon egg and waiting for it to hatch into a communal target is something you have to see to believe. I’ve been playing video games for over two decades and my first legendary raid was the moment where I finally felt that games had entered mainstream culture in an undeniable way. Looking up from a battle against a Lugia to see a collection of octogenarians, children, soccer moms, businessmen, and full families working alongside you on a singular goal is truly something special.

Sure, the pure gameplay mechanics of Pokémon GO are nothing to write home about. As discussed earlier in the Let’s Go section, the catching mechanic isn’t incredibly deep. The Gym battling and raid system both rely on incessant tapping with little actual strategy to speak of. These things could absolutely be improved, there is no denying that, but they also aren’t the point of Pokémon GO. There are other games that do monster-catching and battling better than GO, but there aren’t any games at all that do what GO does. The closest thing I’m familiar with are eSports tournaments where everyone comes together to play a single game, but eSports crowds don’t take place on every street corner between your house and the mall every day of the week and, although they seem to slowly be getting better about this, eSports tournaments don’t boast the same diversity in age, gender, race, and ability I see all the time while playing GO.

Recently, the ability to trade Pokémon with friends has been implemented and the ability to battle other players is soon to be added. In this way, not only is the game retaining support, entirely new functions are continuing to be added. I expect the game to look radically different in another two years, just as it now looks radically different than it did two years ago, which is exciting. The game will still be played by a significant number of people at that time and it won’t feel stale at all.

Interconnective Ecosystem

Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu! and Eevee! are designed to be the home-console extension of Pokémon GO. For everything GO has gained in its post-release life, it still has no form of story-mode. There’s no narrative through-line. Let’s Go’s intention seems to be to function as the answer to that void, but the two games are less cohered than one might expect.

Players can transfer Pokémon from GO to Let’s Go, but not the other way around. This is a bit frustrating as it makes it so any time spend playing Let’s Go is not able to be translated to GO, but given that GO is based on a relatively strict online economy I don’t think this could have been avoided. If any Pokémon could be shipped into GO without restriction, the act of actually playing GO would be made obsolete.

If the player transfers at least one Pokémon from GO to Let’s Go, they will be given a special item in GO called the Mystery Box. Once per week, the Mystery Box can be opened and used as bait for Meltan, a completely new Pokémon. It’s exciting to see a new Pokémon being presented in this way, but the feeling is a bit diminished by the fact that a Special Research Task also offering Meltan went live on the same day that Let’s Go came out. The Mystery Box isn’t even the only way to catch Meltan and it’s the only benefit GO players get for connecting to Let’s Go.

Multiple Meltan surrounding their evolved form, Melmetal.

The two games’ thematic ties are much stronger than their digital connectivity. Both games appeal mostly to casual audiences, replace wild Pokémon battles with a ball-throwing minigame, and simplify actual battles to a point where strategy is no longer a considerable part of the process, but most of GO’s best aspects seem curiously absent from Let’s Go.

There is no sense of community. This is to be expected from a single-player game, of course, but Pokémon has a history of online battles and trading. Ranked online battles and a Global Trade Center have both appeared in every mainline Pokémon game since Diamond and Pearl in 2006, but are absent in Let’s Go, a game specifically designed to mimic a mobile game that thrives on its online connectivity.

It almost seems as if Gamefreak saw the success of Pokémon GO and ludicrously imagined its good fortune to be based entirely on the way the player manually directs a Pokéball through the air. GO has so many positive elements a core Pokémon RPG could have benefited from, but this is not one of them. Timed events when something strange happens in the world of Let’s Go would have been fantastic. Using GO’s three teams to set up an online system of competition was an idea I had myself. The actual Pokéball mechanics of GO are far from integral to its identity.

Speaking of the Pokéball

The review copy of Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu! Nintendo sent us came bundled with the Pokéball Plus, a device meant to work with both the Switch and mobile games. When being used with the Switch, it takes the form of a Joy-Con. Impressively, the entirety of Let’s Go can be played exclusively with the Pokéball Plus’ two buttons and one analog stick if the player was so inclined to do so. When paired with a smart phone, the Pokéball Plus functions as a Pokémon GO Plus, a similar, previously released device that automatically spins Pokéstops and catches low-level Pokémon while the Pokémon GO app is closed. In addition to those two functions, the Pokéball Plus can also store a Pokémon from Let’s Go so that the player can take them for a walk to earn special items in the Switch titles.

While GO players will likely find the Pokéball Plus to be a very convenient way to stay productive in-game while not having to actively monitor the process the whole time, and while the sounds and vibrations it emits while storing a Pokémon from Let’s Go are charming, the Pokéball Plus functions as a very poor Joy-Con. I began playing through the game using the ball, but ultimately elected to swap over to the standard Joy-Con. The confirm button has been mapped to pushing in the analog stick on the front of the ball. This is very awkward and often leads to my character sharply turning away from object I wanted to inspect just as I’m pressing the confirm button.

On top of that frustration, the game’s user interface does not present differently based on what controller the player uses. When using the ball, it will still ask you to do things like “Press +” or “Y.” The ball only has two buttons and neither are + or Y. The rule of thumb is that clicking in the analog stick is “A,” the top button is either “X” or “B” depending on the context, and shaking the ball is usually “Y,” but sometimes it’s nothing. I had to find all of this out on my own; the game never told me.

There isn’t anything in the game that can’t be done with the Pokéball Plus after enough menuing, but, other than the cute factor, you are far better off using a standard Joy-Con. Not only does it have its controls listed out clearly in-game, it’s also much easier to keep straight during Pokémon catching. Due to being a sphere, the Pokéball Plus has a nasty habit of turning slightly to the left or right in your hand and curving your throw away from center.

It’s worth noting that the Pokéball Plus is the only way to obtain Mew in Let’s Go. At a price tag of $50, the prospect of completing your Pokédex better be pretty important to you.

Conclusion

It’s not difficult to see why Gamefreak and The Pokémon Company would choose to base their current Pokémon ecosystem entirely on GO. Not only is it the most commercially successful venture the brand has had since its Game Boy launch twenty years ago, it’s also grown into an important, continually impressive game in its own right. If Let’s Go is a reflection on what Gamefreak sees in GO, however, they might have a fundamental misunderstanding of what made the mobile game a phenomenon in the first place. Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu! and Eevee! fail both as extensions of Pokémon GO and installments in the main series of Pokémon RPGs. That said, the Pokémon concept is strong enough to not be weighed down too far by the titles’ questionable design decisions. Let’s Go, despite numerous sunk opportunity costs, is still a fun way to spend a few hours. Just an enjoyable time sink, however, is a fairly disappointing way to continue the legacy of one of the greatest mobile games in recent memory.

Review copy of Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu! and Pokéball Plus accessory supplied by Nintendo.