Review – Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!

At a bit over twenty-five hours into the game, I’ve reached “The End” for Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! And yet, for the first time in a long time, “The End” doesn’t feel like the true end to the game. I think I’ll still be playing this game–maybe even primarily playing this game–for a while yet.

That level of continued engagement virtually never happens for me, and it should be a clear testament to just how much I enjoyed this game. Sure, I might pursue some end-game content, or tool around in an open-world environment, or eventually restart a new quest in a game with a narrative I adored. But most of the time, I reach the end and very quickly burn out. Right now, I’m eager to keep playing, to battle Master Trainers and defeat the remaining legendary Pokémon and maybe even complete my Pokédex. The fact that a Pokémon game in particular has captured my attention so fully is even more surprising.

54257375_10157311266581518_7867659382169796608_o.jpg
One reason to keep playing: beat this jerk. She destroyed me in my first attempt. What sort of Pikachu uses a move set of Reflect, Toxic, Slam, and Substitute? Not MY sort of Pikachu!

I’ve always been at best a casual Pokémon fan. I was the right age to collect the trading cards, to watch the anime, and to play first the Red and Blue generation and then the Gold and Silver follow-up, but I’ve never fully completed a Pokémon game before. I get bored with them. The franchise nonetheless thoroughly burrowed its way into my childhood such that I like the concept more than the execution, and I can never quite shake my attachment. I am most easily susceptible to nostalgic marketing tools for this franchise over any other. (Star Fox comes close, but I actually like most Star Fox games rather a lot!) So while I lost interest in the Pokémon games after Gen II, I dutifully hopped back into HeartGold and SoulSilver with my wife, walked miles with the Pokémon Go mobile game, and watched Pokémon Origins and Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! I keep getting sucked back in, never more than a casual fan at most, and I’d suspect that my interest waxes and wans in alignment with the broader millennial demographic group.

Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Let’s Go, Eeveeare targeted directly at that mass of casual millennials who fondly remember the games and anime from childhood, but who couldn’t tell you more than a handful (if any) of the Pokémon past the first 151, and who maybe haven’t played a Pokémon game in any form since the first or second generation. The titular exclamation of Let’s Go! is clearly signaling a connection to Pokémon Go, which obviously ignited a resurgence of interest (that declaration might also serve as a plaintive appeal to the potential consumer). It’s like Nintendo, and Game Freak in particular, realized that there was an untapped mainstream audience who could be brought into the Pokémon fold once more, if only the experience could be…more nostalgic, less difficult or alien.

So here we have a two-title lineup, echoing the main series of games, that plays like one-half Pokémon Go tie-in, one-half Pokémon Yellow remake. I should be frustrated by the blatant attempt to exploit my nostalgia to part me from my disposable income. Yet the game perfectly nails a balance of fresh and familiar, easy and deep, casual and involving, and it does seem to be made with genuine love and care. I jumped right in, misgivings aside, and found that I loved the game deeply.

The familiar is obvious. Pikachu, or Eevee, becomes your constant traveling companion as you journey across the land, collecting the original Kanto Pokémon, earning gym badges in an attempt to become the Pokémon Champion, and breaking up Team Rocket operations that often involve anime carry-overs Jessie and James. That description should sound pretty familiar if you have even a passing knowledge of Pokémon Yellow, the Generation 1.5 title that combined elements of Red and Blue with the popular anime. Yet we have a lot of modern advancements–and not just in terms of graphics and gameplay.

54428319_10157311264866518_2122825854206607360_o.jpg

Yes, the graphics are in fact gorgeous, popping with color and contrast. Kanto environments have more flair and characterization than ever before. Pokémon battles have anime-style action betwixt the turn-based strategizing. Pokémon roam the world, true to scale. There’s more than enough nostalgia-bait here, too; not only is the game world that of the original games, and not only do we have the same gym leaders and same Pocket Monsters as the originals, but in-menu monsters and items look like the pixelated sprites of yore, and the monsters have cries that typically sound like the original jagged yowls.

53201033_10157311264911518_6944659992452530176_o.jpg

But the improvements to story, characterization, and pacing were most surprising. For one thing, you develop a lot closer bond with your partner Pokémon, as this Pokémon is always with you, often interacts with you and the world (including in some heartwarming cutscenes), is available to play with in first-person and to dress in cute outfits complete with dozens of accessories, and is the only one to learn (in a separate move list outside of what it uses in battle) the Special Moves that allow you to progress further and interact more with the world around you. You not only spend a lot of time with Pikachu (or Eevee) and get plenty of feedback to show that it cares about you, but you also experience the world through your partner Pokémon. The game design itself forges a close bond between trainer and partner.

But you feel that to some degree with the other Pokémon, too. You can have those currently in your party trail behind you (your partner stays propped on your shoulder). These other Pokémon will react to the environment, seek attention, and discover items–never in an annoying way, and usually triggered by your direct initiation of contact. They follow closely behind, but if their rudimentary path-finding (or simple size) causes them to get stuck, they automatically return to their Poké Ball and reemerge closer to you. So the other team members also feel useful and alive, never annoying, even outside of battle. And over time, with feedback indicating that they care about you, whether by recovering from poison in-battle because they don’t want you to worry (as the flavor text says) or simply reacting to you with a cheery expression and call, you become attached to them too. I became locked into a core team very early on. The first three slots became immutable, and the back end filled with reliable stalwarts I wouldn’t give up for anything by the middle of the game. I could have gone occasionally for more powerful or interesting or varied monsters, but I was simply too invested in my team by that point.

54278056_10157311264871518_3330297102784790528_o.jpg

The human characters are more interesting than before, as well. Instead of a snobbish, short-tempered jerk, your rival is your close childhood friend, someone who challenges you but also supports you. They want to be the best, but they want you to succeed too. I was rather fond of my rival by the end. Blue, the rival from the original games, appears in the first third of the game as an experienced older trainer who takes interest in the two new kids from his hometown. This new take on Blue is wiser and more experienced, but also obviously a good person. Oak is a goofy doof. Gym leaders and others are introduced recurrently throughout the game, so that you view them as unique individuals instead of mere goalposts. The boundaries between “ally” and “enemy” often shift and typically reflect friendly, sporting rivalries. Even Giovanni, leader of the Team Rocket criminal organization, has a clear redemption arc that seems more pronounced than I recall it.

Furthermore, the world just feels more like a lived-in setting. We’ve had a couple decades of Pokémon games that have gradually expanded the universe at this point, and that really pays off with this return to Kanto. There are references to other regions, Pokémon, cultures, and characters outside of the Kanto region, and some Alolan forms of Kanto Pokémon and at least one Alolan character appear in the game. I suppose that achieving this effect isn’t so difficult when the source material’s already there, but the additions do make the world seem larger than what we see in the game, and that’s a nice touch.

It’s the gameplay that is the most modernized and divergent from other Pokémon titles. I loved the changes here, but I suspect that hardcore fans might face these changes with ire. Pokémon battles still play out more or less the same against rivals, but catching Pokémon has been completely revitalized thanks to the influence of Pokémon Go. Now, instead of battling a Pokémon and attempting to capture it when it’s weakened, you simply cast Poké Balls at wild monsters that you encounter. Form matters; at least when playing in console mode with a Joy Con, you swing the controller like you’re tossing an actual Poké Ball, and speed, direction, and timing directly translate to the game actions. While the actual catch chance is somewhat randomized, you can improve those chances by timing your toss to hit a Pokémon in an ever-shrinking ring (if the ball is in a smaller-sized ring, you have more likelihood of success and a better experience bonus on capture) and by using items to calm the Pokémon. Very powerful and rare Pokémon require you to fight them like a normal battle, but rather than having to get them into a sweet spot of weakened-but-not-fainted, you just have to defeat the Pokémon, switching the mode over to the standard catching mini-game after that. While Pokémon appear in the world randomly, they still physically appear, and so you can try to navigate around them if you’d prefer to avoid an encounter. Additionally, it’s always very easy to run from a wild Pokémon encounter. On top of this, your whole party gains at least some experience from every battle and catch, regardless of whether they entered the fray, so long as they’ve not fainted (and it’s easy to transfer Pokémon from team to storage box and back–the box is always available from the main menu). All of these changes combine to virtually eliminate grinding. Not once did I have to churn through wild Pokémon encounters to gain the experience needed to finally take on a gym or the Elite Four. Battles with trainers can often be avoided, but I sought them out–they were fun, and they could be anticipated! No more worrying about random encounters wearing you down in between fights with the NPC trainers. Plus, with Pokémon-catching operating under its own mechanics, the catching and battling systems were sufficiently distinct that they felt like complementing halves to a whole; they never felt like competing areas of interest, and they never wore me down with tediousness and repetition.

I still had Pokémon faint, but I never had a full-team wipe-out. There were some sections that felt like hard slogs–challenges, though not overly challenging. Occasional battles against gym leaders, Team Rocket higher-ups, and the Elite Four were genuine struggles requiring careful strategy and resource management to prevail. Still, while Pokémon has never been the most challenging game, this was in many ways the easiest (and simply most fun) version of Pokémon I’ve ever encountered. And yet it wasn’t so easy as to be uninteresting or unrewarding. I never lost interest, and I had (and have) a constant drive to keep playing and discovering.

With the JRPG random encounters retooled and the grinding eliminated, Let’s Go! became, to me at least, the perfect embodiment of the spirit of the games: a lengthy ode to the joys of childhood exploration. Shigeru Miyamoto famously said that The Legend of Zelda was inspired by his childhood adventures in the outdoors, but Pokémon has always been the game most clearly connected to childhood freedom and imagination for me. The mundane, walking through a grassy field in an abandoned lot, or riding your bike down the street, or taking a trip to the beach, is filled with the pure wonder and spirit of imaginative adventure that I think most of us lose, or find dampened, as adults. Those feelings were rekindled in me in playing this game, and that meant a lot to me–especially coming out of a long winter while dealing with a variety of workplace changes and personal life stressors. It was re-energizing, and I don’t want to leave that behind just yet.

You may or may not have noticed that I have included fewer pictures than usual, and that what pictures are included are not much varied in location or effect. This despite my great affection for the game. The truth is that I just snapped a few pictures at the very end. The game isn’t played using both Joy-Cons. You can activate a second Joy-Con, which acts as the controller for a “support” trainer in encounters, but I didn’t touch it. As I’m right-handed, I relied on the right Joy-Con. My experience with the controller largely felt great; it was pretty responsive and accurate. I just didn’t think to keep the second Joy-Con with me, except for in any given moment when I thought, “Oh, that’d make a nice picture,” but at that point I’d be too absorbed to collect the other Joy-Con. And the capture function, even if playing in single Joy-Con mode, is only available on the left controller (just as the home function is only available on the right). I think the single-controller setup (outside of portable mode, which I haven’t actually played yet) mostly felt good, but the lack of a capture button was a small annoyance–especially since this game fully supports pictures and videos.

On the subject of controllers, I did get the Poké Ball Plus accessory. The ball includes access to release a Mew into your game, but the roughly $50 price point does not justify buying it for that reason alone. As a controller in the game, it feels right for a Poké Ball, but it also felt a little small and unwieldy to use as an actual controller, and its control scheme–with the cancel button on top and the accept button triggered by clicking down on the analogue stick–was a messy nightmare. I didn’t really put much effort into getting comfortable with the toy, especially when the Joy-Con controller worked so well with the game. Unless you for some reason really, really want Mew, this Poké Ball should be passed over. That said, its functionality with Pokémon Go could be redeeming, and the ability to continue interacting with the mobile game even while keeping phone in pocket could make for an immersive and fun experience once we get back to walking weather. If I actually find that I use the Poké Ball for this purpose, then it’ll be a lot closer to worth it.

All in all, I loved this game. I recognize its role as a regurgitated remake in a massive franchise preying on my nostalgia. I can’t get around that fact. But it wasn’t a soulless cash grab. It was a game targeted at my type and made with attention and care. It rewarded my time. Poké Ball accessory aside, this was a meaty and valuable adventure that I’m glad I took. While I can’t speak for hardcore fans, I can fervently recommend this to fellow lapsed millennial Pokémon fans, and I suspect that this could be the game that launches another generation of youthful Pocket Monster loyalists.

DST & Pokémon

I’m not necessarily opposed to daylight saving time. But I am opposed to the back-and-forth tug of the time changes. If we were always in standard time or always in daylight saving time, I’d be happy.

It’s tough enough to get through the looooong winters without having the day snapped back to suddenly return your mornings to darkness once more. At this point, I’ve lived in Indiana long enough that I should be better able to cope. Still, that sudden shift crushes my budding optimism every year. At least in Florida, I’d either be in central time or not quite so far to the west when in the eastern time zone.

I suppose I’m just tired and grumpy this week. I’ll get over it.

But in the meantime, I’m playing Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! It’s really delightful. It’s not exactly a current-gen remake of Yellow–it takes ideas from more recent games, but it mostly still plays like the original. But it certainly is a remake with improvements large and small. The graphics are lovely, the story and characters are improved in a variety of ways, and there are lots of fun changes like actually seeing true-to-scale Pokémon everywhere in the world (random monsters appear in the game world instead of automatically generating a battle). The most radical changes make catching Pokémon quite similar to Pokémon Go, and I rather enjoy this. Trainer battles play more or less like the classic games, and with the switch to a catching minigame with its own separate system, battling trainers and catching Pokémon become two wholly unique processes that keep things feeling fresh while also basically eliminating the need for grinding.

I’m only a casual Pokémon fan, though the franchise has been present in my life since childhood. As such, I’m probably the target audience: nostalgic millenials who didn’t keep up with later generations of the games. But there’s enough, I think, to appeal to hardcore fans and those who have never played anything Pokémon-related before.

The game is fun, colorful, nostalgic yet fresh. It’s as close to pure-spirited as a colossal franchise product like this can be. I’ve only been playing for a couple days, amounting to a few hours and three gyms. But this was exactly the game I needed to help me get through the drag of post-DST March…

Gen Con Week 2017

I wanted to talk about what I really liked about Gen Con, and about this past week in general. But you’ll have to use your imagination a bit. Believe it or not (given the absurd number of blurry bird pictures I’ve posted here), I don’t really take that many pictures. I typically just try to enjoy the moment. So pictures from Gen Con are sorely lacking. No cool pictures of cosplayers, for instance. Then again, if you want pictures of Gen Con cosplayers, I’m pretty sure IndyStar has you covered.

As usual, my wife and I went to a lot of the panels and seminars, especially related to the Writer’s Symposium. It’s been refreshing that every year there is new and different programming; these events haven’t begun to feel stale or repetitive. Highlights this year included a discussion of tabletop game development with transmedia in mind and a fairly intimate panel with authors openly discussing their struggles with depression. As usual, there were interesting panels about diversity and about the writer’s craft, as well: my wife and I especially liked a session on the representation of Arabs and Muslims in tabletop gaming and an early panel on producing novel synopses for popular fiction. Outside of writing panels, I got a kick out of “Metal Church,” a mid-morning Sunday event that explored the intersecting history of heavy metal and fantasy roleplaying games.

Shockingly, one of my favorite events of the convention was the Glitter Guild’s “Nerdlesque” burlesque show on Thursday night. I haven’t really had an interest in burlesque, but my wife has an interest in things like burlesque entertainment and contemporary pin-up art (one of our big purchases from last year’s Gen Con was a massive pin-up print of Leia), and as I mentioned before, I like to encourage her to pursue her passions, so we went. Great show. I think I “get” burlesque more now, as a disinterested observer, than I did in the past. It’s very body-positive, welcoming of people of various ethnicities, body types, and genders. And it’s obviously exhibitionist, but it truly feels empowering to those on stage. Oh, also, it ended with one of the hosts doing a bit as the late great Carrie Fisher as Leia, and I lost it when she strangled an inflatable Jabba the Hutt on stage (okay, maybe you had to be there).

And speaking of sort of off-kilter events, as usual, the Sun King Wednesday evening street party before the official Gen Con opening was great fun. Dragon’s Delight, a “Belgian Golden Ale,” was an enjoyably smooth beer. And “Lez Zeppelin,” the (I kid you not) all-female Led Zeppelin cover band, was actually really good–more than anything else, your mileage may vary depending on how much you like Led Zeppelin to begin with.

Now, this is the third Gen Con we attended (we first went in 2015), and every year we’ve focused more on panels and events than games–even though it’s promoted as the best four days in gaming. That’s not to say that we avoid games; it’s a gaming convention, after all, and we are there because we enjoy tabletop gaming. But we have enjoyed focusing a little more on the writing/design elements of the convention. We always make at least one grand tour through the exhibition hall, though, and we always try to demo some games. This year, our favorite game was 1754, and we bought it after playing (though in full disclosure, I think this was the only game we played in full this year). Great fun, and it manages to capture some of the complicated politics and ultimate futility of the French and Indian War. Plus, it’s easy to pick up, and we already look forward to teaching some of our friends to play.

20170822_191106.jpg

Funny enough, we got to 1754 because we passed the Academy Games booth in the exhibition hall, and my wife was really interested in their Conflict of Heroes: Guadalcanal game. The guy at the booth sold her on trying it out and told us that we could demo the game over in the big game hall space with some generic tickets. So when we finally made it to the game hall, trying this game was our top priority. There was an opening when we got there, but we realized we didn’t have any generic tickets on us. By the time we had the generic tickets, there wasn’t a free game. But we walked around and waited and eventually 1754 opened up. We decided to try it out and loved it.

As usual, a healthy dose of whimsy can lead to exciting discoveries (we love the used roleplaying game store set up in the exhibition hall the past couple years because we always make some serendipitous finds). But on the flip side, we never actually did play Guadalcanal. We finally made a decision for next year. Next year, we’re going to be more proactive. Next year, not only will we get badges early, we’ll actually research some games in advance and sign up for some play times (and so will actually register for the wishlist and buy specific game tickets) so we can try out the games we’re most interested in and maybe play some games we already love.

Outside of Gen Con itself, I had some other fun, geeky things to be excited about this past week.

First, as some or many or most of you may know, Fantasy Flight is publishing a 30th-anniversary version of West End Games’ original Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game! Pretty cool! No, I didn’t play this game. The first Star Wars roleplaying game I got into was the Wizards of the Coast version; I still have mountains (or at least carefully exaggerated molehills) of those source books and supplements. WEG’s version was before my time. But it was such a monumental part of developing early Star Wars expanded lore and keeping the franchise alive between Return of the Jedi and Heir to the Empire (and of course it framed a lot of the lore of Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy). And what a great time for it to return, with the Star Wars universe still relatively fresh post-reboot. The only thing I’m disappointed about? There was a “30 Years of Star Wars RPGs” panel at Gen Con, with Bill Slavicsek, Sam Stewart, Sterling Hershey, and Pablo Hidalgo, and I completely missed out on it. I only became aware of it about an hour after it was over! So that’s another reason why I’m actually going to plan next year’s Gen Con itinerary out a little better…

Second, we live so close to downtown Indy that we just walked to and from the convention center, and this gave me time to play Pokemon Go with my wife. I actually haven’t played in a while. She introduced me to the new raid system, and I familiarized myself with the new gym battle and defense system. Both things are a lot of fun, and I think Pokemon Go is a lot better game now! Even the same tap-tap-swipe combat system feels a bit fresher, as lagging seemed a lot less significant, so I could actually get my combatants to respond to my commands in a timely and useful fashion.

Screenshot_20170817-091646
I sure taught that Magikarp a lesson! We’ve since done raids against Machamp and Cyndaquil, but no legendaries yet.
Screenshot_20170820-200946
Hall of Champions moment. Jesus loves me for this, the game says so.

Third, in related Pokemon news, my wife and I also tried out Magikarp Jump. My god. That game is so cute and so addictive. It’s just a clicky sort of game, no real skill involved, but boy, it can suck you in if you cultivate time and resource management techniques. The combination of feeding, training, and competing, cycling with random events and special encounters to regenerate your ability to do all three, can keep me going for a half an hour or more at a time. Not bad for a stupid little game like this. I had to turn off my notifications for the game so that I wasn’t constantly being tempted for “just a few more minutes” of training.

Fourth and finally, all the extra walking from the past week yielded a new bird sighting for me. A lot of little birds were freaking out with alarm calls, flitting all over a tree. Naturally, this caught my attention. Sitting up on a branch was what appeared to be a massive owl, just chilling out in the middle of the day. Frustratingly, I couldn’t get a great look at him, and the pictures turned out even worse. Like that’s going to stop me from sharing, though! To end this post, look upon this owlish majesty:

20170819_185602.jpg

Revised gyms

I’m obviously not the only one who had a problem with the gyms in Pokemon Go. So it’s cool to know that Niantic is changing them (among a lot of other upcoming updates). The new “motivation” system could be an interesting way to make gyms fresh again, with Pokemon becoming easier to defeat and, if I understand correctly, dropping out of gyms as their motivation becomes depleted–although I could see this becoming yet another system to reinforce the heaviest players and biggest payers (given that motivation can be renewed with special items). Maybe this will help fix the gyms, even if combat stays the same, but I have my reservations.

Then again, I’ve once more fallen away from regular Pokemon Go play, so I’m probably not the target audience. Maybe it’s a little silly to demand a space to be carved out for more casual players…

Gym Battles

I never really got into gym battles in Pokemon Go, and maybe I’m fairly alone in that attitude among regular Pokemon Go players. I thought, after playing Pokemon Go more regularly with my walks home from work, that maybe I’d give it another try. But it’s just daunting now. That screenshot up top is of a gym near me, taken at the start of the week. I thought I was doing well when I started catching and evolving Pokemon with CP’s in the mid-1000’s. Boy, do I feel under-powered now.

I guess I have to put in a lot more hours into the game. I’d feel completely discouraged if it weren’t for the fact that I was walking a decent distance anyway. It’s easy to just progress at my own pace, hatching eggs in the background, walking with my Pokemon, occasionally catching something new or checking into a PokeStop.

And I guess there’s an end goal, what with the level cap at 40–for now, anyway. Not that I anticipate getting there any time soon, and I sort of suspect that if I do get there, the goal post will have moved again.

I think it would be nice if there were an easier way to get into gym battling–perhaps some sort of tiering for players of certain levels. Maybe separate gyms for those Level 1 to 10, 11 to 20, 21 to 30, and so on. Otherwise, I think only the most hardcore, determined players (or, to be honest, those who simply have played more consistently since the start of the game) will ever really be all that competitive in taking and keeping gyms.

Okay, now to wrap this post up with a picture of my avatar with my trusty Bulbasaur pal, fittingly named Aizen (after my cat), from the start of this week:

Screenshot_2017-04-23-17-50-34.png