Pokémon Go Review

Pokémon Go is the Pokémon franchise's first major game for smartphones. Developed by Ingress creators Niantic, the game invites players to search for Pokémon "in the real world", using GPS tracking and augmented reality technology. It was a phenomenal success upon release, earning mainstream media attention the likes of which Pokémon hadn't seen since the fad days and attracting a deluge of nostalgic adult players who'd fallen out of Pokémon after the original Pokémon fervor died down.

The gameplay, for the moment, is very basic. The game shows a map of your surrounding area, with an in-game avatar showing your actual location, and moving around in real life will move your avatar around accordingly. Certain real-life locations - usually public art installations, churches, monuments, libraries, museums, street art and so on - are marked on the in-game map as either Pokéstops (where you can stock up on in-game items, as well as Pokémon eggs that can be hatched by walking) or gyms (which at any given moment may belong to any of the game's three teams, are defended by Pokémon belonging to players from that team, and can be fought by players from the other teams to take them over on behalf of their own team), and you can interact with them by visiting their actual location and then tapping them on the in-game map. And of course, wild Pokémon will spawn regularly in semi-random places around the world, and if you get close enough to interact with one, you can try to capture it by flicking Pokéballs at it before it runs away.

That's pretty much all there is to the game (at least at the time of writing). This isn't an RPG with a story or any kind of end goal; you can set your own goals, or you can simply use it as a bit of spice, fun and incentive to explore your neighborhood, take walks, and meet other Pokémon fans. There's a collection aspect in trying to complete your Pokédex and a competitive aspect in trying to take over gyms for your team, and you can work towards these goals to whatever extent they appeal to you personally, or you can simply keep the app open while you walk to the store or to school or work and catch whatever you happen to bump into along the way. The game doesn't want you to do anything specific; it just offers a Pokémon-themed layer on top of the world, and you can do with it what you wish.

Pokémon Go is a mixed bag of design decisions, some of them great and others less so, and thus I will split my commentary into the good and the bad. I will be focusing on the gameplay here, since that's what the game is really about, and its other aspects are mostly irrelevant in comparison; for the record, though, it looks pretty good (the Pokémon models and animations are the same as in the sixth-generation games, but shaded in a more conventional 3D style), and the music is fine but not very varied.

The Good

The best thing about Pokémon Go is simply that looking for Pokémon, visiting landmarks, using the AR feature to superimpose Pokémon models into your real-life enviroment, and meeting other players on the go is fun. It's a lot more so than I expected before I started playing; I thought it'd get old once the novelty wore off, but there is something simply delightful about hunting down Pokémon on foot: it doesn't matter that the AR is jerky and not that convincing or that the game doesn't have a lot of features. It has its frustrations, but there's a reason it became so popular, and it's that the concept just works. It's not everyone's kind of game, but it has very broad appeal, both for casual players who have never played a Pokémon game before and veterans of the franchise.

As a bonus, Pokémon Go's design makes it a simple, subtle motivational tool. The prospect of finding Pokémon and hatching eggs serves to encourage the player to take more walks, explore their environment, hang out with friends, and just counteract laziness - it's less tempting to put off dull errands when they're an opportunity to walk some kilometers for your eggs or go somewhere you haven't been before that might have new Pokémon, for example.

Locating Pokémon is a bit more difficult but also more exciting than if you could simply see the exact locations of all nearby Pokémon on the map. Finding them by locating a particular Pokéstop or triangulating based on when the Pokémon appears and disappears lends the game more of a sense of adventure and helps make the experience more fun.

The game is free-to-play with in-app purchases, a phrase that makes many gamers shudder, but this aspect is actually very well thought-out and avoids many common pitfalls. There are no countdown timers that can only be skipped by paying money: you can play the game for as long as you want, as obsessively as you want, whenever you want, without ever paying a dime. Paying money does not give you much of an advantage over free players at all: some things might go a bit quicker or require a little less manual work, but you can't simply buy your way to completing your Pokédex or dominating gyms, and the free game experience isn't noticeably limited or stunted at all. You can buy more inventory space, for instance, but the default free inventory capacity is 350 items, which is plenty; you'll have to throw away some Potions every once in a while, but you have enough room for all the items you'll ever really need to carry at once, and while having to keep making room gets a little annoying, it's not so irritating as to be a serious inconvenience or make free players without bag upgrades feel like second-class citizens.

Moreover, the in-game currency that you can buy with real money - Pokécoins - can also be reliably obtained in-game while playing for free: once every 21 hours, you can collect 10 Pokécoins and 500 Stardust (a different currency used to power up Pokémon, which is otherwise obtained by catching Pokémon or hatching eggs and can't be bought for money) for every Pokémon you currently have defending a gym. You don't need to keep a gym for 21 hours, only to happen to currently hold a gym at the time you collect.

This means that even a pretty casual, average player can save up for paid features with a reasonable ease without ever paying actual money, thanks to a series of other smart design decisions in how the gym system works. First, gyms are pretty easy to beat. Particularly once you get good at timing dodges, the player is at a great advantage over the AI-controlled defending Pokémon, allowing you to challenge even gyms defended by Pokémon considerably more powerful than yours and win. Even if the gym is high-level and you can't take down all the Pokémon in it, so long as you can take down one with your team of six, you can slowly whittle it down with enough persistence, since beating any number of Pokémon will bring down the gym's prestige and eventually knock the lower-tier Pokémon out of it. The game design in general encourages gyms changing hands fast: once you've collected your Pokécoins for the day, you gain nothing by sticking around, trying to prevent other players from taking the gym down shortly afterwards or hovering around to retake it as soon as they do, since it'll be 21 hours before you can collect again anyway. And if you find a gym that already belongs to your own team, you can train at it to increase its prestige, eventually leveling up the gym and adding an extra spot for a Pokémon that you can take. All in all, even less experienced players can get into gyms, and if you do it every day, especially if you can get into multiple gyms before you collect, you can buy a premium item or upgrade every week or two without spending any money at all. It's obviously much slower than paying money, but it's an entirely feasible thing to do, and it means that if you do find something like the inventory size sufficiently irritating to really hurt your game experience, you can get rid of that irritant even without paying.

Thus, Pokémon Go is overall the good kind of free-to-play game: it's very playable even without buying anything, and paying only offers mild conveniences and shortcuts, not significant unfair advantages. One of the most popular paid features, the Lure Module, will actually benefit everyone in the area and not just you, which leads to players gathering around clusters of Pokéstops, a couple of them placing lures on the stops, and everyone getting to catch the Pokémon attracted by the lures - it creates incentive for players who want to and can afford it to buy lures, but benefits everyone and enhances the game's social catalyst potential, rather than giving them an edge over free players. Using paid items can be convenient and satisfying - and we all get a sample of them that gives us a feel for it, since they're given to all players on certain level-ups - but it's not necessary to enjoy the game, and the game does not try to extort money out of you by forcing payment for any features or goals. (That is: while you can buy additional incubators to hatch multiple eggs at a time, you will always have a single infinite incubator, so you can hatch eggs just fine forever even if you never buy extras - you just have to walk more since your steps will only count towards one egg at a time. Similarly, while lures and incense attract Pokémon, which is nice, there are no Pokémon that you can only or mostly get from lures or incense - you can just as easily catch 'em all without ever using either.)

The three teams - Valor, Mystic and Instinct - are also well implemented. In the private beta, the teams were simply Red, Blue and Yellow, and when I heard of it from leaks, I felt little incentive to pick any particular one, since they were entirely interchangeable and arbitrary. For the final release, the teams each got a themed name, an associated legendary bird and a leader character with a personality and philosophy, and it's amazing what a difference it makes: suddenly the teams become something you actually start to identify with and get invested in, and it creates an atmosphere of friendly rivalry that ramps up the fun of the competitive aspect. (For most players it's friendly rivarly, anyway - of course, sadly there are always those who take these kinds of things too far. Do not insult or harass people from the other teams! All trash-talking and related memes should be lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek, and everyone present should be in on the joke! Play nice, people.)

The Bad

Pokémon Go's battles are very simplified from the main series games, and that makes sense. The game is aimed at a more casual audience, and main series-style turn-based battles definitely wouldn't work nearly as well here. I do really miss some of the fundamentals of the Pokémon battle system we know and love, though - things like status afflictions, abilities, maybe even stat stages (although that might be pushing it). Using a Butterfree without powders just isn't the same, and there's not much strategy involved in general, which is a shame since one of the first things that drew me into Pokémon was the strategic battling.

And although the mechanics are simplified to be more accessible, Pokémon Go kind of trips over itself in that goal because the game is really not very good at explaining itself to the player. There is no real tutorial, neither of the explicit variety nor the "cleverly guide the player towards figuring out how things work" variety - only a couple of short NPC dialogues that don't actually tell you much. You need to figure out on your own (or, more likely, using internet guides) how gym battles work, how to get a Pokémon of your own into a gym, that you can collect Pokécoins by having Pokémon in a gym, even how to get items from Pokéstops. Heck, I had read lots of internet guides and I still ended up having to ask another player how you actually use a Lure Module (I had been trying to use it from the item menu, but it never worked no matter how close to a Pokéstop I was - you actually need to tap the little white tab just below the Pokéstop's name on the Pokéstop screen). To really make the game accessible for casual players, it should be a lot easier to learn the ropes from the game itself instead of by word of mouth.

The game also suffers from a whole lot of bugs and general user interface issues. Gym battles in particular are exceptionally buggy, although they've gotten somewhat stabler since the game first came out; it's a toss-up whether the messages indicating the opponent is using a charge move will appear before or after they use it or not at all, Pokémon are often shown to take damage only for it to be corrected a few seconds later or even appear to faint when they actually haven't, the charge move bars sometimes get emptied without the charge move actually being executed, and so on. And that's just the gyms.

The user interface issues may be even more painful, though, because at least the bugs are unintended behaviour. Some of the UI, meanwhile, is just poorly designed. Picking your team before a gym battle is incredibly clunky - you have to tap one of the pre-selected Pokémon, then scroll through the lengthy Pokémon list to find the one you want in that slot, then repeat for all the other Pokémon you want to switch out or even reorder, each time starting again from the top of the Pokémon list. And there's no way to check the moves of the Pokémon in this menu - if you want to check, you need to exit the gym, open the Pokémon menu, find the Pokémon, remember which one is which, and then go back into the gym to select the one you want. The natural way to do this would be to let the player simply select six Pokémon off the list, instead of opening the list once for each team slot; perhaps offer "stats" and "use" choices when you tap a Pokémon, with the "use" option adding a marker with a number ranging from one to six indicating what team slot it's in, and then an OK button to start the battle that appears/is enabled once you've selected six.

Now, as a programmer myself I'm guessing the reason the menu is so clunky is that it's just using the exact same view as the regular Pokémon menu, only with a different action on tapping the Pokémon, and that making a new variation of the Pokémon menu that allows selection and multiple options on tap will take a significant amount of work. But it's clearly work that is worth doing, and I suspect the only reason it hasn't been done is that for whatever reason, Niantic considers the gym system generally low-priority for testing and polish - that's the only reasonable explanation for the huge number of gym bugs. All in all, gym battles aren't unplayable, and I enjoy them, but they're extremely noticeably unpolished; they still feel like a feature in the beta phase, not part of a finished product. Pokémon Go just overall doesn't seem very carefully tested or quality-controlled, which really isn't great for an app of its popularity and caliber.

One of the biggest things that bug me about Pokémon Go, though, is simply that its mechanics are a bit antithetical to some of the core themes of the Pokémon franchise. In the main series games, the recurring theme of bonding and love and trust for your Pokémon makes sense, because your average player really does bond with their Pokémon over the course of the game. They probably still have their starter on their team, as well as quite possibly some Pokémon they caught on one of the first routes of the game, and they probably regard them as treasured companions and would be devastated to lose them. That attachment is an important part of what makes Pokémon Pokémon: these monsters aren't just soulless things to fight with, they're individuals and they're your friends.

Almost everything about Pokémon Go, however, encourages the player to regard Pokémon as disposable and interchangeable. Pokémon you catch near the beginning of the game, including your starter Pokémon, are basically worthless: leveling up a Pokémon is expensive (costing both candy and Stardust), and in every way you're much better off just catching a new one at a higher level instead of wasting your time and resources on your earlier catches. Because the primary mechanic of the game is capturing rather than battling or training, you'll be catching hordes upon hordes of Pokémon only to transfer them for candy after a possible throwaway evolution: Pokémon largely become a resource to be farmed. You can mark some Pokémon as favorites, and if you do gym battles you'll probably end up with a regular team of some of your strongest Pokémon that you'll use over and over and serve as your de facto team - but even then, you spend much less time with your battling Pokémon in Go than in the main series games and are more likely to drop them for whatever shiny new Pokémon you catch after leveling up some more, and it takes a toll on how much of a connection you can have to that team. It's understandable that this is how Pokémon Go works - the core mechanic being capture is pretty fundamental to what this game is - but it just feels a little wrong, and I wish the game tried to compensate somehow, perhaps by allowing more interaction with your Pokémon or including more flavor emphasizing Pokémon as living creatures.

Finally, the bad thing about a game set in the real world is that the playability and fun of the game is greatly dependent on your real-life location. I happen to be lucky enough to live downtown, with a Pokéstop reachable from our apartment and oodles of others and various gyms in the vicinity, but other players aren't so lucky, stuck in areas devoid of Pokéstops or gyms, where Pokémon only very rarely pop up at all. This is grievously unfair. There are a couple of advantages to less-populated areas - you have a better chance of keeping a gym for an extended period of time, and research indicates that rarer Pokémon will be attracted by incense if it's used in an area that doesn't normally have any Pokémon - but opportunities to take advantage of them are limited, and they don't make up for the numerous, more fundamental disadvantages.

It makes some sense to try to concentrate Pokémon in populated areas rather than waste computational resources generating Pokémon to appear in deserted wastelands, and it's hard to fault Niantic if there aren't a lot of places that could feasibly be Pokéstops out in the countryside, but something really should be done to make the game more playable for rural players one way or another. At the moment, there is simply nothing to do in the game if you're not near any Pokéstops, gyms or Pokémon, unless you happen to have incense (a premium item). And that means players in inconvenient locations just don't get to do much playing at all.

The Silver Lining

Luckily, unlike the main series games, Pokémon Go is a living, ongoing project. Right now, I love the game and have enormous amounts of fun playing it, but I also find it noticeably flawed in many respects - however, those shortcomings can be worked on and fixed. The game is already a lot stabler, less buggy and somewhat nicer to use than when it first came out - and even just since writing this review, I've been able to remove or soften many of the complaints I originally made here after later updates fixed or mitigated them. The fact it was released in such a flawed state is definitely worthy of some criticism (though I think people are needlessly hard on Niantic a lot of the time), and even new updates still introduce bugs. But I have high hopes for the game eventually refining and polishing the lesser parts of it, adding more features and more to do (Niantic has already confirmed they're working on trading), and generally continuing to improve past what it is today.

And what it is today is still a great time and I recommend it, even if you only play very casually - just don't expect it to be more than it is. Give it some time, though, and it will grow and flourish into something greater.

Page last modified February 21 2017 at 00:03 GMT