Pokémon started as two ambitious Game Boy games, and now it's a multimedia wave of products. That's often a good thing for diehard Pokémon fans. It gave us Detective Pikachu, and actual good video game movie, and this adorable Snorlax Build-a-Bear. Recently, however, Pokémon's status as an untouchable pop culture icon has invited more blatantly profit-minded business decisions, such as a new Pokémon game that costs $20 more than usual but won't even let you catch 'em all. Or a mobile games strategy that's increasingly aggressive with microtransactions.
Pokémon Masters is the newest of the franchise's mobile games, and brings all the charm we've come to expect from the series. The problem is what lurks behind that charm. Just like Team Rocket, microtransactions are always right at the periphery of your experience, offering something that's too good to be true.
A Nostalgic-But-Novel Pokémon Journey
Pokémon Masters takes place on the island of Pasio. Your character, a baseball cap wearing kid of vague age, arrives with their Pikachu to take part in a tournament of trainers. If you've played other Pokémon spin-offs, you'll recognize the setting for what it is– different enough to not affect the main series but familiar enough to include classic characters. Famous trainers from all of the past games have gathered to compete alongside with or against you. This is where the game shines.
As the name implies, Pokémon Masters is about the trainers. Each one brings a single signature Pokémon with them. You form teams of three and command all the Pokémon as they fight in real time. The real treat, however, is seeing the trainers come to life. Everyone gets voice acting and animations that suit their character. This is especially a treat for longtime fans, as we finally get to hear the voices of characters that talked in text for two decades. Even player characters get personalities. Seeing Rosa go from a wordless avatar to an actual spunky character is something I didn't even know I wanted.
The Pokémon are no slouches either. They use the same models and cries as Pokémon GO and current console games, but that's perfectly fine. They look as adorable/funny/cool as ever and attack with flashy energy blasts. Special attack animations are a standout, as is the music. It's mostly remixes of main game themes, but they're done very well. Most importantly, all generations of Pokémon are represented. This isn't just an original 151 nostalgia trip, you see characters from all over the series. Overall, Pokémon Masters is excellent on the presentation front. It's probably the first game in the franchise that made me enjoy chilling in a Pokémon center and talking to NPCs.
Battles Remind You That This Is A Mobile Game
This isn't your typical turn-based Pokémon battle, nor is it trying to be. You field three Pokémon, with your three trainers close behind them. This is important to note, because again, this game is about the trainers. They're they're for their partners with an enthusiastic cheer or to activate the special attack animation. Meanwhile, you wait for an energy bar to fill up. When you fill enough sections of the bar, you can choose one of your Pokémons' attacks and a target. When your bar is empty, you wait for it to fill while taking opponents' attacks.
It's a neat take on Pokémon battling, if very streamlined. Each Pokémon has one weakness. Water-types are weak to either Electric-types or Grass. Not both, as is customary in Pokémon. It's one of those "necessary sacrifices" made to keep the game accessible, but it's annoyingly simple to a longtime fan. It's also very slow. Waiting for your bar to fill up so you can attack means a lot of staring at the screen. Later battles do challenge you to use items to power up and heal your Pokémon, but it doesn't totally alleviate this issue of useless downtime. Overall, the battle system serves as a constant reminder that this is Pokémon for mobile. You wait, you tap, you swap in a stronger character as needed. Then you do it all over again for the next fight.
Prepare For Microtransactions, And Make Them Double
If the review stopped here, this wouldn't be so bad. We'd have a colorful tribute to Pokémon's lovable characters with a decent battle system. Unfortunately, there's one rather intrusive aspect to the game we have yet to cover: microtransactions.
As with most free-to-play mobile games, Pokémon Masters awards you a currency that you can spend to recruit more characters. The currency is called Gems, and you get Gems by competing certain tasks or by buying them with real-world money. Here's where it gets sketchy. Pokémon Masters differentiates between your paid and unpaid gems. To get more characters, you use the Sync Pair Scout. The Scout takes 300 Gems for a single character or you can drop 3,000 to summon ten in one go. Completing the story gets you a little under 4,000 free Gems. So you can only do one session of the ten scout after completing all currently available content. The "pity bonus" only kicks in after 134 pulls, so it's not the most generous.
If you have your credit card handy, you can do a daily special of one scout for 100. That offer's only redeemable with Paid Gems, though. Also, a "Launch Celebration Scout" lets you drop 3,000 Paid Gems for ten summons, one of which is guaranteed to yield a rare character. Also of note is that Pokémon Masters developer DeNA dropped a day one patch that drastically increases the amount of another currency needed to evolve Pokémon. You can't even buy this currency. It just makes it so you have to put a lot more time into the game to fully evolve your favorite Pokémon. This double dose of day one updates shows a developer that intends for players to grind and pay, and doesn't seem to mind being obvious about it.
If You're Gonna Play, Play Fast
You can "complete" Pokémon Masters without spending a dime. The characters the story gives you are good enough to get you through. However, you will probably never get the chance to fully evolve a Pokémon you like. You'll also find yourself doing very few scouts. If you want to fully experience this game, prepare to put in time or credit card numbers.
There are more predatory games out there for sure. But the actions taken by the developers on day one show a clear lean towards microtransactions. Even so, the game is already topping App Store charts. The Pokémon brand is just that powerful, and Masters does embrace some of its better aspects. So if you, like me, feel a need to play this game out of Pokémon love, do it quickly. Beat the story and move on. Don't let them do a critical hit on your bank account.
3 Out Of 5 Stars
Pokémon Masters is free to download on both iOS and Android devices.