REVIEW | Free to Pokémon
During an otherwise upbeat Nintendo Direct, a moment of terror ensued when Pokémon Shuffle, a free-to-play match three game, was announced for the 3DS. My opinion of these games by and large is that they are poorly paced and even less fun. Still, as the minutes rolled by, that terror transformed into something else: curiosity. Nintendo has a pretty decent track record when it comes to making a concept work better than anyone else. That being said, I began to wonder if somehow Nintendo could apply their magical touch to the free-to-play formula and make it fun. When the game became available, I let my curiosity get there better of me and I tried it out at length. What I ended up with was an unsurprisingly mixed bag that met each of my expectations.
Nintendo went about as casual as you can go with Pokémon Shuffle and ended up making it similar to Puzzles and Dragons, but a lot more simple. It is a match-three puzzle game that allows you to drag the pieces anywhere on the board to match three or more similar symbols, in this case being heads of Pokémon. In each match, you're facing off against a new pocket monster that you have a chance to add to your collection if you defeat it. Each set of three or more you match deals damage to the opponent creature and you can even have type advantages depending on the Pokémon you bring into the match. Some wild Pokémon even have abilities like turning areas into bricks or replacing some symbols with their head instead. No real risks were taken with the design of the gameplay, but it isn't outwardly offensive either.
So far this sounds fairly okay, right? Here's where those delightful free-to-play mechanics start to kick in. Anyone who has played their fair share of freemium games should be familiar with the energy mechanic. For anyone blissfully unaware, this is a gameplay feature that limits the number of times you can play based on a currency you have in-game that regenerates over time. In Pokémon Shuffle, you can play five measly matches before you hit that wall, win or lose. On average, I can breeze through all five of those allotted matches in about ten minutes. Each energy point takes thirty minutes to regenerate, which means I'm done playing after each ten minute session of this game. In a game that features leveling up hordes of Pokémon, this presents a problem.
Still to this day, for reasons unknown even to me, I love grinding in an RPG. The thrill of taking a character who has been over-leveled and just bulldozing enemies is amazing to me. This is simply impossible in Pokémon Shuffle. Every time I pick up the game and see that counter in the top corner, I immediately dissuade myself from going back and trying to gain levels. I press forward instead, since each match I play feels like an important resource I would be squandering by going back. What this ends up meaning is that the game is actively blocking me from playing the way I would like. Of course I could always throw some money at it and keep going, but then I'm paying a dollar for five more matches and I definitely shouldn't squander that on grinding.
There are two major currencies in the game that allow you to do various things. You earn coins naturally while playing the game and once per day for connecting briefly to the internet. These allow you to boost yourself for one match by increasing the damage you do or even increasing your chances of catching a Pokémon if you've already failed the first time. Crystals, on the other hand, give you either additional turns if you fail a match or additional matches altogether. You can earn both of these currencies in-game, but you can spend them much faster.
There are small pieces of a good game here, but each step of the way they are being hindered by its free-to-play shackles. Collecting different Pokémon is actually pretty fun and I get a nice adrenaline boost any time I catch one with a low probability. The art design is also very cute and attractive. I found myself seeking out my favorites from the series and using them, even when they weren't an advantage, just to see their cute little heads on the board. There are even special Pokémon you can only collect for certain periods of time, which is a great motivator to keep you coming back, starting with one of my favorites: Mew. I even spent some of the in-game currency to make sure I was able to catch it. That's the really funny thing about this game, it's actually fairly fun for those ten minutes before the free-to-play wall stops you in your tracks.
I certainly don't think that Pokémon Shuffle is a bad game. On the contrary, stripped of the free-to-play mechanics, I think it could be a decent game. As it stands, this is one title that keeps getting in its own way. This is not Nintendo's first foray into free-to-play, but hopefully it will teach them the lessons they need to improve upon the formula. Until then, I might suggest spending your time with something a little better like an actual Pokémon game or perhaps Majora's Mask 3D.