Pokémon GO Review: Magic From Mediocrity

I don’t think anyone could have anticipated Pokémon GO’s runaway success. What started out as a Google Maps April Fools’ joke has blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon, skyrocketing Nintendo’s value and prompting millions to leave the house to hunt imaginary creatures. I don’t need to tell you this; it’s all over the news, and everyone has heard of “That New Pokémon Thing” by now. What’s incredible about Pokémon GO’s triumph is that it’s all despite the app’s systemic mediocrity, laundry list of technical issues, and overall lack of support from its creators.

After customising your trainer avatar and struggling to find a free screen name, you’ll be guided through catching your starter Pokémon: one of the venerable trio of Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle. Finding and catching Pokémon starts by leaving the house and going for a walk, and when you’re close enough to a Pokémon it’ll pop up on your Google Maps-like interface. Hunting down specific ‘Mon in your area is aided by the “Nearby” feature, which uses a hot/cold approach indicated by the number of footprints beside each individual creature: fewer footsteps means you’re closer.

Once you’re close enough to unveil a Pokémon, the catching process is initiated by tapping the creature on your screen. The game then enters a first-person viewpoint as viewed by your phone’s camera, superimposing the Pokémon onto your camera’s view via AR (or a generic field scene if that’s not your bag). You then fling Pokéballs at your quarry Paper Toss-style to catch it before it runs away, timing your throw alongside a shrinking circle for the best chance at success. There’s no weakening your targets via battle; catching creatures in Pokémon GO is closer to the Safari Zone areas of the main series.

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Levelling and evolving your cast of Pokémon is different to the original games, too. Capturing a creature lands you two currencies: Stardust, a generic resource used to increase your Pokémon’s Combat Power (CP); and Candy, a species-specific resource that is fed to your Pokémon to make them evolve. This encourages catching monsters of the same species repeatedly to accrue enough Candy to power up and diversify your collection of Pokémon. Duplicates can be permanently transferred to this game’s guide, Professor Willow, in exchange for an extra piece of Candy.

Wild Pokémon aren’t the only things you’ll be hunting in your area. Scattered around the map are Pokéstops, which are small landmarks that you check into for items such as Pokéballs, Potions, Revives, and Razz Berries (an item that can be fed to wild Pokémon to reduce the likelihood of their fleeing). These points of interest help give you something to aim for as you amble in search of nearby rarities. Interestingly, I’ve learned a great deal about the areas around my house that I wouldn’t have spotted or sought out otherwise- statues with some unseen detail or graffiti I’ve walked past a thousand times without noting.

Slightly more substantial landmarks, however, are awarded Gym status. This is where battling comes in, acting as the game’s multiplayer aspect. When you reach player level 5, you’ll be able to join one of three teams: Valor, Mystic, or Instinct. Players from each team will fight for control over Gyms for their faction. Training at an allied Gym will increase its level to allow more creatures to be assigned to defend it, while challenging and winning battles at a rival Gym will lower the its level until it’s empty to be claimed for your faction.

Fighting over and claiming Gyms is the game’s most disappointing feature by far; it’s such a poor representation of the main Pokémon series’ battle system. Rather than tactical turn-based battles, Pokémon GO’s fights are a repetitive and boring numbers game. Pokémon CP stats are probably the most important factor in winning a fight. Challenge a gym and you’ll face each of its defending Pokémon in what amounts to a mashfest; prodding the screen doles out your fighter’s basic attack, which charges a special attack that is activated by holding your finger down. Incoming attacks can be dodged through swiping to the side, but to be honest it’s more efficient to mindlessly assault your phone. Type advantages can be leveraged to take down your rivals, but more often than not the creature with the highest CP will win and the random assignment of each Pokémon’s paltry couple of learned attacks is a source of much frustration if you’re trying to play smart.

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The whole Gym-competition process very much favours attackers; defenders can be knocked out of the gym one at a time, and if your Pokémon faint then you can back out to revive them before continuing your assault, meaning with enough healing items you can simply brute-force your way to victory. You’ve also got a team of 6 Pokémon with which to make your assault, which is at least a couple more monsters than the average Gym will hold. This makes it incredibly hard to maintain your hold on a gym for long enough to earn substantial defender bonuses. Needless to say, the whole battling system is mechanically weak and a near-pointless expenditure of time and resources.

Aside from that major mechanical failing, Pokémon GO is absolutely rife with technical issues so ubiquitous that you’ll be hard pressed to find discussion pass without their mention. The game frequently crashes and loses contact with the servers, an issue especially prevalent whilst catching Pokémon. Countless times I’ve had to reset the app as the game freezes on a rattling Pokéball, hoping that either I’ve caught the creature or that it’ll deign to reappear nearby for another chance at capturing it. Checking into Pokéstops frequently doesn’t work, halting your progress as you dumbly swipe at the screen in vain.

The Nearby feature has been broken for over a week now, showing all surrounding creatures as a distance of 3 footprints away. The use of this feature was more art than science when it was actually working due to its vague nature and and the unreliable updating of your location by GPS. Now players are forced to utilise the even more imprecise method of walking in random directions until their desired Pokémon moves to the top of the list, then hoping it springs up in the general vicinity.

It’s a fairly common occurrence for one of the game’s several menus or features to simply not load- arbitrarily locking player out of the Store, refusing to transfer duplicate Pokémon, or failing to load Gym battles. One time for me, after earning enough Pokécoins to make a purchase in the store the game decided to buy double the number of my desired item, effectively stealing my currency. That would be incredibly frustrating had I acquired those coins through microtransactions.

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The most vexing factor in all of this is the almost complete lack of communication on Niantic’s part amidst these ubiquitous issues. Despite Pokémon GO’s overwhelming success, there doesn’t seem to be any substantial effort yet made to patch any technical problems. Servers would frequently break down entirely, often coinciding with the release of Pokémon GO in a new country. A quick check of official Twitter channels reveals a frankly lacklustre level of community interaction and support, the infrequent updates all-but ignoring the slew of problems ailing the app. It’s a situation that makes me wonder if they’re lazy, swamped, or just incompetent. That’s not a good look.

Pokémon GO, then, is a shallow, mechanically unfaithful game in technical shambles.

And I can’t stop playing it.

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Despite its many, many failures and incompetences as a game and product, I’m borderline addicted to Pokémon GO. At time of writing I’ve caught over half of the available creatures. I’ve walked just under 75KM with the app open. The first night I acquired the game I walked around collecting Pokémon until my phone battery died, forcing me to come home. The same thing happened the following night. By the third day I’d acquired a portable phone charger to prevent that from happening again.

Pokémon GO manages, with simple geocaching and jumpy AR that makes the game harder, to inject a sense of adventure and discovery into the mundane real world. It magically invokes the fantasy that’s been the core of Pokémon since the beginning. I’ll run outside or explore new places just because a new Pokémon appears on the Nearby list, and several unintended hours will pass by almost by accident before I reluctantly return home.

Beyond that, Pokémon GO brings people together. On my first night out with the game I met and chatted with 7 strangers in chance encounters as we felt our way through its early stages. “All I want right now is a Dratini”, said one person. “I’ve hear there’s quite a few Dratini on Burley Road”, another chipped in. “Yeah, that’s the word of trainers I’ve met around there”.

Since then I’ve seen untold numbers of people out hunting for Pokémon. The game inspires conversation and co-operation; a Pokémon found in a location is catchable for everyone that stumbles upon it until it despawns. You can acquire Lures to attach to Pokéstops, summoning wild Pokémon to the spot for every player in the area for the next 30 minutes. You’re very likely to collaborate with at least one person in order to find some elusive creature, and in my experience it’s natural and easy. That’s quite something, speaking as someone that suffers from anxiety.

I have some doubts regarding the game’s longevity, but with the right updates I can see playtime stretching from a couple of months to several years. Currently the endgame is basically hatching eggs in the hope of acquiring unfound Pokémon to fill out your Pokédex. There’s a lot of features that I’d love to see: a friends system, trades, breeding, and most importantly an overhaul of the battle mechanics with the option to challenge friends to a fight. I really hope that Niantic listens to feedback and works to make Pokémon GO reach its sky-high potential.

Somehow, somehow, this game is so much more than the sum of its parts. Somewhere between the freezes, server crashes, and mediocre mechanics, there’s a magic to Pokémon GO. With some improvement, it could be the Pokémon game we’ve always wanted.

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