Game Review: Pokemon Quest (Nintendo Switch)
Pokemon didn't appear in the gaming world until I was in college, so I only tangentially understood the appeal of the series. I'm not ashamed to admit I used to watch the cartoons in my early 20's, as did some of my friends, though I never really got the appeal of the games. I understand that the collecting aspect can be really addictive, but the gameplay seemed to be so horribly shallow, with only 3-4 total moves per Pokemon.
By the early 2000's, I put the series on ignore with my only knowledge of it over the past two decades being their representation in each Smash Bros iteration. But Pokemon would once again rear its highly addictive head. But I was not the target this time.
No, the cute and cuddly franchise set its sights on my 5-year-old daughter.
A few weeks ago, I suggested a Pokemon movie to her as we scrolled through the kids section on Netflix. By the end of that movie, she was hooked and within a couple of weeks she had binged the entire original series (we're currently running through them a second time.)
So now with a full-blown Pokemon junkie in my home, I have to find some new ways for her to get her fix. When browsing the Nintendo eShop I found a free-to-play Pokemon game, so with no hesitation I added it to my Switch so we have something to play together.
So after 20 years without touching a Pokemon game, what do I think about Pokemon Quest?
You begin the game with the classic choice of picking your starting Pokemon. Naturally, you can select Pikachu, Squirtle or Bulbasaur. Once you have your first critter, you're brought to your base camp, which is a clearing where your Pokemon can wander about, you can upgrade with artifacts you find and you can cook recipes to attract more Pokemon.
As you explore, you'll find ingredients that you use to cook recipes that will bring more Pokemon to your camp. Just select 5 ingredients, add them to your pot and wait. Normally, your stew will be ready after you've gone out on 4 to 5 expeditions (levels). Once its ready, open the pot and a new Pokemon will wander into your camp and join your team. Its up to you to experiment with combinations of ingredients to figure out what you can make, and what types of Pokemon are attracted to certain dishes. If you just want a shortcut, its probably best to just consult a guide to see what ingredients are required to make the various dishes.
After getting your first Pokemon and familiarizing yourself with base camp, you're able to explore the first area. Each area is broken down into 5 levels, and you can enter any of them that you'd like. They get progressively more difficult, but both its challenge rating and your Pokemon's skill level are plainly visible so you know if you're ready for an area or not. While you begin the game with just a single Pokemon, you can create a team of up to three when you go on an expedition.
The actual gameplay is very shallow, as your Pokemon wander around the map on their own and will automatically attack when they come across other Pokemon. You have the ability to fire off your Pokemon's special abilities (which are each on countdown timers, like attacks or powers in MMOs) or make them scatter to avoid an oncoming attack. In all honesty, the gameplay is simple enough that there's an 'auto' option that just lets you sit back as your Pokemon automatically do their thing.
As your Pokemon explore, they'll take damage which cannot be directly healed. After getting knocked out, they'll revert back into their Pokeball and a recovery timer will begin. When they jump back into action, they'll only have a fraction of their original HP. You only lose the expedition when all three of your Pokemon are knocked out at the same time, so bringing at least one Pokemon with a lot of HP is highly recommended (and I permanently have Onyx on my team for this purpose).
After completing an expedition, you'll be rewarded with experience for your active Pokemon, cooking ingredients and power stones. Power stones are upgrades that you can attach to your Pokemon to greatly increase their HP, attack power and more. Each Pokemon has a grid of slots where you can attach these stones, and as you level them up, you unlock more slots.
After easily getting through the first world, the grind of the game sets in quickly. The difficultly starts to spike in the next two worlds and you'll spend a lot of time grinding to power up your Pokemon or trying to unlock better ones so they can complete these stages. This wouldn't be so bad if the exploration and combat were fun, but when you can essentially click 'auto' and let them do it without your help, the shortcomings of the game shine through. If you look at this game as an action RPG, you're going to be disappointed. However, if you take it as an advanced type of 'idle' or 'clicker' game, it's lack of compelling gameplay is much easier to digest.
I do highly recommend playing the game in handheld mode if you plan to actively control your Pokemon on expeditions. When using the Joycons, you're expected to use a mouse cursor to select the control options on the screen which is too slow and imprecise if you're trying to time and juggle different attacks. Using the touch screen is way more usable, which again reminds us of Pokemon Quest's beginnings as a mobile game.
While its free-to-play, there are paid options to make the game open up more quickly and give you access to better Pokemon and other bells and whistles. One being tickets that are mostly used to speed up cooking dishes. To get a good sized collection of Pokemon without spending tickets is going to take a long time, so you can buy tickets to instantly complete a dish. You're given a good supply of free tickets at the start of the game and can earn more by completing missions and challenges, but if you're impatient you'll run out of them fairly quickly.
Going with a strange, cubic aesthetic, the game certainly has a unique look to it. The worlds, items and Pokemon are all built from cube and rectangular shapes, like legos with rounded edges. It's interesting, but I think I would have preferred a more traditional visual style. For a Pokemon game, the colors are surprisingly muted and undersaturated. I would have expected a much more vibrant visuals.
For the most part, the sound and music fade into the background with tunes that are adequate, but far from memorable. Sound effects are strangely retro, with many of them sounding like they belonged on an Atari 2600. That's not a knock on their quality -- it was an obvious style decision. Its a bit jarring, but unique and strangely fits well with the blocky visuals of the game.
While the game can't shake its mobile app trappings, it does offer a pretty calm and relaxing experience. While I find it far too simplistic for myself, my daughter is more than happy to burn through the same stages over and over again -- swapping out old Pokemon for different ones so (in her words) "they all get a chance to rest."
Its free to download and play, so there's no risk it giving it a try, so as a simple time waster or distraction for adults, or a new Pokemon game for the younger set I think it succeeds at what its designed to do. Keep your expectations in check and you may just find yourself enjoying it's charm.