When Pokémon GO was revealed the internet went crazy at the idea. But, now that Niantic’s augmented reality app is out, it has become such a mobile phenomenon worldwide that it has at last allowed the brand to become mainstream again.
That Pokémon GO is an app that requires you to wander around somewhat aimlessly outside, the enjoyment that you uncover is directly proportional to the time and effort you put in. At least that, and where you live.
The app has you head out and hunt for Pokémon, which are discovered based on the GPS on your mobile. Once spotted nearby, players can then capture them in an initially basic minigame where you are required to excitedly hurl a Poké Ball in their direction without battling. As you walk around, you can discover numerous PokéStops that may be used to gain items and attract Pokémon, and even PokéGyms, but let’s touch on those later.
The crux of Pokémon GO is that it encourages you to abandon your sofa and hunt for Pokémon in the real world, and therein lies the first problem. Those that live in a large town or city can easily find plenty of wild Pokémon, PokéStops and PokéGyms to keep them occupied until their Pokédex is complete. However, those that dwell in more rural areas won’t find nearly as much to discover, which can immediately impact on your early enthusiasm.
Pokémon will appear randomly and are only around for a short time. There locations are typically related to their species, meaning that, for example, you will often find Eevee near parks and Staryu near bodies of water. That doesn’t mean that Pokémon GO won’t throw in a few surprises, such as a Seel suddenly appearing in the middle of a nearby road.
As areas will vary, this will only fuel the sense of discovery as you wander and explore. A ‘Nearby’ function will let you track a nearby Pokémon down based on how many footprints it is away from your current location, which is measured between three to none. Once there are none, you are basically right next to where it will appear in-game. As of when I penned this review, only 145 out of the 151 Kanto Pokémon are available to collect, with Legendary Pokémon Articuno, Zapdos, Moltres, Mewtwo and Mew suspiciously absent. Still, it has been confirmed that there are more Pokémon to come over time.
The PokéStop locations that I mentioned are situated at street art, historic landmarks and local pubs, and, once you spin their icon, will reward you with items. Players can also attach Lure Modules to these, which will increase the amount of wild Pokémon that appear over a 30-minute duration each time. This is where the app’s miraculous social aspect comes into play, as a placed lure will benefit all players who, once they have seen it, will soon swarm to their location.
PokéGyms are our next topic of discussion. Once you reach Level 5, players will be asked to join one of three teams: Team Mystic, Team Valor or Team Instinct. Based on your choice, you can then take on PokéGyms on behalf of your chosen team. These are also based at landmarks, and, when occupied by an opposing team, you can select six of your strongest Pokémon to battle whichever have been placed to defend it.
Battles are far simpler than those that long dominated the mainline series, requiring that players tap their opponent to unleash their main attack. Each Pokémon has a Fast Attack and a Charge Attack, which will hopefully help you topple a PokéGym’s stalwart defenders. When they have been defeated, the PokéGym will lose prestige and often results in a defending Pokémon being returned to their respective owner. Once a PokéGym’s Prestige hits zero, you can place your own Pokémon to defend it in order to take it over for your team. Those on your team can place their own Pokémon in the PokéGym to boost its prestige and, more importantly, you can team up with other players to take over stronger PokéGyms by battling simultaneously.
At present this is the only social aspect that exists in-game, which is perplexing. When you are out searching for Pokémon, at least for now you will bump into other players but there is very little actual interaction in Pokémon GO itself. Niantic has confirmed that trading is coming soon, but that’s all that we know meaning that there is a clear, potentially massive, missed opportunity. This app could already be so much more if there were more social aspects to it, and, at the moment, it feels like a rather solitary social experience which goes against the brand’s origins.
Pokémon GO is free-to-play, but it does have microtransactions. You can easily enjoy it without ever having to spend a penny, especially those that live in an area with plenty of PokéGyms and PokéStops. PokéStops will freely give you key items such Poké Balls and each PokéGym that you control will let you collect 10 PokéCoins per day. These can be spent on purchasable items like Poké Balls, Lure Modules, Incense (which attract wild Pokémon), Egg Modulators and others. Spending real world money will always be an ever-tempting option, and one that will soon add up. 14,500 PokéCoins are the most that you can buy at one time, which will set you back £79.99 ($99.99). Even that amount won’t last players too long, especially for those that are particularly active.
Sadly, the app is ridden with bugs. These range from authentication issues logging into the app, freezing as you try to catch a Pokémon, when you access a PokéStop, or discover a wild Pokémon. If it doesn’t crash at that point, the app may then not register a player’s input or the Nearby function will stop working. Given the worldwide fascination, it is a shame that such issues detract from the enjoyable experience that millions are already having with the app. Let’s hope that these are just teething issues as Niantic roll the app out globally, but the problems will need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
It can’t be denied that the core gameplay experience can be seen as being shallow. Walking around, throwing Poké Balls when necessary, and rapidly tapping the screen at PokéGyms, it certainly won’t sound impressive in conversation. But that simplicity has somehow made the experience irresistible and enticing, encouraging you to wander around your neighbourhood as you try to see if there’s a Growlithe nearby. It is fun through its sense of discovery, even if there is an evident lack of depth at the moment.
While beloved Game Freak director and composer Junichi Masuda has penned music for Pokémon GO, this riffs on old ideas and the wider soundscape underwhelms in how basic it is. The graphical design is minimalist but colourful, with the map having a decent representation of the world around you as it switches between day and night. The Pokémon are cleanly presented, with the background seen in battle instances charming for those that choose to switch off the augmented reality view. However, unlike other spin-off adventures the app’s visuals do feel sterile.