This might sound like the understatement of the century, but the best part of Pokémon games are the Pokémon themselves. As much fun as it is to do battle against gym leaders and build up an army of high-damaging beasts, the real joy comes from seeing the titular characters and forming bonds with them. Although it doesn’t quite stick the landing, at its very best New Pokémon Snap understands that dynamic and capitalises on it with some memorable moments and relaxing gameplay.
New Pokémon Snap has you taking control of an unnamed Pokémon photographer as you explore the many locations of the Lental Region in order to capture a look at the Illumina phenomenon. Pokémon games aren’t exactly known for their stories, but there’s really nothing going on here. The overall mystery of why Pokémon are glowing isn’t particularly captivating or explained all that well and save for one cool character cameo, there’s not really a lot here besides some bare-bones cutscenes and minor character interactions. Considering this is the first game in the franchise to have fully voice-acted cutscenes, it feels like a bit of a waste. Granted, the game didn’t really need a story at all, so there are some points for effort.
Right off the bat, I’d say that one of New Pokémon Snap’s biggest strengths is in its presentation. Although the title of “most impressive Switch game” is still Monster Hunter: Rise, I’d honestly say that New Pokémon Snap is one of the best looking games on the console. The Pokémon are the star of the show of course and look fantastic, but just as much effort has been put into their movements and how they react to what the player is doing. The environments are equally gorgeous and just as worthy of taking photos of. Particular mention has to go towards the volcano, beach and forest levels which all had my jaw on the floor the first time going through them. Even the human character models look fantastic, and even if I wasn’t fussed on the story, I still appreciated how good the cutscenes looked. I’m not one for Pokémon graphics discourse (it’s just a tree after all), but I would love it if future games in the series could match New Pokémon Snap.
Although New Pokémon Snap’s looks obviously matter a ton considering its premise, the gameplay is equally as important. Sadly, it’s where I’m a little bit more mixed on the game, with some massive highs and some frustrating lows. At its core, New Pokémon Snap is very similar to the original game, as it has you on a moving track going through an environment and taking photos of Pokémon. You also get a few ways of interacting with the Pokémon, such as throwing fruit at them or playing a little song to make them dance. The only thing you can’t do is change your direction, although you do eventually get the much-needed ability to speed yourself along the track.
Your main objective as a player is to get the best photos possible, as well as filling out your photodex and raising the research level for each environment. You do this by getting different shots of each Pokémon and filling requests for specific photos, and raising the research level will unlock new areas and times of day for you to explore and also increase the number of Pokémon you’ll see. That’s really the main loop here- enter an area, take photos, raise your research level, and move on to the next out of the 11 or so locations to do it all over again.
This may sound a little repetitive, and that’s because it kind of can be if you try and rush it. New Pokémon Snap isn’t a game to be finished in a weekend, it’s one to take your time with and really learn each area. Each level also changes quite a bit between the four research levels, as well as the time of day, so it’s not like it’s bare on content. Sometimes I just wished that the game did away with research levels and left it up to the player to choose whether or not they wanted to sequentially experience each location. Some of the differences between research levels do actually change a lot, but I think I would have just preferred separate courses rather than doing the same thing over and over again.
New Pokémon Snap also breaks up these regular levels with Illumina Spots, special areas that have you focusing in on one Illumina Pokémon. These are the equivalent of boss battles in the Snap universe, and usually have you figuring out a puzzle or two to be able to get a good photo. They’re fun enough and act as a good mixup to the main formula, which you’ll probably need after replaying stages so much.
The big new thing added to the formula are the Illumina orbs. After you’ve done enough in a stage, you’ll get the ability to throw orbs at Pokémon to light them up, as well as being able to use them for certain puzzles. Whether or not they affect a Pokémon isn’t always clear, but the way they’re used for certain environmental actions can be pretty cool to figure out. I do wish it was a bit more clear-cut on whether or not it would affect a Pokémon though, as sometimes it felt like a waste of time chucking them around.
Speaking of throwing things, that actually raises one of my only legitimate gameplay grievances with New Pokémon Snap. Considering how much you’re going to be throwing things, I don’t get why the throwing mechanics are so poorly done. It just doesn’t feel good to throw items, and it doesn’t help that your two throwables have different weight so you’ll find yourself missing stuff constantly. You do get used to it but it can be annoying to deal with and sometimes pretty unclear whether you’re having an impact at all.
Thankfully, the core gameplay mechanic of taking photos is great fun, whether you’re doing it just to relax or if you want to take it a bit more seriously. One thing that New Pokémon Snap absolutely has going for it is good vibes. This is an incredibly peaceful game with charming creatures that you literally just have to take photos of as they look cute. When the game just lets you do this there are some moments of Pokémon magic in there that I haven’t felt for quite a while. Taking a shot of Charmander dancing in a volcano, or Piplup rolling around in the ice, makes it all worthwhile. To be incredibly simple for a moment, throwing fluffruit at Pokémon and seeing their reaction kept me entertained for basically all of my playtime, just because of how pure it is.
On the other hand, you’ve also got tons of secret interactions and Pokémon that require a lot more thinking to find that makes the game appealing to the more hardcore Pokémon fans. I’m personally somewhere in the middle and only freaked out and tried super hard for the Pokémon that were my favourites rather than trying to masterfully capture all of them. For me, New Pokémon Snap was a casual, relaxing, and fun time that was incredibly reminiscent of a Disney World ride.
That makes all of the grinding and progression issues feel at odds with the game’s spirit. New Pokémon Snap has to have one of the rougher first halves to a game I’ve seen in some time. It starts off strong with a great opening level, but you run into the game’s main problems pretty soon after. First of all, the game will ask you to replay each stage at least once to get to research level 2. Then you’ll get the night variant of the stage where you’ll have to get it to research level 2 again, which means replaying it at least once more with no changes. Then you’ll get the Illumina stage if you’ve managed to trigger it within the level, which might need another replay to do.
All of that stuff just needs to be done to even progress in the first half of the game. Later on it gets a bit clearer and easier to do in one or two runs, but at the start it really does feel like a grind. Even then, your post-game mileage will really depend on just how much you feel like replaying each mission. It doesn’t help that you go through each track incredibly slowly until you eventually unlock a boost function, so it definitely drags at times.
There’s also a pretty big issue with relaying to the player what they actually have to do to progress. After a certain point I got into a pretty good rhythm and just wanted to keep going, but I couldn’t trigger the next level for the life of me. Eventually I figured out it was to do with a puzzle I’d missed in one of the levels, but it was never really made clear to me that I even needed to do that. Again, it’s something that’s improved a lot at the half-way mark as you understand the game more, but it’s not easy to forget how frustrating it was for a time.
The funny thing is that as soon as you get past one or two annoyingly vague missions, New Pokémon Snap actually gets a ton better. You unlock a boost function, levels only take one replay to get all of the content for, and the number of Pokémon in each stage increases a lot easier. It also depends on how patient you are. There’s a big chance that you’re not quite as grumpy as me at replaying the same stages and going slow, in which case you’ll be absolutely fine here.
If all you’re looking to do in New Pokémon Snap is take pictures of your favourite Pokémon, then you’re going to have a great time because that is literally what it’s all about, and that’s what it does best. There are moments of genuine Pokémon magic here in an absolutely beautiful game clearly made for the fans, but just be prepared to grind.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Nintendo