As a lifelong Pokémon fan, I watched with bemused tolerance as Pokémon GO arrived and quickly established itself as the most successful augmented reality game ever (sorry, Ingress). Despite being a die-hard for the franchise, I had exactly zero interest in that particular installment. Don’t get me wrong—I see the various appeals, from the novelty of seeing a Rattata in your front yard, to interest in the technology itself, to nostalgia for childhood experiences with the series, to just an excuse to get yourself out of the house. Those are all completely valid reasons to play a game, and I don’t look down my nose at people who enjoy it. Pokémon GO just happens not to offer the aspects of the series that have brought me back, again and again, for over twenty years.
Those aspects are, in short: appealing narrative and interesting battles. I’ll admit to being pretty hardcore about my Pokémon battles (I used to play competitively online), but ultimately it’s the narrative context rather than the crunchier combat that makes the main series of Pokémon RPGs so much more alive to me than Pokémon GO. See, what I really enjoy is bonding with my Pokémon. To do that, we need to have experiences together. We need to be on a journey. We need to explore together; to get into tough scrapes together; to rely on on each other, face challenges head on, and emerge victorious together. Watching my little battle-babies grow from neophyte newly-caughts to lean, mean, fighting machines, all the while imagining their personalities and our relationship developing (yes, I am this kind of Pokémon nerd) is what makes the games really satisfying and engaging for me. The narrative context the game provides—the innate narrative relevance given to every battle—is what enables that experience. The result is much more immersive for me personally than Pokémon GO, which allows me to catch a Pokémon while walking to the bus stop, but doesn’t provide that narrative context.
So, fine. I prefer the main series games, other people prefer Pokémon GO. To each their own, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. With Let’s Go: Pikachu and Let’s Go: Eevee, the worlds have begun to collide.
In the new Let’s Gos, there are a number of deviations from the standard Pokémon RPG formula. And a lot of them are good! Pokémon can be let out of their pokéballs to follow you around: good! My Eevee perches on my head as I dash from town to town: exquisite. Pokémon encounters are now collisions with actual Pokémon models running around in the tall grass rather than random encounters: debatable, but mostly good. You can freely swap Pokémon out of your party at any time: kind of feels like easy mode, but I can live with it. You can transfer Pokémon between the Let’s Go games and your Pokémon GO app, and there’s a new pokéball peripheral that can be used with both games: not a selling point for me, as someone who doesn’t play Pokémon GO, but sure, why not.
And so we come to the biggest formula change: battles with wild Pokémon have been replaced with a Pokémon GO style catching mechanic.
Boy howdy is this a bad idea. Let me count the ways.
1. The game just went from easy to virtually effortless. Pokémon games have been trending in the easier direction, with increasingly user-friendly mechanics, for years now, and that’s mostly fine with me. The designers have generally done a good job keeping the game accessible to new, younger players, but also interesting for veterans like yours truly. So far, they’ve achieved this by throwing bones to competitive players (like making IV breeding a billion percent easier; if you don’t know what that means, don’t worry about it) even as the game becomes overall less challenging. But removing battles with wild Pokémon basically throws challenge out the window. You can now level your entire party quickly without even fighting battles, and the caves and dungeons like Rock Tunnel and Cinnabar Island (which, to be fair, were probably too hard for the target age group in the original games) have lost their very raison d’etre as challenge zones (a.k.a. crucibles in which the unbreakable bonds of trust between trainers and Pokémon are forged).
2. Catching Pokémon through battle interfaces more naturally (and more interestingly) with the existing gameplay. It increases the value of certain status moves and lower power attacks, forcing players to be more strategic about what moves they keep. It also creates a direct connection between the strength of the Pokémon you have and the strength of the Pokémon you can catch. Catching through battle isn’t perfect—catch rates in earlier games were much too low, making the experience frustrating and unduly difficult—but I’d much rather see the existing mechanic refined rather than replaced with a new one that has no connection to the existing gameplay.
3. You can’t train your Pokémon anymore! Recall: an important draw for this game franchise is the feeling of kinship the player establishes with their Pokémon as they train and fight together. Battling wild Pokémon, whether to make it through a dungeon or just to beef up, is bonding time. Even if it’s sometimes tedious, there’s a satisfaction that comes from watching a Pokémon grow stronger through the blood, sweat, and tears of many battles. Changes like EXP Share and less EXP needed to level up overall were already eating into this, though, again, some rebalancing was definitely called for if you look at early installments in the series. Removing wild Pokémon battles entirely, however, is not just an overcompensation—it’s a straight up removal of core gameplay that was important to the player experience.
4. It leads to narratively inappropriate actions, which can break immersion. Instead of fighting wild Pokémon to level up, the handiest way to train your little ‘mons is just repeatedly catching random wild Pokémon. This makes no sense and is totally out of character. Why would I catch ten Caterpie that I’m never going to use? And how does this make my Eevee stronger? Maybe nobody else cares about this kind of thing, but I’m trying get some role-playing going on over here. I didn’t spend $60 on this game so I could practice a simple timing and oscilloscope control minigame. I coughed up the cash so I could pretend to be a Pokémon trainer. Why are you replacing narratively-relevant gameplay with arbitrary, nonsense gameplay? I’ve spoken at length earlier on how I find the depth of the Pokémon RPGs more engaging than the AR of Pokémon GO, but come on, this is the worst of both worlds.
I’m all for updating the formula. If you want to introduce the pokéball-throwing mechanic on top of the battle mechanic (maybe as a way to mitigate obnoxiously low catch rates through prowess at actual gameplay, hint hint), I’ll give it a whirl. Maybe you do the aiming minigame every time you throw a pokéball (so mechanics like paralysis or sleep become more real, because they make the target, like, literally easier to hit). Maybe fainting a wild Pokémon gives you an opportunity to throw a pokéball, and if you miss or it breaks out, it recovers some HP and you continue the fight. Maybe you can sneak up on wild Pokémon in the field and get a chance to catch them, but if they see you first, you have to battle them. There’s a ton of potential here. And as little interest as I have in the current gameplay pattern of Pokémon GO, I’m also all in favor of augmented reality. Certainly there’s a ton of potential there as well.
I don’t know where the franchise will go in the future. Maybe Let’s Go: Pikachu and Let’s Go: Eevee were really meant more as Pokemon nature walks than legitimate installments in the series, and the next generation will be back to business. I hope that’s the case. What I do know is there’s a lot of new and interesting ground the franchise could explore to increase the sense of immersion that has drawn players to these games since the beginning. No matter what future installments are like, there will probably be curmudgeons like me complaining. Just, do me a favor. Don’t replace the immersive parts of the main series with AR and AR-tie-ins. Combine them to make something new, something that get’s me one step closer to slipping the surly bonds of Earth, and becoming a real Pokémon trainer.