Nintendo Switch, I choose you! — Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu! review

Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu is a very curious game. With this new title, Game Freak has spit in the face of their “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra, totally restructuring many core tenants of the Pokémon series. While it initially appeared that these shakeups would be derived entirely from the implementation of Pokémon Go mechanics, Game Freak’s alterations run much deeper. This makes the game hard to evaluate, as many of the factors I view as positive can (and are) just as easily construed as negative. The design of Let’s Go is just as interesting as it is polarizing, so keep that in mind as we proceed.

For as radically redesigned as Let’s Go is, the title takes place in familiar territory: the Kanto region. As a re-imagining of 1998’s Pokémon Yellow, Let’s Go travels along the beaten path in every regard external to its mechanics. If you’ve played the original titles (or even their GBA remakes) the journey out of Pallet Town to the Indigo Plateau won’t surprise, but it will please with its updated aesthetic. Nostalgia is a curious entity, making a lot of older games feel softer around the edges. Usually, returning to nostalgic games are stark reminders of the time in which they were released, but Let’s Go does an excellent job bringing Kanto to parity with the rosy image many people have. This is by far the most cinematic Pokémon game yet, bringing a certain sense of grandeur to the adventure that wasn’t present before.

While Let’s Go is clearly tied to the engine that brought the world of Pokémon to life on Nintendo 3DS, it has been updated in several key ways. While saying this is the first core Pokémon game in HD is stating the obvious, it is worth noting how easy this game is on the eyes. Perhaps the biggest issue with the 3DS Pokémon titles from a visual standpoint is how dull the color palates were. Let’s Go takes this opportunity to rectify that limitation with much more saturated colors and heightened contrast. Everything here pops, and with some key, rendered cutscenes, I was often impressed by how Let’s Go looks. However, the age of this engine does show through at times, with occasionally jagged shadows, sometimes low-poly models, and momentary frame drops. These issues don’t detract from the game’s visual profile on the whole, but they do have me crossing my fingers that Generation 8 utilizes a new engine.

This foundation gets the job done though, and is able to accommodate Let’s Go’s most intensive Go carryover: Pokémon in the overworld. Finding and capturing Pokémon in Let’s Go has been entirely overhauled from past titles. Instead of running around in tall grass in the hopes of triggering a random encounter with a Pokémon, Let’s Go livens up the world by allowing the pocket monsters to plod around in the overworld. Pokémon can now be directly encountered, eliminating this RNG aspect which was characteristic of previous mainline Pokémon games. In my opinion, this is an entirely positive change for the series. Wasting time mucking about in tall grass to try and encounter a particular species just felt archaic, so shedding that design decision is a great quality of life improvement, with the added bonus of making Kanto feel much more lived in as a result.

The changes to catching go beyond the overworld though, as the mechanics of the capture are pulled from Niantic’s Pokémon Go. Instead of battling wild Pokémon to weaken and trap them, Let’s Go simply tasks players with lobbing Pokéballs at the Pokémon. Based on the timing of the throw and the specialized berries you use, catching can be made easier, which is invaluable when squaring off against tougher ‘mons. Some are more squirrely than others, bouncing and flying around the screen, but the gameplay is no more complicated than tossing a Pokéball at the screen.

However, that toss is the core reason that handheld mode is superior to TV mode. Typically, differences between TV and handheld mode on the Switch games are entirely technical. In Pokémon Let’s Go, the difference is in control. To toss a Pokéball in TV mode, you must use motion controls, actually gesturing in a throwing motion. This is functional, but when the target Pokémon leaves the center of the frame, accurately throwing the ball is a crapshoot. The Switch’s IR camera drifts so much and without a reticle on the screen, I found myself wasting scores of balls just trying to hone in on my target. In handheld mode, Pokéballs can be aimed using gyro control and a free camera, which is far easier to do. This control dichotomy is odd, if these gyro controls were implemented with the Pro Controller, TV play could be on parity with handheld play. As it stands, playing Pokémon Let’s Go undocked is the superior option.

But, the essential question is whether or not this design choice ultimately improves or hinders the Pokémon experience. In theory, I believe this is a blanket improvement. This method streamlines Pokémon capture and gives this aspect of gameplay a different profile than trainer battles, as catching Pokémon used to feel hardly different than straight battling. This choice also speeds up level-grinding because of how experience is awarded in Let’s Go. Based on how skillful the throw is and the number of Pokémon that have been caught in a row, among other factors, the net experience gain can quickly raise a team of six. Like I said though, this is a blanket improvement in theory. In execution, I still find the change on the whole positive, but with unintended consequences. The experience gain from capturing is so wildly above that of trainer battles that taking the time to actually battle through each route is nearly a waste of time. I found myself skipping every optional trainer that I could, because any experience deficit could be quickly made up by chain catching Pokémon.

I enjoy the battling aspect of the Pokémon series quite a bit. But, I enjoy battling in the Elite 4 and post-game, with a fully developed team. The purpose of battling trainers during the main adventure is to strengthen Pokémon, but when the gains from doing so are so nominal, these non-essential battles just feel like a waste of time. Changing the capture mechanics simply pivots the focus away from battling to catching Pokémon–especially when considering the always accessible Pokémon Box (an excellent quality of life improvement!) and stat-raising candies gained from catching Pokémon are taken into account. Again, though, this design change isn’t a negative in my eyes, although it could easily be taken as one. I prefer to raise Pokémon, complete my Pokédex, and shiny hunt instead of battle. So, for me, this shift is preferable.

To speak to the actual mechanics of battle, though, fans of the mainline series will be pleased to hear that the combat is fundamentally unchanged, not lifting Go’s dodgy spam-fest of a battle system. The type-based, rock-paper-scissors strategy gameplay is alive and well here, although it is certainly more shallow than it has been in the past. Without Pokémon abilities or held items, a lot of nuance was removed for the sake of accessibility. This is the one area where I feel that Game Freak undoubtedly crossed a boundary when streamlining Pokémon’s systems. There simply was no need to remove these aspects of gameplay as it really bottlenecks creativity in team composition and strategy. No longer can the Gastly line levitate over ground-type moves, no longer can Snorlax don a Rocky Helmet to chip away at a physical attacker. Within the confines of Let’s Go’s battle system, type matchups are the name of the game, and other means of strategy are either secondary, or omitted at a base level.

As anyone who has sunk their teeth into a Pokémon title before well knows, beating the Elite 4 and becoming the best there ever was is only half the experience. The best Pokémon titles offer a robust suite of activities after the credits roll for players to sink dozens of hours into. Let’s Go’s offerings are, well, hit or miss. The newest addition to the post-game experience are the Master Trainers; people scattered around Kanto who specialize in a single Pokémon. To win their title, you have to beat them at their own game: a one vs. one showdown with the same Pokémon and no items. Each Pokémon in the game has a respective trainer, and each trainer is hidden around the region for you to find. Unfortunately, I find this activity feels like busy work. The issue is that each Pokémon is level 75, so training every single ‘mon in the game to an adequate place to compete is just tedious. Those aren’t the only post-game battles to partake in, though, as familiar faces (which I won’t spoil here!) appear around the region in different places to take on. However, these fights really won’t offer that much replayability, and feel more like homages to the heroes of the past than anything else.

Luckily, the other post-game activities are much stronger. As anyone familiar with the Kanto region knows, there are legendaries to track down and capture. These fights are rather difficult, and against Zapdos alone I had to soft-reset my game three times before I could add him to my Pokédex. To that effect, the Pokédex is once more waiting to be completed, and it has never been easier to do so; especially for the Go players in the crowd. While not relegated to the post-game, as soon as players reach Fuchsia City, any non-event, non-favorited Kanto Pokémon can be brought over from Niantic’s smartphone phenom. While it took me a good few minutes to figure out how to link the two games (primarily because of how unintuitive the smartphone game is!), the process is rather simple once you get the hang of it. For some, this will result in a completed Pokédex before Team Rocket has even been bested. For me, a lapsed Go player, this feature was most useful for covering the list of Eevee-exclusive Pokémon. This is especially valuable considering the lack of a GTS in Pokémon Let’s Go.

The biggest problem with Pokémon Let’s Go is undoubtedly its lackluster online suite. In previous titles, the process of trading and battling with friends and random players was incredibly clear and easy. With the Global Trade Station, players could deposit a Pokémon of their choosing, and request a specific Pokémon in return. With the Battle Spot, players could link up and battle with particular rules. Of course, those modes were purely for playing with randoms online. Playing with friends was even simpler. Unfortunately, Let’s Go throws all that away with both hands, opting for a ridiculous password system that throws friends and randoms into the same aggregator. Players simply chose either Trade, Battle, or Double Battle, and enter a three symbol password. Several times during my adventure, I stopped to trade with my friend, and but when we entered our password, a random person just happened to enter that password as well, intercepting our trade. This is a totally nonsensical method that will seriously limit this title’s online viability.

Even with these shortcomings, I found myself thoroughly enjoying every moment spent with Let’s Go. While the capturing mechanics are undoubtedly pulled from Go, I think that this title’s overall appeal is as well. I very much enjoyed Let’s Go because, like the mobile title, this game is all about the magic of existing within the world of Pokémon. Never before has a Pokémon game felt so teeming with life. I’ve played every title in this series to death. I’ve conquered gym leaders and trained so many competitive teams that I could do so in my sleep. But, the act of just coexisting with Pokémon, seeing them roam around and then capturing them for myself as though they were real creatures and not a set of values to exploit is a remarkably different and satisfying experience.

This was clearly a goal for Game Freak with this title as evidenced by all the small details implemented. Pokémon who walk behind you all have their own gait and will periodically stop and interact with their environment. Your partner Pikachu will play high-five games with you, and react dynamically to events in the story and the world around it. Overworld creatures all behave differently as well: some will charge the player, others will dash away, and some will simply go about their business. This is not a scenario like Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver where Pokémon, even out of their balls, feel static and uninteresting. Pokémon was born out of Satoshi Tajiri’s childhood love for bug-collecting. However, not until Let’s Go has this felt truly realized. Pokémon are finally living, breathing, dynamic creatures.

If you pick up Pokémon Let’s Go hoping for a tough-as-nails, battle-focused experience you’ll walk away disappointed. That simply isn’t the sort of game Let’s Go is. This is a different experience than the core Pokémon titles traditionally offer, but different doesn’t inherently mean worse. The game does make some transcendent missteps, chiefly with controls and its bungled online, but it executes very well on its new mechanics–mechanics that undeniably take center stage here in Pokémon Let’s Go. With that said, battling fans certainly could’ve been thrown a bone by keeping the experience gain high and not removing held items and abilities. If you are able to get over those design decisions, I believe you’ll find a charming, lively romp through Kanto easily worth the price of admission.

A word about the Pokéball Plus, written by Sean Anthony

With the launch of Pokémon Let’s Go Pikachu! & Let’s Go Eevee!, Nintendo decided that with the experimental nature of these titles, it may be appropriate to try an experimental, multi-use controller as well. Enter the Pokéball Plus, which serves as a Pokémon Let’s Go controller, pedometer, and a Pokémon Go accessory all in one.

First and foremost, the Pokéball Plus is a controller used for Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee. It has a lone joystick at the center of the Pokéball with one red button on top. The stick can be pushed in for a second button, which is the one that will be used primarily. For additional options, such as quickly going to the interface to pet your Pokémon, you can shake the controller.

At first, it took getting used to moving around with a small joystick. As I would scroll through the menu, I’d occasionally switch to an option I wasn’t aiming for as I pushed in the stick. Fortunately, most of the menus have a secondary menu to confirm your choice, meaning I rarely had cases where I’d send a Rattata out to face a Dragonite. It didn’t take long for the Pokéball plus to be the most comfortable way to play the game while docked or in tabletop mode, as flicking to catch the Pokémon was simple and highly-calibrated, reacting to how hard you were throwing. Likewise, running through the game was simple enough with one hand.

Catching Pokémon is at its most rewarding when you catch it with the Pokéball Plus. After a Pokéball is chucked at a Pokémon, the light surrounding the joystick lights up with each “shake” of the Pokéball as well as a subtle vibration of the Pokémon trying to escape. When the Pokémon is caught, it will glow green, matching the Pokéball on screen. It’s a nice touch that isn’t necessary, but it enhances the experience nonetheless.

When I’m not playing Pokémon Let’s Go, the Pokéball Plus had another use. I could transfer a Pokémon to the ball (after taking out the Mew that comes with it), turn off the game, and push in the stick to interact with the Pokémon. After it cries out, I could roll the Pokéball Plus around in my hand, hearing the Pokémon react with joy. Unfortunately, you’ll only receive a few cries if you aren’t playing with your partner Pokémon. The partner Pokémon, however, is very expressive.

With a Pokémon in the Pokéball Plus, the controller/Pokémon Go peripheral shines to its truest potential. When you start Pokémon Go, you can connect the Pokéball Plus to your device via Bluetooth, similar to how you connected the Pokémon Go Plus. When Pokémon Go is in sleep mode, the Pokéball Plus will vibrate violently when a Pokémon is near. Pushing in the button on top will throw a Pokéball, and the light around the joystick will light up. After a few flickers, you will see whether or not the Pokémon has been caught. If it blinks red, the Pokémon was not captured. If it flashes rainbow, however, you have a brand new addition to your collection!

With a Pokémon in the Pokéball Plus, you will have the bonus feature of your Pokémon automatically spinning any Pokestops you come across. However, it doesn’t seem to always be successful. After checking my device while in a coffee shop, I noticed that there were two Pokestops near me and my Eevee hadn’t bothered to spin either of them.

At 49.99, the Pokéball Plus may be on the pricey side when it comes to peripherals. But, its uses outweigh this cost, as it can be used as both a controller and a Pokémon Go Plus. Also, it’s the canon size of a real Pokéball, which would be useful knowledge, in some capacity, somewhere. If you can spare the extra money, are an active Pokémon Go player, and want to use a controller that will only be used for a handful of games, the Pokéball Plus may be worth looking into.

Abram is an aspiring games journalist with a soft-spot for titles published by a particular company that starts with N, and ends with -intendo. When he's not playing, or writing about, video games, Abram is most likely ranting to no one in particular about various films he's seen, or grabbing the sketchpad to do a bit of drawing.



Pokémon Let's Go Pikachu

Review Guidelines

Pokémon Let’s Go is a curious game which bucks the established trends of mainline Pokémon titles. The series’ signature, turn-based combat takes a backseat to the experience of simply existing in the world of Pokémon, capturing Kanto’s ‘mons with brand-new, well-executed capturing mechanics. This game lacks many of the “hardcore” features that scores of fans, myself included, have come to expect from a new title. However, in the wake of these features is a Pokémon experience that engaged me in a manner unlike any title in the series’ past.

Abram Buehner

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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