Happy Third Year Anniversary to toatali reviews! It’s been a weird year for the site, but I’m currently happy with the way things are going (although I can’t say I wouldn’t like the viewing numbers to be a bit higher…)
Thanks to everyone for reading and a special thanks to anyone who’s stuck with me for all three years. Enjoy…
I’ve talked extensively about Pokémon in the past, but I don’t think I’ve ever been able to quite nail down what I’ve wanted to say. My thoughts on each Pokémon game are always so conflicted – it’s a series I’ve struggled to encapsulate my opinions of in writing. Nevertheless, a new Pokémon game presents a new opportunity, and so I bought Pokémon: Let’s GO Pikachu on launch day, using a eShop gift card I got as a present to drastically reduce the price down to something a bit more reasonable.
I mention price because while I usually don’t tend to do product reviews, I have a bit of a bone to pick with Let’s GO here. So this is a quick disclaimer for anyone thinking of buying this game at full price: don’t. I realise this is a bit late, and many people have already spent their hard-earned cash on it, but for those still on the edge, let me just say that for the amount of content, Pokémon Let’s GO is simply not worth it. On Amazon UK, as of the time of writing, Let’s GO is selling for £42 – for just £8 more you can buy Red Dead Redemption 2, one of the most content-stuffed games I’ve played all year.
Yes, I recognise this is a completely unfair comparison, so to be more fair to the game, for around £15 less, you can buy Pokémon Ultra Moon, last year’s entry into the series which had far more in terms of both in-game and post-game content. Meanwhile, Pokémon Black/White 2, arguably the Pokémon games with the most amount of content in the series, can be found on eBay for around £20. Which is all to say that Pokémon Let’s GO is a horrible deal – it offers very little new that the previous games in the series didn’t have and takes away a lot more content than it adds. I’ve seen Let’s GO advertised mainly as a way to bring new players into the series, but I’d personally advise them not to waste their money, and try to find another, cheaper way to test the series and see if it’s to their liking. I think this game’s lack of content is the first indication that the game is surprisingly lazy in how it brings Pokémon to Switch.
With that out of the way I can return to what I like to think I can do best, which is a more general critique of the games. I think it’s right to talk about the basic mechanics of the game first, especially seeing as this is the only entry in the core series to give what can be described as a major overhaul of the basic gameplay loop.
The main change that differentiates Let’s GO from its predecessors is an increased emphasis on Pokémon catching. In earlier games the emphasis was firmly on battling; catching was still important to fill up your team, but even if you made your main goal finishing the Pokédex, you couldn’t access new areas with new Pokémon without battling. Most importantly, battling was also the only way to earn experience points for your team in the pre-Generation 6 games, and while X/Y added capture EXP, this was generally much smaller than EXP gained from battling.
In Let’s GO, encountering wild Pokémon no longer leads into battle, but rather into a Pokémon GO-like catching mini-game. Catching Pokémon now gives your teammates more EXP than battling does, so the most effective way to train your team up for battles is now through grinding catching Pokémon. The effects this has on the game are vast, so I’ll try and detail them now.
The first obvious effect is that the game expects you to now catch as many Pokémon as possible. In past entries, I would catch with discrimination – only deigning to fill my Pokémon box with critters I thought might come in handy on my team. It was only after finishing the main story that I would go back and fill out my Pokédex, and even then I would mainly only catch one of each species. Given that now you have to catch Pokémon to avoid being seriously under-leveled, the game expects you to fill your team as soon as possible, and to never stop filling your box. It creates a certain disposability to Pokémon that I found rather strange. It also took a bit of getting used to for me; as I mentioned, I tended to pick only a few Pokémon, and now having to play with a full party as soon as possible felt off. This is neither a positive nor a negative, but rather a matter of preference.
The second big change the catching emphasis has is that it makes battles a lot more tedious. This seems counterintuitive, as with fewer battles, surely the allure of them would be stronger. However, two factors make sure this isn’t the case. One is the decreased difficulty level of these games (which I’ll return to in a minute), but the other is that battling is so worthless in what it grants the player that it feels pointless to waste your time, when you can get much more experience from simply throwing a few Pokéballs. The only real draw of battling might be to level up party members that are falling behind – all your Pokémon get equal EXP from catching, but the Pokémon actually involved in battle get more EXP from that. However, the EXP gains from battles are never high enough to allow weaker Pokémon to catch up, and because you can’t turn off the EXP share in this game, it actually makes it harder to incorporate new Pokémon into your team, or to balance your team’s levels.
The catching mechanic itself is initially pretty successful – you use motion controls on your Switch to aim your controller at the Pokémon and throw a ball at it. As the circle around the Pokémon shrinks, you have to time your throw to increase the catch rate. What’s great about this system is how much time it saves. Pokémon has never been a series that’s particularly respectful of the player’s time, and particularly towards the beginning of the previous games the wild battles quickly became tedious. Let’s GO’s throwing system makes the whole process incredibly smooth, and this is compounded upon by the fact that Pokémon now appear on the overworld instead of through random encounters, one of the few major changes that I sincerely hope is kept around for the next series entry.
However, in terms of depth, the new catching system is clearly a few steps behind the old one. The amount of variables in each encounter looks like this; first is the Pokémon’s level – the higher the level, the lower the catch rate. Next is the ball you choose to use; as in other games, there’s standard, Great, Ultra and Master balls. There’s also the player’s skill; reflected in the aim of your throw, which can be passable, ‘Nice!’, ‘Great!’ or ‘Excellent!’. Finally, you can use a berry to either increase the catch rate or stop the Pokémon moving around so much. Being generous, there’s about 12 variables that can affect whether you catch the Pokémon in question. Compared to the old games, where the Pokémon’s HP and status injected a huge amount of influenceable variables into catching, this is clearly a step-down, and starts to show signs of wear as you get later into the game, where the old system tended to shine.
Occasional event battles, such as with legendary Pokémon, insert a fight before the catching process is allowed to start, but this is simply a test to see if you can defeat the Pokémon in question, rather than the more involved skill of whittling its HP down just enough to catch it. Getting catching right is clearly a difficult thing for Game Freak; I would personally suggest some system where Pokémon of a lower average level than your team can be caught with the GO system, but higher level Pokémon need to be fought first, but I understand that this system comes with its own problems, so it’s a good thing I’m just a critic rather than a game designer.
I think we’ve about squared away catching, so I want to return to battles now, and talk about the reduced difficulty I mentioned earlier. To clarify something quickly beforehand though; Pokémon games have never been difficult, and nor should they be. Of course, I’m of the opinion that games should have options, but in terms of the standard difficulty level of Pokémon, it’s important to be reminded that these games are mainly aimed at kids, and so the level of difficulty should be appropriate. It’s true that the games have gotten easier, but until now I’ve never had a problem with that.
The difficulty level in Let’s GO, however, is absurd, and trivialises battles almost completely. When I can defeat a Gym Leader in 3 moves, the battle system has stepped into the realms of the pointless. Without any challenge or any reward, there is no incentive to engage in one of the game’s key systems.
My ex-girlfriend told me that she was excited for Let’s GO because she found the previous games somewhat intimidating, and while I initially scoffed at that suggestion, I think it’s somewhat fair – Pokémon has got somewhat bogged down in its battle mechanics, and the huge tome that is the Prima Guide’s ‘Ultra Sun and Moon National Pokédex’ confirms as such. So doing things like cutting down on the number of moves and available Pokémon do make the games perfectly suited for newcomers to be eased in. However, reducing the difficulty of trainer and gym fights doesn’t make the game more beginner friendly, but instead removes the appeal of battling at all. Were I someone new to the series, I think I’d be put off by the battling in this game, rather than drawn in. The strategy is so basic, the trainers so disposable, that it’s more of a chore than a feature.
Other difficulty changes also make the game more tedious to play. When entering gyms, for example, you are often given a task to complete before you’re allowed to challenge the gym leader. When that task is to ‘have captured X number of Pokémon species’, I’m alright with it, because as has been established, the focus now is so much more on catching Pokémon. However, when the gym requirement is to do with your team make-up this becomes an annoying clasp on your options. The Pewter City gym, for example, requires you to have a water or grass type Pokémon on your team before you can enter. This would be an alright way of teaching type-matchups, were it not for the fact that by the time you get to Pewter City, your Pikachu or Eevee will have already learned Double Kick, which is super effective against Rock types. Other Gym requirements that make sure you have a Pokémon of a higher level to the gym leader’s Pokémon are similarly misguided.
Restrictions to the player’s liberties seems to be an ongoing theme within Let’s GO. Pokémon has never had the freedom of an open-world game, but its freedom came in the vast array of choices you have in how you choose to get through the mostly linear world. The most important of these is your team, which you were meant to form some kind of a bond to. Of the hundreds of Pokémon available, you picked these six, and so this reinforces a simplistic connection between you and your pixelated friends. In X/Y and Sun/Moon, the series introduced Pokémon Amie, a mini-game that allowed you to pet and feed the Pokémon on your team. Fully animated 3D models were made for every single Pokémon just so you could have the options to see your favourite on the touchscreen. In Let’s GO, however, Pokémon Amie is restricted only to Pikachu or Eevee, which is a hugely disappointing limitation. Pokémon following you on the map screens return from HeartGold/SoulSilver, but it’s impossible not to feel that Pokémon Amie was only not included so that you’d have to love the Pokémon that the developer want you to love, and not your personal favourite.
Limitations also arise in the controls; docked mode on the Switch requires you to use only one joycon to control, and handheld mode has motion controls that can’t be turned off. Handheld mode is clearly the superior and more accurate way to catch Pokémon, and I find it strange that Nintendo, who have put so much stock in the versatility of the Switch, would allow such a limiting control scheme to exist on one of their biggest games of the year.
I think that about covers it for the main mechanics of the game, so before we look at the game’s aesthetics, allow me to get a little nerdy and talk about the underlying stat issues this game has. In older titles, there were a couple of hidden stats that each Pokémon had that made them ‘unique’ – Natures, IVs (Individual Values) and EVs (Effort Values). Natures were the most immediately obvious, and boosted certain stats at the cost of others. For example, if a Pikachu is said to have a ‘Careful’ nature, this means that it has an increased Special Defence compared to other Pikachu, but a lower Special Attack. Let’s GO keeps natures, and allows players to manipulate the natures of Pokémon found in the wild for a short time, but never properly explains them. This is one of Game Freak’s strangest decisions made in the name of catering to new players; it keeps a slightly complex mechanic and makes it easier to use, but then never explains it.
In terms of complex mechanics, Let’s GO also keeps IVs, but here it at least improves on them. IVs, which influence a complex formula in order to decide on a Pokémon’s stats, can now be seen on a Pokémon’s status screen, which is much better than the vague hints at IVs that were in the older games. Given that IVs are an objective scale (ie. A Pikachu with perfect IVs in 6 stats is objectively better than one with varied IVs), it’s useful to know more precisely what IVs your Pokémon has. Manipulation of IVs is also now done through catch chains rather than breeding, which is almost as tedious, but at least more linked to the game’s mechanics.
The biggest change in Let’s GO, however, is the removal of EVs and the addition of AVs (Awakening Values). EVs, which were introduced in previous games to make trained Pokémon stronger than a wild one of the same level, were based on battling different species of Pokémon in order to improve a stat on your team member. Defeated Pokémon would give out 1-3 effort points to a certain stat depending on species, and at Level 100, each stat would gain 1 point for every 4 effort points gained in that stat. For example, as Pidgey gives one effort point in speed, defeating 4 Pidgey will raise your speed stat by one point at level 100.
This has now been replaced with a system based around ‘stat candies’, which are gained by either catching certain Pokémon, or by sending Pokémon to the Professor. Stat candies can boost a Pokémon’s stat by one point at any level. Each stat can have up to 200 AVs on top of its base, which means that you can have a low level Pokémon that has better stats than a much higher level Pokémon, or a Pokémon with traditionally crappy stats now able to hold its own against a Pokémon with much higher base stats. A great example of this is one experiment done by a redditor who was able to beat the Elite 4 with an AV boosted Level 3 Magikarp. I think this is a perfect little encapsulation about how the candy system can break the game.
Theoretically, this is a pretty good thing, as it increases the viability of lesser-used Pokémon by enabling them to compete against better Pokémon. But the problem is, of course, that an AV-boosted Rattata might be now able to take on a wild Dragonite but is still proportionally worse than an AV-boosted Dragonite. Some Pokémon have always been and will always be kind of useless – that’s why things like Smogon categories exist; it allows those Pokémon to have a place in the meta that would otherwise ignore them. I think that this is sort of a problem that the fans have had to institute a fix for, but that fix is still better than Game Freak’s solution in Let’s GO.
I think Game Freak does have a problem with the current Pokémon competitive system. It is currently too complex and grindy to breed and train a competitive-worthy Pokémon, and those competitions are dominated by too many of the same Pokémon. However, their ‘solution’ in Let’s GO is almost worse than nothing. It keeps natures while leaving them obtuse, and its EV replacement is just as grindy. IVs are improved here, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether Game Freak will deign to carry this system over to the 2019 games.
So we’re going to take a slightly different approach to usual when I talk about the aesthetics and the UI, so I’m going to switch it over to video toatali now (apologies for my audio quality):
I hope you enjoyed that brief interlude from irl toatali, and if not, fear not – it’s unlikely to become a returning feature.
At the end of my video I said that I thought Let’s GO was a lazy game aesthetically, but I think this applies to everything the game does. The game shifts the focus of the series to catching, but neglects to realise the impact this has on battling and not reworking the region to compensate. The battle system strips away some of the fluff, but it ends up taking away too much of what makes it interesting. And while certain aspects needed to be better simplified or explained by the game, Game Freak either ignores this or removes them altogether. The remixed music is fine, if unexciting, but there’s a huge lack of it – the Elite 4, Team Rocket and your rival don’t even have unique battle themes. Overall, the game has less than half the tracks of ORAS.
There’s also something of the devotion to nostalgia that hinders the game. Those tracks are missing because they didn’t exist in Pokémon Yellow, so why bother either making new tracks or importing them from other games. This is doubly strange in a game that’s meant to serve as an introduction to new players. Kanto is faithfully recreated here, but this is something that only returning players will notice. And if you are returning for the first time since the originals, surely you’d want to see more of the region you loved as a child, rather than retread old ground but this time with a Z axis?
And yet, it seems to be working for a lot of people, and I’m pretty happy about that. The more people that come to Pokémon, the better, and I have no doubt Game Freak are more effective marketers than I am. There’s also something to the game’s simplicity that I can’t help but find appealing. Returning to a game with only 150 Pokémon and an extremely paired back story is refreshing and highlights some other real problems with the series as of Sun/Moon.
But I can’t also help but feel these people have been a bit short-changed. Let’s GO is, despite the charms innate to Pokémon, one of the worst Pokémon games I’ve played. It’s thin on content, none of its new changes work as well as they should, and its worship of the past only hinders its design. As a Pokémon fan, I want more people to play Pokémon, but as a critic, I’d rather people play something of better value and higher quality.
 I will disclaim here that I have only casually played GO, and that this critique won’t be delving too much into the GO connectivity. I am, however, generally not opposed to it, especially in a game like this with little to no competitive scene.
 I’m the kind of Monopoly player who doesn’t buy every space he lands on.
 The game is surprisingly awful about teaching you how to catch – it doesn’t explain how it works properly until a signpost half-way through the game.
 This change makes caves and water routes so much more bearable I can’t praise it enough, even while it sometimes looks a tad goofy.
 The lack of abilities and held items stings a bit more, as they aren’t exactly overly complex concepts to grasp.
 The control scheme limitations have also proved troublesome for disabled players, and you can read an excellent article on that at http://www.kotaku.co.uk/2018/11/19/the-way-pokemon-lets-go-pushes-motion-controls-means-some-disabled-gamers-cant-play
 Listen to Braxton Burk’s Kanto Symphony Album if you want to hear some more inventive orchestrated remixes of Kanto tunes.