Pokémon Masters Review

To be a master… you need to do a lot better than this.

Pokémon Masters Review
Platforms: iOS(Reviewed), Android
Developer/Publisher: DeNA

Pokemon spin-off titles are nothing new, but following the insane continued success of Pokemon Go, The Pokemon Company has opted to relegate the bulk of their more experimental offerings to mobile platforms, as is the case with Pokemon Masters, a gacha-driven live service that curiously deemphasizes the Pokemon themselves in favor of shining a spotlight on the trainers who they belong to.  A curious move that results in the game being a character driven and expansive crossover that brings together generous helpings of characters old and new, and arguably provides a more compelling draw given how many times fans have accumulated and collected the same Pokemon over and over across various titles.

As for how this is all framed, Pokemon Masters takes place on the artificial island of Pasio, a land devoid of any wild Pokemon that has invited basically everyone who’s anyone to come battle and mingle with other trainers, with the expressed goal of competing in the Pokemon Masters League, a competition meant to demonstrate who truly is the very best like no one ever was.  A fairly simple prospect that is naturally plagued by a generic team of ne’er-do-wells and an enigmatic antagonist who accompanying cronies that primarily serves as a framing device for what I consider to be the main drive and appeal of Pokemon Masters, the characters.  

Pokemon and its characters have something of an unusual relationship, as the vast majority of them have a very limited role in the underlying stories they take part in, yet have environments, designs, and generalized personalities ascribed to them that are given emphasis through the structure of each game.  What is the ultimate goal of a mainline Pokemon game?  Defeat the gym leaders, your rival, the opposing team, and the elite four.  All tasks that involve interactions with other characters, but due to the speed and quantity of these characters many of them rarely get to play a meaningful role in the greater story, or have their characters explored in detail.

Pokemon Masters represents an opportunity for these characters to be reintroduced and repurposed beyond the superficial confines of the original titles, casting many of them a role in a fairly simplistic story that nevertheless places them front and center, while offering a scene unique to each recruitable character, while further illustrating their quirks and personality with idle dialog that can be seen in the main lobby area.  Or in other words, the game allows these characters to breathe and expand more than they would in their respective games, and through the combination of quality writing, some light voice acting, and detailed animations, basically every character manages to feel more established than they were in the games they originated from. Or in the cases of protagonists like Rosa, Kris, and Hilda, gives them entirely new and enticing personalities to work with.

Sure, not all of the personalities are particularly endearing, and some of the voice acting is a bit spotty, likely because this is a mobile game and I doubt the actors were given a ton to work with, but the effort and attention found in the bulk of these characters truly does make this a game that I think would be worth checking out just to see more sides of these characters.  Hell, even the characterization of the random non-entity trainers can be compelling, as the game does such a solid job of capturing the quirky and slightly unhinged nature found in the more enticing NPC dialog from the main games.

So, yes, I could go on and on praising the story all day for breaking new ground for this series, which is actually a bit… strange come to think of it, but what about the purported combat system this game boasts?  Well, if you were anticipating a thorough adaptation of the battle system from the mainline games, or anything more than a loose approximation, you were being a bit too optimistic. The game is a 3 versus 3 active time RPG where the player has four moves that each Pokemon and Trainer combination, or rather Synch Pair, may utilize, including two attacks that consume a constantly building meter and two passive buffs that can help turn the tide of battle.  By focusing on the right targets, exploiting weaknesses, using a synergistic team, and keeping your characters’ stats boosted, victory can be achieved, and it ultimately gives the combat a nice rhythm to it that, when combined with the ability to boost the combat speed dramatically, amount to a battle system that I found rather compelling.

Yes, it is simple, revolving around buffing, attacking, attacking, buffing again, and then using the super powerful z-moves— Sorry, I mean sync moves, which can decimate opposition.  It is a system that encourages players to move fast and loosely, both to get their synch moves as fast as possible, but to also delay the opponent’s very own devastating sync moves. While there are a few quirky things I do not care for, such as the way moves are arranged and a grossly simplified type system that often disregards the logic seen in the mainline entries (like Lapras being weak to grass), I still found myself actively enjoying each battle through the story mode… up to a point that is.

For all the love and care that have clearly been put into much of the construction of Pokemon Masters, the game is very poorly balanced in my opinion, having very little indication as to what level of strength is required to get through story courses, or any course for that matter.  Thereby necessitating a lot of grinding… and not very enjoyable grinding at that. To finish the story mode, and to subsequently clear it on hard, the player needs an exceedingly powerful team of Pokemon around level 70 in order to stand a decent chance against the boss of chapter 18, the final chapter seen in the story mode as of writing this review, in addition to needing other teams to combat the similarly difficult battles leading up to this concluding encounter.  How does one get a team to that state? Well, it requires a lot of resources that the player obtains for completing story and training courses, none of which are limited by a stamina system.

Or in other words, to get through the latest and hottest Pokemon game, you’re going to need to grind a very considerable amount, and the best way to grind is to, well, minimize the amount of thought and effort that goes into the game, which is best accomplished by playing through training courses with auto mode.  A self-explanatory auto-battle switch that is… pretty stupid and ignores mechanics like buffs most of the time, but allows for players to accumulate vast amounts of resources, specifically not EXP, by playing through levels over and over again while the player is tasked with navigating the menus and initiating each run through every course.

It is a process that is best achieved after accumulating a set level of strength, but once this groove is accomplished the player has access to theoretically infinite resources depending on how much they want to indulge in repetitive menu navigation, there is very little reason to stop because of how much demand exists for these resources.  I sat down, made a spreadsheet, and did the math on how many of all relevant resources it would take to bring a character up to their max level… and almost immediately was shocked by the preposterous figures I was given, so instead I decided to tally up what it would take to bring a character up to level 70 or so.

The requirements vary based on the star ranking of a character, a universal signature that denotes the probability of obtaining a character and their power, so apologies for making things a bit number heavy.  But I am only going to focus on the soda items as, quite simply, the other items are very common, and should come up while grinding for these sodas. Now then, 3 star characters require 160 regular sodas, 80 great sodas, and 31 ultra sodas.  4 star characters require 201 regular sodas, 96 great sodas, and 38 ultra sodas. 5 star characters require 226 regular sodas, 108 great sodas, and 44 ultra sodas. 

All of which means nothing because of the unstated distribution rates.  These vary from course to course, but for the sake of argument let’s use the guaranteed drops from the courses designed around grinding for sodas.  Normal courses give 6 regular sodas, hard courses give 9 regular sodas and 3 great sodas, while very hard courses give 6 great sodas and 4 ultra sodas.  Assuming these are fixed rates, and no other drops are received, making a 3 star character viable would require 18 runs through a hard course and 8 runs through a very hard course.  4 stars require 23 runs through a hard course and 10 runs through a very hard course. While 5 stars require 26 runs through a hard course and 11 runs through a very hard course.  

Or in other words, when you do get that elusive 5 star character, it’s bittersweet, because if you do want to use them it will require the player to go through a maximum of 37 courses, and after the character has been upgraded in every realistically plausible way, it then becomes time to make them a decent level, which is best accomplished through the use of EXP rich items. Well, reaching level 70 takes somewhere just over 50,000 EXP. The very hard level-up course gives players items worth at least 5,100 EXP, which in turn amounts to a maximum of 10 runs to bring characters to level 70. Meaning it can take up to 47 runs through courses in order to make a character valuable. 

Even if we take into account the daily supercourses which offer sodas and other goodies at more favorable rates, but can only be repeated a set number of times every day, and fudge down the numbers to something more realistic, like 40, that is still an absolute slog.  You would need to play through the same set of static unchanging stages, with no meaningful player input, a total of 40 times, just to make a 5 star character usable. It is times like these where I feel the need to ponder whether or not this balance was intended, or if all of this is just a bunch of placeholder malarky that somebody forgot to revise.  Because this does not feel intentionally designed in the slightest, and amounts to some of the most mindless gameplay I have ever subjected myself too.

If this game doubled the drop rates across the board, introduced an auto repeat function that allowed players to play these training courses indefinitely, and made the requirements to reach the final level cap less absurd, so absurd that I am not even going to bother mentioning them, then you could cast all of these issues aside.  I think this just goes to emphasize how important a few numbers and a minor feature can be to the overall experience, as I constantly felt as if my time was being wasted or taken advantage of as I went on mindless grinding sessions. But while these sessions were the low point of the game for me, they were not my only source of grievances.

For instance, the menu design lacks any immediately obvious way to return to specific courses or the home screen, due to a lack of quick links adorning the bottom of the screen, something present in a number of this game’s contemporaries.  The pairing of characters and their partner Pokemon is questionable in certain instances, ignoring the historical association between certain trainers, such as Lt. Surge, who is paired with a Voltorb as opposed to the expected Raichu. There is no way to evolve the Pokemon of certain trainers, and those who do have evolvable Pokemon often have such a feat gated behind insanely high paywalls that demand freemium currency at a rate disproportionate to what the player gets from courses or selling pearls.  In fact, the entire in-game story, the item exchange, features rates so obscene that I struggle to comprehend whatever forethought and reason was invested into it.

The scouting process, the accumulation of characters beyond the collection generously offered through the story mode, and an almost mandated feature given how many types the player needs to have quick access to, is naturally a very important part of this game and its core appeal, but Masters is bizarrely stingy with its scouting currency, gems.  Each scout costs 300 gems, and by the time I’m publishing this review, I doubt I have accumulated more than 11,000 gems in total.  Which might sound a lot, but when compared to the offerings of other games of a similar nature, it really isn’t. This further goes to make the numbers aspect of this game all feel as if it was done based on predictions and never necessarily balanced through extended playtesting.  Which I guess also explains why so many encounters are outlandishly difficult.

Especially the very hard supercourses and the latter half of the game.  Yeah, after going through interlude 1 of the story mode Masters opens up to reveal a world of co-op play that requires so much grinding and brushing against the plausible level cap that I was left gobsmacked.  DeNA somehow took the idea of making a mobile, and therefore casual, Pokemon mobile game, tested it for mass market viability, and came up with this.  A game with so much innate appeal and unrequited fanservice that is ultimately little more than a relentless grind for… for the sake of grinding more or less.  I guess this is a way to retain users, but strikes me as nothing short of toxic to a more mainstream audience.  

Shifting over to the next obvious category, the presentation, I was impressed by the quality and animations seen in the trainers themselves, who are quite vibrant and lively on screen, carrying themselves with a large amount of charm and charisma, and found the accompanying backdrops of Pasio to be quite appealing.  It is a level of detail that, and I really hate to say this, does highlight where some of the Pokemon models are lacking. They are often being relegated to idling and levitating statues during the dialog sections and when they do move, they lack the same expressiveness found in their trainers, and the visual polish, with some of the texturework showing its age, particularly with larger character models like Arcanine.  While the UI is rather sterile, being this vaguely futuristic array of bluish green hues that does not capture the same personality and bravado that I feel is so present in other parts of the game.

Pokemon Masters has all the landmarks of a quality mobile game, the foundational structure provided by the developers is a very solid one, and the character dynamics and insights are a driving force that makes the game worth playing.  However, when trying to gain a deeper understanding of its reward structure and pursue mastery over its systems, the game demands so much meaningless busywork that it becomes difficult to view the game as anything more than a mess.  The numbers, rewards, drop rates, difficulty spikes, these mathematical processes are all out of skew, resulting in a game that feels as if it was not properly balanced before release.  

In a world of constant patches, updates, and fixes, I generally dislike the prospect of playing and covering games near or at launch, as whatever issues plague a title can indeed be fixed through subsequent updates, improvements, and patches, which go to invalidate one’s criticisms in the long term, and leave me with a twinge of disappointment that I opted to rush in and play through a title while it was relevant, as opposed to waiting for the game to reach its improved state.  As I write this I am left hoping that DeNA and The Pokemon Company are hard at work updating and revising the reward structures of this game, because the title deserves better. The time and effort exerted into it deserves to be better represented, and for as dubious as these live service mobile games can be conceptually, I like the idea of having one based entirely around Pokemon battles and fan service.  But they… they just messed it up something fierce.

Or at least that’s my take on things.  People seem to have been more receptive to this game’s tactics and already spent over $25 million on the thing, so I might just be crazy.

EDIT (9/11/19): It turns out that I made an incorrect assumption in my data gathering, as I did not realize that the upgrade requirements for characters differed between story and non-story characters.  So my numbers are not fully accurate here and there are exceptions to the rules I broke down in detail.  But I still stand by what I said, and still think this upgrade system’s requirements are rubbish.  

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