Pokemon: Let's Go, Pikachu Review
I will travel across the land, grinding far and wide
The Pokémon name is certainly one of the best known entertainment properties across the world. For many years now, it has been impossible to avoid the TV shows, movies, toys, and games that the series has produced, garnering billions of fans across the globe. Over its decades-long success, there have been many video games that successfully captured the magic of the universe filled with fictional creatures, and married that to some addictive gameplay mechanics of catching, training, and battling. In their purest form – an exploration JRPG – the series has only appeared on Nintendo platforms. With the release of the Nintendo Switch a few years ago, fans have been patiently waiting for the next big game in this series. They will have to wait a little more, though – the newly released Pokémon: Let's Go Pikachu / Pokémon Let's Go: Eevee is instead a more casual title that aims to follow up on the incredible breakthrough success of the Pokémon GO app a few years ago.
To begin with, the two different versions of Let's Go are headlined by their primary Pokémon – be that Pikachu or Eevee. Whichever version of the game you choose, that Pokémon will be your partner and traveling companion for the duration, and likely your strongest combatant. Both games have over 150 creatures included, but a few are unique to the version you own. Otherwise, the games are functionally identical.
In Pokémon: Let's Go, players explore the region of Kanto. As an aspiring young man or woman, you set out to become the champion and aim to "catch 'em all". There's really not much of a story to follow; you explore the region and its different towns, finding some obstacle or adventure to undertake in each. You could need to get rid of a ghostly presence in the Pokémon Tower, or help set a cruise ship on its way. Team Rocket and their grunts are also abound, coming up with some sinister plans but usually failing. There are a few NPCs to talk to in towns, but the vast majority just give you gameplay tips. After doing the expected task of defeating the Pokémon Gym leader in each city, you also venture on to fight in the Pokémon League and against the Elite Four. You can also try to find, defeat and capture the three Legendary Pokémon. It's all ultimately about proving yourself to be the best, and while this is a tangible goal, there's not much narrative to go along with it.
Despite the many different small cities you'll visit, and the roads traveled between them, your progression will be quite linear. The game is very deliberate about gradually opening up new areas, so you'll often need a tool before getting to your desired destination. It doesn't lead to too much backtracking thankfully, and a map always shows your general location. Later in the game, you unlock the ability to fast travel between previously visited towns, helping you push on through the game's often grind-focused story mode. You can also have one of your Pokémon (in addition to Pikachu/Eevee) follow you outside of their Poké Ball; they occasionally find things for you, or if large enough, you can even ride them around for faster traversal.
Across your journey, you'll come across wild Pokémon to catch, as well as various civilians and other trainers standing around. Almost everyone you meet in the wilds will be there to have a Pokémon battle, some being optional encounters while others are mandatory. You'll be doing a lot of battling in Pokémon: Let's Go, to the point of rather extreme tedium. The sheer number of battles is high, and their significance is none other than to give your Pokémon experience. The opponents you meet are literally the same copy-pasted group of characters, and don't offer any story or gameplay differences. Because this is a casual-oriented game, they also don't offer a challenge – most have just 1 Pokémon to defeat, while you have the 5 at your disposal. Further, outside of occasional difficulty spikes, you'll dispatch most opponents in just a few moves, a lot of times as quickly as one attack. It just makes the game feel like a JRPG grind.
In battle, things are fairly straightforward. Your Pokémon have four attacks/abilities to choose from, and as they gather experience, new ones become unlocked and you can choose to equip them, swapping out one of the old ones. These swaps are permanent, so players need to plan carefully, but generally the new moves are stronger than the old. As for the moves themselves, they are quite varied and are inspired by previous games and the Pokémon lore. There are melee attacks, and special attacks depending on the type of the Pokémon, from electricity, fire, and water, to grass, rock, and more. The game does a good job of explaining what each attack does and its strength – but on the other hand, it offers no hints to one of the most critical elements of the game, the relationships between the elements. Knowing which type of Pokémon are strong/weak against other elements is a hugely important, and to get this information you must look it up elsewhere. This is a huge miss for a game that aims to be accessible.
The moves your Pokémon have can only be used a set number of times overall – the stronger the attack, the fewer uses it has. To restore those, you need to visit a Pokémon Center in a town, which heals and fully restores the 5 creatures in your main party. If you're in a pinch though, you can use various items in your inventory, such as healing, clearing of conditions (sleeping, poisoned, etc), attack/defense boosts, and so on. Using these items in combat requires a turn, so again some strategy is involved. You can get more items in shops – but again, due to the game's rather lackluster difficulty, you'll rarely need to use items, let alone buy more, as you'll get a whole bunch from your victories and from random treasures during exploration. Other items to be purchased include things like more Poké Balls, lures/repeals for wild Pokémon, experience boosts, and even level-up candies.
To expand your collection and build a solid lineup of battle-ready creatures, you'll have to capture them. One very welcome change that Let's Go brings to the formula is that the wild Pokémon are now visible in the game world, rather than being random encounters. The creatures are also to-scale, so it's fun to see the different sizes that they can come in. They spawn and roam around, and it's the player's choice if they want to approach and catch. This thankfully eliminates the unpredictability and further feeling of a grind when trying to adventure across the game world. In catching these wild creatures, for your collection and use, the game uses the same mechanics as Pokémon GO mobile game. You time your Poké Ball throw with a circle, which changes color depending on difficulty of the catch. To help, you can feed the wild Pokémon berries to make them more docile and easier to capture. It often takes a few attempts for a successful catch, and you need to use better Poké Balls as the game goes on, but the system thankfully doesn't feel too repetitive since you have the choice to use it and when.
Keeping your group competitive takes careful planning. You have a hand-selected party of 5 main Pokémon – they are the ones that are available in battles. The only way to earn experience is from combat and capturing wild Pokémon, and this experience is gained only for the 5 in your party. It's important to try and swap them out with the rest of your collection in order to remain competitive and have key elemental Pokémon available and at a high experience level. This can be challenging, as opponents you defeat at the Gyms and in the wild remain beaten, so to get more experience you need to keep catching new wild Pokémon or be extra diligent at defeating everyone you find. Sometimes, it will be easier just to catch a higher-level wild Pokémon than to level up your existing one that's fallen behind the XP curve.
In classic Nintendo style, in order to try and overcome some of its issues, Pokémon: Let's Go banks on player nostalgia. As seasoned veterans of the franchise may have recognized by now, this is indeed a remake of Pokémon Yellow from 1998. That means the characters, story events, and locations are the same as they were in the original, down to the individual levels like Team Rocket's secret basement with the moving floor tiles. It is indeed very nice to see the game world fully realized in 3D of course, with a good art style and modern visual quality, but these are things you might have seen before, but are paying full retail price for – unlike most other remakes from various publishers. The game also chooses to use a pixelated art style for your inventory and Pokémon icons, which is fine. What's less pleasing is the fact that all Pokémon make distorted and gargled squeals that are possibly taken directly from the original game. Nostalgic for some, sure, but for most newcomers it makes the audio design rather disappointing. Only the main hero (Pikachu/Eevee) use proper sound effects.
A few other mechanics also make the game lean toward the casual and/or nostalgic audiences. You can find and wear new outfits for yourself and your game's main Pokémon, if you want. You can also enter a menu and pet or tickle your Pokémon in first-person view, or feed them berries. This increases your bond, and perhaps it is just there for the cuteness factor. In gameplay terms, having a strong bond occasionally lets you dodge an incoming attack in battle.
Last but not least, there are the controls. You can play the entire thing using a single Joy-Con; the face buttons and a single thumbstick are all you need. When in TV mode, you have to use a single controller, which is not very comfortable and feels just too casual; even with the Comfort Grip accessory, the other Joy-Con remains useless. When using the single Joy-Con, you must use motion controls to "throw" a Poké Ball at the screen when trying to catch one in the wild, which is awkward and tedious. In handheld mode, at least both controllers are used with the more traditional layout of left stick to move, and right hand face buttons for the menu. In this mode you can thankfully throw with the face button, but you must still sometimes aim the system with the gyroscope as wild Pokémon move around the screen. Both motion control implementations feel gimmicky and mobile-phone like.
Speaking of phones, Pokémon: Let's Go for the Switch does support integration with the Pokémon GO app that seemingly inspired it. After linking your accounts together, you can perform a one-way transfer of your creatures from the GO app and into the Switch game, where you can then continue to train and battle with them. You can't get those Pokémon back into the app, but you get some rewards in their place. The Pokémon you bring over will reside in a special park, letting you walk around and see them roaming.
After you've had your fill of solo adventures, Pokémon: Let's Go has a few multiplayer options. With Support Play, two adventurers can explore the world together in local co-op. You can throw Poké Balls together to increase your chances of catching wild Pokémon, and battle together by issuing commands, all of which earns you more experience. It's a decently implemented mode that is aimed at parents helping younger players. Using the Internet or via a local connection to another Switch, players can trade Pokémon to complete their collections. You can also battle against one another - both players bring their full five-set roster, and the battles have a move/match time limit to keep things at a good pace. You also can't use any items, so it's fairly pure and simple combat.
The game's presentation is rather two-sided. As mentioned, the art style is quite modern and charmingly wonderful, featuring colorful visuals that are technically sound. On the other hand though, there is a lot of copy-pasted content, like the NPCs you meet. The animations leave a ton to be desired. In combat, all attacks are rather crudely animated, if at all, and are the same no matter which Pokémon uses it. The arenas are lifeless and flat, with no detail and a generic background pattern depending on your current environment. The battles, where you'll be spending a ton of time, certainly have a low-budget feel. The game world is also rather basic and featureless in its design; yes, it’s a remake of the 1998 title, but surely some new aesthetic items could have been added to spruce up and modernize the level of detail. Various hidden goodies you find in the world are all lazily represented by a Poké Ball, no matter what they contain. In the audio department, the game features wonderful music, though some of the melodies are brief and loop rather quickly. And again as mentioned, the distorted voices that the Pokémon have are not very appealing.
Pokémon: Let's Go is a remake that has been distilled to be more accessible, but at the same time that means all you have left is grinding through battle encounters. The ease with which you'll battle through the game also makes the repetition set in quite early. There are design changes to streamline the experience - like having wild Pokémon and letting you choose when to engage them - but they're not enough. It's still a JRPG at its heart, and the repetitive nature of that genre means that the game isn't as widely appealing as you might think. The game looks nice and the music is appealing, but various presentation aspects, that are reminiscent of the original game, have been left in and don't fit a modern release. For die-hard fans of the franchise, it's a good remake but it is also full-priced, which might put some players off. For newcomers, the easy difficulty might be welcomed, but the repetitive nature of the genre and a shallow approach to gameplay mechanics could materialize as an unpleasant surprise.