If you, like me, have been around the mobile gaming block a bit, chances are that you have a certain image in your mind of what Asian free-to-play games look like.
You’re almost certainly picturing energy bars, timers, feathers, coins, gems and an overwhelming array of things to do, all of which seem dead set on distracting you from completing the actual main story of the damn thing.
Well, if you’ve ever felt like this, Pokémon Masters is a refreshingly straightforward breath of fresh air… or at least it is right now at the time of writing, a little after its official launch!
In Pokémon Masters, you take on the role of a young trainer who has come to the artificial island of Pasio with their Pikachu in tow. You’re looking to enter (and hopefully win) the Pokémon Masters League, a prestigious event which consists of three-on-three battles rather than the more commonly seen one-on-one confrontations.
Pokémon Masters has a markedly different emphasis than the mainline series of games, as you might be able to discern from the name. Here, the game is not so much about collecting the Pokémon themselves as it is about befriending their masters — all of whom are drawn from various installments of the series from over the years.
Each master you encounter is one half of what the game calls a “Sync Pair” alongside a single Pokémon, and narratively speaking there’s a strong emphasis on masters developing a particularly strong bond with this single Pokémon rather than filling PC box after PC box with beasties who will never see the light of day again after they get recorded in one’s Pokédex.
Like most mobile games, Pokémon Masters unfolds as a sequence of visual novel-style story sequences punctuated by battles. Here, the accompanying visuals for the story sequences are represented in full 3D, with some excellent character models that are extremely true to the various masters’ iconic artwork and designs. There’s also partial voice acting in both English and Japanese, though this mostly consists of simple reactions to emphasise various lines rather than fully voiced dialogue, regardless of language.
Upon reaching a battle stage in the main story, you’ll have a sequence of one or more battles to complete without the opportunity to heal your Pokémon, change your team lineup or recharge your moves in between. This means that preparation is essential: before you enter a battle stage, you’re told which Pokémon types will be able to exploit the upcomingenemies’ weaknesses, so it’s up to you to assemble a suitable team (and perhaps enhance them) before entering the fray.
It’s worth noting at this point that you can put a solid team together for main story content purely from the masters you meet as part of the narrative. In other words, this means you don’t have to touch the gacha element of the game at all if you don’t want to, though if you do engage with this side of things you might be able to build a better team. Playing without the gacha generally means that two of your three slots will contain Pokémon that are suitable for the challenge ahead of you; assuming your luck is decent, playing the gacha will generally mean you can create a fully optimised team of three.
We’ll come back to the gacha in a moment; for now, let’s look at how battles unfold.
In Pokémon Masters, battles unfold in an interesting blend of turn-based and real-time. A gauge gradually fills up at the bottom of the screen, and the three masters’ Pokémon can unleash their various abilities by spending one or more segments of this gauge. Generally speaking, more powerful moves cost two chunks of gauge while basic attacks cost just one.
Once you’ve selected a move, it will enter a queue (which is initially invisible, but which can be set to show in the options menu) and everything in this queue will execute one at a time in the order that the commands were issued. There is no means of disrupting turn order once a move has entered the queue, but there are various means of manipulating the action gauge. Your three Pokémon’s speed stats combine to determine how quickly it fills, for example, while certain masters have abilities they can use to immediately top up the gauge. The upper limit of the gauge can also be expanded, allowing for more moves to be used in immediate succession.
The master skills do not spend segments of the action gauge like Pokémon moves do; rather, they have a hard limit on how many times they can be used throughout a complete stage and all its battles — usually twice. This means that you should generally avoid blowing them all in the first battle of a stage, but you can usually feel free to go ham in the last battle. It’s also worth noting that sometimes using a master skill more than once has no effect if, say, a buff causes a Pokémon to reach a cap on one of its stats, so this is something you’ll have to experiment with and get to know yourself!
Master skills are mostly based on the items from the mainline Pokémon games and will either buff or heal your own Pokémon; debuffs are usually applied to your opponents as part of your Pokémon’s attacks. One nice thing here that is actually superior to many of the mainline Pokémon games is that Pokémon Masters explicitly notes how much a particular Pokémon has been buffed or debuffed using numbers — “Attack Up 5” means a stronger increase to attack than “Attack Up 2”, for example. This is certainly much clearer than the series’ usual rather vague “Pikachu’s defense fell!” messages that we had pretty much right up until Sun and Moon.
Using a Pokémon move causes a countdown to drop by one; when this reaches zero, a rainbow-coloured button unlocks and allows any of your three Pokémon in battle to unleash a Sync Move alongside their master. These are devastatingly powerful, cinematically presented elemental attacks (often with charmingly overdramatic names) based on the Pokémon’s main type, and are great for finishing off bosses. Sometimes it can pay to chip away at a foe with weaker but quicker attacks just to charge this up more quickly.
Battles are fun! Final Fantasy fans will get a particular kick out of them because the charging action gauge mechanic is quite similar to the older Final Fantasy titles’ Active Time Battle system, only with the gauge being shared between your whole party rather than each character having their own gauge. The sound effects and animations are satisfying, and on-screen information is presented in a clear and easy to parse manner.
Clear all the battles in a stage and all your Sync Pairs will gain experience, regardless of whether or not they survived until victory. After this, you’ll receive money and various progression-related items, and then you can either continue on with the story or spend some time back at the Pokémon Centre to manage your team.
Progression takes several forms. Besides levelling through battle, you can use special manuals to immediately award Pokémon large chunks of experience points. These are fairly frequent drops throughout the stages.
Alongside this, you can use special machines to teach your Sync Pairs new moves; so far, it seems that each pair begins with one Pokémon move and one master move; unlocking a third move is usually pretty simple, requiring only five of an easily collected item, while unlocking their fourth and final move requires a much more substantial collection of various different items.
On top of this, it’s possible to both increase the star rating of a sync pair with special power-up items, and to increase their level cap beyond its original limits using various combinations of ingredients.
In contrast to many other mobile games, Pokémon Masters doesn’t overwhelm with a huge variety of different item types; instead, most of these progression elements require various combinations of training machines and differently coloured tonics and drinks, all of which can be found as drops from pretty much any battle stage you take on.
Early in the game, you unlock a Training Area, where you can challenge various battle stages that guarantee drops of a particular type and allow you to test your skills against opponents of rapidly increasing power levels. Unlike most mobile games of this type, these don’t appear and disappear based on the day of the week; instead, they feature different opponents based on the day of the week to keep things interesting and varied.
And then, of course, there is the gacha, where you spend the game’s premium currency of gems to either draw one new Sync Pair for 300, or ten for 3,000. At the time of writing, there is some controversy over a one-time special offer that guarantees a 5-star Sync Pair because this requires you to actually buy 3,000 gems (about £20-30 depending on offers) rather than earn them through gameplay, but in practice the game has a generous enough draw rate (7% for 5-star, 20% for 4-star, 73% for 3-star) that this is something you can safely ignore. Even the 3-star characters are more than capable of holding their own in battle, too, so there’s no real need for a 5-star — it’s just nice to have them! And plus, remember that there are ways of upgrading the star ratings on lower-tier characters anyway.
If you draw a duplicate Sync Pair, this powers up the Sync Move of the pair in question rather than simply allowing you multiple copies of the same characters. This means that your inventory will never be overflowing with thousands of characters you’re not sure whether it’s safe to get rid of or not; instead, every character in your “party” is a unique individual, and you’re provided with some incentive to spend some time with them both through their varied types and moves, and via their unique story episodes that unlock when you first recruit them.
All in all, Pokémon Masters is the most friendly free-to-play mobile game I’ve ever played, and it does all this by making an experience that is just pleasant for the player rather than feeling like a front-end for a cutthroat business model. It doesn’t overwhelm you with information, it doesn’t feature a play-throttling energy system and it doesn’t even keep your premium currency on screen at all times as a constant reminder to Get More Gems (Best Offer!!). Plus it looks and sounds great — the orchestral versions of classic Pokémon themes are a delight to listen to — and is an entertaining bit of fanservice for people who have followed the series for a long time.
For those who are somewhat newer to Pokémon, like me, on the other hand… well, need I remind you that Pokégirls are some of the cutest cuties on the planet… and this is a game where you get to meet, like all of them. And make your monsters fight, too, I guess.
I’ll be following this one with interest. It’s a mobile game I don’t feel in any way bad about playing, and perhaps the purest reflection of Nintendo’s apparent desire not to overmonetise or exploit its mobile audience. That sounds like something which we should be encouraging!
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Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.
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