|Platform iOS, Android|
|Publisher The Pokemon Company|
|Developer Niantic Labs|
|Release Date Jul 6, 2016|
If you can say nothing else about Pokémon Go, at the very least you must admit that it's a phenomenon to a degree that's rarely seen in gaming.
In a matter of a week, this new mobile take on Nintendo's long-running role-playing game series has grown astoundingly popular. It has consumed social media conversation, flooded into mainstream news reports and had an impact on the everyday life of many players, in a physical, outside-the-game way.
So ... is it any good? To help answer that extremely difficult question, we've enlisted the aid of two Polygon staffers: Pokémon expert Allegra Frank, who has spent every waking hour of the last week playing Pokémon Go, and Phil Kollar, who has taken a more casual approach to the game.
Pokémon Go doesn't exactly have a lot of gameplay
I think we need to address the elephant in the room, the thing that makes this one of the weirdest reviews we've ever had to write: Pokémon Go doesn't exactly have a lot of gameplay, in any sense of the word.
The mechanics of Pokémon Go, insofar as they exist, consist of tapping on Pokémon on your phone's screen and then flicking a ball at them to capture them. Likewise, you will tap on PokéStops — special locations scattered around the world — to collect items. If you're getting really serious, you can tap on gyms and engage in a mostly automated battle for control of these important landmarks.
Longtime fans of the Pokémon series expecting more of the same in mobile form may find themselves disappointed at first. Yes, the Pokémon games have always been about exploring the world and collecting cute creatures, but they've also always featured a surprisingly deep combat system with tactical choices to be made as you grind.
The closest Pokémon Go comes to offering this is giving you the chance to overtake much stronger enemies at gyms if you pick Pokémon of the right types (e.g., using water Pokémon to attack fire Pokémon). Pokémon Go's super-lite approach feels like a role-playing game with the "game" part removed, or a walking simulator minus the simulator.
Before we get into some of the other, more intriguing aspects of Pokémon Go, have you been bothered by how little actual game there is to this game, Allegra?
That has definitely affected my enjoyment of the game. When I began my Pokémon Go adventure, I was struck by how different it felt from the role-playing games I've played religiously for more than 15 years. Although the game introduces you to a Pokémon professor who claims to know all there is about Pokémon, he — and Pokémon Go as a whole — explains very little about what you need to know, gameplay-wise. He walks you through catching your first starter Pokémon, but that immediately loses all meaning as soon as you head out into the real world.
Much of this can be chalked up to the nonlinear nature of the game, which lacks an overarching plot. There's nothing compelling you to play Pokémon Go other than, well, catching Pokémon. Because there are few tutorials, directions or tips on how to catch them, the game also de-prioritizes these more typical game elements.
Catching a Pokémon, unlike in the handheld games, involves swiping at the monster once you find it on the map. This is deceptively simple. A good aim and perfect timing is required to ensure your catch, but the game never showed me how to do this, or even bothered to explain that the circles that appear around a Pokémon during a random encounter are important.
But this poor explanation also, strangely enough, leads to one of Pokémon Go's best features. Pokémon Go is most interesting to me as a social experience. Many of the features that are mechanically obtuse, like catching and the even more simplistic one-on-one battles, are best learned through trial and error and anecdotal observation. I've learned a lot from asking friends who are also playing, and struggling through, Pokémon Go. We've come together by commiserating over our fumbled catches, our failed attempts at claiming gyms.
Does the sense of community around the game factor into your reception of it? Or does that not play a part in how you assess the game overall?
The social experience is everything in Pokémon Go. It's the reason the game has blown up, and it's the reason I'm interested in sticking with it.
Obviously I've played games that have forced me to interact with real people before. I love massively multiplayer games, for example; I met people in my time with World of Warcraft whom I'm still friends with today. But I've never played a game where I've been compelled to interact with other people in the real world.
Almost every time I've gone for a walk to play Pokémon Go, I've ended up bumping into at least a couple of other people playing the game, and we've had pleasant conversations, sharing tips about where to catch a powerful Onix or complaining about how Team Blue took over a nearby gym again. And this is coming from someone who's fairly introverted — it's not normal for me to talk to total strangers for an extended period of time, multiple times a week.
While you complained (rightly so!) about the lack of direction and explanation Pokémon Go provides, that also feeds into this sense of community. At least once every couple of days, I've been told about a new method to guarantee a tough capture, or ways to optimize how many Pokémon I'm collecting. Pokémon Go's vagueness is a weakness, but it has (purposefully or not) strengthened the community.
the lack of direction in Pokémon Go feeds into this sense of community
Of course, so much of this social experience is thanks to us living in big urban areas. If you're in a rural location, I can't imagine it's easy to get much out of Pokémon Go.
Has the social experience affected you as strongly as it has me? Is it enough to make up for what Pokémon Go is lacking elsewhere?
The core appeal of Pokémon Go lies in how great it is at starting conversations and connecting you with other players, even if those all occur outside of the game itself. Pokémon Go lives by its success in this area, but I wonder if the community alone can ensure the game's longevity.
Although there is a competitive element to Pokémon Go in joining a team and battling for gyms, there are no metrics of success beyond the standard "fill out your Pokédex." Due to the game's insistence that players travel across the entire real world in order to complete it, however, there's a chance that the majority of Pokémon Go players will never be able to accomplish that feat. Other elements that cohere players in larger cities, like PokéStops and even gyms themselves (which are trainer-run, unlike in the handheld entries), are less abundant in isolated areas. I can't imagine how boring this game must be for players out in the middle of nowhere who have no one to talk to, nothing to catch and nowhere to visit.
Without anything to strive for, my interest in returning to Pokémon Go will likely wane. Right now, it feels fresh and exciting; everyone is talking about it and playing it and thinking about it, and so I am, too. But what happens when players have mastered how to catch Pokémon, and are left to capture Zubat over and over and over again? Whether the team aspect can persuade people — including me — to keep returning to the game is up in the air, especially since battle success leads to no rewards other than experience points. I'm not so sure that I'll be convinced to stick around, at least with the game in its current state.
For now, though, Pokémon Go's moment is burning bright, and it's a lot of fun to watch. Strange as it may be, that's what I like best about this game — watching it bring a ton of people, new and old, into one of my favorite gaming series. I'm most curious about whether this game will have an appreciable effect on the "real," traditional Pokémon games.
Pokémon Go is an exciting social experience, though we're not sure how long it will last
Since the game is based so strongly in real-world interactions, it's hard to tell where Pokémon Go heads from here. If Niantic keeps it frequently updated with new features and added depth, there's potential for it to be a game we're still talking about years down the road. Or it could end up as a passing fad, a brush fire craze that the whole gaming world is talking about for a few weeks and then is forgotten.
Wherever it goes, though, right now Pokémon Go is in a fascinating position, a cultural artifact whose power and pervasiveness is impossible to ignore, even if you're not playing it. Is it good? That's a complicated question that's going to change depending on how much you value a game's mechanical depth versus the unique social experience it provides. But in a week of playing it, we've been all smiles while doing so. For now, that's enough. When the servers are up, anyway.
Pokémon Go was reviewed using the Android version of the game, and neither reviewer spent more than $10 on in-app purchases, which were paid for by Polygon. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews