Have you ever thought to yourself “I want to be the very best, that no one ever was?”
Of course you have – even if you’re part of the small demographic of readers who haven’t seen the Pokémon anime, the notion of trying your best really isn’t an alien concept. Why is it then, that The Pokémon Company has released this ghastly free-to-play iOS port of the Pokémon Trading Card Game Online? The PC version has been around for a while and is hardly the most technically demanding title on the market, so making an iOS port should not have been this hard.
I’ve said on a dozen occasions that if an official Pokémon TCG was ever released for mobile devices, it would take all of my money. The problem here is that this port is so amateurish, so slapdash, that it feels like an unofficial fan-made homage to the Pokémon universe rather than a genuinely official product.
For those of you who have never played the TCG, here’s a quick explanation of the basic mechanics: you have a 60 card deck made up of Pokémon cards, Energy cards and Support/Item cards. You start the game by drawing 7 cards into your hand, and drawing 6 Prize Cards to put on the table face-down. You can then play up to 6 Pokemon from your hand to the field, evolve your Pokemon to make them stronger, have them attack or use their abilities, or play special support cards from your hand. If you knock out a Pokémon by reducing its health to zero, you can pick one of your 6 Prize Cards. You win when you either collect all 6 Prize Cards, or knock out the opponent’s last Pokémon on the field.
The first and foremost problem with the game is the use of the word Online in the title. While it’s pretty obvious that there’s no Offline Mode for the game – and that’s not the problem – the Pokémon TCGO has to connect to the internet and download the game assets every single time you load the game. Sadly, this includes swapping to the home screen to reply to a text or Facebook message and back to the game again. This this not only slows down your game by making you load the same thing repeatedly, but eats through your data like there’s no tomorrow; I strongly recommend that you play the Pokémon TCGO in a wi-fi zone only, unless you have a particularly generous mobile data allowance from your provider. The game itself is only 504Mb on the iPad – I could have easily given over some more of my internal storage to avoid having to load the same assets several dozen times.
The single player campaign is an interesting way of starting out for beginners; it familiarizes you with the gameplay concepts fairly well and the tutorials it provides, while a little slow-moving, will get you up to speed with the basics. You are given three decks to play with – Fire, Water and Grass – and pick which you use in each battle; as you win your battles you are rewarded with in-game currency and cards to add to your deck. The idea behind the campaign is solid enough, but the character/avatar artwork here is a little jarring, considering it looks nothing like anything else in the Pokémon universe, which detracts from the experience more than it probably should. That, however, is the least of its sins; the Pokémon TCGO is very much the real deal in that it’s an official product – it just looks nothing like it. The art on the cards is the official art from the physical cards, and when it loads it admittedly looks fantastic. The problem is that you can easily go through entire games only seeing place-holder cards instead of the Pikachu or Eevee that you are fighting, because the game simply cannot load the assets fast enough and what you are fighting is anyone’s guess.
This is infuriating beyond belief – the loading times are completely unacceptable. You start each match by picking which of your three decks you want to use, based on what the opponent will use; if they’re using a Fire deck, you would be wise to use your Water deck, as your Pokemon would do double damage to the opponent while taking half the damage in return. By contrast, if they were to play a Fighting Type Pokemon, you would be best avoiding your Normal Type cards, for the exact same reason. The Pokémon Company has put several decades’ worth of games into building this fairly complicated system of elemental strengths and weaknesses; by throwing players into a match and then hiding which cards the AI is using, you completely strip out the tactical nature of the game. It becomes a case of throwing down your biggest monster and hoping it will weather the possible incoming storm.
The issues don’t end there; coin tosses have always been a big part of the Pokémon TCG – you use it to calculate damage from specific attacks and status changes – if a Pokémon gets burned or falls asleep, for example, you have to flip a coin at the end of every player’s turn. When the coin clips through the cards every single time and you realize that the developer didn’t care enough to test this, you can’t help but feel you’re playing a 3rd party knock-off. It would have been easy to move the coin slightly to the left or right to avoid it hitting the cards altogether, but QC seems to have been entirely overlooked in this product.
Moving away from the graphics and onto the sound, and things don’t improve a great deal. There only seems to be one track which plays as you battle your way through the campaign, which will soon have you reaching for the mute button on the side of your device. If the Pokémon TCGO pulled battle music from the RPGs it’s based on, that would have livened up the game substantially. Instead, you’re forced to listen to the same track every time. It’s about as monotonous as running through a cave trying not to fight Zubats; if that hasn’t made you groan or put your head in your hands, consider yourself lucky.
The single player campaign eventually ends. That’s about all I can say there – there are 3 Tournament Cups which you can play at three different difficulty levels. The difficulty isn’t consistent from player to player – you can stomp a Fire user on Hard while finding yourself struggling against a Dark/Electric user on Easy if you don’t know what you’re doing, or you can lose because you’re just unlucky on the coin tosses (which incidentally needs work to be more random – I’ve played entire games where the 20-or-so coin tosses were all Tails – statistically improbably rather than being impossible, but this streaks of bad luck happen a little too often to be genuinely random). Once you get to the end of the single player campaign nothing happens – not even a quick word of congratulations. You can either put down your iPad completely unfulfilled, or have a bash at Online play against other humans.
As you defeat NPCs in the campaign you get coins to spend on Pokémon TCGO booster packs. By this point I had accumulated quite a wealth of them, so went and spent what I had. Unfortunately, opening the packs resulted in booster after booster pack of placeholder cards, which either loaded the artwork after a couple of minutes, or gave up trying entirely.
In the spirit of Mankey see, Mankey do, I gave up trying entirely and deleted the game from my iPad.
The free-to-play Pokémon Trading Card Game Online is simply not very good. To compare it to another recent free-to-play card mobile card game, Magic the Gathering: Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015, the Pokémon TCGO leaves a lot to be desired. Magic 2015 inspired me to play a whole new card game, and spend money buying the physical cards. The Pokémon TCGO simply made me want to play Magic 2015 again. If your product is that bad that it drives you towards your competitors, you know your product is pretty awful.
To put it in terms of that Pokémon fans will understand, this latest mobile release is more Garbodor than Trubbish.