When my 3DS perked up and told me that a new, free Pokémon game, Pokémon Shuffle, was available for me to play on my 3DS I was all ears. I hurriedly downloaded Pokémon Shuffle, the match-three puzzle game, and jumped right in – only to find out that while stangely addictive, sadly this latest spin-off is only “alright” at best.
Pokémon Shuffle, as a match-three puzzle game, is part of a new genre of games commonly referred to as “Like Candy Crush But…”. The thing which makes PokéCrush Saga (King Digital Entertainment are bound to try to sue us for using that title, but there’s nothing new there either) different from the slew of Candy Crush clones inundating the market (many from King themselves) is that it’s an official Pokémon title – and it’s one which actually has the potential to be a good game.
In Pokémon Shuffle you go from Stage to Stage meeting a predetermined wild Pokémon. Before you jump into battle, you pick up to four Pokémon which will help you beat the Stage by clicking a button marked ‘Optimize’, and then another marked ‘Continue’. In order to deal damage and eventually catch this wild Pokémon, you must play the match-three puzzle on the bottom of your screen – any time you match three of the same Pokémon in a vertical or horizontal, that Pokémon attacks. If you match four or five Pokémon, the attack becomes stronger. If you match a Pokémon with an elemental strength over the wild Pokémon, say if your Charmander (fire) attacks the wild Bulbasaur (grass) you’ll deal more damage than if you matched three Squirtles (water), just as you’d expect. Mechanically, there is nothing new to Pokémon Shuffle which franchise veterans won’t see coming a mile off.
It’s great that Pokémon Shuffle plays into the ever-complicated Rock Paper Scissors-style balance that the Pokémon universe is known for, and it’s particularly cool that Mega Evolution is a mechanic in Pokémon Shuffle too; the first slot of your four battling Pokémon is reserved for a Pokémon capable of Mega Evolution – match three of that Pokémon enough times and it will Mega Evolve, unleashing special attacks. For example, Mega Sableye will clear a large circle of Pokémon, whereas Mega Audino will clear a block of neighboring Pokémon. When you finish the battle the Pokémon you used will gain Exp, slowly levelling up, making them ever so slightly stronger the next time you use them.
But how do you catch the Pokémon, I hear you ask? If you can attack a Pokémon with enough damage before you run out of your set number of moves, you get the opportunity to throw a Pokéball at it. At the bottom of the bottom screen you’ll see a catch rate displayed as a percentage – the more common the Pokémon and the more moves you have left, the higher the chance of catching your new Pokémon. The problem is that as this game stands, Nintendo, Game Freak and developers Genius Sonority Inc., stand to make no money whatsoever – and thus comes the microtransactions.
In one battle I was asked to beat a wild Pokémon in 5 moves or less. I made my first move, causing a 46-hit combo, absolutely wiping the floor with the Pokémon – it had 0HP by the third hit, and by all rights it should have died by hit 20. We moved onto the catch screen, and after what is quite literally the perfect solution to the puzzle, I am offered a 64% chance of catching this Pokémon. I glare at my thoughtful examination of the puzzle and my perfect solution being flipped the Pidgey, and throw the damn Pokéball – only to see that the 36% chance that I was about to be dicked-over come into fruition. Pokémon Shuffle then tried to console me, saying that for only 2500 Coins I could purchase a Great Ball to throw, and earn a second chance. I clicked OK, still feeling cheated out of my win, and coughed up the coins – getting my very own Vulpix in reward. The game then ranked me on my puzzle solving abilities, gave me 100 coins for finishing the level and sent me on my way, making me wait 30 more minutes before I could move on and fight another creature.
While Pokémon Shuffle looks like it will reward players who think carefully about their solutions, it’s really about as rigged as a slot machine. But not only does Pokémon Shuffle not reward you for trying, it forces you to wait so that you don’t blitz the game. To play a stage you pay a Heart. You get 1 heart every 30 minutes, or 5 if you StreetPass 5 people. If that’s not good enough you can go to the store and buy more Hearts and Coins for your Jewels, the premium currency in this microtransaction-fuelled economy. Once again, Pokémon Shuffle feels like a slot machine as you sit there feeding it microtransactions.
Still, Pokémon Shuffle isn’t bad. The microtransactions are ever-present, staring you in the face as you try to ignore them, but as you press on through the increasingly difficult puzzles there is enjoyment to be found, and the game is strangely compelling. If the puzzles are too hard, there are even Items you can buy with your coins to reduce the complexity of the level or give you more moves. If you fail the level completely, you can pay an exorbitant amount of Jewels to carry on where you left off – which nobody in their right mind will ever do.
The music in Pokémon Shuffle is the usual you’d expect from a Pokémon game, and the graphics have been cutesied up a little, believe it or not. There’s no 3D option, which is a bit sad, but it’s a free game – so you can’t complain too much. All in all, Pokémon Shuffle feels like it’s aimed at kids who will abuse the microtransactions, as opposed to any adult who will know better.
All in all, Pokémon Shuffle is OK. It’s not going to win game of the year, but it’s a free game which you can enjoy if you put aside the glaring microtransactions blinking in your face. While they do detract from the game, they don’t break or ruin it, and it can be a fun way to kill 10 minutes before school or work while you’re waiting for your bus or train.