POKEMON GO REVIEW
Pokemon Go, described in simple terms, is a clever concept: Walk to real-life locations called PokeStops marked on a map on your phone to get items and collect the Pokemon that pop up along the way to gain XP. Use those Pokemon to take over real-world objectives called Gyms from other players. It has all the basics covered to make it a functional mobile treasure-hunting app, though technically its performance (and that of its servers) is often very poor on iOS and Android. But the main appeal of the free-to-play Pokemon Go is how being out in the real world, finding tons of other people who see the same augmented reality you do, brings the sort of intangible dream of Pokemon to life.
It has to be experienced to really make sense; without that social aspect it’s really just an extremely light RPG level-grinder. Pokemon Go’s success or failure hinges on that experience, and right now it’s stuck somewhere in between, simultaneously fun and unique but also inconsistent and incomplete. (It is, after all, listed as version 0.29 despite being released onto the App Store and Google Play without caveats.) It’s not mechanically interesting, but it is socially very interesting thanks to a few smart design decisions. You wouldn’t jump off a bridge because everybody’s doing it, but that is a great reason to play Pokemon Go.
how to play Pokemon Go
Welcome to the World of Pokemon At least in the short term, Pokemon Go is a proven phenomenon with millions of players. I was at a party in the San Francisco Bay Area over the weekend where at least two dozen adults were out on the front lawn, calling out the names of Pokemon as they appeared on our phones. We ran inside when someone claimed a Bulbasaur was in the fridge; we ran back outside for Ponyta. We walked a block or two to challenge a nearby Gym only to have it taken over right from under us by someone we didn’t know and couldn’t see, and we all had the app crash on us a few too many times during our hour out and about. It was silly and frustrating and fun all at once.
Pokemon Go’s setup
The San Francisco area is admittedly really well-suited to Pokemon Go’s setup — your mileage may vary if you’re out in a remote area with few points of public interest around. Here, it feels like there’s no shortage of PokeStops to visit, and on multiple occasions I arrived at a PokeStop or Gym only to find that a group of other people playing Pokemon Go was already there. I also learned a lot about my neighborhood and the landmarks I walk by every day just by taking meandering walks to PokeStops, which was one of the best things about the times I played Pokemon Go by myself. In this environment, at least, Pokemon Go’s design — the RPG-lite level system combined with the collection aspect and the nostalgia only a hugely popular, decades-long franchise can bring — all build to the kind of experience that developer Niantic wanted, the kind the trailer seems to evoke.
people playing Pokemon Go
“ It feels like the whole world is playing Pokemon Go.
I was drawn to Pokemon Go for that real-life Pokemon Trainer dream, but even when that aspect of it underwhelmed me with its simplicity and bugginess, I keep playing because having to go outside puts me in front of new places surrounded by other people doing exactly what I’m doing. All of my friends are playing, random passers-by are playing; it feels like all of the world is playing.
When It’s Not Very Effective But this is a precarious house of cards built on top of a wobbly foundation of nostalgia. For the most part, Pokemon Go’s design as a paper-thin RPG is super accessible, but it’s completely unremarkable. You as a trainer have a level, and your captured Pokemon have “combat points” tied to your level, but none of that relationship is explained very well and thus feels confusing. It turns out that your level impacts the combat point ceiling of Pokemon you acquire, which is essentially how catching Pokemon in the regular games works… but just not as polished or intuitive, even to long-time Pokemon players. Fortunately (in a way) combat lacks the depth of traditional Pokemon games, so it barely matters.
Battles for control of Gym locations are nothing more than simple, real-time tapping-based combat, and it’s virtually unaffected by anything other than combat point value. Even Pokemon’s rock-paper-scissors type matchups hardly matter, either — if you have the higher-powered monster, you’re all but guaranteed to win. It’s boring by itself and, like the combat points system, isn’t explained well. (There’s dodging, but it doesn’t seem to do much to turn the tide of a fight.) It’s not that the only acceptable form of combat is turn-based and tactical, but the system in its place here is simply a dull chore after just a few fights.
On top of that, the app itself is stuttery, crashy, and performs inconsistently. There are updates that help with this, and it’s not a dealbreaker, but it’s often frustrating. I’ve lost semi-rare Pokemon to random crashes that struck during crucial moments (though sometimes those seemingly escaped Pokemon show up as caught once I reload after the crash).
“ Pokemon Go’s biggest weaknesses are more a matter of the features it doesn’t yet have than the ones it does.
Pokemon Go’s biggest weaknesses are more a matter of the features it doesn’t yet have than the ones it does, though. There’s no trading, no player-versus-player battles (you only fight automated Pokemon left to defend Gyms), no friends list, no leaderboards, and no in-app social capability of any kind, other than how we’re all prompted to group into one of three competing teams. Some of these features are in the works, but right now, the most interesting thing about Pokemon Go is not its gameplay but how its design encourages personal connections with other real-world players by physically bringing us together as we all chase common goals. Collecting is fun for a while, but without more things to do with those Pokemon or my Trainer profile, it feels a little empty at times.
The Power That’s Inside Battling against that emptiness are a few key things that keep Pokemon Go together. In order to power up or evolve a Pokemon you’ve captured, you have to catch duplicates of its species — sometimes many, many duplicates. Transferring the weaker ones out of your bank of available Pokemon earns you “candies” for that species to fuel power-ups. It seriously takes the sting out of finding yet another Zubat, something that the main Pokemon games never quite solve. In Pokemon Go, I want to catch that hundredth Zubat so I can farm it for power-up potential.
There’s also an area-of-effect item that all players can use for a limited time: lures. One person can place a lure at any PokeStop, which increases the number of Pokemon that will show up. The cool thing about them is that they lure people in addition to Pokemon — I pulled over while driving because my friend said there were lures nearby, and we ran into the people who had placed them. Wanting to catch Pokemon means more lures, which keeps the community alive. It’s one of the smartest design choices in Pokemon Go.
“ A few key design choices keep Pokemon Go’s community alive.
That drive and incentive to catch ‘em all keeps me walking and venturing out of my way (I walked all the way around a hospital yesterday) to catch even more Pokemon. I mostly want stronger Pokemon to take over Gyms for my team, even though combat is boring. There’s just something satisfying about holding an objective that every other person playing can see, and the draw of taking territory for my team kept me coming back when the battle had long since worn out its welcome. It also helps that taking over a Gym nets you in-game currency, and I’ve found that spending real money on microtransactions isn’t strictly necessary. I haven’t bought any of the in-game money since I can find items and earn coins from playing as normal, and I haven’t felt pressured to do so in order to keep playing at the aggressive pace I’ve been going at.
All of this, even if it’s not too complicated, encourages more walking around, which it keeps everyone playing and encountering each other. That in turn feeds the real-world aspect that makes Pokemon Go special. It’s just a matter of whether people continue to play.
The Verdict Right now, Pokemon Go is an incredible, can’t-miss social experience — like Pokemon is actually real and everyone is on board — but its RPG mechanics and combat don’t have nearly enough depth to support itself in the long term. If people start to lose interest due to its lack of depth once the novelty of seeing Pokemon pop up around their everyday lives expires, the community will fall apart and the spell will be broken. What Pokemon Go needs is more features to support that real-world interaction. Things like Pokemon trading and leaderboards, which developer Niantic says are incoming, could keep that momentum up. Even if it will be short-lived, though, there’s no doubt it’s exciting to be a part of while it lasts.