It's barely about games.
When Pokemon Let’s Go! Pikachu/Eevee was announced, the Pokemon community was….worried, to say the least. This latest Pokemon game was not an evolution of what Sun and Moon innovated on. In fact, it wasn’t even a remake of the fourth generation that most fans expected. Instead, it was a remake of Pokemon Yellow, making this the third game telling the Kanto story from the first generation. Not only that, but the series’ mechanics were restructured to match the successful worldwide phenomenon: Pokemon Go, a mobile game with a far more simplified take on the franchise. This mixed take on Pokemon ends up feeling muddled and confusing, and at the end of the day, I’m unsure who Pokemon Let’s Go! is really for, besides the suits who told Game Freak “the mobile game did well, make one like that!”
There are things to love about Let’s Go!, and the first thing that stands out is its art direction. I was really impressed with how the characters and environments look in the game. Character models are a good mix of early-gen Game Boy designs and 3D takes on the classic characters, and the towns and routes you take to reach them have wonderful colors and soothing ambiance that make them a joy to look at, even if they’re places you’ve been many times before. The visuals are coupled with soothing redos of the Red/Blue OST, a far cry better than the iffy versions on FireRed/LeafGreen. The aesthetics of Let’s Go! obviously have a lot of love poured into them, and that especially shines in the new cutscenes put sporadically throughout the game. It’s adorable seeing Bill emerge from the teleporter while your confused player character stares in awe from the PC, or the Marowak ghost passing on to the afterlife in Lavender Tower, all in full 3D with actual staging. Pokemon follow you again like in HeartGold/SoulSilver, and it’s just as adorable now as it was then. You can even ride some of the larger Pokemon, and flying ones such as Charizard and Dragonite allow you to float freely over barriers and across routes. This all brings a warmth to the game, as you can turn around at any time and check in on your favorite Pokemon. Your chosen mascot, Eevee or Pikachu, is also interactable. You can pet them, feed them berries, and dress them up.
Unfortunately, that love isn’t everywhere, and the actual gameplay of Let’s Go! is quite a let down. Wild Pokemon battles have been all but removed; replaced with the capture game from Pokemon Go. A circle floats in front of the Pokemon, and you have to flick your joycon towards the Pokemon, preferably within the slowly shrinking inner-circle that will give you extra experience and a higher capture chance if you nail it. It feels rewarding to flick the ball right in the correct spot, especially if you’re using the Pokeball Plus (more on that later), but this makes playing the game while the switch is undocked a hassle. You can switch to handheld mode and aim with the gyros and control stick, but if you want to set the Switch down to play, say, on a plane, you’re going to look like an idiot flicking your controller at the screen. Not only that, but occasionally the aim just doesn’t work. I’ve done tosses at the exact same angle with the exact same Pokemon, and the ball has managed to travel in vastly different ways. When you’re starting out, Pokeballs and money are a valuable resource and so this can cause headaches, especially with the new leveling system.
Without wild Pokemon fights, experience is gained by catching Pokemon. EXP is distributed to your party after every capture, and special combos raise the amount of EXP with each consecutive capture. There are also bonuses for catching each new species of Pokemon, having good aim, and perhaps the most important one, comboing captures. The more of the same Pokemon you catch in a row, the higher your EXP goes, as well as other perks, such as rarer spawns, higher stats on the Pokemon you’re chaining, and a higher chance a shiny Pokemon will appear. This works well in Pokemon Go, as that game staggers how many Pokemon you can catch with items drops and spawns. In Let’s Go!, however, the only thing limiting you is how many balls you have, which can lead to flooding your one Pokemon Box (ONE!!! ONE, COMPLETELY UNREFINED) with a single Pokemon species. It’s easy to accidentally release a good Pokemon you wanted to the Professor in exchange for stat boost candies instead of keeping it, unless you take care to label them with nicknames or little stars. PC boxes that let you organize your Pokemon has always been a genius innovation in the monster collecting genre, but this omission makes Let’s Go! feels like a Pokemon knockoff. This dump of Pokemon isn’t helped by integration with Pokemon Go, which lets you bring Pokemon from the mobile game into the Switch game. Your box will quickly become a warzone, strewn with dozens of Pokemon that you just want to get rid of.
There’s a lot here that feels regressive, and maybe that’s not fully Let’s Go!’s fault, but how the game is designed ends up highlighting these issues. The VS Seeker in previous titles allowed you to rematch trainers nigh-infinitely, which would have been a massive boon when money is such a commodity in this game. In Let’s Go, you can rematch gym leaders and a few select special trainers here and there, but those Pokemon trainer’s levels become drastically higher., Meanwhile in previous titles, the trainers would only level up slightly, so you could revisit them with weaker Pokemon and get some good EXP out of them while actually using the Pokemon instead of sitting on it. Perhaps the most archaic element of Let’s Go! is its online functionality. Instead of the robust online functions the 3DS titles boasted, such as random trading, easy battle challenging, and other unique functions. In this game, you do this:
This is how online works. How do you not connect to randos? pic.twitter.com/X67Vtg15qI
— John (@john_michonski) November 18, 2018
I meant it when I said this was one of the worst features in any game I’ve ever seen. Game Freak seems to think very little of the people who bought this game, whether they want to aim this towards mobile fans or youngsters starting out with Pokemon for the first time. Pokemon has always been simple and accessible, and this weird dumbing down of the concepts almost feels offensive. I was really young when I played Pokemon Red on Game Boy, and there are plenty of kids playing far more complicated games. Fortnite is the biggest game in the world right now, and has matchmaking, weapon pickups, and other contemporary features. Let’s Go! absolutely did not need to be as as mild as it is.
On top of these simplifications, it’s even more confusing when some of the more hardcore elements of Pokemon are kept around. The previously mentioned stats you have to constantly capture Pokemon for are IVs, the difficult to grasp secret stats that you normally have to use special methods to gauge or influence. It’s far easier in Let’s Go! to see these stats, but it’s confusing why they don’t just do away with them at all, especially when something as basic as abilities. Abilities make a visible, fun change to battles, but IVs just bloat the experience, making the player capture more and more Pokemon, hoping to find one with perfect stats. I quickly found myself combo-catching Pokemon I barely had an interest in training, just because the thought of having perfect stats overwhelmed me. For a series supposedly about making bonds with your Pokemon and forming a team, this game is incredibly impersonal.
An additional layer to Pokemon Let’s Go! is the Pokeball Plus accessory, which comes bundled with the game in a $100 bundle, or separately for $50. That’s really expensive for a controller that has one control stick, two buttons (one of which is the stick!), and a speaker, but its design at least accentuates the feeling of playing the game. The controller vibrates with the movements of Pokeballs in-game, and lights up to match the status of your capture. The game is absolutely playable this way with no hassle. It took a little re-tooling as I had to basically reprogram my brain to remember that pressing buttons AND using the stick was on my right thumb, not spread between both thumbs as per usual. The Pokeball Plus can also be used to carry a Pokemon with you and gain EXP with steps a la the Pokewalker from HeartGold/SoulSilver. There aren’t any minigames like the Pokewalker, just occasionally the ball will shake and your Pokemon’s cry will sound, which will immediately out you as a total dweeb when you’re waiting in line for pizza. The last thing it can do is work as a Pokemon Go Plus, by automatically collecting items from Pokestops when it is connected to your phone. These are all fun additions, but for $40-$50? That’s a stretch.
Pokemon Let’s Go! absolutely has a reverence for the first generation of Pokemon, and that’s not a bad thing. What is a bad thing is how it’s somehow both overwhelmingly confusing and too simple. Pokemon should absolutely mess with its formula, but this was not something I would consider as a step-forward. There are positives, but they’re swimming in a sea of frustration. Generation 8 better come out swinging.