After more than twenty years, you can bank on one thing in life: Pokémon as a brand, is still infinitely malleable when it’s in the right hands. The last couple of years have seen Nintendo’s flagship pocket monster series branch out more than ever before, with one of its greatest success stories being nothing short of a global phenomenon.
Pokémon Go had and still continues to push people outside with an addictive yet simplified take on the age-old formula that the core games pioneered and continue to build on. As for the foundation of the series? It’s stronger than ever before, thanks to the likes of the Sun and Moon games, last year’s Let’s Go Pikachu and the hype is real for November’s hail Brittania instalment of Pokémon Sword and Shield.
Two distinct takes on the same franchise, one favouring a more casual market the other geared towards a hardcore crowd of pokemaniacs. Pokémon Masters then, is the bridge between them, a two-way link that is aimed at being deep, addictive and easy to grasp. Sweet pokeballs, does it do that brilliantly.
And let’s not mince words here, Pokémon Masters is a mobile game in the same vein as many a gacha title on the market but with some key differences. For starters, there’s no limit on how much of it you can play. No silly energy bars that act as fuel for the time you’re permitted inside of its colourful game world, no timer on your activity or any other such nonsense that requires you to wait an entire day before you have enough go-go juice in the virtual tank so that you can hop right back in.
Instead, you’re exploring an island where a new league has been set up, encountering faces from the entire history of Pokémon and battling yet another team of kidnap-hungry figures who want to run off with your precious Pokémon. You’re fortunately able to do something about that though, thanks to the catchiest of battle mechanics that could only work on a smartphone.
It’s easy to grasp! Pokémon Masters focuses on you adding characters to your team, beginning with Kanto gym leaders such as Brock and Misty, and extending beyond those borders to the likes of the Johto region, Unova and even the more recent Alola Islands. Each face has a signature Pokémon with them, and that’s where you need to form a trinity that can handle the dangers thrown at you.
Because when the action heats up, you’re thrown into a match that plays out in real time and has you engaged in a three on three Pokémon battle. Every Pokémon has a range of moves and items at their disposal, moves can be used once you have enough energy to spend (Think Hearthstone’s gem system between turns except you’re launching Thunderbolts instead of wildly convoluted strategies) and you have to factor in the elemental strengths of your chosen partners.
It’s simple, yet deep stuff and Pokémon Masters still does a bang-up job on letting you know which of the game’s 18 types will result in effective offensives. Battles are usually won before they even begin as you need to make certain that your team is composed of the right trio of elemental advantages, as well as having enough experience under their belts so that they can survive long enough to unleash them.
Throw all that together, and you have a lightning-quick RPG with plenty of meat on its bones and an addictive system that’ll appeal to veterans and still be inviting enough for newcomers to get a handle on. There’s a lengthy story, ample chances to level up and an overall visual style that trumps even the more recent games thanks to a bubbly presentation of cel-shaded Pokémon aesthetics.
So what’s the catch? How can a mobile game that feels be free?
Good point, and one that all comes back to the model that Pokémon Masters is built on: Gacha games. Those trainers I mentioned earlier, who all come to the battlefield with a signature Pokémon? They aren’t all free to recruit, although you’ll have ample opportunity to get your hands on new team members. As you progress through Pokémon Masters you’ll earn gems that you can stockpile and use to call a new trainer to your side.
In typical gacha game fashion though, this is a random drop and you never know who’ll answer your call. It could be a scrub with a Tentacool most of the time, or if you’re as lucky as I was last night, you might get your hands on an Elite Four member such as Bruno or Olivia. Every trainer also has a star rating attached to them, with the majority of them having a three star ranking while the more top tier characters hit five star status and bring with them better Pokémon, stats and abilities in battle.
From there, it’s a case of levelling up your trainer and Pokémon sync pair, teaching them new abilities and keeping a vast roster of recruited specialists up to date and ready to roll at a moment’s notice. Addictive stuff, with the slot machine of Pokémon being a temptation to buy more gems. Currently, you’ll need 300 gems per summon, which can be purchased for around as little as R17 for 100 gems or a staggering R1400 for 9800 of the jewelled currency.
To its credit, Pokémon Masters never overtly pushes these microtransactions on you, while earning gems is something that can be done at a steady (and slowish) rate. Numerous daily challenges, missions and story objectives will add more gems to your pockets, so you never really feel like you need to whip out your credit card and run up a bill.
This being a gacha game though, the temptation will always be there should Pokémon Masters sink its hooks into you. That drive to always want better trainers in your roster, that tingle of sheer delight as your brain injects some dopamine into your happy gland because you just managed to pull a five-star character through a random purchase.
With more trainers and their Pokémon on the horizon and the cast expanding infinitely thanks to Pokémon’s rich history, there’ll be no shortage of these devilish temptations, which is the hook that Pokémon Masters will no doubt be using to lure in people who don’t want to grind away and patiently work their way towards creating the dream Pokémon team.
It’s still very very early days for Pokémon Masters though, and it’s going to be interesting to see how the game evolves over time. More events are on the horizon, the game world is visually stunning in its current state and the core gameplay is a surprisingly addictive mesh of old and new ideas that celebrate the evolution of the pocket monster franchise, even if this particular incarnation’s catchphrase is Gotta Gacha ‘em all.
Quick note: Pokemon Masters isn’t currently available in South Africa and DeNA don’t plan to change that soon, but there are “ways” around that.
Last Updated: September 2, 2019