A few weeks ago, the mobile game Pokemon Masters released. I have been playing the Android version since the day the game launched. As I actually have been playing it a decent amount, I thought it would be informative for others if I took the time to write a review of it. I rarely if ever review mobile games but I play them quite frequently so I feel that I’m experienced enough to judge the game fairly, and hopefully accurately considering the many hidden features the game has.
The first thing that needs to be said about Pokemon Masters is that it’s not a full Pokemon game. Pokemon, as in the original/core series, is an RPG that’s constructed based on two major aspects of play: capturing and battling. The core experience is entertaining because it challenges players to locate and ultimately capture Pokemon to then be trained and used for battle. It’s only by mastering both skills that one can truly master the games. Since the two mechanics are directly linked and both are required to beat the games, the gameplay never really gets old within each individual game. You can jump between exploring to capture and battling to train/improve your Pokemon to your heart’s content. This formula works and has for 20 years across like 10 generations of Pokemon games plus remakes, with a new one coming in just a couple months (Pokemon: Sword & Shield). That’s why the basic mechanics of Pokemon games haven’t really changed that much in all this time.
The problem with mobile Pokemon games is that they never get both parts right. Pokemon GO, which I’m still playing, gets the capturing portion almost perfectly. But the battles are garbage. They aren’t turn based and have almost no RPG elements to them in practical terms. Pokemon Masters, on the other hand, gets battling down fairly well, with a streamlined but working RPG system to boot, but the capturing aspect is pretty much non-existent. I believe this is intentional on both counts. Because while Nintendo does want you to play their free to play mobile games, they want you to buy their consoles and console games more. So no true Pokemon experience ever gets produced on mobile and I doubt one ever will.
Pokemon Masters is set on the man-made island of Pasio. On this island they hold a special tournament called the Pokemon Masters League (PML). The PML is not a traditional battle of two trainers and up to 12 Pokemon. Instead you battle with Pokemon & Trainer pairs, referred to as “Sync Pairs”, in three on three battles. As such, you do not capture Pokemon. Instead you meet and recruit other trainers and when they join you one of their Pokemon becomes available for you to use in battle as part of that Sync Pair. Trainers from all over the world have come to Pasio to form these Sync Pairs and teams or Sync Pairs in order to win the PML. Your character’s partner Pokemon is a Pikachu. This is the backdrop of the entire game.
The main gameplay works at its core aspects. You battle three on three Pokemon battles with a great many exceptions where your opponents are allowed to have more than three members on their team. In this situation, only three Pokemon appear on the front line of battles and then they’re quickly replaced once you defeat the Pokemon at the front of the line. You are always shown how many Sync Pairs are on the opposing team at the start of a battle. Placement plays a role in this for opponents but not really for you because so far you can only take a maximum of three Pokemon into battle. You can choose their placement order on the field, as in left, right, or middle, but you aren’t able to control the order in which they’re attacked because all three are on the field at the same time. Your opponent can attack whichever of your three they want to at any time. And they often do attacks that hurt all three simultaneously.
Battles are not turn based. Instead they’re real time action point based like in Final Fantasy XIII. You have an AP bar constantly filling at the bottom of the screen based on time. It’s broken into sections. Each attack costs the entire team a certain number of those sections. In this way you must manage your three Pokemon and use their moves effectively in order to knock out all the opposing team’s Pokemon before yours are all knocked out. Battles have no time limit. Each Pokemon & Trainer pair can learn up to four techniques. From what I’ve seen so far, this is always two attacks and two status altering techniques. Status techniques can do different things such as heal, increase attack power, increase speed, refill AP bars, and so on. They can also be used to induce negative effects on opponents such as poison or confusion. Attacks and status techniques for each Pokemon are all predetermined and cannot be changed, to the best of my current knowledge playing the game.
During battle, each team has a sync move counter. Sync moves are special high damage attacks that are specific to each Sync Pair. You initiate them by running the sync move counter down to zero from nine. After using a sync move, the counter refills to nine. Certain Sync pairs seem to be able to affect the sync pair counter’s number and speed, but I have only witnessed this from enemy teams and haven’t been able to create these affects for my own team yet. Both attacks and status techniques run down the counter, but status techniques don’t require any AP to use. This affects strategy because you have to account for both damage and trying to get the sync counter to zero as quickly as possible. Matches are often lost because the enemy team got their sync move out first. Status techniques may not take AP but they still take time to cast so you are delaying your next attack by using them. Both teams have the sync counter showing so it’s important to watch the other team’s counter in order to prepare yourself for an upcoming sync move. Sync moves can be used an unlimited number of times during battle but so far I’ve never used them more than twice in any one battle.
When battling, you must consider time, attack points, and the opposing team’s weaknesses. Attacks must be targeted at a specific Pokemon by a specific Pokemon. You can easily change both attacker and target by pressing the new Pokemon you want to attack with or target. The opposing team will not attack based on who you’re currently using to attack. They will just attack based on the AI’s strategy, which is often quite effective and not just at random. The enemy AI will take into account weaknesses, status techniques, and sync moves as well. So it’s in your best interest to attack with the right Pokemon against the right target as quickly as possible while accounting for status techniques and sync moves during the process. The most common mistake I make in battle is using a sync move on the wrong Pokemon because I forget to change my target based on weakness to the Pokemon type using the sync move. There’s also an auto function where the game will battle for you with the team you selected, but as with most games the AI will not battle intelligently when being used from your side. It’s extremely annoying.
While battle teams can only include three Sync Pairs and thus Pokemon at a time, your total team can include an unlimited number of Sync Pairs. The way to excel in battle is to pick the right set of three Sync Pairs to construct a team that will best take advantage of the weaknesses of the opposing team. The game always tells you what the most effective Pokemon types are for the upcoming battle based on the type weaknesses of the opposing team. You do not have to include your character, and his/her Pikachu, in your battle team. This is extremely important because electric types are not always the best choice for battle.
Trainers can be added to your team in two ways. They can be acquired as part of the story or unlocked in the store. The plot based trainers cannot be skipped. They are added as you progress through the story and meet them. Store bought trainers are from loot boxes that you can buy with gems. There are two types of gems: paid and non-paid. You can get non-paid gems from completing tasks, battles, and missions. Tasks are basically just story progression moments that require you to talk to people to progress the story forward. This is all on rails and can be easily clicked through if you aren’t interested in the story. Missions are constantly added goals that can be completed at any time. They can be anything from win a certain number of battles to spend a certain amount of coins in the store. The non-paid gems can only be used to purchase certain types of loot boxes. Paid loot boxes on average net better trainers. You can get the same trainer from loot boxes more than once. Each time you get a repeat, it strengthens that trainer’s sync move up to five. I don’t know what happens when you get a repeat trainer a sixth time, or even if you can.
Trainers/Sync Pairs are given a star rating. I’m not exactly sure what the rating denotes because some higher ranked trainers have worse Pokemon than trainers with lower star ranks. 5 stars is currently the top rank a trainer can have. Trainers can also be upgraded with special items that have to be collected by playing the game or bought in the store with coins. Sync Pairs have a level, like how Pokemon do in the core games. As you battle and use XP items, you can increase the level of your participating trainers and ultimately the stats of their Pokemon in battle. But each trainer has a level cap based on their star rating. The cap for three star trainers, the most common I’ve seen, is only 30, which is really disappointing. But you can use items to increase the level caps. The item cost isn’t terrible for this process. But the cost to increase a Sync Pairs star rating is ridiculous by comparison. You can quickly max out characters to the starting level 30 cap by using the very abundant minimum XP boost items. But once you get to the higher level caps, maxing out Sync Pairs requires way more XP which means lots of spending or lots of grinding. Trainers with a higher star rating can level up higher to start. You must also use items to unlock additional moves for Sync pairs. All of them start out with one attack and one status technique and have to have the other two moves unlocked. The first additional move is really easy to unlock but the second requires way more rare items. I have yet to unlock the final attack/technique for a single Sync Pair.
Pokemon in the game come from all over the world, as do the trainers that partner with them. All regions and types are represented. Some trainers have basic Pokemon and others you recruit will already have them evolved. Pokemon also differ in rarity. The story mode quickly netted me Starmie (Misty), Torkoal (Flannery), and Lucario (Korrina) with Misty (Starmie) and Brock (Onix) being the first two trainers I recruited.
Some Pokemon can be evolved. But the process and cost of evolving is very high and will take a very long time for free players. You have to max out a Trainer with a Pokemon capable of evolving. Then you have to unlock the evolve mission for that Pokemon. You do this as soon as you win a battle with the maxed out Sync Pair. Then you have to purchase five evolve shards from the store. These require spending coins, the basic currency in the game. So you need to be smart when choosing which Pokemon to evolve because it will take you a while as a free player. Thankfully, most of the Pokemon currently available in the game are not able to evolve.
Along with the story mode there are also special timed events. These are basically just additional story chapters that don’t affect the main story but net additional items and xp. They can also be great a deal harder than the normal story mode levels. Currently only two of these events has been made available in the game so far; one focused on training and the other story. The story based on has a fairly lengthy completion time limit/window so pretty much everyone will be able to finish it if they started in the opening weeks of the game.
Visually speaking, Pokemon Masters is very solid for a mobile game. The art style looks a lot like the anime, which all the main characters come from. It’s 2D but mimics 3D in certain elements. The colors are vibrant and clear and the UI is fairly manageable. The menus are a bit cluttered and lack more detailed descriptions that would be quite helpful, but in general it’s a manageable design. What’s nice is how fluid the battles look. Attacks look like the actual elemental attacks they should be. And you can tell how effective attacks were with visual and written cues on the life bars floating above each Pokemon. I would say the Pokemon models look better in Pokemon GO, but Pokemon Masters has a lot more detail overall. Especially in the people and settings.
The writing is actually a very complete story, thus far. I’m only on the 10th introductory chapter as I write this and I’ve already met quite a few characters and learned a lot about them and the island of Pasio. The motivation for the characters is all to win the PML but their personal reasons are each specific and developed. Each trainer also has their own optional side missions to help develop them as a character. There are villains, rivals, bullies, and impressive trainers for the characters to look up to. It seems like a full-fledged Pokemon story. At the same time though, there is quite a lot of dialog that I simply don’t care about. Because much of it is character development that within this context doesn’t really matter. I care about the island, the villains and their motivations, and what I have to do to find and battle the best trainers. I don’t care about the fact that some random trainer with a Pokemon I don’t want because I already have better ones is fighting to make their grandfather proud but is also learning to not let other people’s expectations define them. The game is written much like the show. Except it’s a game on your phone presented with text based dialog. So it gets rather boring, takes a long time to read, and since it is a mobile game I’m often playing it passively while doing something else.
I think the developers were aware of this writing conundrum for players because the structure of the game is well defined and very convenient. The game is broken up into chapters. Each chapter is broken up into sections. Each section can be entered specifically and intentionally. They can also all be replayed. Sections clearly state what aspect of gameplay they are. Some are labeled story. These are just dialog. Some are labeled battle and tell you how many battles will occur within that section. HP and status techniques reset at the end of each section but not between battles within a single section. So it’s important to manage things like your limited number of heals when playing a section with multiple battles. Some sections are labeled boss. These are single battle sections with a very strong opponent, usually at the end of a chapter. This organization system works because it allows the player to rush through story moments if they don’t care without having to redo them if they lose a battle.
The game also features a training area but it’s not very clear about what it’s supposed to be used for. There are lots of different types of training sections but only the ones marked XP seem to have any value. The other ones don’t improve your trainers in any way that I’ve been able to recognize. They just help you practice different battle scenarios. Or at least that’s how it seems. This is another example of how the game needs clearer text descriptions in the menus. One of the major problems with training battles is that they, like with the main story missions, are Pokemon type specific. Meaning you either have to use the same Pokemon over and over again or be strong enough to win without taking advantage of types and weaknesses. This gets way more difficult to accomplish in the higher difficulty training levels.
One thing I really don’t like in general about Pokemon Masters is all the hidden features. There are things that are required to progress through the game effectively that simply aren’t explained clearly. Level caps is a good example of this. I had no idea that you could raise level caps until I had already reached the initial cap for several Sync Pairs. There are also other hidden features that can be used to make your Sync Pairs stronger, but they’re often hidden. Some can’t even be unlocked until later in the game.
I’m not far enough in yet to be able to speak on the game’s replay value. I can say that I’ve yet to replay anything that I had already beaten except the XP training sections. The game also is already running special additional timed story events so at this point it seems like any other mobile game where the idea is to keep playing and experiencing additional content rather than replay old things you’ve already completed.
Ultimately the battle system is quite good and the main reason I’ve continued playing the game. I enjoy the challenge of the battles and like the fact that I don’t always win but can usually identify what mistakes I made that caused me to lose. But while the battle system is good, the game does have a number of problems. The low starting level cap is terrible when coupled with the fact that the game doesn’t clearly tell you how to raise your level cap. I played several hours thinking I was stuck at level 30 until I finally got pushed up against a difficulty wall and had to Google it to confirm that the caps could be raised and how to do it. I also really hate that there’s a divide between free and paid gems. It should work like most mobile games where the in game currency is standardized and can be used to buy anything but you can get more of it quicker by spending real money, if you want to. They also need to make evolving Pokemon and Sync Pair star levels much less costly and inconvenient.
As I said early in this review, Pokemon Masters really feels like only half the experience of an authentic core Pokemon game. It has the battles and some of the training, but none of the discovering and catching random wild Pokemon. It definitely works as a stepping stone to keep me focused on Pokemon while I wait for Sword and Shield. And there’s still some aspects of the game I haven’t fully tapped into yet, or at least that’s how it seems. If you’re looking for a mobile game that keeps you coming back but doesn’t require the inconvenience of Pokemon GO, where you have to move around to play the game, this isn’t a bad option.