Pokemon Shuffle launched for the 3DS this week, bringing one of the first free-to-play titles to Nintendo’s portable console. But just because a game is free doesn't mean it's necessarily worth your time. In the case of Pokemon Shuffle, however, you might be pleasantly surprised.
For starters, I say “one of the first” free-to-play titles because I don’t know how sticky folks’ definition of the genre is. Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball kind of fits into the genre, with the first mini-game being free of charge and all others costing you a buck or two, and Sub Wars follows a similar path, offering free gameplay out of the gate and additional purchases for extra content.
For most people, though, free-to-play is more like what you would expect to find on the mobile market with games like Candy Crush Saga or Puzzle & Dragons. In these games, you can play through match-three puzzles to your heart’s content, so long has you have the in-game resources to do it. Said resources are replenished through time or some good old-fashioned real world currency. This is exactly the type of system implemented by Pokemon Shuffle and, like those games, figuring out if you want to cross that “pay” barrier is wholly up to you and how desperately you want to keep playing.
Earlier this week we reported on Pokemon Shuffle’s resource and purchasing system and I still feel like the amount of content you get for a buck is on the expensive-as-hell side. At the base level, you can purchase an in-game Gem for a dollar. That Gem can either be used to refill five Hearts (play five more rounds of the game), purchase some in-game Coins (used to purchase boosts and the like) or give you five additional turns when you fail a mission. More on that last bit later.
Keeping in mind that a round of Pokemon Shuffle can last anywhere from 10 seconds to about two minutes, it’s hard to justify spending a dollar for what amounts to a max of about 10 minutes of play time. Since you earn Coins pretty slowly in battle, I imagine most folks who decide to fork over money will do so in order to boost their chances heading into a particularly tough challenge, or simply give themselves a few extra turns when said baddie is nearly defeated. It’s not something I see myself ever spending money on, but it’s there for folks who don’t have the patience to only play the game for a few minutes here and there.
And that’s where I find myself needing to be more forgiving of the free-to-play price plan. It’s a structure that’s run rampant on mobile and, as gross as some of the pricing feels, it’s absolutely possible to plow through the entirety of most of this particular match-three clone without ever spending a dime. The game is also very up front about the fact that you will need to either wait for resources to replenish or spend some legitimate currency to move along at a quicker clip.
What really matters is whether or not the gameplay is fun and, after about an hour with the game last night, I found myself being pleasantly surprised by what Pokemon Shuffle has to offer.
As stated above, Shuffle is the latest in a long line of match-three games, so nothing on offer here is all that revolutionary. Also, it’s easy to draw a comparison to the similarly themed Pokemon Battle Trozei, but the games actually play quite a bit differently. If you want to play a Pokemon gem-busting game without worrying about microtransactions, you can just drop seven bucks into that one and be fine. But since Shuffle is technically gratis, there’s no harm in giving it a shot.
As you enter a stage, you’re given a number of turns in which to beat the enemy. In traditional Pokemon fashion, using team members of an opposite element will deal extra damage (Water against Fire, for instance). Each of your team members also have special abilities, like dealing extra damage if you match up to four of them or dealing said additional damage randomly throughout the match. Eventually you’ll get your first Mega Stone, which can be applied to certain Pokemon within the game. Put a ‘Mon with a Mega Stone equipped into your team’s lead spot and you can fill a gauge throughout play that will allow them to start dishing out extra pain.
Enemies can also come equipped with game-altering abilities, such as turning random Pokemon into unusable blocks. Land a chain next to one of these blocks, and you can break it and move on. Some battles will also limit the number of team members you can have, start the board with a blocks already on it or offer unique goals.
Before entering battle, you can spend your in-game Coins or real money on bonuses, such as an experience boost, additional turns or the ability to start with a Pokemon already Mega-evolved. If you happen to fail a mission, the game will prompt you to spend a Gem, which will grant you five additional turns to defeat your enemy.
At the end of a victorious battle, you’ll be given the opportunity to catch the Pokemon you just fought. A gauge fills up to let you know how difficult this act will be, with bonus percentages added for beating the level in fewer turns. If you catch them, you add them to your team. If you fail, then you’ll want to fight them again sometime and hope for better luck. You can also purchase better Pokeballs to up your chances.
Outside of the standard campaign, which apparently offers 160-plus levels, you’ll have the ability to take part in Special events and Pro levels. Special events are available for a limited time and give you the chance to challenge especially tough Pokemon, like Mew, and add them to your party. Pro levels play just like the regular game but, instead of having a limited number of turns to complete a level, you've got to race against the clock.
So, yeah, nothing mind-blowing or super new here, but what’s on offer in Pokemon Shuffle is a decent match-three time waster that boasts a familiar world and cast of characters, as well as some clever twists on the gameplay that actually fit the series' lore. I’m still not too happy with the amount of content you get for any real-world money you spend in the game, but the solution to that is simple: Don’t spend any money if it isn't worth it to you. As a way to kill five minutes from time to time, though, I’ll probably be back for more.