Review: Play 'Pokemon Masters' if you have time or money to burn
Pokemon Masters, the newest addition to Pokemon's ever-growing collection of spinoffs and side-games, is finally released. AppleInsider takes a look at it to see if it's a worth picking up, or if you should take a hard pass at it.
Pokemon Masters was announced in late June and promised to bring players chance of fighting alongside series favorites in a new, exciting way. Now that the game is out and I've had the chance to take a look at it, I'd like to highlight where the game has done well, versus where it's coming up short.
Setting the stage
The story is fairly minimal, which is a good thing for a side-game. You want enough story that the game feels like a real setting that your character belongs in but it's also a smart move to avoid putting in anything that might contradict or alter the canon of the mainline games.
As expected, you play a plucky young adventurer heading to the Island of Pasio to seek fame, fortune, and have an all-around good time. On Pasio, trainers take a single Pokemon into battle, rather than the normal team of six Pokemon to a single trainer. In Pokemon Masters, trainer-Pokemon team is called a "sync pair." The creative twist is that battles are a three-on-three free-for-all. You'll team up with famous characters from both the games and anime, and battle against other teams. Unlike mainline series games, these battles are real-time, not turn-based.
The Pokemon theming is incredibly strong in Pokemon Masters. It looks more like a mainline game than most Pokemon spinoffs do. The characters are vibrant and have a ton of personality, there's a predictable level of corniness and dad-tier jokes that happen— even the UI is appropriately themed.
Once you're thrown into the game, you get to pick your character's appearance from a very limited selection of options, set your nickname, and dive right into building teams and taking on trainers. By default, you're assigned a Pikachu and you'll first team up with Brock and Misty, which effectively makes you their Ash, for those who are familiar with the anime.
However, you're not stuck with the same team permanently in the game, either. All three sync pairs in your team — including your player character — can be switched out to best suit your battle needs.
Each sync pair has a star rating that denotes their quality. The lowest quality you can obtain is a three-star. These are average trainers with average stats. There's a middle-quality, the four-star quality, and the highest quality of sync pair comes in at five stars. Five-star pairs have a higher level cap and the highest stats of the bunch.
You can gain sync pairs in a couple of different ways. The first is by unlocking them after completing certain storyline quests. The first sync pair you unlock, Rosa and her Pokemon Snivy, are gained via completing a quest.
The other way you can unlock a sync pair is by performing a sync scout. A sync scout allows you to pay a set amount of gems to scout the area for a sync pair to add to your collection.
A word of caution on sync scouting
Sync scouting may seem like a convenient way to expand your team and type coverage — and it is. That convenience, comes at a literal, monetary cost.
Sync scouting works the same way most other loot box systems work— you don't have any choice in who you get, there is a chance that you can scout and receive a duplicate trainer, and there is the option to pay real-world money to perform "cheaper" sync scouts. I'll cover the pay-to-play aspects of this game in another section, though.
Currently, the odds of getting a three-star sync pair, that is, an average trainer with average moves, is currently 73 percent. You've got a 20 percent chance of pulling a four-star sync pair, which means you've only got a seven percent chance of pulling the highly desired five-star sync pairs, such as Pokemon Sun & Moon's Olivia and her Lycanroc.
I had earned enough gems to do seven additional sync scouts after the game's freebie scout, and bought an additional 100 gems from the store to buy an additional discounted sync scout. Seven of the sync scouts were three stars, and one was a duplicate pull. Hardly encouraging, though it did add water-, ice-, and fighting-type Pokemon to my roster.
Three- and four-star sync pairs can raise their quality level through the use of a Power-Up, which is an item you can get from repeatedly scouting the same pair over and over. However, in order to raise a three-star to a four-star, or a four-star to a five, you'll have to scout that same trainer six or seven individual times, which can be incredibly expensive.
Battling in Pokemon Masters is a little chaotic. Because they chose to use a real-time battle system, you'll find that you need a keen eye and a quick hand to do well in the game.
Type advantage still exists in Pokemon Masters, so you'll want to make sure you're attacking an enemy that your Pokemon's type is strong against. During the tutorial, they mercifully put you up against a series of trainers who are mostly weak against your starting team of rock-electric-water, so you'll have a chance to get your bearings. Later on you'll have to be mindful of selecting correct enemies and quickly attacking if you want to do well.
The battle system in Pokemon Masters feels incidentally like a Pokemon game, which isn't unusual for spinoffs. Sure, the branding and the theming are there, but there's something about the real-time battle that seems to lead it in a different direction.
Successfully completed battles will merit you experience points, gems, and items that you can use to fill out and improve your roster of sync pairs.
Still, out of all of the recent mobile spinoffs, Pokemon Masters is definitely the closest to a traditional Pokemon game. It takes a while to get used to, but Pokemon Masters is a respectable entry into the spinoff catalog.
Dealing with the In-app Purchase issue
So, as to be expected with nearly all free-to-play games, there are in app purchases in this game. The IAP is used to buy gems, and gems are mostly used for sync scouts to unlock further
While there's ostensibly one type of gem, a purple one, it's actually divided into two tiers — paid and unpaid. Most other games will often divide the currency into two different types, such as gems and coins, but Pokemon Masters seems to just lump them together on the viewers end as purple gems. Yet, the game keeps track of which gems are paid and which aren't.
When performing a normal sync scout (for 300 gems) or ten normal sync scouts (for 3000 gems), the game will prioritize using "unpaid gems." If you perform a once-a-day special sync scout, you can get a discount— it will only cost 100 gems. The caveat? They must be paid gems. This means you're going to spend about $1.00 if you choose to take advantage of the once a day discounted sync scout.
Currently, the gem exchange rate is roughly $0.01 per gem at its most expensive (if you purchase them 100 at a time for $0.99 + tax) and $0.009 per gem at its cheapest (if you purchase 9,800 gems for $79.99 + tax.) There are a few sales going on right now, but even at the cheapest, you'll be paying $0.007 per gem for these limited edition sales. This means that you're paying around $0.70 to $0.90 per additional sync scout, which is still the best way to expand your character catalog and get a wider team catalog.
Perhaps one of the strangest things about Pokemon Masters is that they seem to be aware of how predatory their in-app purchase model is, and don't try to hide the fact. This may be because Nintendo has a wide range of these sorts of games and has had complaints, but now every Pokemon game comes with a "you don't have to pay to play" boilerplate warning.
Pokemon Masters, also comes with built in features that will tell you when you've hit your self-specified spending limit of real-world money. I anticipate if you're the type that is prone to buying "just one more" loot box in other games in hopes of getting your perfect pull, this warning isn't going to do much in the first place.
Pokemon Masters has some solid gameplay, and the aesthetics are perfectly in line with what I'd hope to see out of any title entered into the Pokemon catalog. What I don't like is the incredibly steep cost to play this "free-to-play" game. Without performing regular sync scouts, the game quickly becomes a slog of trying to find quests you can complete or save up log-in bonuses to gain more gems to avoid needing to spend money.
If you're looking for a casual game to work through for a short bit every day, Pokemon Masters (App Store: Free) is probably a good fit. If you're looking for something you can play heavily, I'm wary to recommend it as it seems to push players into spending large sums of money with little promise of reward.