Nintendo’s Pokemon video games have spanned generations of gamers and, if you started playing the original games in 1998, likely a few too many pocket monsters to keep track of at this point. Those who first entered the world with Pokemon Red and Pokemon Blue have essentially waited more than half their lives for a real console version of the RPG that launched the shipment of millions of handhelds.
Last week, Nintendo announced that a console Pokemon game is finally coming to the Switch sometime next year. It’s a huge announcement that came with a smaller, more tangible one as well: A freemuim game called Pokemon Quest. Available right away on the Switch, a mobile version of the game is supposed to be released soon.
The colorful cubed game is a decent teaser for next year’s main event. Much more battle-based than mobile game Pokemon Go, Quest situates you as an explorer arriving via boat to Tumblecube Island. There, a PokeBall-shaped drone follows the action as you build three-Pokemon teams to take down some of the island’s inhabitants.
Featuring the first 151 Pokemon from the original games, Pokemon Quest follows the familiar arc of the RPG games with some different mechanics in place for battling and discovering new Pokemon. You start with your choice of five Pokemon: Squirtle, Charmander, Bulbasaur, Pikachu and Eevee. I picked the same starting Pokemon I settled on playing Pokemon Red all those years ago: Squirtle.
The Minecraft-inspired graphics have cubified all of your favorite Pokemon, who have either one or two special moves they can do in battle. The big modifier in Pokemon Quest are stones, mainly mighty stones (attack power) and sturdy stones (health). Some stones have special modifiers that regain health, increase the chance for critical hits, and reduce recovery time for special attacks. There are also special stones that modify the attacks themselves, making them stronger or scattering their effects.
As your Pokemon goes on Expeditions, it levels up and new slots for stones open up on their character sheet. The game estimates the strength level needed for each Expedition in a region, which has specific kinds of Pokemon you can build a team to match up against. The initial instinct is to always use your strongest Pokemon no matter what, but matchups matter, especially if you can build a water-based team to run through a lot of fire-based Pokemon.
Expeditions are actually pretty simple. Your team runs around looking for Pokemon to attack to collect stones. You can literally put the game on “auto” and let it attack and use special attacks, but there is some important strategic work you can do in moving your Pokemon away from special attacks or giving them time to heal if HP is low.
Getting new Pokemon to join your team is very different from other games in the series. You have a base camp set up where you cook meals based on the ingredients you get for beating Pokemon in Expeditions. This is where the game does more than just look like Minecraft — you can make different meals to attract different kinds of Pokemon. Blue foods attract blue Pokemon, yellow attracts yellow Pokemon, and other mixtures can bring different Pokemon to your camp.
There’s value in leveling up some seldom-used members of the team, but it’s frustrating when high-level Pokemon appear that aren’t particularly powerful or have good stats when it comes to actually attacking. You can level up Pokemon by pitting your collection against one another, or use an expendable party member to help teach a Pokemon a new move.
The problem is it’s a scattershot mechanic. I tried to teach a new move to an Onyx I was using often and the move it learned eliminated its attack move for a support move, severely diminishing its usefulness. There’s no real warning as to what moves your Pokemon will learn, and you lose the lesser Pokemon you are using to train or learn a new move with so it’s a big risk to take. Leveling up your Pokemon enough does make them evolve just like in the RPGs, though.
And there are, of course, the typical freemium pitfalls that sacrifice your time for your virtual, and eventually real, currency. A power meter representing the drone’s battery limits the number of quests you can do in one sitting (5) unless you want to fork over PM Tickets or get a reward to refill the battery. Tickets can also speed up the cooking process and pay for other things, including decorations for your camp.
Every 22 hours you get 50 PM Tickets, but they can go fast if you’re not careful. Some will be more tempted than others to spend real money in a game like this, but it was easy enough to hold off for a few hours and go back later, after wandering around in Zelda some more or, I don’t know, actually going outside or getting some other work done.
Pokemon Quest is a time-waster, but one that can be addicting for all the familiar reasons the original Pokemon has captured the hearts of so many. It’s good to see Pokemon in any form on the Switch, but given that the release came with news of a real RPG on the horizon, it’s just going to make you wish the real thing already existed.