In Pokémon Masters, out today for iOS and Android, players recruit famous Pokémon trainers from throughout the series’ 23-year history, creating teams of three and battling through an adventure that feels more like the cartoon than any game that’s come before.
Pokémon games up to now have been mainly focused on the goal of becoming the very best, capturing critters, filling that Pokédex, and taking on the elite four. The ongoing animated series, on the other hand, has focused on trainers like Ash Ketchum and friends and the special bond they share with specific Pokémon. Ash and Pikachu, Misty and Staryu, Brock and Onix—these teams are the stuff of animated Pokémon legends. They’ve appeared in games, sure, but they live in anime. And now they live in Pokémon Masters.
The new game begins with the player, a nameless human partner to Pikachu, joining up with Misty and Brock on the island of Pasio. On Pasio, trainers from across all Pokémon regions compete in the Pokémon Masters League. The goal is the same as it is in many Pokémon games: Players travel the world collecting badges, eventually earning the right to take on the upper echelons of the league. What’s different is that instead of building a large collection of pocket monsters, each trainer is partnered with just a single Pokémon.
There’s no collecting or capturing pocket monsters in Pokémon Masters. Instead, the player collects Sync Pairs, the game’s name for trainers and their set partners. Some trainers, like Misty and Brock, join automatically as the game’s story unfolds. If there’s a big battle against a badge-holding boss trainer at the end of one of the game’s chapters, odds are they’ll be joining the player’s team. The vast majority of the 65 Sync Pairs available at launch are purchased via an in-game market.
Players spend crystals, either earned through play or purchased with real money, for a chance to summon a random new trainer. Should a duplicate be summoned, the existing trainer’s power is enhanced automatically. I’ve played the Sync Pairs gashapon game a dozen times, two of which were doubles. I am pretty sure both of them were Lt. Surge. I hate that guy.
The battles in Pokémon Masters are interesting. Before each fight players form a team of three Sync Pairs. Each pair has a specific elemental type, so the idea is to create a team that’s super-effective against the enemy. The pre-battle screen recommends types for each fight, so it’s normally just a matter of having the right trainers on your team and keeping them leveled through combat or the use of purchased and awarded upgrade items.
Every Sync Pair has abilities that cost energy. There’s an energy meter that fills slowly during battle at the bottom of the screen. The player taps an enemy target, taps the team they want to attack, chooses a skill and, should they have enough energy handy, attacks. Once the player has taken a certain number of actions they can set off a Sync Move, generally a massive attack that does huge damage. The animations for Sync Moves are the best.
Battle continues until one side’s Pokémon have all fainted. Early on in the game, the player’s party is almost guaranteed to be triumphant. The deeper into Pasio players go, however, the harder the fights get. Several hours and six chapters into the game, I find myself losing more often. Nothing to do but farm upgrade items or participate in special training missions to make my team stronger.
I love the way Pokémon Masters’ story unfolds. The game’s chapters are split into a series of segments. Some are battles, pitting the player’s party against groups of three or more enemy trainers. Others are story segments, little animated cutscenes featuring adorable heroes and abominable (but still adorable) villains. Famous trainers get a chance to show off their personalities in ways they don’t get to outside of the anime. It’s nice to get to know these folks better.
Each trainer also gets their own Sync Pair Stories, short narrative asides in which players get a peek at the relationship between trainers and their Pokémon partners. Getting to see new stories makes the idea of spending crystals on summoning new trainers much more enticing. Oh, I suppose that’s how they get you.
I’ve not encountered a lot of pressure to spend real money in Pokémon Masters so far. The game’s been pretty generous handing out currency, and I’ve yet to encounter a fight or event that suggested a Sync Pair of an element I did not possess. As the game goes live and special events start rolling out that could change, but so far I’ve not spent a single cent and I’m perfectly content.
I’ve just got to separate myself from the “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality, which isn’t so hard when I’m collecting people instead of adorable critters. I suppose in Pokémon Masters, the real pocket monsters are the friends you make along the way.