Some things never change. Almost 20 years ago at Christmas, while everyone else was busy stuffing themselves full of turkey, me and my brother spent our day trading Pokemon on the game that was that year's must have Christmas present, Pokemon Red/Blue. Now, some 19-and-a-bit-years-later, it looks like this Christmas is going to be the same all over again, with the launch of Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Pokemon Let's Go Eevee on the Switch letting us journey to Pallet Town all over again on Nintendo's newest handheld hybrid. But while Pokémon's appeal may be immortal, it's safe to say Let's Go's has been anything but, with fans kicking up one heck of a backlash online due to some pretty major changes to the gameplay...
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Essentially a kind of "anniversary" game for Pokemon Red and Blue, Pokemon Let's Go really should have been the game Pokemon fans have spent their entire lives dreaming about. From the very second you first squinted at those pixels on the Game Boy, everyone dreamt about just how good it'd it'd be to have a proper, fully 3D Pokemon adventure on a home console. Then the N64 came and went with only a hand full of spin-offs to its name, and the GameCube and Wii followed in much the same way (let's not mention the Wii U). Needless to say, a proper Pokemon game on a kind of home console has been a long time coming - and while this isn't quite full 3D (it's still top down, so no movable camera - not that that's a bad thing), it does tick all the right nostalgia boxes with a giant rose tinted pen. There's Pallet Town, looking better than ever; Team Rocket are back, with Jessie's impossible hair cut, and James' campness having somehow made it across to the console; and all 151 original Pokémon are waiting to be caught - and then some.
But somewhere along the way, things went a little bit wrong. Having seen the impossible success of Pokemon GO, Game Freak seemingly buckled under the pressure, and decided that any Pokemon game they released couldn't possibly be a success if it didn't tack on to the finger swiping simulator in some way, shape or form. So what we've got is a Pokemon "reimagining" that's been gimped by having all the very worst parts of Pokemon GO (so, all of it then, right?) crowbarred into it.
OK, so we jest. Not everything that's come from Pokemon Go is utterly terrible - and in fact, some of it's made the game feel a lot better, and more modern. Not having to trawl through the long grass for hours, and instead being able to actually see the Pokemon wandering the world makes it much more fun to find the Pokemon you want, and avoid the ones you're not interested in. But then on the other hand, you have the random encounters, and... well, that's where the Pokemon Go related rot really sets in. Instead of battles, you don't actually fight Pokemon any more (you know, like you've done in every game, film, anime, manga, and countless spin offs since the beginning of time) - now you just throw Pokeballs at a fully healthy Pokemon instead, and pray. No weakening them first, no paralysing them in the hope they can't run off, no putting them to sleep - just stocking up on a few hundred Pokeballs, then burying the poor Jigglypuff under them all in the hope he can't escape.
To make things worse, if you're playing with the console docked (so, through the TV), you're forced to rely on motion controls for lobbing the Pokeballs. And that would be OK if it was accurate - but it's not. The game does its best to try and figure out the "arc" of your throw, so it's possible to throw too high, too low, or even off to one of the sides, and completely miss the Pokemon you were aiming for (bye bye, 100 pokebucks). And that's when they're standing still. When it comes to fighting Pokemon that dares to move around, you'll find yourself trying to chuck a Pokeball their way, only to watch wistfully as it flies in the exact opposite direction. In handheld mode, things are slightly less irritating, as all you need to do is point the console at the Pokemon in question and press A - but then, you try doing that on a bus on the way home from work. No matter what mode you're playing in, you have to use some sort of motion control - something we're sure the hardcore Nintendo fans always used to hate, but which seems to have been mostly given a free pass here.
To make up for the lack of random encounters, your Pokemon instead now gain XP as you catch other Pokemon, despite never leaving their Pokeballs, and so technically not actually getting any experience of anything bar the inside of their spherical home. As such, much of Pokemon Let's Go revolves around not just catching the Pokemon you want, but practically razing the entire world of any and all Pokemon in it, as it's the only way to really "grind" and level your team up. And while that may sound awful to purists, it's actually not all, entirely, 100% bad. As before, each area has its own selection of common, rare, and downright impossible to find Pokemon - but whereas before, it was simply down to luck, now, you can take luck into your own hands. Catch a certain type of Pokemon several times in a row, and you'll start to build up a combo - and the higher the combo, the rarer Pokemon you'll find - and the better stats everything will have. The issue is, they could have done that, and still kept the random battles in. There was really no need to ditch them.
Outside of the random battles, or lack thereof, things are a lot, lot better. For starters, this is the first ever Pokemon game to have a co-op mode, so you can bring a friend along for the adventure. As the game's supposedly been aimed at beginners (we'll come back to this later), you could be forgiven for thinking this would be little more than a helper mode, but it actually sits somewhere between the two - not quite a helper, yet not a full player either. While your buddy won't get their own squad of Pokemon (boo!), they do get to take control of one of your team in Pokemon battles, meaning that anyone you face, be it a bug catcher boy, or the first gym leader, Brock "the man with no eyes" Takeshi, will find themselves in a handicap match, as you send two of your Pokemon out to take on one of theirs. While it may be a nice feature for proper beginners, it also makes the game insanely easy if you're playing together with a friend - it'd have been so much nicer to have an "I know what I'm doing" button that essentially turned every battle into a tag contest, and forced you to have to think on your feet. In a similar way, moves all seem to have 100% accuracy in the game this time around, making status effects like Sleep Powder all powerful, as they've never failed to put an opponent to sleep (yet).
Despite the Pokemon Go features, then, there's still a lot to like here. The battles themselves are a lot of fun, and the core cycle of catching Pokemon, training them up, battling them with others, and eventually taking on the Elite Four to become the best Pokemon trainer in the land is every bit as satisfying as it ever has been - even more so now you can take on the whole adventure with a friend. It's genuinely great to see the world done justice in a way the 3DS has simply never been able to manage, and if you played through the originals, you'll get a real kick out of revisiting old haunts. There's so many nice touches, too, from the fact you can have a Pokémon follow you around, to the removal of those annoying HM moves you had to teach to at least one of your Pokémon to get through certain areas, like Cut and Surf. Instead, Pikachu/Eevee are now the HM drones that learn the "useful" moves automatically - but they don't take up one of their four move slots, meaning you can still use a full range of abilities in battle. No matter how you look at it then, there's a lot to like - but it could have been so much better were it not for the rubbish catching system.
There's been a lot said about how the whole idea of the Pokemon Go integration was to make this the most accessible Pokemon game yet - the easiest one ever to get into - and this line has been trotted out by writers and players alike across the world. Yet the truth is, Let's Go will only really be accessible if you've not only played Pokemon Go, but if you really get how it all works too. For example, take the circles that show up over the Pokemon you're catching. Do you really know what they mean? If you do, chances are you've played Pokemon Go more than most people we've spoken to - yet Pokemon Let's Go makes no attempt to explain how the catching system actually works until you've beaten the first Gym, and are half way through Mt. Moon. As it happens, the idea is to try and both time and aim the Pokeballs you throw, so they land inside the repeatedly decreasing circle - get it inside the circle when it's small, and you'll get a bonus. The game just chooses not to explain how it all works until you're four hours, forty Pokemon, and hundreds of wasted Pokeballs in. We're still not sure if you can curve your shots to deal with Pokemon that move around - and the game's done nothing to try and clear it up either.
Though it isn't as bad as we'd feared, Pokemon Let's Go nevertheless is a game that's really gained very little from its Pokemon Go crossover, as many expected. Still, with a co-op mode that's a lot of fun, enough traditional battles to keep the game interesting, and at least some fun to be had from the game's unique take on "gotta catch 'em all", Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee are probably worth a look - but only when/if they drop in price. At the moment, Let's Go feels like a mini-game being sold for full price - as it turns out, that proper, home console style Pokemon game is still a fair way away.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Switch