Game Freak must learn what does and doesn’t work from Pokemon Let’s Go

Walking with Pokemon made its triumphant return in Let’s Go, now allowing the player to ride certain Pokemon like Arcanine. This feature would work well in future installments with every Pokemon returning. Image from Game Freak

As stated in the November column that reviewed it, Pokemon Let’s Go! Pikachu and Let’s Go! Eevee aren’t up to the franchise’s standards, but even if the games aren’t worth returning to as a player, they’re certainly worth returning to from an analytical standpoint.

Considering how many drastic and divisive changes it made to the core Pokemon RPG formula, Let’s Go will inevitably impact the franchise’s future, but the problem isn’t how much of an impact it’ll have, but whether that impact will be positive or negative. Let’s Go introduces good features and marks the long-awaited return of fan-favorite mechanics, but it removes mainstays of the core games that shouldn’t have been tampered with and adds a slew of issues. Let’s Go highlights the strengths and flaws of both previous installments and its new approach, but since it’s stuck in the middle of good and bad game design, it’s unclear what Game Freak will make of its public perception. The company could take praise for Let’s Go too far and permanently remove beloved mechanics, but the same could be said about its criticism, which could lead to anything good that Let’s Go introduced being disregarded in future installments. That said, there’s always hope that Game Freak will understand the changes that need to be made, and there are multiple things they can do going forward with what evidence Let’s Go gave out.

One of the issues raised in the review was wild battles, which allowed players to encounter Pokemon on the overworld but forced them to use catching controls from Pokemon GO instead of battling and weakening their foe. Overworld encounters should absolutely return, as they prevent players from wasting time encountering other Pokemon when they’re searching for a specific one. However, while GO catching mechanics are a good idea to implement, they shouldn’t be mandatory, especially given how rigid they were in Let’s Go compared to GO. Aside from fixing the control scheme so it actually functions on a console, the best compromise would be to let the player choose how they catch their target, as wild battles from previous installments and instant ball throwing from GO each have risks and rewards.

go controls
Catching controls from Pokemon GO are an excellent addition, but the controls must be fixed so they function as well as they do in the mobile title, and they must be optional for players who don’t want to use them. Image from Game Freak

Upon encountering wild Pokemon, the player should be prompted to choose between battling their target or just throwing Poke Balls. By choosing to battle and weaken wild Pokemon, the player can deal damage and inflict status conditions that significantly raise catch rates, but this method has a chance to knock out the target, and every turn that the wild Pokemon isn’t caught or defeated, it’s chipping away at the HP of the player’s Pokemon. On the other hand, throwing balls instantly prevents the player’s team from fainting, but this risks lower catch rates, even with items that slightly raise chances, and any wild Pokemon has a small chance of running away with this method. The same choice could be extended to how Poke Balls are thrown: having balls thrown automatically like in previous installments would ensure balls never miss at the cost of having no catch rate bonuses for accurate throws, but GO controls sacrifice perfect accuracy for a chance to increase catch rates. This change would essentially create four unique playstyles for catching Pokemon with different levels of risk and reward, as players could mix and match how they increase catch rates and throw balls. Veteran players could battle and automatically throw balls like previous installments, fans introduced to the series by GO could throw balls instantly with the controls they know, people who dislike GO controls and wild battles could throw balls instantly and automatically, and fans of both GO and previous installments could battle Pokemon and then throw balls with GO controls.

As for other core mechanics that Let’s Go removed, taking them away raised multiple problems. Major gameplay features that keep different types of players hooked beyond the campaign, such as competitive battling modes and breeding, and basic elements that make battles fun, such as held items and abilities, were left out of Let’s Go in an attempt to simplify the experience, which is frankly backwards thinking considering it kept other features like natures and IVs that only competitive players care about, as well as Mega Evolutions, many of which were designed around a specific ability. In addition, Pokemon Refresh, a feature that allowed players to give affection to any of their Pokemon, was restricted to the partner Pikachu and Eevee, and while these two had more variety in animations during this mode, it made the remaining Pokemon still in the game’s code feel unimportant. Speaking of Pokemon still in the game’s code, this was the first installment in the series in which all Pokemon beyond the Kanto region were removed from the game entirely, including evolutions of Kanto Pokemon like Steelix that were leagues better than their first forms.

co op
Despite removing many key features, Let’s Go did add important features like local co-op that should return in later games. Image from Game Freak

Most of these are confirmed to return in the upcoming 2019 installments, and the rest are likely to stay, but removing all of these proved how important they were to the franchise. In addition, Game Freak has a habit of removing excellent features after one game, like the DexNav in Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire or the Underground from Diamond, Pearl and Platinum, which means any good that Let’s Go did has a risk of being forgotten to time. The ability to play with a single Joy-Con, drop-in/drop-out co-op, and walking alongside Pokemon, which was introduced in HeartGold and SoulSilver but not brought back until now, should all return in future installments, as well as the ability to transfer Pokemon from GO, although it shouldn’t be limited to Kanto Pokemon since GO has introduced Pokemon up to Generation IV. Mechanics from GO are also welcome, but they shouldn’t come at the cost of core game traditions, as the gameplay loop from GO isn’t sustainable for console games worth $60. On a smaller note, regional forms of existing Pokemon should become a mainstay for the series, as redesigning beloved Pokemon with new types and movesets was a brilliant move, one that even works within the lore by having Pokemon migrate from other regions and adapt to new environments. The only issues with regional forms were that they were limited to Kanto Pokemon, there were very few introduced, and no new regional forms were introduced in either Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon or Let’s Go. All three of these issues can be easily solved by continuing to introduce regional forms in later games, at least some of which should come from outside Kanto. Finally, Let’s Go lacked any meaningful postgame content, as Master Trainers weren’t a good replacement for multiple new areas or subquests from other games. It’s safe to say the next installment will have a better postgame, especially given the lack of one makes it hard to return to Let’s Go.

While many were turned off by returning to Kanto for the seventh time, especially given the region’s lack of interesting locales and low type diversity due to an overabundance of Water and Poison types, Kanto has one important feature that almost no other Pokemon game has replicated: nonlinearity. In previous Kanto games, there was a designated path that had players fight gym leaders in the order of Brock, Misty, Lt. Surge, Erika, Koga, Sabrina, Blaine, and Giovanni, but as long as the player defeated Erika and Koga for necessary HM moves, Lt. Surge, Sabrina, and Blaine could be fought in any order. This extended to the Silph Co. tower dungeon, since it wasn’t required to advance until fighting Sabrina. This carried over to Kanto’s appearance in the Johto games, in which five gyms are available from the start depending on where the player wants to go first. Let’s Go further expands upon this by allowing every gym between Misty and Giovanni to be fought in any order since the lack of HM moves means they can traverse the entire region without gym leader requirements, albeit the game discourages this by raising the levels of Sabrina and Blaine’s teams so players instinctively fight them last.

Whether Game Freak realizes it or not, nonlinearity is a great match for Pokemon because it changes how players compose their teams at different points in the game, and it prevents future playthroughs from feeling stale. However, Game Freak has a habit of purposefully blocking off routes so players only go one direction, like with the Lumiose City power outage in XY, which means that even if the region has a land layout with diverging paths, players will only go one way during the campaign. If the designers want to have players go one direction and explore the others later, a good compromise between linear and nonlinear design would be split paths players must commit to. At certain points in the story, the player could be given the choice between two or three gyms they could challenge next, each with a few routes and areas before it, and once they choose one path, they can’t explore the other one until the first one is complete. Whichever path isn’t selected will become more difficult once the player enters, having higher level Pokemon with stronger moves and abilities, or other tools like status moves, so the difficulty is still linear and doesn’t suddenly rise, fall or stagnate.

As an example of what this would look like, let’s say there are three paths that can be taken midway through the game: one leading to a bird’s nest populated by Flying types, another leading to a dojo where Fighting types train, and one leading to a frozen tundra filled with Ice types. Since Ice, Flying and Fighting form a cycle of type weaknesses, going to any one of the three allows the player to catch Pokemon with a type advantage over one of the other paths, and after two paths, the player is guaranteed access to something with type advantages over the third path. However, the levels rise for each path that isn’t taken, and Trainers teach their Pokemon stronger moves or use more devious strategies, such as the Flying path using Tailwind to outspeed the player. This even makes sense within the franchise’s established lore, as the anime shows that gym leaders have multiple teams of Pokemon at different levels that they select depending on how many gym badges a challenger has.

Trace, the new rival in Let’s Go, showcases a recurring issue with rivals in recent Pokemon games: lack of motivation to defeat them. Image from Game Freak

Even with that change, however, veteran players may still feel the games are too easy. Generations VI and VII in particular are commonly accepted as the easiest games in the series, and Let’s Go takes the spot as the easiest among them. The problem is that removing any of the existing conveniences that make the games easier like the EXP. Share could be a turnoff for casual players. Fortunately, there’s an obscure feature from Black 2 and White 2 that would be an excellent solution: difficulty modes. While Game Freak was stupid enough to lock difficulty modes behind completing the game and only give easy mode or hard mode depending on which game the player had, if these modes were available from the start, it would make a massive but necessary change. Beyond that, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon had excellent boss design in the form of Totem Pokemon, most of which used strategies that competitive players use, so thoughtful challenges can be put into boss battles regardless of difficulty modes.

A minor issue with recent games’ campaigns has been the player’s rival, as veterans have complained that current rivals are far nicer to the player than those from earlier games, which lessens motivation to defeat them. However, as much of a nitpick as this seems to be, the real issue with current rivals is that defeating them sends the wrong message in the story. There’s nothing wrong with having a rival who’s a nice person, but when fighting rivals is a major story element designed to show the player’s growth, the rival has to show that they’re doing something wrong that led them to lose. The first two rivals in the series, Blue and Silver, are both classified as jerk rivals, but they both show a different weakness, since Blue doesn’t initially care about his teammates and doesn’t learn to love his Pokemon, specifically choosing his starter Pokemon with a type advantage against the player instead of choosing one he wants to care for, but Silver is only concerned about being the strongest trainer and goes to extreme lengths such as stealing a starter Pokemon. This gave the player motivation to defeat their rivals and prove their methods wrong, but with recent rivals like Hau and Trace, who eventually become the final boss of Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon and Let’s Go respectively, the games go out of their way to showcase these characters as kind and loving to their Pokemon, just going about enjoying life and doing the right thing. Defeating these characters when they’re so close to achieving their goals makes the player look like the real rival in the context of the universe.

There are two ways Game Freak could design the next rival to fit either the role of a jerk rival or kind rival. While the jerk rival is self-explanatory, a good way to implement a friendly rival would be to have the rival as a mentor. This rival would help the player train by siding with them in double battles, and to test their strength, they could be fought at points in the story like other rivals. They could be entirely friendly, but without a character trait to make them unlikable, motivation can come from the rival pushing the player to improve, as their goal is to help others become better trainers and connect with their Pokemon. This allows Game Freak to make a rival that isn’t cruel and hateable while not coming out as the bad guy by crushing the hopes and dreams of an aspiring child. Rivals don’t have to be jerks, they just have to be interesting characters.

Although the graphics in Let’s Go are passable at a glance, Game Freak has the potential to do so much better. Image from Game Freak

By now, Game Freak needs to improve the visuals and performance of their games. Despite looking vibrant and colorful, the 3DS installments had inconsistent framerates when too many models were onscreen at once, and Let’s Go had highly pixelated shadows, bland appearances, models that weren’t retextured, and horribly distracting lag issues. The performance of Let’s Go is completely unacceptable compared to games like Super Mario Odyssey that look better, are much more taxing on processing power and still manage to run smoothly. This may be due to Game Freak adamantly and hastily transitioning their main series titles to the Switch while abandoning the 3DS, which Nintendo is still supporting and releasing major titles for, so it may have worked better to have Let’s Go be a 3DS title. That way, Generation VII wouldn’t have to be split between two consoles, the performance would be more consistent for the console it’s on, and the 2019 installments could have more of Game Freak’s Switch development staff working on it for longer amounts of time to make it a smoother experience. In any case, the 2019 installments absolutely need to have better visuals, as this is entirely within Game Freak’s ability. After all, the company owns one of the most popular and successful brands in the world, it can afford a few coats of paint.

With the exception of the graphical and rival issues, these issues prove that the key to a good Pokemon game is having options: options to train any team of Pokemon the player wants from any generation, options to experience the story and sidequests, options to extend gameplay in the postgame, options to get into competitive battling, etc. Pokemon appeals to all kinds of players, and as long as Game Freak remembers to keep in the mechanics that suit different players’ needs, then the franchise will continue on the right track. This obviously includes the kinds of players who enjoy Let’s Go, because the point of the games shouldn’t be to design an experience for one kind of player, but to incorporate their needs into the games as an option so they can be included without alienating other everyone else. Pokemon appeals to everyone, and the future of the franchise depends on that appeal.

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