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CONSOLE: Nintendo 3DS DEVELOPER: Genius Sonority PUBLISHER: Nintendo
RELEASE DATE (NA): February 18, 2015 GENRE: Puzzle
// review by SoyBomb

Get ready to shuffle funds out of your wallet.

Having never played a "free-to-play" or "freemium" game before — the closest being a terrible donut puzzle game on iOS with ads every four or five taps to the screen or so — I was initially put off, but hey, you can't help but put a little faith in Nintendo. Say what you will about their recent business practices or their lack of consistent effective promotion with all their products, their games are still packed with as much heart as ever. Also, apart from that one baffling hour I spent in early 2010 playing Hey You, Pikachu! for the first time, this is my first significant venture into the Pokémon universe, surprising though it may be.

And if this is what Pokémon is all about, count me out on this franchise for the foreseeable future.

Okay, I am smarter than that. I'm well aware that Pokémon Shuffle doesn't accurately reflect the series. It barely qualifies as a Pokémon game — it's more like a non-descript game with a popular franchise shoehorned in.

So here's the bare basics: Pokémon Shuffle is above all else a Match-3 game. If you're not familiar with them, then clearly you've never taken a dive into the murky ponds of extremely casual gaming. You're basically given a board — in this case, a 6x6 board — with various pictures within, and your goal is to match at least 3 in a row or column to make them disappear. This game uses the heads of Pokémon as the "things" to match. The trick is to either make longer strings of items disappear at once or to have a chain reaction happen, where making some heads disappear causes others to fall into place and subsequently be "matched up" themselves and disappear... causing MORE ensuing matches. Unlike many Match-3 games, however, Pokémon Shuffle allows you to pick up a Pok&emon head from anywhere on the board and swap it with another to make a match. (Typically, you can only swap adjacent tiles.)

The goal of each Match-3 puzzle is to capture a new Pokémon, and there are a TON to capture. Just taking the main path alone can land you up to 160 of 'em. You do this by "defeating" them first. In each puzzle, you are given a limited number of turns to try and make successful matches, which, in turn, cause damage to your Poképponent. You can customize which Pokémon you bring to each battle by selecting from your captured bunch (or just let the game select its own optimized team) so you can target weaknesses, such as Pikachu's Electricity against a Water-type Pokémon. After the battle is complete (and you won), you'll have the opportunity to attempt to catch that Pokémon. No, it's not a guaranteed catch: every one has its own Base Capture percentage, meaning your probability of actually capturing it. Some are rather high, and some are extremely, extremely low (like 2% or 3% chance). Having turns remaining adds to that percentage, and then the game works itself out with a little animation to see if you get it or not. If you do, great — you now have an extra little buddy to bring to future brawls.

In addition, by playing normally, you can eventually unlock Expert Stages (marked with an EX) for a greater challenge. Instead of getting a limited set of moves, you get a limited amount of time to make as many matches as possible and hoping that you cause enough damage to win. Of course, the Pokémon; featured here have very small Base Capture percentages (often as low as 1%), so don't hold your breath on getting any of these. Also, by "Checking In" (connecting to the game via the Internet), you can gain access to Special stages and Daily Challenges, both with timeframes in which they must be completed before they disappear. That's a bit of a shame, really; I'd hate to waste all my turns on a battle, fail, and then have it become unavailable as quickly as it came, wasting my valuable time.

I could show you more, but... this is it.

By using Pokémon repeatedly in battle, they level up and become more effective! There's a little RPG-nius hidden in here! Winning battles also earns you Coins, useful for buying items that can definitely work in your favour in battle, and you could possibly win a Jewel, redeemable for more Coins or to continue the hard fight after you fail in a battle.

And that's the general idea of the game: to build up your repertoire of Pokémon, or, to put it another way, to CATCH 'EM AWWWWWWWLLLL!!! (Po-kay-MON!) Sounds easy enough. With a decent time investment and a good old-fashioned sense of willpower and determination, this game can be a barrel of fun. It's a quaint little puzzler on the go that can bring short bursts of fun while you're waiting for a bus or a loved one to bring back a popsicle from the store.

But not everything is sunny in the land of Pokémon, where Lucario reads you the daily Cheezburger headlines and Charizard prepares your bi-weekly Porterhouse steak. I think we forgot something: this is a freemium game. Freemium. That means something, doesn't it? I believe it means that you have to pay extra for things. Remember, boys and girls: there's no such thing as a free lunch, and there's no such thing as a free video game.

Let's back up a bit and talk about the first issue with this game: the Heart system. It's nothing complicated; you get five Hearts to start with. To play a round in the game, you use up one Heart. After about five or six minutes, you've used up all five of those Hearts, and you're left sitting there, staring blankly at the 3DS screen (which, by the way, isn't in 3D), wondering what to do next. Well, you have two options at your disposal, one being terrible, the other being also terrible. You can wait for Hearts to regenerate, and they do on their own, at a pace of one Heart every half-hour. So if you want your Hearts back, you have to wait for two and a half hours — enough time to make a sandwich, visit a loved one, or write a half-assed thesis about a pork chop-shaped universe — and then it's back to business as usual. But let's say you're actually someone who likes to play video games, and you want to spend more than a few minutes on this new digital project of yours. Your other option is to actually buy (with real hard-workin' money) a Jewel from Nintendo for 99¢s; U.S. — let's call it a dollar as a round, attractive figure — which you can convert to five Hearts. In other words, if you want to play for another five minutes, you have to spend a dollar. Five minutes. One dollar.

It sounds a bit absurd, doesn't it? Charging a dollar for five minutes of a video game. Now in theory, it's not as rough as it sounds: after all, an arcade machine can gobble that up in an equal amount of time, and two-minute carnival rides certainly suckle at your wallet's teat more efficiently. But with Pokémon Shuffle, you don't get an in-your-face action-packed arcade experience, nor do you get to upchuck your deep fried jelly donut on an unsuspecting nursing mother like at the county fair. Matching inanimate Bulbasaur heads for a few extra minutes hardly justifies the price. So let's just do some quick math here. If we spend forty dollars on this (the typical price of a 3DS game), that would give us 40 dollars x 5 minutes, which equals 160 minutes, or 2 hours and 40 minutes. I'm not seeing great value there, especially when a) this is a puzzle game, and b) this is a game where the actual goal — catching Pokémon — is not guaranteed and, in some cases, is extremely difficult, nigh on practically impossible for anyone who has a life to live.

Now I hear you in the back, shouting, "But wait a minute! If you buy in bulk, you can save money on Jewels!" And right after I remind you that you're yelling at a review, I'll still say it's a pretty sad deal. You might get a bit of extra time with those perceived savings, but it's still not of great value to you or I or anyone knowing how oats, peas, beans, and barley grow.

So there's that. You can also purchase something called a Great Ball that will increase your chances of catching that elusive Pokeymans that you couldn't get by normal means. It's basically a second chance, with a doubled capture rate. Sounds good to me, if the Great Ball significantly improves your chances. But it doesn't always work this way, especially with Pokémon with a very low-end capture rate (like 3%); in such cases, a Great Ball will not give you much more hope for success. And with a steep price of 2500 hard-earned Coins to buy this, it's not exactly money well spent.

I also mentioned that some special matches are time-sensitive, as in "limited time only". If you spend money on extra Hearts, try the match, and fail repeatedly because you're not strong enough or fast enough, followed by the subsequent disappearance of that battle because OOP! time's up, then you basically just handed Nintendo your money. You might as well send an envelope with cash in it directly to their Kyoto headquarters because it'll do you just as much good.

Microtransactions are a cash grab for suckers, and it works. Oh goodness, how it works. I suppose if you're willing enough to drop money on these things, who am I to stop you? But it's not right for the Pokémon series. Nintendo had done its best to hold off long enough from the money-grubbing ways of other companies using similar free-to-play schemes as it's becoming the norm, but now we can't even trust the Big N to keep away from it. That's a bloody shame because, by itself, Pokémon Shuffle isn't a bad little game. Not particularly notable, mind you, but it has its place in the portable universe. But to bog it down with the need for spending on items that aren't worth their price just (dare I say) cheapens the experience and puts less emphasis on the fun factor, something Nintendo's usually very good at focusing on. I can't recommend this one.

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