During the Nintendo Direct in November one of the surprise announcements was Pokémon Picross. It seemed like a bizarre idea, but crossing over the Pokémon franchise with the quirky Picross series is precisely what the somewhat stagnant puzzle series needed, adding a considerable amount of replayability and strategy onto the foundation of well-designed number puzzles. The free-to-play aspect of this experimental title may not sit well with some, but the content being offered is definitely satisfying, even if it doesn't offer as much bang for your (optional) buck as other Picross games.
For those of you that are new to the series, Picross is a number puzzle game that could most closely be described as a cross between Sudoku and Minesweeper. Basically, numbers placed alongside a grid denote how many squares in each row and column must be filled in, with the completed puzzle coming together as a pixel art image. The player arrives at this by using methods of deduction and logic to figure out which squares must be filled in and which must be left alone. If a mistake is made it isn't immediately apparent; rather, it causes a gradual domino effect that throws off the entire puzzle, and usually a mistake is only realized several minutes after it's made.
So, what does Pokémon bring to Pokémon Picross? Well, all of the puzzles are based off of various Pokémon, with there being just a little bit over three hundred puzzles in total. The big twist here is when, after each puzzle is solved, the Pokémon it depicts is 'caught' and added to your party. Each Pokémon has a skill that can help aid you in solving puzzles, ranging from revealing squares on the grid to slowing down or stopping the clock. Up to five Pokémon can be brought into each puzzle and you're encouraged to mix and match your team.
The introduction of Pokémon adds a refreshing sense of strategy and progression to the Picross formula. There are some puzzles that are extremely difficult – if not outright impossible – to complete on their own and this challenges the player to pick a team wisely and consider how the skills will work in tandem with each other to get the best results. Each Pokémon type shares a skill, with there being some overlap between types, such as how Ice and Water Pokémon all have the Blue Force skill. Naturally, earlier Pokémon have weaker versions of skills, while later Pokémon give you access to much more effective variants, and this somewhat echoes the sense of training one's team in a traditional Pokémon game.
Pokémon Picross is extremely replayable in that it offers a diverse series of three to four 'missions' for each puzzle. These challenge the player with specific constraints – such as only using grass Pokémon or not using any skills – in exchange for a few 'Picrites', an in-game currency. Missions give the player reason to complete puzzles for more than just the sake of doing it and there's also an overarching achievement system that doles out similar rewards. Additionally, there's an 'Alt-World' that reimagines every puzzle as a more challenging Mega Picross, with a new set of challenges to match and effectively doubling the puzzle count. This all works greatly in the game's favour; no matter what you do, you're always making some sort of progress.
The puzzles themselves are very entertaining and are generally well designed. It's remarkable how the artists were able to capture certain Pokémon in a ten by ten grid so effectively, and the larger puzzles are a real treat to behold. Perhaps the main hook of the entire game is simply the curiosity that comes when one wonders what this puzzle will depict. The music is generally the laid back, elevator music that one would expect out of a Picross game, but there are a few remixes of Pokémon songs thrown in, too. While the audio may not add a lot to the experience it's inoffensive and largely unremarkable.
Of course, Pokémon Picross is entirely free-to-play, but you're going to need to seriously invest in some Picrites if you want to get anywhere in a timely fashion. Picrites control virtually everything. Puzzles are sectioned off into areas of five to ten puzzles, with the player having to pay an increasing amount of Picrites to move onto the next area. If you want to be able to catch Mega Pokémon, you need to spend Picrites on a 'Mega Pen'. There's an energy gauge that limits how many blocks one is able to fill in, and only Picrites allow one to expand or completely remove the gauge. Pokémon are only good for use in one puzzle, followed by a recovery period that can last anywhere from a few minutes to more than a day. Guess how you can opt to speed up their recovery?
All told, it does feel like the 'free' part of the experience runs out pretty quick. Yes, it is possible to go through the entire game without spending a dime, but it would require the patience of an oriental monk. Though Picrites are occasionally given out in-game, it would take days if not weeks to collect enough to progress further, especially in later areas where it costs several hundred to open gates. It's disappointing that Pokémon Picross is so exclusive to those who just want to play here or there and really makes one wonder why it wasn't a paid game from the get go.
Whether or not Picrites are actually worth the money is entirely dependent on the individual. If nothing else, know that Pokémon Picross doesn't offer nearly the same amount of bang for your buck as one of the Picross e games would. Though the content on offer is roughly the same between all the games, by our reckoning it would take a little over $30 to completely remove all the free-to-play aspects of Pokémon Picross and get the 'full' experience, as opposed to about $6 for a Picross e game.
Ultimately, Pokémon Picross is a very satisfying experience, but it can come at a great cost. The introduction of missions, skills, and achievements greatly expands upon the base of number puzzles, but the stingy free-to-play aspects do hold it back from its full potential. If you're looking for a game that you can play casually without paying, look elsewhere. If you're willing to pay up, this is the best entry in the Picross e sub-series yet.