While The Pokémon Company has been on mobile phones doing games and apps since 2011 – long before Nintendo seriously considered going mobile – it has never jumped into what many believe is the secret sauce to securing a successful mobile game: Gacha-style mechanics. These are games where you get characters through random drops with various events adding more characters. However, now The Pokémon Company has released Pokémon Masters, a game where you’re not collecting Pokémon, but rather collecting trainers.
Pokémon Masters is a very simple concept. You are a standard nameless character who goes to the artificial island region of Pasio to take part in the Pokémon Masters League. To do that, you need to recruit various other trainers to join you and level them (and their Pokémon) up. These trainers are all from various main series Pokémon games: you have Kris, the main female character from Pokémon Crystal, Nanu the Ula’ula Kahuna from Pokémon Sun & Moon, Marlon the Humilau City Gym Leader from Pokémon Black 2 & White 2, and so many more. There are 65 at launch, with the promise of more to come.
Each 'Sync Pair' is a trainer and a Pokémon, and you can’t change the Pokémon a trainer has – although some can Mega Evolve. Now, with a Gacha-style game, this may seem like a bad thing, but Pokémon Masters starts off with 18 chapters and each chapter comes with a Sync Pair for free – many of whom are really good and helpful. It is entirely possible to beat the game with your free Sync Pairs without too much trouble.
Each Sync Pair has a star rating and a level cap based on that star rating, but this can be improved using various items – and this is where the mobile-style elements come in. Between events, if you have beaten the story, there’s little to do except grind Training and Co-Op missions to get resources in order to boost your Sync Pairs up to their maximum potential and level, and this is necessary to do the 'Very Hard' Co-Op and Training levels, which (of course) promise the best rewards. If you want these rewards and want to boost your Sync Pairs to their maximum, you will need to go through and beat all of these repeatedly.
The game’s story consists of chapters that contain story levels which are just cutscenes interspersed with battles – this is similar to how DeNA’s Fire Emblem Heroes works, but it means many of the game elements and the size of the story are not really represented in the gameplay. However, it does flesh out some of the characters who had just small amounts of screentime in the main series games and has them interact with characters they never would have had to chance to before; this, for your average Pokémon fan, is both surreal and awesome. Pokémon Masters also lacks a Stamina system, so you can play for as long as you want without having to wait for recharges or having to collect certain items to play stages. Considering the state of other mobile games – including other Pokémon mobile games which make you have to regenerate playtime – this is really welcome.
The battles in Pokémon Masters are fairly simple. You use moves which gobble up part of your move gauge, which regenerates over time. The mechanics are similar to the mainline Pokémon games, but far more basic in scope. Pokémon only have one weakness and no resistances, so you can more easily fine-tune your teams. You can even set the battles to play automatically if you’re grinding courses, so it doesn’t require your full attention; however, this doesn’t work as fast or strategically. The whole system is rather basic, but that's perhaps to be expected in a mobile game.
Pokémon Masters' scouting elements – which allow you to find new trainers – are actually fairly generous without being too generous. Through the completion of the story you will earn literally thousands of gems that can only be used on scouting other Sync Pairs; we were able to scout around 20 Sync Pairs simply using these free gems. If you get a Sync Pair you already own, you will power that Sync Pair’s final move up – and if that is maxed out then you’ll get items that can boost the Sync Pair’s star rating and stats up.
It’s even generous in that you gain points for every 100 gems you spend, and once you reach the threshold (at time of writing 400 Points) you’re able to literally select a Sync Pair to unlock. However, that requires a crazy amount of money. There are also special promotions being held that won’t allow you to use your free gems and require you to use ones you have paid real-world money for. It’s really hard to say if this approach is worth it; granted, the most beloved characters are included here, but you don’t really need them. In future events, they’ll be adding more enticing characters as well. It’s a tricky proposition and as you can’t guarantee the character, it’s all too easy to spend a load of money in the hope that you'll get the character you want.
Pokémon Masters is multiplayer, but not in the sense of a player vs player; instead, it is focused on co-op play. This mode works well, but is somewhat slower than the standard battles due to all three players being connected – so you can’t speed things up. However, it does involve a bit more strategy due to each player having one Pokémon. If no available players are found, then it will place an NPC in your party, and if a player disconnects, they will be replaced with an NPC. This isn’t ideal for the hard co-op courses, as you need high-ranking Pokémon and real people coming up with strategies for it to work.
The presentation of the game is sublime, but somewhat deceptive. The backgrounds are largely static and, in stages where you can move around areas slightly, the environments are revealed to be really basic. Still, most of the time you’re focusing on the trainers; they’re quite emotive, but they exhibit very basic animations as they talk and a very limited amount of voice acting. The battles are also simple visually, with little in the way of animation – presumably to keep the rapid-fire nature of the battles intact. This is until the Sync Move animation occurs, which shows off the trainer and the Pokémon in unique moves. The standard Pokémon models – and the trainers, for that matter – look great.
The one problem with the game, at this stage, seems to be longevity. Once you have beaten the story, there’s little to do unless you truly wish to max out all your Sync Pairs and get your favourite character. While there are going to be long-form events and more chapters added over and over, there’s little to get you coming back day-to-day, unless there happens to be an event running. Unless the mechanics are shaken up with new features – which we assume they will be – then you might grow bored sooner rather than
Pokémon Masters is a solid mobile release, and perhaps one of the most well-realised Pokémon mobile titles to date – especially in terms of presentation Sadly, the lack of any competitive element and little to do other than grind between events and story addition mean that it’s not entirely clear if the game will have the staying power required to keep people interested beyond the first few months. Still, the potential for character crossover in this game is unparalleled, and hopefully, it won't be squandered.