While fans of Nintendo's delightful Real-Time Strategy series patiently await the long-rumoured next mainline entry, Niantic has served up a new mobile Pikmin experience to while away the time, an application that looks suspiciously similar to the company's previous project involving Nintendo (or a Nintendo-aligned property, at least). 2016's Pokémon GO became a worldwide phenomenon and a colossal money-spinner for all parties involved, so you'd be forgiven for thinking the makers have similar ambitions this time around. Just looking at screens of this latest collaboration — which similarly uses Google's map tech to build a game from the world around you — it certainly looks like 'another' Pokémon GO. Pikmin Bloom is a very different beast, though; an app that's more 'pedometer with benefits' than all-encompassing time sink, but one that we've enjoyed our time with.
It's best to set expectations from the off. Predictably, Bloom isn't going to satisfy fans jonesing for Pikmin 4, and despite the underlying mechanics and systems, it is only superficially similar to GO. Niantic's all-conquering sister title has grown and expanded almost beyond recognition since launch, of course, but although Pikmin Bloom encourages you to get out and sow seeds or cause giant Poké Stop-style flowers to bloom, the interactions and the challenges contained within are far less demanding than catching and training Pocket Monsters, battling at gyms, and trading and raiding with friends. It's a far more sedate experience by design.
Perhaps too sedate for veterans of Pokémon GO who are looking for that same buzz. Pikmin Bloom is more like a bit of friendly company on your walk, and the app is perfectly happy to be switched off and left ticking over in the background. You're not going to miss a gym or a rare catch here, and your Pikmin buddies will collect anything you pass.
The basic loop is as follows: you walk around your neighborhood with a small but ever-growing (!) band of Pikmin pals who collect fruit and items as you wander. Tapping on the fruit distills it into Nectar of different varieties, depending on the colour, which is fed to your Pikmin (up to six times a day) causing the flowers on their heads to bloom. Tapping the petals adds them to your inventory and they can be used to initiate a time-limited flower-planting binge which leaves a lovely colourful trail wherever you walk before supply of those petals runs out.
Petals distilled from rarer fruits have different colours with faster plant-rates, and the trail of flora they leave — which remains visible on your map — is more than simply decorative. Seeding flowers around giant leaves — Poké Stops, essentially — causes them to bud and eventually blossom, providing more fruit to collect. Which creates more nectar and petals, and more beautification as you continue your march around town spreading flowers and decoration as the numbers go up with each step.
You can opt in to make your flower trails visible to all, although being the only player in our neighborhood, this social aspect hasn't factored into our time with the game during the launch period. In fact, we had to detour multiple times and pace around giant buds in order to plant the requisite 300 flowers and see it bloom — something that should be a much more regular occurrence once more people are playing and planting their own trails. There's a Friends tab for adding your pals and planting flowers with others will give the experience a whole new social aspect, if that's what you're looking for. If not, the game functions perfectly well as a solo experience. [Update: At level 15 you unlock the ability to join other players on 'raids' to take down giant mushrooms dotted around the map as quickly as possible by choosing your strongest Pikmin and sending them away. Teaming up with others will gain you a better time and star rating (from a total of three), and proffer more rewards. Like the rest of the game, it's low-key and low-effort compared to Pokémon GO, but adds another gently social layer to the app.]
As in Pokémon GO, fulfilling certain criteria will level you up, expanding your squad and delivering single-use special planter slots and other items to help you grow your army further. Pikmin are grown by planting seedlings in the slots (there are always two available, with space for four more single-use planters) and filling up a step counter as you would eggs in Pokémon GO. Regular red, blue and yellow Pikmin take 1000 steps to grow, purple Pikmin take 3000, extra large seedlings take 10,000, and so on. You have the option to name each Pikmin, although it's a little laborious. Each has an expandable friendship level (if you're sufficiently friendly they might bring you a decor-related present) and its place of 'birth' is recorded, so it's nice to give them all names if you're so inclined. However, we soon got tired of the input busy work, so the only named members of our squad are our reliable red Pikmin duo, Tony and Hopkins.
A special Detector item can be used once a day (or you can pay 100 coins to quick-charge it for another use) to find nearby items for Pikmin to retrieve via Expeditions — and they might even bring back postcards from the area they've visited. There are 'achievement' badges to collect, and special Decor Pikmin wearing little hats and costumes. It's all very charming company on your daily stroll.
The game will drop daily notes when you're not walking, too, letting you know how you got on yesterday, or telling you what the weather's doing today. A large part of the game involves your Lifelog, a calendar-style round up of the steps you've taken, an overview of the flowers planted, and an accompanying screenshot chosen from your camera roll — which could be a treasured memory or any old gif you've downloaded that day for the lols. It's another factor that makes this a much gentler experience than Pokémon, and one that integrates into your routine rather than takes it over.
In terms of monetisation, anyone who's played GO will find Pikmin Bloom's Shop very familiar, although without the ability to battle at gyms, we were earning coins at a very slow rate. The Shop stocks Limited Time packs available along with all the resources you find or generate naturally through the game — plus faster-growing Special Slots, Storage upgrades — all purchasable with coins. We felt no need to spend money through the launch period, although that may change as our army grows in the weeks and months ahead. There's nothing egregious here to worry about if you're wary of Niantic nickle-and-dime-ing you — it's all very relaxed and civilised; it shows that this comes from a company that certainly would like your money, but absolutely doesn't need it to keep the lights on.
The (optional) Augmented Reality mode here also fits a little better with the Pikmin universe, with the tiny chaps scurrying around whatever surface your phone detects once you activate it. You can turn on a light — which dims the screen and activates your phone's flashlight, too — to attract them to wherever you point the phone. It's a fun little aside that put us in the mind of the 3DS' AR cards. You're not losing much if you never use it, but it's cute all the same. The app's audio is similarly charming, with the sweeping ditty that plays as you activate flower-planting and skip along the street being a particular ear worm. The little yelps from your Pikmin — and the satisfying 'pop' when you pull a fully-grown one from its growing slot — are as endearing as they ever were in the main games.
All of these elements come together in a package that, while far from essential, is absolutely worth checking out for the entry fee of precisely zero dollars/pounds/euros/Hungarian luncheon vouchers. As we said in our first look feature, the most striking thing about the game is just how laid-back it is — how confident Niantic is in the core experience to let you go about your day without constantly prodding and poking you to tap the screen mindlessly or incorporate myriad digital tasks into your hectic schedule. In an environment when so many games are fighting for your time and digging their hooks in as best they can to extract maximum engagement and seed the FOMO every chance they get, Pikmin Bloom is refreshingly easygoing.
And we have to say we greatly appreciate that. It's highly likely the game will evolve over the coming months — much as Pokémon GO has changed a huge amount since launch — and perhaps that will bring more of an impetus to spend money. As it stands at the time of writing, though, Pikmin Bloom is one of the most easygoing free-to-play games we've played. Obviously, Niantic has ironed out many kinks through experimentation and experience with Pokémon GO, and it's impressive to see that same tech produce an experience that has such a different, more relaxing tone despite superficial similarities.
Pikmin Bloom is much more of a life companion app than something to feverishly devour as long as your battery permits — it feels like a far 'healthier' experience for body and mind than many free-to-play games, and Niantic accomplishes its goals well. Time will tell whether it has anything like the staying power and pull of Pokémon GO, but where that game can feel like an insurmountable climb if you've put it down for any length of time, with no hope of catching 'em all, Pikmin Bloom is more of an old friend you haven't seen in years but you just pick up where you left off. Fire it up with appropriate expectations, and you'll likely have a blooming good time with it.