Following on from the amazing success of Pokémon GO comes the next mobile Pokémon game release, with Pokémon Duel - technically, though, this game came out before Pokémon GO due to its release in Japan in April of last year as Pokémon Co-master. We've actually been playing it ever since that original release and can therefore understand why this western launch has come as such a shock; Co-master hardly set the world alight at launch.
Pokémon Duel is a mobile game developed by HEROZ which is based on the short-lived Pokémon Trading Figure game that came out globally in 2006. You have six Pokémon figures in your deck and face off against another player with six figures, and have to reach the opponent's goal before they can reach yours. It's a relatively simple concept, but the game hints at a lot of surprising depth before stumbling and missing its potential heights.
Each figure has its own special moves and even - sometimes - a special ability. Some abilities prevent status conditions, while others allow it to pass through other Pokémon; these various skills require you to take some serious consideration before making your move. Pokémon moves work in a successive order of trumping another - first moves have a power determining if it will work over the other. If the power number is higher, then that Pokémon wins and the other Pokémon is knocked out. White moves are beaten, however, by the Purple Status moves which just give special effects and don't necessarily knock out a Pokémon. Purple status moves can be beaten by Gold moves, which work the same as White moves but act with added priority. Blue moves are essentially used to block other moves, and Red moves always result in a miss and a loss.
So, how do you choose the moves? This is where the game falters. The moves are chosen by a randomly spinning roulette giving you little to no control over which move is actually deployed by your Pokémon. This creates a hole in the entire strategy of the game as too much is left to chance. While you can be very strategic in your Pokémon's movements and placement on the board, it can all be wiped away by one totally random choice in your game. It's quite unfortunate, because there is a solid underlying element of strategy here which is let down by the lack of full control over battles. Each game, as a result, prompts you to keep your fingers crossed in the hope that you don't get a bum spin off the roulette.
There are some elements which allow you to manipulate each spin, however. Each Pokémon can be levelled up with experience gained from battles and fusing with other figures, bringing it up to a maximum of Level 5. With each level, you can increase the size of one of the Pokémon's moves on the roulette wheel, which also decreases the Miss attack sections. You can also increase a Pokémon's Chain Level by fusing with other figures of the same species, and this allows you to increase the strength of a Pokémon's move. You can also evolve some Pokémon figures in battle in order to make them more powerful.
There are also Plates which can help you in the field by boosting the power of moves or by protecting your Pokémon. These essentially act like Trainer Cards in the Pokémon Trading Card Game. Each Plate has a specific energy usage; you only have a value of 6 for your deck, so if you have a Plate with an energy of 3, you cannot have 5 other Plates.
Getting figures borders on "gachapon" levels. While you can get some figures through the single player as rewards, the more reliable way of getting them is through Boosters. To top that off, figures have got a specific rarity so the more powerful ones with a rarity of EX are a lot rarer than - for example - a UC Bulbasaur. Boosters can be obtained for 50 gems a piece, or higher values to get multiple boosters with more perks; the contents of boosters changes every month or so, when new figures are introduced into the game. Gems can be obtained through various in-game events or via a daily bonus, but the core way to get them is through in-app microtransactions; yep, it's a free-to-start download. You can also make figures using material obtained when you buy a Booster, so you can get any specific figure that you have already seen.
When you load the game up, you will immediately see a big Play button. This puts you into League Matches with other random players online. It also has special Boosters that unlock gradually through playing online, with 10 keys needed to unlock it. You get one key for playing a match online and two more if you happen to win; you also get more timed boosters that you can unlock for jewels.
You could be forgiven if you think that this is all there is to it, but you'd be mistaken. In an earlier version of the game released in Japan, the single player was the prime focus but now it has been relegated to a small corner of a tiny menu in the corner of the starting screen, and is therefore easily overlooked. In this story, you are entering the Pokémon Figure World Championships in Carmonte Island in order to go through the various buildings, defeating all the leaders to win the Jewel Tower (yes, the actual tower). Each stage has a different team and progresses the story, and when you beat a stage you can try and complete various challenges that give you access to items. Not all of the buildings are available to contest, with the most recent one opening up last May, so the story cannot be completed at the time of writing.
There is also a mode that lets you play against friends. This is a Room Match where you get a specific room number and a password that you can share out with people you really want to play against. There's also a Featured Match option where you can watch special matches that have gone online. On top of this, there are Daily Missions that you can tackle. These are simple missions that give you a special bonus item, which could be coins, Gems or items, and when you have completed 10 daily missions you get a special roulette wheel of prizes.
The gameplay of Pokémon Duel, ultimately, feels like a mesh between smart strategic planning and a disappointing reliance on random factors. This is where the game misses its main target, but there are a couple of other issues. First, the localisation is surprisingly off-note. There are numerous typos in the text, including some Pokémon's names (for example a Plate refers to "Genesect" as "Genosect"), and bizarrely poor grammar when detailing challenges ("Put an opponent's Figures to sleep 1 times"). Like Super Mario Run, the game also requires a constant online connection, which results in long load times even when you're performing simple actions, such as changing a menu, and often crashes and boots (in our experience) back to the title screen. It makes the whole experience feel quite rushed, which is odd when you consider the game has been available in Japan for almost a year.
Graphically, the game is nice and sleek. The figures are generally beautiful poses of each of the Pokémon, making us question exactly why Nintendo hasn't produced more 'mon amiibo. The moves aren't overly animated, but the interface and the look of the playing board is very nice and has a great style to it. It's something the game has done really well, but let's not forget that this is a video game of a board game, so it's not going to have the most animated, colourful and attention grabbing visuals. The story cutscenes are a bit barebones, however. Rather than animations, it's just stock images of the characters with text in front of them and a background. The audio, on the other hand, is really great. The music is catchy and even lets you know when you're in peril, with the tune changing as you get close to the opponent's goal or when an opponent is getting close to yours.
Pokémon Duel is an odd game. It's a smart, strategic board game that also has questionable design choices, a reliance on in-app purchases and a battle system that relies too heavily on luck. It has the potential to be so much more, and it could fulfil that latent promise with future updates; despite its design issues it is oddly compelling and we found ourselves coming back to it as a result. It's a mixed bag, all told, and in the context of the grand nature of the Pokémon brand that's a disappointment - improvements are needed for it to stand tall within the franchise.