If you thought the only thing The Pokémon Company had in store for you this month was a new way to get frustrated while brushing your teeth, you’re sorely mistaken. Pokémon Café Mix is another free (well, free-to-play) title for Pokéfans to wet their whistle with, and this one’s an actual game rather than an app that forces you to ruthlessly scrub your wordhole until it gleams.
As soon as you hear the phrase ‘free-to-play puzzle game’ you’d be forgiven for immediately closing this tab, opening the window and screaming “noooooo” in your best James Earl Jones impression. Not so fast, though: this one’s been developed by Genius Sonority, who are no stranger to Pokémon puzzlers (such as Pokémon Battle Trozei and Pokémon Shuffle).
As the name suggests, Pokémon Café Mix puts you in charge of your own eatery. Starting with a fairly basic establishment, a skeleton staff (not literally) and an extremely limited menu, your job is to serve the Pokémon customers who visit by crafting a variety of dishes and beverages. Accompanying you on this ambitious business venture is Leah, a cheery bespectacled young lady who talks you through the basics and continues to help throughout.
Each time a Pokémon makes an order, it’s presented to you in the form of a puzzle stage that has to be cleared to successfully prepare the dish. These puzzles are packed with the faces of numerous Pokémon. The central mechanic revolves around using the touchscreen to choose one of these faces: you then have a limited time to drag it around the screen, touching as many other matching faces as you can to create a big chain. When you let go (or when the turn runs out), all the chained faces disappear.
Things are complicated a little with the addition of ‘gimmicks’, various food-based obstacles that get in your way and almost always have to be destroyed as part of a stage’s clear conditions. These start off fairly straightforward: sugar cubes and whipped cream swirls (the former is static, the latter moves around) can be cleared by matching a chain next to it three times, while tomatoes have to be guided into a basket to remove them. As you make your way through the initial 100 stages, though, more complex ones appear, such as the marshmallow jars that open and close after each turn and can only be cleared when they’re open.
There are 100 stages available at launch, and roughly every time you clear five of them (with a few exceptions) you unlock something. This is usually either a new dish, or a new addition to the cafe’s decor. The latter isn’t just cosmetic; they also bring new Pokémon to the cafe. Every time you clear a Pokémon’s order, you’ll earn a star. Collect enough for a specific Pokémon and it’ll be recruited as an employee at the cafe. Having a sizeable roster is useful, because there are different types of dish – sweets, small plates, drinks and so on – and each Pokémon specialises in one of these dishes, meaning their unique special moves are more suited to those particular puzzles.
If it’s starting to sound a little convoluted, it isn’t really; it’s actually fairly straightforward as far as free-to-play mobile games go. Speaking of which, you’re probably wondering how intrusive the free-to-play mechanics are. In terms of its ‘energy’ system, it isn’t quite as harsh as it is in some other mobile games, and acts more like a lives system than energy. Essentially, you have five hearts, and as long as you continue to clear stages they’ll never go down. Fail a stage, though, and you’ll lose a heart: each takes 30 minutes to replenish, so if you run out you’re talking two-and-a-half hours before you’ve got a full set again.
As for the inevitable microtransactions, the game has a shop where you can buy golden acorns; these are a multi-purpose currency used to buy power-ups, replenish your lives, give you extra turns when you fail a stage and the like. You don’t have to buy them; you’re given some as a reward every time you beat a level and there are a series of achievement-style challenges that pay out acorns if you clear them. Obviously, though, dropping some hard cash – bundles range from £0.99/$0.99 to £49.99/$49.99 – will let you spend acorns on the power-up assists and heart refills that will get you through the 100 levels quicker.
Once you manage this you unlock Master Cafe mode, where you get to build up your friendships with the Pokémon you’ve collected by taking on a series of harder puzzles and collecting more stars. The stars you get in this mode are then converted into Master Points, which… actually, we don’t know what they do yet. In a fortnight’s time (and every fortnight after that) some extra normal stages will be added, the Master Cafe mode will reset and you’ll bank your Master Points, at which point we’ll hopefully find out what they’re used for.
There's another slightly concerning thing to note when it comes to the microtransactions: there's an introductory deal where you can buy a 'Special Pikachu Pack' for £3.99/$3.99. This gives you a few thousand golden acorns, a couple of power-ups and a unique 'Sweets Pikachu', who's dressed in a little blue ice cream shop outfit. The standard Pikachu is a login bonus after five days of play, but it appears that Sweets Pikachu may have different moves or be better suited to a different type of dish. If this ends up being the case (we won't know until the game is five days old and standard Pikachu is unlocked), that instantly sets a worrying precedent of putting exclusive variant characters behind a paywall, forcing you to cough up the real cash if you want a complete set of Pokémon.
Mechanics aside, this is a generally pleasantly little game. The art style is lovely: the Pokémon designs are ruddy charming (especially when you recruit them and they get their uniforms) and the dishes you prepare are clever; the Fluffy Eevee Pancakes and Cheesy Rowley Pizza look particularly appetising. The main exception, though, is the pasta dish, which is apparently designed to look like a Yamper but it appears to be lying face down, as if it’s inviting you to tuck into its backside. We think we’ll just skip straight to dessert, thanks.
It's worth noting, in case you weren't already aware, that Pokémon Café Mix can only be played in handheld mode, as it requires the use of the touchscreen. If you're the kind of person who only plays on the big-screen TV, you might begrudge having to actually remove your Switch from the dock.
A decent start. The microtransactions aren’t massively intrusive, the energy system isn’t too debilitating and the stages aren’t Candy Crush Saga-style efforts where it’ll take you 70 goes to get lucky enough to eventually clear them. These are all qualified by the word “yet”, though, and that’s the thing to bear in mind as this game evolves on a fortnightly basis. It’s yet to be established whether this is the sort of mobile game that lulls you in with a false sense of security and then, later down the line, hits you with ridiculously difficult stages that will almost certainly need power-ups to clear (we see you, Dr. Mario World). For now, though, we’re happy.