Platforms: Switch (reviewed) and mobile (coming soon)
The Pokémon series is a weird one. When a new game releases featuring the cute little critters, it typically falls into one of two camps. First, is the mainline series of turn-based roleplaying games in which you capture, train, and battle with Pokémon typically on handheld Nintendo devices. Then, there’s everything else. If it isn’t a mainline Pokémon game, it’s a spin-off that has almost nothing to do with the core series, like Pokémon Snap, Hey You Pikachu, and Pokémon Go. It’s very odd in that way, since spin-offs rarely have any correlation to the main franchise.
Pokémon Quest is no exception. Despite the property’s chief slogan of “gotta catch ‘em all!” you don’t actually ever “catch” any Pokémon in this game. Instead, you cook them meals and watch them plod around maps aimlessly wandering and fighting with little direction from you.
At least they’re cute, though, and you still get to pick a starter at the beginning. That counts for something, right?
Gotta Idle ‘Em All
In Pokémon Quest you’ll form teams of three Pokémon that accompany you on expeditions into regions of the aptly titled Tumblecube Island. Everything from the environment design to the Pokémon adhere to the strict, Minecraft meets Crossy Road blocky isometric style we see all-too-often in mobile games these days. It’s cute and doesn’t feel incompatible with Pokémon, but it does seem a bit odd for a series that’s always had such a strict design. The blocky blobs are sometimes difficult to differentiate from one another.
When you’ve assembled a team you don’t actually get to control them, at least not really. Instead, they roam around freely on their own in the environment while you watch. When they spot other Pokémon, they’ll charge ahead and start fighting in little simulated real-time mixed with turn-based battles. Kind of like how fights play out in Dragon Age or Pillars of Eternity, except you can’t pause here.
The only real control you get is that you can tell each Pokémon when to use their special moves. So, that includes electricity bursts from Pikachu, spin attacks with Eevee, wind gusts with Pidgey, and so on. Other than that, you might as well just not even be playing a game at all. It’s a very passive, idle-focused game, like a lot of mobile titles. But since this launched on Switch first, I can’t help but feel like it’s out of place in the market.
Pokémon Quest is a game that was clearly designed for mobile phones first and foremost. I have no idea why it released on Switch first, but here we are. It’s a 100 percent free to download and play, like most mobile titles, featuring optional microtransactions and in-app purchases. Since Pokémon Quest uses an energy system, in which it artificially limits how many actions you can take at any given time before needing to wait and recharge or spend real money, you’ll be tempted more often than you’d think to drop some actual cash.
Once you get past the first few areas in Pokémon Quest, it feels like you hit that energy wall incredibly fast. Maybe part of that is due to the fact that, when playing my Switch, it’s all I’m doing and I give it my full attention. In that way, burning through a handful of expeditions takes a matter of minutes, rather than off-and-on while waiting in line at the store, sitting on the train, or doing other things while poking around on a phone, as the game as intended.
This is also the first Switch game I can recall that basically requires you to use the touch screen. Technically there is a little cursor that appears when you use the thumbsticks it’s so inefficient and slow compared to just tapping that I’d never recommend someone actually play that way.
Clearly, Pokémon Quest was not originally conceived with the Switch in mind.
Still Pokémon At Heart
At its core, there are some solid systems in Pokémon Quest. Each Pokémon can be equipped with power stones that do things like buff their health and attack power or even assign new moves, letting you really customize your team composition. Pairing the right combination of melee, ranged, flying, and so on can feel really satisfying.
Your team’s total power level is used as a quick reference number to gauge whether or not a new region is going to be too difficult or not, so staying on top of equipping better loot is important. And there’s a lot of loot to find.
However, most of that loot takes the form of various cooking ingredients. You see, in Pokémon Quest you don’t actually catch Pokémon at all. There are no Pokeballs to throw in this game. Instead, you cook food to lure Pokémon to your camp and then befriend them by putting them on your team. It feels very non-Pokémon and I’d wager that if this game swapped out all Pokémon references for an original property it’d probably feel more cohesive.
At your base camp you can customize the design with decorations you unlock, purchase, or create, and it all has a very Animal Crossing Pocket Camp feel to it. As I’ve said, this is a mobile game through and through that somehow wound up on Switch first.