I first stepped out of Pallet Town around the time I was seven or eight years old. My mother was about to marry the man who is now my stepfather, and since the wedding was out of town this meant a road trip for our little family. Not only would we be on the road for hours, but once we got to the venue there was still the business of all the preparations – decorating, rehearsal dinners, and all the pre-ceremony stuff that’s already stressful enough without a kid running around in total boredom. To keep me distracted during the prep, my family decided to gift me with a Game Boy Color and a shiny copy of Pokemon Blue. The distraction worked a little better than they anticipated, as full-on Pokemania hit and they were regretfully dragging me to every feature film.
Fast forward about twenty years and once again I have journeyed into the land of Kanto. A lot of things have changed since that time. I’ve left the home of my parents and gotten married, forming a little family of my own. I’ve stopped watching the Pokemon anime and movies. I have no clue where my Game Boy Color is at. But there are some things that haven’t changed at all. I still love the Pokemon games, and there’s still something magical about taking those first few steps out of Pallet Town.
Between then and now, there have been many Pokemon games which expanded upon and refined the formula for the series. There has also been the hit mobile game Pokemon GO, which took the world by storm so dramatically that there are people playing Pokemon now who never touched a Game Boy back in the day. Let’s Go Pikachu and Let’s Go Eevee are a fusion of everything Pokemon has been up to this point, along with a few new ideas thrown in for good measure. Having experienced a small portion of the game, I wanted to share how I feel about it so far.
Pokemon Let’s Go is a game which many longtime fans met with skepticism. Many of us wanted some reassurance that this title is a spinoff, that what we consider to be the “true” Pokemon experience is still coming in the future. We sort of got that reassurance in the form of a generation eight confirmation, yet Game Freak still insists on calling the Let’s Go games main series titles. While I hate to perpetuate a distinction between “casual” and “hardcore” fans because terms like these are often utilized for gatekeeping, a lot of folks who have played every game since Red and Blue are understandably worried that the presence of Pokemon GO in their games is going to alter their beloved series. There’s not a lot of overlap between the console and mobile markets, at least not among the people I spend time with. My friends who play console games rarely care for mobile titles, and my coworkers who wouldn’t identify as “traditional gamers” because they don’t own consoles still have smartphones loaded with games they play regularly.
Because of this distinction, I too was a bit concerned about how much influence Pokemon GO might have on the mainline series. And the lead up to Let’s Go’s launch certainly did nothing to assuage my fears – held items and abilities were removed from the game, as were wild Pokemon battles. Only the original 151 Pokemon would be present in the game with the exception of Meltan and Melmetal. Motion controls would define a catching experience that placed emphasis on catching as many Pokemon as possible in order to earn candies that increased the stats of your team. Then the reviews started to hit, and the tune changed.
Most of the folks I follow online were saying great things about Pokemon Let’s Go. They talked about how this was a game that could still appeal to fans of the main series. Reviewers gave it high scores and shared how the changes have a positive impact on the Pokemon experience. Sure it’s not Gen 8, but it would do the trick until 2019 when a true Pokemon game comes to the Nintendo Switch. Perhaps the next game could even learn some things from Let’s Go! Despite my concerns, all of this good news helped me to feel more comfortable adding Let’s Go Eevee to my Christmas list.
The opening moments of the game felt like I was seven again. Professor Oak’s introduction read exactly how I remember it. I named my rival after my younger brother and stomped him in a battle. I caught Pidgey and Rattata on Route 1 and visited the Pokemon League even though I didn’t have the badges yet to go inside. The game certainly scratches the nostalgia itch for me when it comes to graphics and storytelling. What has me concerned is the mechanisms, specifically the way that capturing works.
No longer do you battle Pokemon in the wild to whittle their HP down before capturing them. Instead, the moment you stumble upon a Pokemon you may begin throwing Pokeballs at it. The way this happens depends on the control scheme you are using. In docked mode or tabletop mode, you hold a single Joy-Con or your Pokeball Plus and swing it to throw a ball. In the earliest parts of the game, it’s as simple as that – swing and catch, swing and catch, repeating until you’ve caught all you can stand. As you journey deeper into Kanto, catching gets more complicated as your targets move around the screen, put up a fight, and must be soothed with items to lower the difficulty of capturing them.
Capturing Pokemon in this way changes how the game feels as you progress. I’ve heard some say that it removes grinding from the game, but honestly I don’t think that’s accurate. In my experience, if I ever had an area where I didn’t spend a bunch of time trying to capture Pokemon, my team would end up at levels too low to deal with enemy trainers. Now I’ve never blacked out or even had more than one Pokemon faint in battle, but others I’ve seen talking about the game made it as if you could just steamroll the whole thing without even paying attention to what you are doing. I’d say that in that regard, Let’s Go is similar to main series titles. Pokemon is as difficult as you make it for yourself – you can grind to be overleveled and destroy everything in your path, or you can make things tougher by keeping your team even with or lower than your opposition. If you don’t take time to get a few capture chains going or at least capture one of each new Pokemon on a route, you can fall behind on levels just like any other Pokemon title.
The capturing mechanism functions a bit differently in handheld mode. Instead of motion controls, you have to deal with gyro controls, aiming the Switch so that your target is in the middle of the screen and then pressing a button to throw your ball. It’s a bit of an improvement over the cruddy motion control setup, but not much. The game also struggles a bit graphically in handheld mode – when running through Viridian Forest, I lost a lot of frames because of the number of Pokemon and trainers running around in the overworld.
While it did cause some slowdown for me, I do enjoy being able to see Pokemon on the routes instead of dealing with random encounters. Being able to see what you want to capture and then initiate “battle” with it is quite helpful, and it also makes it easier to avoid encountering Pokemon at all if you’re trying to simply rush through a route in order to get somewhere. It’s not just a mechanical benefit either – being able to see Pokemon running around in the wild makes it feel like a living, breathing world, particularly when members of your own Pokemon team are running along with you.
The aspect of the game that still feels closest to the classic Pokemon experience is battling. Some of the modern aspects of the series are present here, such as the new typings for Pokemon like Magnemite and Clefairy and many of the moves that have been introduced to the series over time. However, a lot of things have been gutted from the combat as well, such as held items and the innate abilities of different Pokemon species. It simplifies the battle system which has pros and cons to it. It’s been nice not having to deal with Sturdy on Geodude, for example, but it also cripples Pokemon like Koffing whose ability makes them a lot more viable.
Many aspects of Let’s Go work like this, toeing the line between GO and the classic series in a way that works for some players and doesn’t for others. I’m not far enough into the game yet to have strong feelings about whether or not I like the changes. I think done differently, some of them could have a positive impact on the main series. Overall though, I may have to accept that if the GO crowd and the veteran crowd are two very different types of Pokemon fan, Let’s Go caters more strongly to the former than the latter.
So far, Let’s Go Eevee is delivering on my expectations when it comes to nostalgia but failing me when it comes to the new mechanics added to the game. I’ve got plenty more time before I make a final verdict, though, and I want to give the game a chance to impress me despite the middling opening hours. Perhaps it is deeper into the experience that what makes Let’s Go truly special will begin to show through.