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Pokemon Duel Review: A Pleasant Surprise With Unpleasant Waits

The Good

  • Re-imagines Pokemon duels as team-based strategy with impressive results.
  • Customizable upgrades for figures are boss.
  • Narrative is unquestionably Pokemon.

The Bad

  • Lots of waiting. For nearly everything.
  • Reward system could use some tweaks.

Considering how scarce Pokemon once was on mobile, the last seven months have been an absolute boom time for pocket monster mobile games. Last summer gave us the craze that was Pokemon Go, and 2017 has already blessed us with the surprise release of Pokemon Duel, a strategy game that plays like a digital board game.

It didn’t come completely out of the blue, since it’s been a thing in Japan for some time. It’s new to the rest of the world, though, and it could one day be the kind of title that becomes a fixture on the phones and tablets of Pokefanatics. But despite its cleverness, undeniable Pokemon flavor and general cheerfulness, in the words of Aragorn, it is not this day.

The big problem Muk-ing up the works at launch is how you’ll end up doing more time waiting for Pokemon Duel than playing it. Waiting for everything: for the game to load when you open it, for connections to the servers, for … whatever every time you switch from one menu to another. Let’s not even talk about how long it could take you to get hooked up with an opponent for the game’s live PvP, which is its (admittedly tasty) bread and butter.

Sticking with that theme, the reward system asks you to be patient as well. Time-based victory rewards as popularized by Clash Royale are with us to stay, and they’re not inherently bad. In fact they’re among the fairest forms of monetization around, because you only have to pay if you want instant gratification. That said, when it’s easy to play for 15 minutes and end up with three booster packs that take six hours each to open, something’s out of whack.

It’s even harder to figure considering the game’s initial launch in Japan, but it is what it is, at least until enough patches and updates are made. Until then, players will have to struggle through to get to the gameplay, which is terrific. Pokemon Duel pits two teams of six Pokemon against each other in a board game version of capture the flag. Each Pokemon figure has its own movement rate, and there are multiple paths to get to the central spot in the back row of your opponent’s side of the board.

Enemy Pokemon are trying to get to your side at the same time, and the game becomes a series of quick choices — even more so since the clock is ticking with only five minutes total for each player to make their moves. When Pokemon figures collide on the board, they each have dials that spin containing the attacks that trading card game players have grown to know and love. While combat boils down to a simple comparison of numbers and colors, the way so many different abilities have been incorporated into a simple framework is borderline genius.

A small deck of cards (called plates in Pokemon Duel for some reason) allows for additional strategy and game-changing maneuvers. The whole package hits the “quick to learn, lengthy to master” sweet spot for which so many games aim. Also welcome is the customizable aspect of figure upgrades, where you can choose which parts of the combat dial you’d like to broaden every time you level one up.

Hundreds of Pokemon figures are already in the game, and doubtless more are on the way. There’s plenty to do in-between matches as well, including a fairly expansive system of single-player scenarios that also includes an amusing and very stereotypically Pokemon story. The graphics are crisp and the music is guaranteed to get stuck in your head long after you’ve logged out, even if part of the reason might be due to hearing it loop often while waiting for a duel to start.

In terms of pure gameplay, there’s no question that Pokemon Duel is superior to Pokemon Go. The competitive nature of it also means it’ll be less faddish and more likely to get better with age. It’s simply too imperfect in its current form to be as fun as it could be, so if you want to dive into it while it goes through its growing pains, be prepared for more lulls than LOLs.