The Enthusiast Gaming Live Expo opened its doors once more in Toronto, Canada last weekend and with it Nintendo of Canada booted up its consoles for eager players looking to get hands on with their upcoming major releases. Ahead of its launch on November 16th, I got an opportunity at EGLX to get hands on with Pokemon Let’s Go: Pikachu, one of two versions of the upcoming Nintendo Switch game. While it’s sister-game, Let’s Go Eevee, features the titular evolutionary fox, Let’s Go Pikachu prominently features the series defacto mascot as the player’s companion in their journey through familiar fields.
Returning to the Kanto region, Pokemon Let’s Go will feature a similar journey to the one found in the original duology of games, Red and Blue. In my hands-on time with the demo, players were restricted to the Viridian Forest, one of the game’s first gauntlets prior to the major Gym circuit. While the layout and skeleton did feel the same, Viridian has long since seen not just a graphical face lift, but a smoother transition into a wide field of Pokemon diversity. In my brief playtime I encountered not only the familiar Caterpie and Weedle enemies, but also found Rattata, Nidoran and Jigglypuff sprinkled throughout the area.
These Pokemon practically leap off of the screen with the Swtich’s small yet powerful hardware. As with most games I’ve played before on the system, no matter how bright the background or powerful the color palette, each Pokemon I encountered took center stage as they darted through the wild underbrush. That’s right, wild Pokemon are now present on the overworld in lieu of Final Fantasy Mystic Quest’s visible enemy encounters, allowing you to target specific pocket monsters or avoid ones you’d rather not face. That’s not to say that they’re simply passive creatures; if necessary they will engage and charge you if you’re not careful. Fighting the wilderness and trainers simply doesn’t feel as exhausting as it has in past entries.
Here I found is where the direction that Nintendo has taken the franchise has met seamlessly with the traditional pacing of what Game Freak has laid before. The Battle System will be instantly familiar to veterans of the franchise, featuring the same 4-move turn-based combat the series is known for. New moves have been injected, however, as alongside Thunder Shock, Tail Whip and Growl my Pika-partner took flight with balloons and dive-bombed its enemy with gusto. It’s impossibly difficult to utterly revamp such a celebrated and fundamental game mechanic, so instead Let’s Go has taken a distinctly different route in invigorating the series.
Unlike past iterations, PLG has taken queues from Niantic’s hit mobile release, Pokemon Go, and has dynamically changed encountering and capturing Wild Pokemon. Whereas installments have repeated the Trainer Battle System players are familiar with, Pokemon Let’s Go instead pits you against Wild Pokemon alone with nothing but a Poke Ball and your sharp reflexes. Capturing Pokemon now requires you to track their movement across the screen and time your movements to avoid their deflecting techniques. Timing your throws with the shrinking targeting reticle will also increase the efficacy of your capture; the smaller the circle, the greater chance your wild target will stay in that little ball.
Capturing Pokemon has also been gamified to a greater extent than it has in the past. Much like Pokemon Go, capturing repeated species of the same creature rewards a multi-capture bonus. Wild Pokemon now also come in a variety of sizes, visually alerting you if one is smaller or much larger than average. Noticing these at the booth, I inquired with the Nintendo staff if these had any particular importance, but I was told that these were purely cosmetic and did not directly affect statistics or gameplay. To quote the attendant at the Nintendo Booth, “Some people just like to have a large Rattata!”
The biggest addition to the Let’s Go line is of course your companion Pokemon. Displaying and promoting the bond between critter and Trainer is the focus of these games, making their intent known every step of the way. Returning from it’s celebrated inclusion in HeartGold and SoulSilver, Pokemon will now follow you in the overworld. While the titular duo will ride on your avatar’s shoulders, other Poke-members of your party can follow behind your character as you adventure throughout the world. While only the basic Kanto starter Pokemon were available to demo in such a regard, the present Nintendo Employees did confirm that every Pocket Monster will be available to follow your character on your journey.
Customization and interaction has also been reinforced with distinct importance. You can, at any time, play with your Pikachu! During my demo time I got up close and personal with my shocking murine in the interaction system originally released with Pokemon Diamond and Pearl. Picking up Razz Berries and other items found throughout the world, Pikachu and Eevee can be fed and played with, responding to player interactions and feedback intelligently. In scratching Pikachu I discovered he loved head pats and ear-scritches, but nose boops were enough to threaten me with an electric shock.
In my demo my little partner was wearing a costume very similar to my trainer avatar, sporting a smart baseball cap and jacket. Across from me a young couple playing their game remarked and gushed over a similar outfit that their Eevee was dolled up in and the group of us appreciated these light touches. In talking to my Nintendo Rep she eagerly confirmed that this was a feature of the game, and that more costumes could be unlocked as players delved deeper and deeper into Kanto. Part of the charm, she remarked, was that Nintendo wanted characters to develop a special bond with their chosen partner as the game progressed. Costuming is intended to be wide and dynamic, letting players dress up their partner however they wish, whenever they wish.
As a long time player of the franchise, there was one question on my mind throughout. My first venture in the series was Pokemon Yellow, a special expanded edition of the original releases that saw Pikachu as your starter Pokemon whom followed you in a manner similar to that of Pokemon Let’s Go. However, much to my chagrin even in my adult years, Pikachu could never be evolved meaning that you either had a constantly underpowered member of your team or your companion was banished to Bill’s PC forever. I did ask if Pikachu and Eevee could evolve in Pokemon Let’s Go, but my representative simply didn’t have an answer for me. At the first opportunity we both jumped on the Booth Manager who deflected the question initially, but later admitted it was an answer he didn’t have either.
Controlling the game admittedly felt incredibly satisfying. While demoing Pokemon Let’s Go, the Nintendo booth was equipped with the Poke Ball Plus controllers, a three buttoned motion controller included with the deluxe edition of the games. Movement and menu selection was controlled with the central depressable control stick, while a button was located on the top red section of the ball to act as a cancel button. Controlling the game in this manner felt like a leap from the anime into reality, even with the twitchy weightlessness the control stick possessed. Motion controls felt just as responsive, either slinging Poke Balls with a flick of the wrist or hurling them with a hat-backwards-Ash-Ketchum-toss. Both were exceptionally responsive in the capturing segments, and the Plus controller possesses just enough to work for Trainer Combat.
Let’s Go plays just as well with a standard Switch Joy-Con, fully capable of the same motion controls and still feeling as solid in your hand as the Plus. I did ask about portability during my time, wondering how players were expected to go about this when the Switch was undocked. My representative confirmed for me that motion controls were indeed optional, even when docked, allowing players to be as interactive with the game as they want.
I also asked what the depth of the game was: would the Kanto region be the only realm to explore with our new partners? While my representative did confirm that Kanto was the main focus, I received multiple contradictory answers on if it was the only limit to the game. Despite being told that Kanto was all that was intended to be included, she later recanted and said that future expansions were possible depending on sales figures for the sister games.
With time under my belt, I’m fully confident that Pokemon Let’s Go will be a wonderful addition to an already incredibly strong franchise. Everything completely flows together to fulfill the ideal Trainer fantasy, from the bond of your partner to the feeling of encountering Pokemon in the wild. It injects just enough life to make the slog that is the Viridian Forest a welcome place to return to and re-experience on brand new hardware. I for one am deeply anticipating the rest of the game, to live in the Pokemon World with a better appreciated player fantasy. For now, I wait with bated breath for its release on November 16th.