Choices for free-to-play games are slim on the 3DS. That may make sense considering phones are a much more ubiquitous device, but when Pokemon Shuffle was announced my interest was piqued. The concept of a free, match-three Candy Crush type of thing on a 3DS wasn’t something I’d considered before, and for whatever reason, I was pretty excited to try it out.
The essentials of Pokemon Shuffle are quick to understand – you choose the next level from the map, which is marked by the face of the Pokemon you’ll be fighting there. Fighting the Pokemon is a process similar to Puzzle Quest, but not quite. Instead of switching around two adjacent pieces, you can choose any two pieces across the entire board to swap, appreciably provoking a bit more thought.
Each successful swap will predictably drain the Pokemon’s HP, and once defeated, its base “Catchability” rating will be increased by the number of moves you have left. If you’re lucky, the Pokemon will be caught and be used as one of the four you’re allowed to bring into a fight. The board is comprised of a jumble of the four Pokemon you choose to bring with you, and they have varying special abilities activated with specific fancy play.
The most I can say about the puzzle/combat system itself is that it isn’t boring, and that it is a fair bit more investing than a typical Bejeweled system. It isn’t gripping and still feels like blind luck most of the time, but it is what it is.
Catchability ratings are all over the place, with some Pokemon beginning around 40% before your remaining moves are even tacked on, and some beginning below 10% and only making it to around 40 even if you completed the entire level in one turn (i.e. Torchic). Mercifully you are allowed to progress if you fail to catch the Pokemon, but what’s the fun in that?
Pokemon Shuffle’s interface is both simplistic and clunky/nonfunctional. The text is big and the buttons are round, but the menus are uninformative and slow to navigate. Fades between screens are extremely sluggish, and finding out a certain Pokemon’s special ability a few weeks down the line is probably going to be a major pain in the ass.
That sort of information is accessible from the big list of Pokemon you can choose to bring into a fight, but this menu is only accessible when you’re about to enter a fight. There’s a search option there, which allows you to filter using everything but a simple, direct name search. You can sort Pokemon alphabetically, by type, and what the fucking lunar phase was when they were born… anything but their name.
Obviously, Shuffle is decked out with every microtransaction trope under the sun. There’s a lives system and two currencies (basic and premium). Gold, the basic currency, can buy you items to use during fights like +5 Moves and so forth, and Jewels can buy you extra lives and gold.
One of the biggest bummers about Pokemon Shuffle is that win or lose, one of your lives is going to be lost when you start any level, which sucks because you’ve only got a maximum of 5 hearts. One heart takes thirty minutes to recharge, or you can buy more from the shop. It doesn’t take long at all before you’re out of hearts, as fights only last a few minutes. Jewels are fairly inexpensive though, twelve of them costing $8.99, which can buy you 80 hearts.
There does seem to be quite a bit of content. It seems as if you’ll be able to catch all the Pokemon at some point, and there are two extra sections of levels accessible from the map: Expert and Special. Expert levels have unlimited moves and instead operate based on time, and the Special area is a system for limited-time events (for example, for the next little while you can fight Mewtwo through the Special screen). Events like this are always a good idea and it’s reassuring to see Pokemon Shuffle have an implementation.
What isn’t reassuring is that I really feel that despite my weird excitement for a freemium 3DS game, Pokemon Shuffle is out of place. For blazing through a few lives a couple times a day and not really investing much in it, Shuffle suffices, but there are so many better games even on iOS that don’t involve carrying your 3DS around that I find it difficult to recommend. It was an interesting experiment. I don’t think it’s a failure, I think it hasn’t found its home.